Regent Park Film Fest's Graduation Party
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Regent Park Film Fest’s Graduation Party

The annual free festival kicks off tonight for the ninth time. Next year, it will trade converted public schoolrooms for a shiny new home.

The Regent Park Film Festival was housed in Nelson Mandela Park Public School in 2009. Photo by Daryl Buttineau.

When the ninth incarnation of the annual Regent Park Film Festival opens its doors to the community tonight, they will be doors better known as those to the auditorium and cafeteria of Parliament Street’s Lord Dufferin Public School. This is, perhaps, a fitting setting on a night when the festival will honour its opening-gala tradition of featuring exclusively the films of youth directors.

But festival organizers are already looking ahead to a time when volunteers will no longer be asked to set up a projector, a concessions stand, and a couple hundred chairs in advance of opening night.

The Regent Park Arts and Cultural Centre is still under construction—roughly 70 per cent finished, says urban development group Artscape—but by this time next year it will have become the festival’s official home, with screenings to be held in the facility’s 400-seat theatre. Not only that, but the Centre will also house the festival staff’s offices which right now, situated as they are at Spadina and Richmond, aren’t even in the community.

“We lost our (old) office because of revitalization,” explains festival manager Ananya Ohri, referring to the City’s plan to replace Regent Park’s worn out buildings. “We’re really excited to move back. We’re going to be right there for people to approach, rather than (our being) invisible which, sometimes, that’s what it feels like when the festival isn’t happening.”

The revitalization—the goal of which was to transform the troubled neighbourhood into a mixed-income community with brand new facilities—has been controversial; many say it is gentrification in disguise. The topic has generated enough discussion that organizers decided to make it the theme of last year’s festival.

This year, there is no single overarching theme for the four-day festival, but some of the selected films will be shown together for thematic reasons; Friday and Saturday evening feature three shorts each, about music and migration respectively, and Thursday night’s documentaries (and subsequent panel discussion) examine immigrant experiences in Canada, both contemporary and historical.

Of course, the festival’s goal is to showcase films that deal with issues relevant to the residents of Regent Park. Determining specifically what those issues are, Ohri says, involves lengthy conversations amongst the festival’s programming committee, which is made up of community members, filmmakers, and past festival participants.

But conversations are also ongoing at another level.

“We’re constantly talking to other community groups,” Ohri explains. “‘What are the issues that your members are dealing with?’ Or, ‘What are you hearing? What’s going on?’”

Conversations with these groups frequently result in community screenings, which the festival organizes at different makeshift venues throughout the year. Soon, those events will be held in a small screening room in the new building capable of seating some 40 or 50 people.

“The festival really believes in access,” Ohri says. “As people who make film, but also as people who watch film.”

It’s why, she says, the new building will feature two editing suites for the community’s aspiring filmmakers to use, but also why admission to all the films is free, as is the child care offered to parents who want to attend the festival.

In the meantime, the festival itself waits patiently for access; Artscape says the Regent Park Arts and Cultural Centre will be ready to open sometime in the spring.