In 2017, Andrea Werhun and Nicole Bazuin launched a Kickstarter campaign to help publish their book Modern Whore. The “creative memoir” would feature stories from Werhun’s time as an escort and film photography by Bazuin. The crowdfunding campaign succeeded, with Modern Whore launching in bookstores across North America.
A few years later, Bazuin helmed the short film adaptation of Modern Whore, a hybrid documentary featuring Werhun. It would enjoy its world premiere at SXSW 2020 as part of the film festival’s Documentary Shorts Program. SXSW 2020 was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, leading Modern Whore to premiere online — not in Austin, Texas, as planned.
“I didn’t want to be there anymore, not in a pandemic. It just didn’t feel safe. So, I got my things together, got on my bike, and went home. Two days later, the club was closed.
— Andrea Werhun, Last Night at the Strip Club
The documentary begins with Werhun looking back on her last few shifts at the strip club where she worked. She tells her story while recreating her stripper makeup in a video tutorial. “This is March 2020,” Werhun says, applying powder to her face. “Sports had been cancelled. Handshakes had been cancelled. So, how am I supposed to give a guy a lap dance if I can’t even give him a handshake?” The club closes after Premier Doug Ford declares a state of emergency in Ontario. Werhun needs to “think fast” as she faces an uncertain future.
“Think of this as meaningful quarantine companionship that is creative, conversational, and intimate in nature, centered around our mutual interests. A muse for hire, sure to amuse! Let’s go H-A-M.”
— Andrea Werhun, Official Website
Werhun comes up with something she calls Hire-A-Muse, or H-A-M. She describes H-A-M as falling into a “neat grey area of sex work.” There are a variety of packages offered through H-A-M, including private dance videos, tarot readings, and writing workshops (“I’m currently helping a sex worker organize their memoir”).
The documentary finds Werhun at home, working on her computer. She has landed a book deal to write a memoir about her stripping years. “What a time to write a book,” Werhun says to her editor over a video call.
Last Night at the Strip Club leaves us with Werhun writing late into the night. Her computer screen glows brightly in her face as she muses on the future. “Making plans is often a joke, but I do think it’s important to hold some dreams dear, so I’m just going to keep quietly plugging away at my dreams.”
Watching the film reminds me of all the artists who migrated online to save their livelihoods. Stand-up comedians are doing Zoom shows. Musicians are performing livestream concerts. For some artists, the transition has been difficult, whether it be technical difficulties, screen fatigue, or feeling drained by the world right now. Still, these artists, who were left scrambling to find alternatives, make it work and continue to pursue their dreams despite the challenges.
Werhun displays a knack for comedy. She is a great storyteller, a magnetic presence in this multi-layered documentary that throws viewers back a few decades with bright colours and a groovy soundtrack. The film strikes a balance between style and sincerity. Underneath its glitz and glamour, the documentary expresses anxiety over the future, capturing a relatable numbness in the face of continued uncertainty. The film’s final image, which shows Werhun writing late at night, that’s a lot of us right now. We are all trying to make it work. If we didn’t know it before, we know it now. Nothing in life is guaranteed. But why not try, because who knows what tomorrow holds?
Last Night at the Strip Club is a stylish but thoughtful film that sees its protagonist recreate herself after losing her job during a pandemic. Recommended viewing for anyone in need of a laugh and motivation to pursue their passion.
Meg MacKay’s Probably a Witch is a new release from Howl & Roar Records.
Meg MacKay is a Toronto-based comedian originally from the land of “sentient jean jackets,” otherwise known as Prince Edward Island. Her debut comedy album, Probably a Witch, released earlier this month on streaming platforms.
Listening to Probably a Witch brings me back to the days of watching Comedy Now! late at night on CTV. I had a 27” CRT TV in my room that I had placed on top of a homemade bookshelf. The bookshelf buckled under the weight of that TV. I don’t know how it never collapsed. Anyway, I would stay up way past my bedtime to watch Comedy Now! As someone not from a major city and who had never gone to a comedy show, watching this program kinda whisked me away to another reality. I was also a teenager, so there was that element of participating in something cool and mature.
Why I bring up Comedy Now! is because the stand-up acts were often so funny and weird. Emphasis on weird. You felt drawn into a rabbit hole, especially watching it late at night. That’s how I feel about MacKay’s Probably a Witch. MacKay’s delivery is very Maritime-y. It’s a bit calm and measured with moments that swing up, and she’s putting on all sorts of wacky voices. It’s like we’re having a barbecue, playing washer toss, and then MacKay comes to the party with the laughs. We all forget about the burgers on the grill because everyone’s too busy listening to MacKay talk about spoons class and Britney Spears’ three career phases.
