Weengushk Film Institute in expansion planning stage

M’CHIGEENG – Things are currently hopping at Weengushk Film Institute (WFI), with filming on six films currently underway, but all eyes are cast to the future as the organization is looking to expand its facilities—somewhere on Manitoulin. The $50,000 grant from the provincial government will be put to good use in completing a feasibility study and business plan for the Turtle Island Project, the organization’s expansion strategy.

“Arts organizations make an important contribution to our province, providing thousands of jobs for musicians, writers, painters, actors, dancers, stagehands and the many others working behind the scenes,” said Lisa MacLeod, minister of heritage, sport, tourism and culture industries in a release announcing arts funding. “They entertain us, but they also play an important role in the mental health and well-being of Ontarians and an equally important role in the province’s economic and social recovery. Providing the help they need is a critical part of our plan to support individuals, families and job creators impacted by the virus, while laying the foundation for a strong economic recovery.” 

“We are just finishing up our feasibility study and will be putting a business plan together,” said Nano Debassige, WFI managing director, when contacted about that organization’s plans for the funding. “It is part of what we are calling our Turtle Island Project.”

The Turtle Island Project is aimed at building a ‘state of the art’ facility to support the growth and sustainability of WFI that “brings together artists from diverse cultural experiences and allows them to share their stories.”

Mr. Debassige explained the project will enable WFI to “expand programs, deliver a culturally land-based curriculum, improve outreach, increase economic viability and provide a world-class training facility in the arts on Manitoulin Island.”

Although Mr. Debassige said that the feasibility study and business plan are aimed at “what is the future, is it feasible, where is it feasible,” the intent is definitely to keep WFI on Manitoulin.

The challenge for WFI’s expansion is that the current footprint only facilitates a student body of 10 to 15 students.

The Turtle Island Project will be a community-based Indigenous media training facility on Manitoulin Island, he notes. “Our growth is limited by our existing space. We receive 50 applications on average per year and can only accommodate 15 students. We lose potential students from across the world due to insufficient facilities.”

The funding was sought to enable WFI to “fulfill our quota request to meet the demands of the interest.”

Historically, what began simply with community-based weekend workshops in the filmmaking crafts now has blossomed into a 17-year media-arts training and creation program for aspiring, emerging and professional artists alike, noted WFI in its application. “The institute hosts artistic programming to cover all aspects of filmmaking, including the specialized crafts of screenwriting, directing, producing, cinematography, editing and composing. We now deliver a progressive program of media arts training and development that provides for quality cultural and traditional knowledge transfer with land-based training and fostering the long-term artistic growth of all participants.”

WFI founder and chancellor of Brock University Dr. Shirley Cheechoo, C.M. was inspired to establish the Turtle Island Project by “her lifelong journey” and by the “many talented artisans across Turtle Island.”

She noted that the current building and facility is not equipped to facilitate a larger student base and does not provide space for residences for the students or instructors, with the students currently billeting in the community. 

“We envision an international state-of-the-art performance centre,” she said. 

The ambitious plans to increase enrollment and impact through the creation of a larger intake stream that will be supported by the construction of the new facility over the next five years will see a world-class arts centre that houses: a training facility with administrative offices and study halls; land-based learning facilities; elders in residence; a residence for artists and students; social and guidance services; a dining facility; production and post-production facilities; a theatre and sound stage; and an equipment facility.

WFI hopes to accomplish its expansion through an aggressive capital campaign and seeking potential investors.

Turtle Island Project not only hopes to meet the goal of expanding, integrating, educating and promoting Indigenous and youth diversity, but also strengthen the infrastructure of Indigenous arts communities of the North. 

“We have secured an architect to begin planning what the facility will look like,” said Mr. Debassige. He noted that the capital committee consists of himself, Dan Donovan, Phyllis Ellis, Darlene Kaboni and Randy Trudeau.

Mr. Debassige suggests folks stay tuned for updates on upcoming ventures and to follow the progress of this project. 

“Keeping in mind the COVID pandemic has affected us all in many ways but the vision, funding partners and team members behind this project have been making this manageable through online meetings,” said Mr. Debassige.