Twenty-eight years ago, Bonnie Thompson joined the National Film Board’s women’s division as a marketing manager to encourage women to become filmmakers.
Today, the York University film school graduate is a senior producer at the NFB, with 80 film credits and numerous awards—including Genie, Gemini, AMPIA and an Oscar nomination—under her belt.
But in some ways, she says, not much has changed since the late ‘80s. “It is still male-dominated … looking at the industry now, there hasn’t been the growth in women filmmakers one would have hoped to see.”
Initiatives to involve more women are still needed, Thompson says, and the NFB has made a commitment to produce more films by female directors and work with more female crew members.
On a broader level, she says the film board’s mandate is to work on projects with a strong point of view—typically documentaries, but it also produces animations and interactive films.
That focus fits in well with the type of work she likes to do.
“I’m drawn to strong stories and stories that might not be able to be told in the commercial world or on TV. I like working with communities that haven’t been heard before,” Thompson says.
She points to some recent examples of projects she’s been working on, such as a short film called We Regret to Inform You, which was co-directed by Eva Colmers and Heidi Janz.
The documentary shows a day in the life of Janz, who is disabled.
“The film is about her struggle to be seen as a person that has so many skills and is not just disabled. It won some awards and helped change the way people see disabled people,” Thompson says.
Another documentary she’s working on, called Birds of the Family, is about four siblings who were taken away from their indigenous mother in Saskatchewan. The film follows the siblings, who are in their 50s, meeting each other for the first time, celebrating missed birthdays and getting to know each other.
“It’s great to have awards, but the biggest reward is being able to move audiences,” Thompson says.
Films about the indigenous community, and by indigenous filmmakers, are particularly important to the Edmonton studio, Thompson says.
“Just as we want more women, we want more people from the Aboriginal community having a voice, telling stories in new ways to a wider community and to their own community.”
Sharing all the stories that need to be told isn’t always straightforward, however, Thompson says. “Often industry funds come out of central funds in Toronto. I don’t think the West is represented well, and I think it’s important Alberta filmmakers have more of a voice.”
In addition, she says there has been a shift away from Edmonton for projects.
“When I first started with the NFB, we had a pretty vibrant film industry here, but it’s eroded for a number of reasons. A lot of crew and filmmakers left for Calgary or Vancouver because there are more opportunities there,” she says. “A lot of projects come there from the States, and so there’s more industry involvement.”
Despite the challenges, though, she says Edmonton filmmakers are resilient.
“They do projects despite the fact that there aren’t a lot of funds out there. And there’s a lot of experimentation as well with formats such as 3D and so on.”
Thompson says she feels very privileged to have worked with the filmmaking community in Alberta for such a long time.
And she says she still feels invigorated by the work she does.
“It’s so varied. I’m working on 12 different projects right now, which include a couple of animations, an interactive projects, a feature documentary and a short documentary.”
On a typical day, Thompson says she might be in the editing room, reading a treatment, talking to filmmakers, on set, or working on budgets.
“I had always wanted to produce,” she says. “When I started doing it 15 years ago, it was really exciting. I never imagined I would be here so much later. I think it’s really important to be telling the stories of people who wouldn’t have otherwise been heard.”
Film buffs can view some of Thompson’s work online at nfb.ca, including Wiebo’s War, Legend of a Warrior, and Wild Life.
Limit is the Sky, a documentary about Fort McMurray, premieres at the Calgary International Film Festival on Sept 26.
Limit is the Sky
Mon, Sept 26, Calgary
International Film Festival