Look, I’ve listened to this album three or five times already, and I’ll probably listen to it a couple more times. It’s friggin’ hilarious, man. MacKay talking about her super tough mom (“I didn’t raise a wuss!”) at a pride parade is a roar. Give the album a listen.
Mistress T published her memoir, There Is More To The Story, in 2018. It is available on Amazon (Paperback/Kindle) and Audible.
In true Maritime fashion, the first thing Mistress T and I talk about is the weather.
It is a bitterly cold afternoon in January. News Year’s Eve is now two weeks past. “Did you grow up in New Brunswick?” she asks, speaking by phone from her home in Vancouver. “I hear a bit of the accent.” The fetish porn star recognizes the accent, of course, having grown up in rural Nova Scotia. She may not live on the East Coast anymore (it has been over twenty years), but if you listen closely enough, you can hear her accent, too.
Growing up, Mistress T dreamed of becoming an actress. “I did every opportunity for plays at church and school,” she says. There was just one problem — she did not want to be famous. “I didn’t want the paparazzi following me around.” Eventually, Mistress T gave up on her dream. “You can’t be a really good actress and not have your life under a microscope, so I put that away.”
In 2008, Mistress T launched her production studio and began producing adult fetish content. Since starting her business, she has filmed and appeared in over two thousand videos. Yes, that’s right. Two thousand videos. Although her videos explore a variety of themes, Mistress T’s content is always grounded in femdom (female domination).
Mistress T walks me through her filming process.
It begins with a story, often inspired by her fans. “My fans are prolific in telling me what they like and what they are into,” Mistress T says. “I get into their minds and find out what they like.” With a story in mind, Mistress T sets up the camera and begins filming what she imagines as a two-sided dialogue. “Sometimes with pornography, it’s almost like the camera is a voyeur, catching a scene that is happening. With my stuff, the viewer is right there. I imagine that the camera is the person, and the lens is their eye. I want the viewer to feel like I am making eye contact with them.”
I ask Mistress T if her videos, many of which run longer than ten minutes, are scripted or outlined at all.
“Nothing, no scripts,” she says. “I have done this hundreds and hundreds of times. I can start with a theme and build it from there.”
Because she runs her business independently, Mistress T wears more than one hat when it comes to producing content. “You have complete control over everything,” she says. “You decide when you work and how things get done. I’m not a perfectionist, but I like things done my way.” The downside? “You have to do everything.” In addition to filming, Mistress T is responsible for editing her videos. The adult performer also spends time answering emails (which include inquiries about custom videos) and managing marketing.
“I am a one-woman show.”
The last time Mistress T stepped on stage was a few years ago at a storytelling competition. “I didn’t set out to do that,” she says. That night, event organizers wanted audience members to get on stage and tell a story. A random draw would decide the participants. The event, unfortunately, was not well-attended. When the hat made its way to Mistress T, the event organizers begged her to enter her name. “Oh, okay. I’ll put my name in the hat.” Guess who got called up? “I got called up. I told one of the stories from my book — the first time I went to a BDSM sex club — and I won the competition.”
The experience had a profound impact on Mistress T.
“When I stood up on that stage, and I turned, the light was in my face, and I had the microphone in my hand, and there were people in the audience. I was just like — oh, this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m supposed to be on a stage with a microphone in my hand. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing — if I’m supposed to be educating or entertaining, but this is where I’m supposed to be.”
Mistress T is currently developing a one-woman show called Conversations With Peggy. The play explores her relationship with an elderly, visually impaired woman whom she has assisted for the last three years. The adult performer describes the show as heartwarming and hilarious while promoting social change — destigmatizing sex work.
It would not be the first time Mistress T shared details of her personal life to help destigmatize sex work. Since 2011, the adult performer has maintained a blog where she writes openly about her life, past and present, and a variety of topics, like aging in the industry. Then, in 2016, Mistress T began work on her memoir, There Is More To The Story. Readers of the blog enjoyed updates on the book, released in late 2018. It is a compelling read, with its humour and frank reflections. Mistress T narrates the audiobook. It is an emotionally gripping performance from the fetish porn star, who travels through the chapters of her life and muses on “human connection” and “the flawed families who make us who we are.”
