Weengushk finding film school dynamics during pandemic

M’CHIGEENG – One of the great things about working with Weengushk Film Institute (WFI) is that heading out on the land to harvest a moose or elk becomes an opportunity to get some work done—Indigenous documentaries often focus on the connections between the land and the people. The Expositor caught up with Nano Debassige, senior manager at WFI after the crew returned from a week-long (and successful) hunting expedition to talk about how things are panning out at the film school during the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly had an impact on operations at the school.

Like everyone else in the film industry, “we are trying to survive,” said Mr. Debassige. “We have been dealing with attempting to build a suitably isolated building to keep our staff and students safe and healthy. We have had our operations impacted by a travel ban and all this happened just as we were building out our programming.”

But there are silver linings, such as the increased reach that came about when the Weengushk International Film Festival went online this year, but certainly highlighted the challenges being faced by rural businesses.

“Like everyone else on the Island we have been limited by our internet,” said Mr. Debassige. “The internet for us has always been a problem.” Even though a fibre cable travels along the highway in front of the WFI campus, the cost of accessing it would be prohibitive.

Currently, WFI only has its lab one course running, but plans are in the works for a series of online master classes. “We are having to get creative in figuring out how we would get them online,” he said. 

Adequate internet would be a major game changer for WFI. “If I could get a director in New York and be able to have students interact with them it would expand our possibilities in so many ways,” he said. The internet challenge impacts both sides of the WFI equation, limiting its potential outreach to the remote Indigenous communities that was part of the vision of WFI founder Shirley Cheechoo.

WFI has a significant base of infrastructure, with five editing suites, a virtual reality studio and a unity suite for computer generated imagery (CGI).

“It enables us to create a virtual reality world and for our students to place the story within that virtual world,” he said, “right inside that virtual space.”

Despite the pandemic restrictions and challenges, WFI is looking at a major expansion down the road.

But being able to compete in the film industry world will require better internet access. Currently, other film organizations can send large files over the net, some between 10 and 15 gigabytes or more and others running to the terabytes. For WFI, that kind of transfer can involve enlisting the bandwidth of a pickup truck full of hard drives trundling down the road. Delay under those circumstances is inevitable and in the film industry, like most others, time is money.

But the company remains undaunted.

Quarantine protocols have also presented challenges, noted Mr. Debassige. “We have had to find places for people, staff and students, coming in to isolate for 14 days,” he said.

Film locations across North America are starting up again, with zones demarcated into red, yellow and green.

The WFI International Film Festival went digital this year, allowing its audience to expand as a delightful side effect. “Next year we are hoping to do a mixture of both live and digital,” he said. 

WFI is currently engaged in outreach to cellphone companies, hoping to access the kind of infrastructure that will help facilitate that end.

WFI also has a new strategic plan in the works that will see a major physical expansion over the next five years.

“In the past we have found that we always operated ahead of our strategic plan,” admitted Mr. Debassige, “so this time we are setting the bar higher.”

An architect has been engaged to design a facility that would more than double the current footprint.

“We see exciting times ahead for WFI,” said Mr. Debassige. “Stay tuned.”

WFI is affiliated with Brock University, at which Dr.. Cheechoo currently serves as chancellor.