Breakthroughs Film Festival holds the distinction of being the only festival in Canada devoted to short films from emerging women, non-binary and BIPOC directors. The fest celebrated its 10th year, which ran from June 16 to June 20, as a barrier-breaking champion for amplifying the voices of marginalized communities. And the Pride Month love just keeps on coming!

Recently, I had the privilege of chatting with Breakthroughs’ Board of Directors Chair Alexandra Tse about the theme for this year’s fest, the importance of making the invisible visible and how the festival has catalyzed her own work. 

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This interview has been condensed for clarity. 

Melody McCune: So, we at GGA love a good origin story. What’s the origin story for Breakthroughs Film Festival? 

Alexandra Tse: Breakthroughs was founded in 2011, and it’s a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting women and non-binary emerging filmmakers. It was originally a place for women filmmakers to come together and meet with each other. Basically, as a way to collaborate and develop their skills. The festival was just a facet of that, and it became the biggest part.

Over the past 10 years, we’ve built a reputation as being a celebratory, welcoming, supportive community space. We’ve gone from a very small festival to working with different organizations in the city of Toronto and getting a lot of international films.

In our 10th year, we’ve also added industry programs featuring mid-level to experienced talent on panels that we’re hosting. I’m really excited about our campaign anniversary and what we have moving forward.

Still from With Love From Munera at Breakthroughs Film Festival.

Still from With Love From Munera, a Breakthroughs Film Festival submission.

MM: Excellent! As the Chair of the Board of Directors, what’s your role in this process and how did you become involved with Breakthroughs?

AT: I was in film school and I didn’t know how to break into the industry. So, I approached one of my professors who connected me to the festival. I went to some of their panels and I found it [to be] a welcoming, joyful, supportive space.

I kept going to different events. I met Mariam Zaidi, who is our current Executive Director. She helped me with advice and then reached out to me once they were looking for new board members. 

My calling card was that I am an emerging filmmaker myself. That’s the whole mandate of the festival — supporting that community. This is my third year now, and an opening for the chair position became available.

I decided to apply for that and the board voted me in, which was very exciting. I’m in charge of communicating with our executive team and our staff and … being a spokesperson for the festival and leading our board. We’re a volunteer-based operational board. So, just leading the festival in directions we think are great for it, and doing it through my perspective as a queer, POC, emerging filmmaker myself.

MM: Can you delve into the theme for this year’s festival and how important it is to ensure that these visible stories break past their invisibility?

AT: This year’s theme is “Visible Invisible,” which speaks to how a lot of queer films, women-led films, POC films and non-binary films are often pushed aside. We wanted to highlight that. So, we decided to make that the theme of this year’s festival.

I think that with the emergence of streaming services, people have started to realize what they’ve been missing out on and the gaps in our media, film and television knowledge. We’re all getting a more in-depth education on what’s possible and what people can make.

I think it’s extremely important that marginalized voices are included in that. Not just queer filmmakers and POC filmmakers, but the intersectionality of it all. We’re proud to support the intersectionality of many of our filmmakers. Over 75 percent of our directors featured in the festival this year are POC, which we think is amazing.

Still from Bloordale Beach at Breakthroughs Film Festival.

Still from Bloordale Beach, a Breakthroughs Film Festival submission.

MM: That’s incredible! This is the first year that you’re offering workshops and panels. You also have a pitch competition. How vital was it to make the festival not only a space to showcase emerging marginalized voices but one that also informs and helps shape the careers of future generations?

AT: So, offering industry programming and year-round programming is something that we’re hoping to do more of in the coming years. The festival is, I think, stronger than ever and the films are amazing. We have a great group of people supporting us and a great group of people on the board.

For lots of filmmakers that are featured in our festival, it’s their first film or one of their first films. We wanted to make it so that it’s a great experience for them to learn while they’re there and to learn from people who came before them.

We definitely support this idea of, “Each one, teach one.” Where you have your own opportunity and you pass it forward. I think that many of the filmmakers who are on the board support that as well.

Industry programs are important because part of the reason that they’re (women, non-binary, queer, POC) not able to get opportunities is that they don’t have the knowledge. They aren’t able to get into programs or they can’t afford them. Perhaps they don’t feel safe going to some of those programs.

In our way, we want to offer them not only a joyful celebratory experience but also something that’s educational and helpful. To learn from their peers and other women and non-binary filmmakers who are further in their careers.

We think it’s important to not only champion the films, but also the filmmakers. To push forward a new emerging generation and teach people who want to make films. So, we think it’s an integral part of our festival and we hope to continue industry programming moving forward.

MM: I think it’s great that you’re giving them this safe space to grow because, as you said, they don’t have the tools or the knowledge to move forward and the industry can be a scary place. 

AT: Yeah, we really love it. I love being a part of the festival. It’s been a joy. Whenever we all get onto a big Zoom call, it’s always like, “Oh, I can’t wait to see you guys in person!” In addition to being collaborators and fans of each other’s work, we’re all good friends, which is nice.

MM: As a filmmaker and a cinematographer yourself, do you feel that your work with Breakthroughs has helped influence or catalyze your own work?

AT: In a way, for sure. Not [from] being on the festival board, but more so the value comes from watching the films and speaking with the filmmakers.

Where I really cherish the learning I’ve done is in speaking with the filmmakers that come through our festival and where they get inspiration for their films, and how they went about doing them.