“People are like — why would you write a book like this? It’s so vulnerable,” Mistress T says. “And I’m like, yeah, that’s the point. For people to see sex workers as human, you have to make yourself vulnerable. Let them see that you’ve gone through some stuff. You’ve suffered. You’ve prevailed. You’re just like everybody else. You have hopes and dreams and disappointments and heartbreak. I think it’s important for us to destigmatize sex work in an effort to decriminalize and make it safer. I’m sort of throwing myself under the bus to move things in the right direction.”
Mistress T is seeking dramaturgical support for Conversations With Peggy, as well as guidance on touring.
“I’m looking for someone who knows about doing amateur theatre across Canada and beyond,” she says. “It would be amazing for me to tour a one-woman show around North America. Not just at fringe festivals but different venues around the world. That would be really cool for me. That’s what I’m working towards.”
In the meantime, Mistress T is busy writing a second book, a work of fiction about a dominatrix serial killer.
“Very few people in the scheme of things know who I am,” Mistress T says. “But those who do respect what I have done. I can go to the grocery store. I can walk out in the street. No one’s taking my picture. No one’s asking me for my autograph. In a way, I got what I wanted — my childhood dream.”
There Is More To The Story is available on Amazon(Paperback/Kindle) and Audible.
Last week, Howl & Roar Records released Rebecca Reeds’ debut comedy albumBuddy. The Toronto-based comedian has performed at theWinnipeg Comedy Festival, Ottawa Fringe Festival, and JFL42. You may also know Reeds from her podcast,The Villain Was Right, which she co-hosts with Craig Fay. Buddy was recorded live at Bad Dog Theatre.
Yes, Reeds is fully aware of her accent. Where’s it from? Nowhere special. Just a “lack of education.” I want to say something about her “hillbilly” accent. In 2019, I listened to a lot of Stuart McLean in the car. The Vinyl Cafe makes the drive from Fredericton to Truro feel like almost nothing. Back to my point. A light bulb went off in my head about ten minutes into Buddy. “Rebecca Reeds sounds a lot like Stuart McLean!” Hearing Reeds talk about fishing with her dad brought me back to The Vinyl Cafe. Only, I don’t think Canada’s Storyteller ever compared fishing with guys striking out at a bar (“Lesbians all night!”).
Reeds is a hell of a storyteller. The comedian spills her secrets on being poor, working at Zellers, and finding hamburgers inside her pocket. As the youngest of four children, I share the same gripe with Reeds when it comes to hand-me-downs. Why do they always come in trash bags? “Here you go, you human landfill!”
It’s the first day of 2020. Maybe you’re hungover. Maybe you’re eating cold pizza for breakfast. I don’t know. However the new year looks right now, why not start it off with a laugh? Rebecca Reeds’ Buddy is dynamite.
The 19th Silver Wave Film Festival wrapped this weekend. I was lucky enough to catch the festival’s third showcase of New Brunswick short films on Saturday night. The Fredericton Playhouse was nearly at capacity for the event. Friends, family, and supporters of local film talent were in attendance.
Before the evening began, the filmmakers, varied in directorial experience and years involved in the industry, introduced themselves to the audience and gave thanks to the people who made their films possible.
When We Were Young Director/Writer: Annick Blizzard
Producer: Annick Blizzard, Jon Blizzard
Cast: Annick Blizzard, Ryan Griffith, Elizabeth Goodyear
In this short film from Annick Blizzard, Blizzard plays Liv, a woman who returns to the town where she grew up. Her visit home surprises people from her past. Not in a good way. The hotel clerk (Elizabeth Goodyear) is reluctant to let Liv book a room. Liv hands the clerk a big wad of cash to help change her mind. Her childhood friend Jake (Ryan Griiffith) wants nothing to do with Liv. 15 years later, the accidental death of Liv’s brother by her hand still haunts Jake. There’s nothing left to say, Jake tells Liv.
Before she tries speaking to Jake again, Liv travels to her childhood home. Memories from the past rush back to her. Liv is standing in a field with a rifle in her hands. A young man runs up to her. She turns around quickly with the rifle aimed high.
Liv finds Jake drinking alone in a bar. She tells him about a pair of keys she found in a pencil case. The keys, she says to Jake, unlock a secret container that they buried when they were kids. Liv wants Jake to dig it up with her. Jake relents and joins Liv to the location of the box.
Blizzard brings a muted intensity to the role of Liv. She is a woman with a plan. In her performance, Blizzard makes clear that Liv is not someone to be underestimated. Griffith goes all-out as Jake. He’s angry and unwilling to bury the past. Griffith’s Jake leaves nothing on the table with Liv, which might be a mistake. He is worn down by Liv’s persistence and emotional manipulation. Blizzard and Griffith make for a dynamic pairing.
