Breakthroughs Film Festival is the only festival in Canada dedicated to showcasing short films by emerging women and non-binary directors. The festival entered its 11th year on the circuit, running from June 16-19. Like last year, the fest rolled out in a hybrid format, with in-person screenings at the Paradise Theatre in Toronto on June 17. 

I had the privilege of chatting with Festival Manager Annum Shah about her role in the proceedings, the films that particularly moved her, Breakthroughs’ transformative theme and more. 

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This interview is condensed for length and clarity.

Melody McCune: We at GGA love a good origin story. What’s Breakthroughs Film Festival’s origin story?

Annum Shah: Breakthroughs Film Festival is going into its 11th year. This festival is a space for women and non-binary filmmakers to showcase their short films. Our mission is to create spaces where these marginalized communities can showcase their films and do industry events throughout the year in the post-festival season. We try to do grant writing workshops, industry panels — anything to make it easier to break into film communities.

This year’s theme is “Renewal.” Filmmakers share stories that explore transformations in their lives, intergenerational stories and moments of change.

MM: What inspired you to choose this particular theme for the festival?

AS: The pandemic has transformed the landscape of everyone’s lives. We’ve gone through different phases of it, different phases of things being open and closed again.

It feels like we are entering another phase of the pandemic, and we wanted to explore the changes in transformations that filmmakers and people have experienced throughout this period. Moments of healing and moments that have completely changed their lives and what that looks like.

This year’s programming reflects stories between generations, mother-daughter stories, stories of ancestry, and stories between family members and communities. For example, one of our films, a’hwa, by Rolla Tahir, speaks about shisha bars in Toronto and shisha culture, and this community sense within shisha culture and discussions of life, love and loss.

We’re looking at healing, beginnings and endings, and celebrating both.

Still from the film "Tie your Camel and trust in God," featuring a woman holding a mirror.

Tie your Camel and trust in God

MM: As the festival manager, what’s your role in the process, and how did you get involved with Breakthroughs?

AS: I started as their marketing coordinator, a short-term contract I was involved with, and I transitioned into the festival manager role as the former manager left. I handle the day-to-day operations of the festival, so I do a lot of administrative work. Still, I get to coordinate with filmmakers, set up the events and have a say in our industry events.

This year, I was involved in the programming—meeting with the screening committees and the jury. I wasn’t part of the deliberation process but facilitated those conversations to ensure we were meeting the requirements we needed for the festival.

Mostly, it’s just making sure the festival happens, day-to-day operations, ensuring we have a venue and setting up our streaming platform.

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MM: As a filmmaker, how has your work with Breakthroughs influenced or catalyzed your work?

AS: I think it’s about being in such a supportive community. As you work in the film industry, it can be disheartening at times. It’s a complex industry to get into, but what Breakthroughs shows me is that the community is there to support you. Mainly, when you are a woman and a woman of color such as myself, people are there to help you and give you advice and support.

Many of our board members are also filmmakers, so it’s nice to see them and their work and how they’ve been able to break into the industry and do all of these things that, as an emerging filmmaker, you imagine yourself doing. Being in a supportive, fun, vibrant community full of diversity and exciting stories inspires and encourages me to stick with it despite the hardships.

MM: Are there any projects emerging from this year’s festival that particularly moved you?

AS: We have 12 films at this festival — fantastic films. Tie your Camel and trust in God by Niya Abdullahi is a film that speaks about people in our lives and their relationships with their mental health and God. I thought that one was quite moving. It was a story we don’t see often. 

Ahu’s Journal by Weeda Azim is a creative film looking at a reflective journey of the main character who’s moved out of her home and is subletting a new apartment. 

Then, in terms of intergenerational stories: Fanmi by Carmine Pierre Dufour and Sandrine Brodeur-Desrosiers is about a heartbroken woman. Her mom visits her, and they’re both keeping to themselves, and she doesn’t realize the true purpose of her mother’s visit. It was sad, but it was a moving story regarding our relationship with our parents. 

Meet the Sky by K.J. Edwards looks at our relationship with death and how folks navigate it, particularly from an Indigenous perspective. That film was fascinating, and it makes you think of death differently. 

Photo from the film "Still Life," featuring a woman wearing a white headscarf.

Still Life

MM: What do you hope audiences take away from Breakthroughs Film Festival?

AS: Outside of mainstream Hollywood, there is a lot of great work happening. Our films are less than 20 minutes, and it feels like those 20 minutes pack a punch in terms of story and emotion.

It’s a different way of experiencing film and stories. I hope people take away that there is an industry full of diversity out there that is available to them in Canada but also internationally. Great short films are coming from marginalized communities, women and non-binary filmmakers. They’re all doing fantastic work.

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MM: Do you have advice for women, non-binary, LGBTQIA or BIPOC creators looking to break into the industry?

AS: Look for smaller communities that are outside of big festivals. There are a lot of midsize and small-size festivals that are instrumental in helping you break into the industry. Not just that, but meeting people in the industry at different levels in their careers. You meet many people like that when you go to a festival like Breakthroughs, and smaller festivals are very inclusive.

They’re supportive of a lot of people. They are the starting point to getting into more prominent festivals, especially with short films. A lot of short films get turned into features eventually. So, a short film festival is a great place to start submitting your work, gaining recognition and finding a community that can help you on future projects.

MM: Thank you so much for chatting with me today, Annum! Congratulations on Breakthroughs!

AS: Thank you, Melody!

Go here to learn more about Breakthroughs Film Festival. You can also follow Breakthroughs on Instagram (@breakthroughsff) and Twitter (@breakthroughsff).

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