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Film and video instructor balances business savvy with artistic insight

March 21, 2016

JT imageJeremy Torrie is running a gauntlet every filmmaker knows. He’s pulling together the fine cut of Juliana & The Medicine Fish, his adaptation of Jake Macdonald’s beloved bestselling young adult novel.

There are thousands of takes from this past autumn’s work with stars Adam Beach and Emma Tremblay to comb through, and agonizing choices to face. Does he use the shot where Beach’s dialogue was note-perfect, or the one with the best lighting? When should he cut from one shot to the next? Is there a way to reclaim the out-of-focus footage?

“Those are the compromises you make,” Torrie says of the labour of love, which leans on his talents as writer, director and producer. “Films are not perfect – they’re a microcosm of anything and everything happening during prep, production, post-production… Most people don’t care about the behind-the-scenes stuff, but those are the things you have to deal with in the industry and hopefully come out on top of.”

It’s exactly the sort of industry insider insight — coupled with storytelling craft — that Torrie imparts to students taking Red River College’s AV Short Video Production course, and to those enrolled in the three-month Enhanced Filmmaking Skills & Techniques certificate course, offered in partnership with the Adam Beach Film Institute.

The fusion of art and business savvy is critical, Torrie says, for young filmmakers hoping to go on to full careers.

“Just because it’s artistic doesn’t mean it’s not a business,” he explains. “That’s what someone like me can bring to the table: to allow for the appreciation it’s not just a story – the story is absolutely important – but beyond that, there is an entire industry.”

“When you’re able to bring real business experience to a teaching setting, you’re going to set people up for success.”

Giving back with a strong guiding voice resonates with the core of Torrie’s identity and his own journey into filmmaking.

As a young Ojibwe man in a sweatlodge on the Wauzhushk Onigum First Nation, surrounded by the heat and exploring fundamental questions of life, Torrie learned to surrender himself to guides, to the voices of elders and spirits. They were the ones who named him a storyteller, he says, granting him a calling as well as an obligation.

“One elder described it as a spiritual contract,” he says. “When you’re making that commitment, you’re telling the ancestors this is something you’re actively working at – it’s not just a belief. You’re walking the walk and talking the talk. It’s a way of life, and I apply those traditions through everything I do – my teaching, filmmaking and my children.”

Living up to that contract meant leaving behind an unsatisfying stint in university and enrolling in RRC’s Creative Communications program to develop his talents as a writer.

“It was a very small class, very intense. If you missed a class people wondered ‘Oh, did someone die in your family?’” he says. “That’s what I liked about CreComm, you had to compete. It wasn’t just about learning the skills – it was learning to be really, really good at them.”

After graduating, Torrie fleshed out his resume with news and documentary work, including a project that still echoes with him today: capturing oral stories of elders in their native language before they passed. His growing portfolio landed him an invite into the feature filmmaking world, via the 2003 TV movie Cowboys and Indians: The J.J. Harper Story.

“I continue to describe [that movie] as the model for Indigenous storytelling,” Torrie says of the project that accelerated his career, putting him on the path to becoming one of Canada’s most accomplished Indigenous filmmakers.

Since it’s release, he’s resisted the call of moving to Los Angeles, preferring to stay in Canada and continue developing that model as filmmaking becomes more difficult for the next generation.

“Not many people have done as many movies as a writer/director like I have and it’s something I continue to work on because I know there are a ton of incredible voices out there,” Torrie says. “There’s this desire to have the people express themselves, because the opportunity to do so hasn’t existed before.”

Together with RRC’s School of Continuing Education, he’s exploring ways to revamp the College’s filmmaking courses, inspired by the intensive conservatory model of the Vancouver Film School. It would be a massive undertaking, but considering the room for growth in Manitoba’s multimillion-dollar film industry – thanks to the renewal of the province’s generous tax credit – it’s a project that could be a remarkable catalyst.

In the meantime, Torrie is focused on bringing Juliana to life – and living up to his spiritual contract.

“At its core, the film is about a relationship between a father and daughter, and that’s a relationship anyone can identify with,” he says.

“There’s a lot of magic in this film – it’s the Canadian Whale Rider – and we really want to get into theatres around the world. It’s something people will want to experience.”

— Profile by Matt TenBruggencate (Creative Communications, 2013)