Like the ending of Inception, When We Were Young leaves viewers wanting just a few seconds more to find out what happens next. Is Liv sincere in her intentions to reconnect, or is there something sinister afoot?
Unofficial Selection Director/Writer: Gordon Mihan
Producer: Lance Kenneth Blakney, Arianna Martinez
Cast: Jean-Michel Cliche, Catherine Belzile, Tania Breen, Sharisse LeBrun, Ryan Barton, Cassidy Ingersoll, Anthony Bryan, Jon Blizzard
After narrowly violating his probation, a con-artist named Trevor (Jean-Michel Cliche) turns away from crime and organizes a film festival. Well, not without some help from his sister Sophie (Catherine Belzile).
A con-artist herself, Sophie brings Trevor into her low-level film festival scam (accept entry fees but reject all the films) to keep him busy. What begins as just another job turns into something more. Trevor enthusiastically accepts all the film entries. In the meantime, Sophie is planning a bank heist.
Unofficial Selection weaves in and out of the three short films that Trevor accepted to his film festival. The first short film is about a dystopian society where the government has banned recreational swimming due to a water shortage. A former swim champion (Anthony Bryan) breaks into a pool for one more swim. The second film begins with guests at a wedding reception, recording video messages for the bride and groom. Everything goes wrong when the apocalypse rolls in and wreaks havoc on the party. And finally, the third film sees a young man (Ryan Barton) interviewing for a new job. He may seem confident on the outside, but there’s a lot happening on the inside. When the interviewers ask about his biggest weakness, the man lets it all out.
Unofficial Selection celebrates the transformative power of film. Trevor is plucked from his bubble and brought into something larger than himself. In viewing these films, the con-artist finds not only purpose, but also empathy. Trevor evolves from trying to con a pizza delivery guy to placing himself into someone else’s shoes to making something real happen.
In its story of a con-artist buying into fiction, Unofficial Selection identifies the sleight-of-hand inherent in storytelling: a story is never just a story.
In 54 North. Moncton filmmaker Mélanie Léger plays a homeless woman named Sam. One day, Sam finds a key on the ground. The key sparks something in Sam’s memory. She digs through her belongings to find a photograph of a young boy. Sam finds herself at the door of a familiar house in a nearby residential area.
The residents of the house are an older couple (Marcel Romain Theriault, Katherine Kilfoil) preparing for someone’s birthday. Sam begins quietly living in their space.
Before leaving for a birthday party, the wife tells her husband she doesn’t feel okay leaving the house, not after recent break-ins in the neighborhood. Her husband assures her that everything will be fine and that he’ll call the security company to fix their alarm system. Once the couple leaves, Sam comes out of hiding and begins searching the house for a cell phone. Coming out of the shower, she hears someone breaking into the house downstairs.
After subduing the burglar, Sam sits in the family room to make a call on the burglar’s cellphone. It is here that the film shatters everything we think we know about Sam. Sam looks on the walls of the room and sees herself in family photos.The boy from earlier in the film is her son. His grandparents are the older couple who own the house. Sam is a university graduate. When her son picks up the phone, Sam is overwhelmed by emotion. She cannot speak a word. All she can do is cry as she listens to her son’s voice again. At last, Sam reconnects with the life she once knew.
In its final moments, the film lifts Sam from a solitary outsider to an individual with history, relationships, and feelings. 54 North pushes back against the dehumanizing ideas that persist in discussions about homelessness. It reminds us that homelessness does not discriminate. Homelessness can happen to anybody, and it is not typically a choice.
Léger delivers an inspired performance as Sam, a character with no dialogue. She brings a wonderful physical fluency to the role. I was in awe of the film’s ability to deliver social commentary with minimal dialogue.
54 North is a powerful film. A must-see.
The 19th Silver Wave Film Festival ran November 7 – 10 in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
Complete list of films screened at New Brunswick Shorts III:
End of Leash Life’s a Bitch Unofficial Selection Together We Move When We Were Young After The War Velle to Want 54 North Distortion
Tranna Wintour is a Montreal-based comedian, singer, and writer. Photo credit: Jess Cohen.
“I wish October could last all year,” Tranna Wintour says from her almost vacant apartment in Montreal. Wintour and I are speaking on the phone just a few days before her big move. After nine years of living in the same apartment, Wintour is moving into a new place. “This is the month where I can wear whatever I want without wearing a giant winter jacket.”