Not only do I learn from them, but it’s also extremely inspiring because making a film is hard. So, to watch these people do it and succeed greatly at it is something that’s teachable for me every time I come back to the festival. Our board consists of really amazing filmmakers that I’ve had the opportunity to learn from, which I find great value in.

Many people will tell you that it feels like a small industry because you’re often working with the same people all the time. With Breakthroughs, I’m constantly getting to meet new filmmakers and learn from their perspective, and see the world through their eyes and their films. That’s been the greatest learning experience.

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MM: That leads to my next question. Has there ever been a project or projects to emerge from this festival that particularly moved you?

AT: There’s one film this year, actually. It’s called Many Bloodlines and it’s one of the first films I’ve watched. It’s about an Indigenous woman and her partner who’s white, and them navigating their relationship and trying to have a baby together.

I’m a mixed-race, Chinese woman and my girlfriend’s white. It’s obviously not the most complex, biggest thing in the world, but it’s definitely something that we have to navigate every once in a while. That film was something that I connected with … them navigating their relationship and the love they have for each other and how they’re able to make space for each other. It’s definitely one of my favorites that I’ve seen.

Still from Parkdale at Breakthroughs Film Festival.

Still from Parkdale, a Breakthroughs Film Festival submission.

MM: I’m excited to check that out! That sounds really interesting.

AT: It’s very beautiful. I showed it to my girlfriend and she cried.

MM: Do you have any advice for women, non-binary, LGBTQIA or BIPOC artists looking to get their foot in the door of this industry?

AT: One of the things that I used to believe was that the audience is largely going to be a white audience. Maybe we have to make a film that caters to that, so it’s more widely accepted. Over the years, that’s changed completely. That’s just out the door for me now.

I think my biggest piece of advice, and perhaps this is something that’s more for my past self that could be helpful to other people coming into the industry, is to be honest and truthful to who you are and to stand in your individuality.

I’m finding that people are very generous and very open to learning in ways that they haven’t been before. And I think that as members of a marginalized community, it can often be difficult to do that. It can be difficult to stand in your own shoes as you are.

We’re hopefully going in a direction of being able to do that proudly without as much hesitation as before. I think what a lot of first-time filmmakers do is wait for the right moment to make a film. It’s like, “I just have to wait and make sure that it’s perfect and all the stars have aligned.” That doesn’t happen very often. 

Before Breakthroughs, I would judge a film based on its cinematography. The caveat in a lot of cases about cinematography is that the more money you have, the better it is because you have bigger toys. But in working with Breakthroughs, I’ve learned to see the beauty in the stories that people are telling and to look past the glossiness of it all.

Go make a film and tell your story. Tell it as best as you can. It doesn’t have to look or be a certain way to be a good film. If you’re being truthful and honest with your story, then people will gravitate toward that.

And then submit it to a film festival like Breakthroughs. Going to a festival is [getting] a look at what the industry is like. You’d be surprised by the people you’ll meet and the connections you’ll make if you go to a weekend-long festival and put yourself out there.

MM: Excellent advice. I love that. What do you hope audiences can take away from Breakthroughs Film Festival?

AT: My main hope is that people will watch these films and keep their minds open. I think that a lot of the time when you have smaller festivals, more “niche” as some of my family would call them, it’s hard to not judge a book by its cover and [easy] to go in with the expectation of, “Oh, this film is going to be wacky.”

If you go to a festival and you keep an open mind, you’ll be shocked by the quality of the films. Almost all of my favorite films that I’ve seen have been ones that haven’t been in a theater. I’m probably never going to see them again. But they stick in my mind.

I hope that people will come to Breakthroughs with that same mentality. And I hope they read about the directors and the filmmakers who’ve put their blood, sweat and tears into making these stories. Go out and support these filmmakers and the emerging community.

And even word of mouth is great. As filmmakers, we just want people to watch it. So it’s exciting when anybody comes and enjoys it, talks to you about how they were able to connect with it. That’s one of the best things about being a filmmaker.

Still from Wanted: Strong Woman at Breakthroughs Film Festival.

Still from Wanted: Strong Woman, a Breakthroughs Film Festival submission.

MM: Where can folks at home watch the films showcased at the festival?

AT: This year, we’re collaborating with a platform called Sisterhood Media. Sisterhood is a business dedicated to producing and distributing films and digital media to audiences from minority groups. Their mission is to develop projects in-house, licensed films from the filmmakers and then distribute them through their video-on-demand streaming service.

Part of that is our industry programming and all of our panels. We have Q&As with all of the filmmakers from each different program of the festival, which is really exciting. Sisterhood Media is where you can watch all of the films.

MM: Name your top five favorite films or anything that comes to mind.

AT: My goodness. You know this is a difficult question!

MM: Oh, yes. I know.

AT: So one that I love is Maudie, which is a Canadian Irish co-production about Maud Lewis, who’s a Nova Scotian painter. Pariah is amazing. Ferris Bueller’s Day off is a great movie.

MM: Always a good one.

AT: Carol is a great one. The last one I would say is probably The Farewell. Those are the films that come to mind right now.

MM: Awesome. Thank you so much for chatting with me, Alexandra!

AT: Thank you!

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Be sure to follow Breakthroughs Film Festival on Twitter here, and visit their site here to stay abreast about future festival events! 

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Melody McCune
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