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Hollywood of the North

Joel George, Quinte Canadian Film Festival, Daniel Vaughan, Kelly S. Thompson

Photography by Daniel Vaughan

Quinte Canadian Film Festival thrives in Trenton

There’s something unifying about watching a film with strangers. Maybe it’s the smell of popcorn wafting from the lobby or cherry Twizzlers gripped in fists. It could be the darkness, the cozy chairs, or the music playing through the speakers. For Joel George, Festival Director for the Quinte Canadian FilmFest (QCFF), the answer is simple; it’s all about the movie on the screen. “Film is a great way to tell stories and what it is to be human,” he said.

Joel, a filmmaker himself, isn’t just passionate about the work he creates, but rather, all film, with a particular love for Canadian cinema. That’s why he spearheaded the QCFF, a curated selection of work from some of the most respected artists in the business. The inaugural event was held in Trenton at the end of September – fitting considering Trenton’s original Hollywood of the North title – making it the perfect place to host an homage to all things Canadian film.

Lights. Camera. Quinte.

When moving pictures were first gaining in popularity, Canada was a speck on the map, far from the glamour of Hollywood. With just 60 years under its belt since confederation, and the First World War a stark reminder of the painful realities of life, Canadians were eager for the escape from reality motion pictures provide. Much like today, most film work stemmed from Hollywood, but before tax laws were a draw for production companies in the U.S., Trenton became home to Canada’s very first studio in 1917, gaining the town the title of Hollywood of the North.

Once the studio was built, Trenton was the birthplace of countless U.S. and Canadian films, including the famous war epic, Carry On, Sergeant! in 1928, a silent movie about the First World War that was censored heavily for its relationship between a soldier and a Frenchwoman, and had a whopping $500,000 budget. Shooting locations varied throughout the studio and local area, including Camp Picton and Canadian Forces Base Trenton, and with the base still standing today, the relationship between art and war was solidified. Between 1917 and 1934, more than 1,500 silent movies sprang from the Hollywood of the North, putting Trenton on the cultural map, even 100 years later.

Much like the town he calls home, Joel, is no stranger to film. When he felt non-documentary genre local filmmakers had little opportunity to show their work, Joel created The Movie Years Today Film Festival to showcase local films, which ran to great success for both filmmakers and movie lovers in the area. “The Movie Years Today was really a chance to celebrate filmmaking as a whole in the area,” said Joel. Eventually, he saw the offering evolve into a way to incorporate all Canadian work, not just hyper local to the Quinte area. “There are only so many local filmmakers who are making stuff. It almost hit its roof in terms of what we could do,” Joel said of The Movie Years Today. “We reached the ceiling.”

Eventually, Joel established Cinema Quinte, the not-for-profit that puts on the QCFF festival, alongside his Festival Chair, Penny Olorenshaw, and a host of dedicated staff and committee members who share the same passion for movies. “I’m excited to see the things I’ve been working at for years laying out in a bigger way,” said Joel. “I’m excited to see what this could turn into.” The legacy of Trenton isn’t lost on Joel and Penny, and with the current iteration of the festival in relative infancy, the duo has proven they have the chops, knowledge, and keen eye for talent to make the QCFF a hearty artistic venture well into the future.

Joel’s love for film is rooted in his education at Humber College, where he studied Film and Television. Today, his company, Prime Focus Productions, does all types of corporate video and short film, but his passion lies in creating his own work and helping to share the work of countless talented filmmakers in Canada. His passion for storytelling is evident in the meticulous planning to bring the festival to light.

“It’s the most powerful thing to inspire change, and stories are often about change,” said Joel of his chosen art form. “All you have to do is sit there and enjoy it. You can get the deepest response from people in the fastest way possible.” Penny, who owns a marketing company when she isn’t busy organizing the festival with Joel, also acknowledges the powerful tool that is film. “It’s not just reading a description of something. It’s actually living it, and you’re actually living it while you’re watching the film,” she said. They’re a busy pair, but the festival, which they both call a labour of love, seems well worth the effort.

The committee and staff saw their hard work pay off and the inaugural curated festival proved itself a hive of talent from Canada’s best filmmakers, with more than 300 film lovers in attendance. Lasting three days and showcasing 30 films in three locations throughout Trenton, QCFF offered local viewers a chance to see work by the likes of Deepa Mehta, whose film on sexual violence in New Delhi caused waves in the Canadian art community. “We had lots of positive comments about the programming from people,” said Penny. “They found the diversity of film was surprising.” As the Crow Flies, by local award-winning filmmaker Tess Girard of Prince Edward Country, was one of the most well-attended films at the festival. Another memorable moment was when Wounded Warriors Canada representative, Dan Hrechka, came to speak to the audience before the showing of well-known actor Paul Gross’s film, Hyena Road, a fictional account of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. Dan’s appearance made for a touching tribute to Trenton’s military and film legacies. “He was a fellow who was able to come and speak to the audience beforehand and explain what Wounded Warriors does and who it serves,” said Penny. “I think having that connection to the film in a different way, yeah, it was powerful.” Rounding out the offerings was a documentary titled Remembering the Sergeant, a documentary exploring the war epic, Carry On, Sergeant! that made Trenton famous.

The QCFF also helped to usher in the next generation of film. The QCFF held a competition for youth to submit their films, with the winner earning a slot to show their work to live audience at the festival. At the end of the day, the festival and the work of Cinema Quinte do is all about giving a voice and home to Canadian artists who help us gain understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. “I firmly believe story is the most powerful tool we have to inspire people, to make change, to help people,” said Joel.

The festival was a true reflection of Canada’s inclusive values. Several genres were covered, with everything from shorts to animation, and the filmmakers themselves were equally diverse, representing people of colour, bilingualism, and Indigenous peoples. Joel, an Aboriginal filmmaker, is currently working on a documentary that follows an adopted Indigenous man who reconnects with his heritage and meets his birth family – a piece guaranteed to stir the emotions of anyone who has the chance to view the work.

Building on the success of the QCFF, Joel and Penny hope with the opportunities to showcase work, combined with locations in which to film them, the Hollywood of the North title can be reclaimed in Quinte. “When I moved back from Toronto, I was disheartened to hear this had once been the Hollywood of the North and now there’s nothing (film-related),” said Joel. “I’d love to see a studio established here. I’d like it to be a vibrant part of our community here again.” Penny echoed the sentiment. “Part of our desire in all this is to help develop a film industry again in this area.”

The City of Quinte West clearly sees the benefit in encouraging and supporting the arts. This year, the QCFF saw a large sponsorship from the city, and as the festival grows, so does income for writers and directors, local tourism, and growth to the economy. Citizens in the area notice the impact too, flocking to the festival to support local work. “You do what you can but you never know what kind of effect it can have,” said Joel. “The community support has been really…I’ve been kind of blown away by it.”

It’s the 100th anniversary of film in Trenton, and while the area may no longer be regarded as the Hollywood of the North, it has potential to return to its filmmaker hub roots. Through Cinema Quinte, Joel offers collaboration sessions with other filmmakers, and as artists see Quinte as a home and space that cultivates their work, more support and excitement will follow. After all, that’s what film is all about; bringing people together in a shared dream, and idea, and a little bit of an escape.

And let’s be honest—popcorn helps.

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