Raised in the suburbs of Montreal, Wintour is a transgender comedian, singer, and writer. She is one half of the CBC podcast Chosen Family. On the podcast, Wintour and co-host Thomas LeBlanc discuss sexuality, pop culture, and community with guests. Guests have included comedian Margaret Cho, actor and director Amy Jo Johnson, and pop duo Tegan and Sara.
Wintour is back home from Toronto where she recorded a live episode of Chosen Family. The live recording was part of JFL42, where Wintour also participated in a panel discussion about podcasts (“The World of Podcasting”). I ask Wintour how she feels about the recognition she has garnered from listeners and the industry.
“It’s super lovely, ” Wintour says. “But it’s just. We work so hard on the podcast. We take it so seriously. Of course, it’s always nice to have your work be recognized. It’s not an expectation. For all of us, you can’t go into things with the hope of recognition or validation. That’s just a recipe for disaster. If you buy into the good, you have to buy into the bad. At the end of the day, it’s more important to stay focused on the work.”
The work can be all-consuming. That is, she explains, the risk of doing something you love.
“You pour so much into it,” says Wintour. “I feel like I’m basically working 24 hours a day. Even when I’m not specifically working on something, it’s always on my mind — this constant, endless to-do list. It’s been six years of this to-do list.”
Wintour is not shy talking about her relationship with doubt.
Doubt plants itself in Wintour’s mind when career accomplishments fail to produce the expected results. The results, she says, are often internal. “Okay, if I reach a point where I am able to achieve this and this and this, I will feel secure and be able to relax a little bit.” Those feelings of security and stability do not always follow, and that is when doubt begins to set in.
“Fundamentally, I have an unwavering belief in what I’m doing and that it will work itself out,” Wintour says. “If I didn’t, I don’t think I would be able to continue.”
Our conversation turns back to the podcast.
Wintour tells me that the podcast’s listenership has yet to reach its target. “It’s not disappointing, but we are already doing everything that we can.” Wintour is trying not to think too much about the metrics. In her personal experience, focusing on the end result removes joy from the creative process.
“I’ve noticed that I’m happy in the moment that I’m creating,” says Wintour. “I’m super happy when we are doing a great interview. I’m super happy when I’m on stage. I have found for myself that the joy is so short-lived because as soon as those moments of creation are over, I’m back into the mindset of the results.”
Moving away from that mindset is easier said than done.
“Under capitalism, we have all been trained to focus on the end result,” Wintour says. “We tie up the value and the worth of ourselves and the work in the result which is so toxic. It is so hard to deprogram that way of thinking. That’s what I’m really working on.”
Growing up, Wintour’s mother always had music playing in their home. “My mom is a music lover, but she’s not a die hard fan of any specific artist.” As a result, Wintour had no concept of “The Artist.” That all changed when she discovered Alanis Morrisette’s 1995 album Jagged Little Pill. It was the first time Wintour felt a connection to a single artist.
“That was transformational for me on so many levels,” says Wintour. “I was only eight or nine years old. It was the first example of what it would look like to live your life as an artist. In that connection to Alanis, I knew that one way or another, that was going to be me. That was what I had to do.”
Next year, Wintour will release her debut album Safe From Your Affection. The album, produced in partnership with Mark Andrew Hamilton, will be available on vinyl and digital platforms. Recording an album was something Wintour dreamed about for years.
“Somewhere along the way, I gave up on that dream.” Wintour says. “It was a dream that was always there, but then it became a dream that I thought a lot less about. I can’t believe it actually happened.”
It is a Thursday morning. October has just begun. Change is on its way, and Tranna Wintour is in its path, standing tall.
Thomas Leblanc & Tranna Wintour, hosts of CBC Podcasts’ Chosen Family. Photo by Jimmi Francoeur. Courtesy of CBC.
Finding a good podcast is hard. See, I feel like podcasts require a lot more investment than other digital media. I listen to podcasts while I’m doing mundane tasks. When I listen to a podcast, I am inviting the host(s) into my life. If I watch a YouTube video, I’m designating a specific block of time for the content creator. The experience of watching a YouTube video is a lot more compartmentalized than turning on a podcast while I’m cooking supper. That’s why I like podcasts that make me feel like I’m part of the conversation. A good podcast should create a sense of some communal experience.
Lately, I have been listening to Thomas LeBlanc & Tranna Wintour’s podcast Chosen Family.
