Weengushk’s Shirley Cheechoo nabs Reelworld Visionary Award

Dr. Shirley Cheechoo

TORONTO – Reelworld Film Festival and Reelworld Screen Institute is presenting filmmaker, actor, writer and visual artist Dr. Shirley Cheechoo of M’Chigeeng with the 2020 Reelworld Visionary Award. 

The award is being presented in recognition of Dr. Cheechoo’s “incredible 30 years of dedication toward diversifying the Canadian entertainment industry and in honour of her living legacy.” 

The Visionary Award honours industry leaders who have made unparalleled strides for the advancement of people of colour and/or people in Indigenous communities.

“Good?” said Dr. Cheechoo when asked how she felt about receiving the award. Notoriously reticent about talking about herself, Dr. Cheechoo was quick to award her own accolades upon a number of people who have supported her during her journey.

“I didn’t do it by myself,” she said. “Lots of people lined up to help me in my journey. My parents, my grandparents, my siblings as well. Everyone I have met on the road has given me help. I would like to thank them for being able to follow the journey I have been on.”

Late last month, Reelworld announced it “proudly recognizes Dr. Shirley Cheechoo for her unmatched body of work in the film industry. She is renowned as the first Indigenous woman to write, produce and direct a dramatic feature film, ‘Bearwalker’—for which she won the Best Director award at the first Reelworld Film Festival in 2000 and was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. 

Reelworld founder and executive director Tonya Williams shared her thoughts on the honouree in the news release. “I saw Shirley Cheechoo’s film back in 2000 and was shocked that no film festival in Canada accepted to screen it even though it had screened at Cannes,” said Ms. Williams. “Her powerful film set the standard and beacon for the festival ever since, especially as Shirley has always used her talent to bring attention to the issues of her community with the creation of the Weengushk Film Festival and the Institute. She continues to teach and mentor so many Indigenous youth on how to take their authentic voices and speak truth to their experiences.” 

While working on her feature film ‘Bearwalker,’ Dr. Cheechoo became aware of how many Indigenous youth had an interest in the filmmaking process but had limited opportunity. This led to the inception of the Weengushk Film Institute (WFI) in 2002. WFI is a non-profit, charitable organization, dedicated to exclusively supporting the creative works and pursuits of Indigenous artists. Thanks to the environment and training fostered by the WFI, many participants have gone on to receive awards for their short films at notable Canadian film festivals including Cherokee Film Festival and Cinefest Sudbury Film Festival. 

“It is an honour to be recognized by Reelworld Film Festival and Reelworld Screen Institute for the second time, but this time as a visionary,” said Dr. Cheechoo in the release announcing the award. “I believe that film is one of the most powerful vehicles for bringing people together and materializing the social change we desperately need in our industry.” 

Dr. Cheechoo took part in a special “In Conversation With” webinar on Monday, October 19. 

All Reelworld Film Festival industry programmes are free and available worldwide. The Reelworld Film Festival and Reelworld Screen Institute are the largest national platforms dedicated to supporting Canadian filmmakers and artists from the Black, Indigenous, Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin American communities. Since its inception in 2001, Reelworld has been at the forefront in promoting racially diverse Canadian talent.

Its free world-wide programs can be accessed at its website, reelworld.ca.