Montreal comedians Thomas Leblanc & Tranna Wintour shine a light on the intersection of art, identity, and sexuality. Join CHOSEN FAMILY every second week for deep and spontaneous conversations featuring renowned artists and up-and-coming creators. CHOSEN FAMILY was named one of the best Canadian podcasts of 2018 by Apple Podcasts. (CBC)
Chosen Family started back in 2017, with its first season produced by Montreal’s Phi Centre. The second season of Chosen Family, now produced by CBC Podcasts, premiered on June 19. The podcast is currently on a break with a return date of September 18.
LeBlanc and Wintour interview a variety of guests on the podcast, several of whom are artists of different disciplines based in Montreal (Chosen Family is a bilingual podcast). Guests have included stand-up comic Margaret Cho, stylist Karla Welch, and writer Lauren Morelli. There are great conversations about issues relating to the LGBTQ community (media representation is a recurring topic on the podcast).
What I enjoy most about Chosen Family are the frank discussions between LeBlanc and Wintour. LeBlanc and Wintour do not shy away from talking about their insecurities, their successes and failures, and their relationships with others. In some way, these earnest, incredibly raw discussions feel comforting. Their vulnerability creates a space, if temporary, that motivates self-reflection.
And of course, it is a podcast full of laughs and good times!
I am nearly all done listening to older episodes of Chosen Family, so I am eagerly awaiting the podcast’s return next week. Join the positive energy of LeBlanc & Wintour’s Chosen Family, an excellent podcast that I cannot recommend enough.
Jackie Pirico’s debut comedy album Dream Phone released on September 4th, 2019.
The first time I saw Toronto-based comedian Jackie Pirico perform was last year on CBC Comedy’s YouTube channel. The video (‘Junk Food for your cat‘) introduced me to Pirico’s wonderfully off-beat comedic energy. Later in the year, Pirico popped up in a GameTime video about Pokemon (‘There’s Too Many Pokemon!‘). Pirico’s bewildered delivery about the fact that there’s over 800 Pokemon (Only 100 animals in the real world!) makes the video an entertaining watch.
Last week, Pirico announced on Twitter the release of her debut comedy album, Dream Phone. I was travelling that Friday to Saint John, so I added Dream Phone to my Spotify playlist. I had only ever seen Pirico’s comedy in small portions, so I was interested to hear her perform for longer than 10 minutes. Friday afternoon, I was on the road, and Pirico joined me for the ride.
After I arrived in Saint John, I tweeted out how much I enjoyed Dream Phone. The sparky comedian takes her audience (the album was recorded live) for a wild ride. Below, you’ll find my original tweet about Dream Phone. Start your weekend with a laugh, listen to Dream Phone.
“Real-life cartoon Jackie Pirico delights in debut comedy album Dream Phone. Enjoy listening to Jackie talk about boys named Chris, evil koopa receptionists, and life with an errand mate (a baby). Hilarious. Unpredictable. Smart. A must-listen!”
Taryn Byers filmed her daily life for four weeks. (Red Button/CBC Gem).
The youth-driven documentary series Red Button is back for a second season. All six episodes are streaming now on CBC Gem.
In its first season, Red Button gave homeless youth in Toronto the opportunity to share their experiences on camera. The series rejected the traditional documentary format in favour of a more intimate and personal approach to storytelling — the documentary subjects became the filmmakers. The youth used smartphones and other film equipment to document their lives and authentically capture their unique perspectives. When filming wrapped, the filmmakers sent their footage to producers and editors.
Executive Producer Rob Cohen says “the culture of self-documentation on social media” inspired Red Button’s innovative concept.
“It’s fascinating to see the shift in the last 10 years of people telling their own stories freely online,” Cohen said. “I think our films are really wonderful because they take us inside worlds that we think we have heard about, but I don’t think we have seen with the same kind of clarity or honesty before.”
The focus of season two is youth living with health conditions.
Born with Treachers Collins Syndrome, Taryn Byers lives with hearing impairment and a facial difference. The 17-year-old competitive dancer jumped at the opportunity to participate in Red Button because it was a chance to “get [her] voice out there.”
“Yeah, I have a facial difference, but no, I don’t struggle in school,” Byers said. “It’s just the way I look. It doesn’t affect me mentally.”
Since each subject decided the story they wanted to tell, the first-time filmmakers decided the duration of their shooting schedule. Byers documented her life for four weeks. Years of public speaking and developing her presentation skills helped Byers feel comfortable in front of the camera.
As part of her story, Byers filmed herself walking the runway at Light Up the Night, a charity fashion event in support of AboutFace. The fashion show featured models with facial differences.
Byers says Red Button strengthened her commitment to advocacy.
“We don’t have the same facial differences, but we go through the same struggles,” Byers said. “I’m trying to speak on their behalf too and not just mine.”
In the fall, Byers will be studying Environmental Science/Studies at Trent University.
“I find what they have done is extraordinary,” Cohen said. “It takes courage and perseverance to be part of the filmmaking process. Every filmmaker knows that. If you are a new filmmaker, it’s even more challenging. They came through. I’m happy for them.”
Would Cohen have participated in Red Button as a teenager?
“I don’t think I would have done this project actually, because 17-year-old Rob was in the closet,” Cohen said. “If someone had asked what is your story, and why are you different? That would have obviously been it. Thinking of the cultural landscape at the time, it didn’t seem as possible to tell that story in that climate. I look at Tosconni’s episode and how honest and brave he is to share his experience about being a trans youth and the challenges that he’s facing. It’s amazing to me. No, I don’t think I would have had the bravery to do it at that time.”
Cohen hopes Red Button will challenge misconceptions and prejudices “that we sometimes have against people who are different.”
Founded in 1985, AboutFace promotes and enhances mental and emotional well-being of individuals with facial differences and their families through peer and social support, information, educational and experiential programs, and public awareness.
AboutFace is the only charity in Canada offering support to individuals of every age, with any type facial difference.
Mind Fudge is back and bigger than ever — literally!
Before landing on CBC Gem last Friday, Mind Fudge premiered on Instagram back in 2017. Series creators Justine Nelson and Jon Simo quickly found an audience for their short-form comedy series about a 20-something and the way she sees the world through her overactive, very cinematic imagination. The series’ first season ran for ten episodes, each episode running only one-minute in length.
Mind Fudge’s second season is streaming now on CBC Gem.
In addition to being one of the series’ co-creators, Nelson is also the lead actor, playing the character of Justine.
Originally from Hamilton, Ontario, the 27-year-old actress studied Acting for Film and Television at Niagara College. Mind Fudge is the first series Nelson has created.
Joyful Magpies spoke with Nelson to learn more about Mind Fudge.
Let’s go back to the first season on Instagram. I think this is the first time I have seen short form comedy done in this way before. Where did the idea to create these minute-long episodes come from?
It all started when Jon and I became friends a little over three years ago. When we met, we really clicked. We had very similar tastes in art. We wanted to work together. He was a cinematographer. I was an actor. We wanted to create a short film. We decided that It was quite the ambitious short that we were trying to make. In the meantime, Jon came up with this idea of: why don’t we make something really, really small just to get something out there and test the waters? We couldn’t really get our feet with the grander concept we were trying to get off the ground. He said: why don’t we use the platforms we have and make something short-form for Instagram?
We came up with this idea of someone’s imagination because then it was limitless. We wouldn’t have any rules to play by. We could just create anything. We did three of them. They were the coffee one, the firework one, and the heart rip one. We didn’t know what we had. We hadn’t even called it Mind Fudge yet. (Mind Fudge was the only name that stuck.) We just had these three little shorts. We were having so much fun making these bite-sized stories but with high production value. It was quite the challenge.
At the time, no one was really making high production value content for Instagram. I mean people are doing it now, but we hit a pocket where it just hadn’t really been done mainstream yet. Because we were so excited by the response, we decided to keep doing it. We made another and another and another. We kind of set up ourselves for a lot of hard work, because we wanted to put one out every week. We would write one, shoot one, edit one, and put it out every single week until we had ten episodes. It kept growing and growing.
Because it was so shareable and bite-sized and people could digest it so quick, it was being watched. It really catered to people’s attention spans. We hit a convenient pocket of people’s interest. It took on a life of its own.
That’s something I was going to ask you about. I think it’s really cool how you integrated the series right into the platform, instead of telling people “Hey, we made a thing. Click this YouTube link to watch it.” That must have really helped you grow your viewership.
That’s exactly right. I think that’s why it did so well. We made it specifically for Instagram. We shot it with the size of framing in mind so that it would fit on a phone screen. We knew we had a minute maximum to tell our story. We didn’t want to put it into two videos. We wanted it to be you scroll and don’t realize that you just watched the whole thing. It’s so easy, you scroll and don’t have to click another link. We were really experimenting and learned how beneficial it is if it’s right there. You don’t have to go somewhere else.
It’s wild how people won’t click another link. They will sometimes. But if it’s right there on Instagram, it’s the most digestible way to get content out there. I think that’s why it did so well.
You mentioned how the concept is this person’s imagination, giving you endless possibilities, but you were also working within a strict time limitation. Did the time limitation cause you frustration, or was it in some ways freeing for you?
It was definitely frustrating.
I think at first, it felt freeing because it meant we didn’t have to make something very long. We were like this will be super quick, and it won’t be that hard. Little did we know. Each and every week, we wanted to do something greater and greater, and then it got harder and harder to make it a minute. By the end, we had a whole entire life flashing before my character’s eyes. We shot in over five locations. We had three days of filming for something that was going to be crammed down into a minute.
It really helped us as storytellers. What is important? What is the message we are trying to get across? What do we need to tell the story? It became very challenging, but it was a great learning process to really get down to what is the story and what is necessary. It was really hard to shave things down, but when we got down to it, it was so strong because we didn’t have any frivolous stuff in there.
What was the transition like from creating those one-minute shorts to these longer episodes in season two? Were you worried at all that some of the elements of Mind Fudge wouldn’t translate over to a longer format?
No, we were actually excited that we didn’t have to limit ourselves to the one-minute format anymore. By the end, it was getting really tricky. We knew we had to let the hyperreals breathe, and it would easily take up more time. We got to explore the story more outside of the hyperreals. Who are these other characters in Justine’s life? Who is Justine outside of her hyperreal? We were excited to start exploring the best friend character and any love interests. Then, really dive into the hyperreals. We knew had a lot more ideas and content. It was quite the seamless transition to stretch it out.
One of the things I really like about Mind Fudge is how the series pays tribute to a lot of different films and filmmakers. In season two, we see references to 500 Days of Summer, Cast Away, and Kill Bill. How did Mind Fudge become this loving tribute to film?
I think it all started because Jon and I are huge films buffs ourselves. I really liked the concept of “if my life were a movie.” It’s a line that we all tell ourselves.
We wanted to pick different genres to explore. We didn’t want to limit ourselves to just doing comedy or just doing drama. We wanted to do it all. With this plane of imagination, we got to because it’s Justine’s movie moments in her mind.
Despite all the wackiness, Mind Fudge doesn’t stray too far from its emotional core. Things get pretty real. Was it hard finding a balance between comedy and drama?
I don’t know if it was hard, but it was definitely a challenge we were happy to take on. We really wanted to tread that line. We also have another co-writer on it. Her name is Robby Hoffman. She’s talented and wonderful. She helped us weave in the storylines within the hyperreal and to stay focused on that as well. It was a joy to find those moments within the hyperreal where they would click and realize they go together. In the shorter episodes, the hyperreals serve a comedic purpose. In the longer episodes, we wanted them to be really smart and thought out and not just there for the sake of it. It was an exciting challenge to find a balance between them.
Mind Fudge really moves. It’s a very physical series. Season two features a boxing match and back in season one there’s a training montage. Do you have a background in fight choreography?
I don’t, but physical fitness is something I have always enjoyed. It’s a huge aspect of my life.
It was definitely a fast-paced set. I had very little time to learn the choreography. My co-star Katelyn McCulloch has a lot of training in movement and stunts. I was very lucky that I had her opposite me. She really helped guide me. Our stunt choreographer [Anita Nittoly] was so great. They came very prepared with the choreography to teach me. Thankfully they had time beforehand to work on it whereas I was on set with other episodes. It went really smoothly.
The queer representation in Mind Fudge is really cool.
For us, it was just a no-brainer. We decided that the character was a queer character. It wasn’t even really a conversation. It started from the beginning when we made the heart rip episode. We just made it with another woman. What I appreciate about Jon and I was it was never a big conversation about if we should make the character gay. Is this going to be a very gay show? It’s an element of it, but it’s not her hardship. We didn’t want to focus on the struggles of being gay. We wanted to present a sometimes light-hearted show where the girl happens to be gay. All the things she struggles is everything else. We wanted to make sure we did it accurately. I like to think that we did a good job of not making it the main focus but also not doing it a disservice either.
Looking at the series as a whole, I am wondering how much of the character Justine you are. How much of your personal life is in the series?
Originally we named the character Justine because the Instagram page was under my name. There were logistics that made us keep it that way. A lot of it started off based on things we knew about me. I can’t cook. I’m scared of camping. Scary movies genuinely keep me up for days. Little things like that we took and amplified. It’s my life, but a more exaggerated version. We are not identical. There are definitely things the character does that I like to think I wouldn’t do. We draw upon aspects from my life, Jon’s life, and friends of ours. I would be lying if I said there were no commonalities between Justine in real life and Justine in Mind Fudge.
What can we expect from you next?
I think more Mind Fudge is the plan. We are looking to take it and grow it out. We want to continue making more.