Crowdsourcing Cape Breton stories

Ashley McKenzie and Nelson MacDonald need help finishing their latest movie about New Waterford. Their first two shorts, “Rhonda’s Party” (2010) and “When You Sleep” (2012), achieved exceptional success, screening to widespread praise at the Toronto International Film Festival and Cannes, as well as at festivals in Montreal, Stockholm, Whistler, and St. John’s. Along the way, they picked up half a dozen industry awards, including the top prize in CBC’s Short Film Faceoff.

AshleyDespite these early triumphs, the pair have had to turn to crowdsourcing to raise the last few dollars needed to finish post-production on their latest film, “Stray,” the story of a lonely New Waterford girl who tries to befriend a homeless cat.

They wouldn’t need this money if they had taken the expedient route of filming in Halifax. But director Ashley and producer Nelson are committed to telling Cape Breton stories in an authentic way. By paying the extra transportation and crew costs to film here, they were able to set scenes in magnificent post-industrial settings that just aren’t available anywhere else. (Lord knows how Nelson wheedled permission to shoot in some of these locations.)

We’re always bemoning the exodus of talented young people from Nova Scotia. Ashley and Nelson could easily flourish in a major film center, but they choose instead to stay here and tell our stories. We’ve been friends for years, and I can’t think of any two people who work harder, or bring greater intelligence and dedication to their craft.

Isn’t that something we should support?

With just 48 hours to go, their Indiegogo crowd-sourcing campaign is about $1,600 shy of the goal needed to finish “Stray.” You can contribute here.

Rhonda’s Party: Best in show


(l to r) Producer Nelson MacDonald, Director Ashley McKenzie, and screenwriter Christine Comeau celebrate the underdog victory of their short film RHONDA’S PARTY in CBC’-TV’s Short Film Faceoff at a gathering of friends, crew, and admirers in Darrel’s Sport Bar, Halifax, Saturday night, as the TV monitor shows McKenzie being interviewed on the program.

The room exploded in cheers and whoops when CBC host Steve Patterson announced that McKenzie and MacDonald, both of New Waterford, had beaten out films from Vancouver and Montreal in viewer voting. The victory brings the young filmmakers $40,000 cash and $10,000 in equipment and supplies toward their next film, which is set in New Waterford.

Two N-Dub* filmmakers need your help today

Director Ashey McKenzie confers with cast member

A few years ago, two Dal SMU students from New Waterford showed up at one of my movies and offered to help. Within a few weeks, they were organizing film selections for the following season, and doing a better job of it than I ever had. In their spare time, Ashley McKenzie and Nelson MacDonald organized the Coastal Arts Initiative which borrowed a basement room in former convent, transformed it into a cool exhibition space, and put on a series of innovative shows by a bunch of young New Waterford artists.

You read that right. Young. New Waterford. Artists. A bunch of them. In the space of a year, they showed more leadership than the two generations that preceded them.

Last Fall, Ashley and Nelson released the short film Rhonda’s Party, featuring the wonderful Glace Bay actor Marguerite McNeil (no relation). It recounts an unexpected and touching incident in the lives of two nursing home residents. The film debuted at the Atlantic Film Festival, won Best Canadian Short at the Montreal-based Young Cuts Festival, and went on to feature at the Worldwide Short Film Festival in Toronto, the St. John’s Women’s International Film Festival, Vancouver’s Women in Film Festival, and of course, the Cape Breton Island Film Series.

Glace Bay's Marguerite McNeil stars in Rhonda's Party

Rhonda’s Party is now one of three finalists in CBC’s Short Film Faceoff. If it wins, director Ashley and producer Nelson will get $50,000 in cash and equipment toward their next movie. They already have a script. It’s called Stray, and it’s set in… New Waterford!

Voting between now at 9 p.m. tonight Atlantic time will determine the winner, and your votes could put Nelson and Ashley over the top. You can call in your vote to 1-877-876-3636 or vote vote directly at the CBC Short Film Faceoff website. Each phone and each household is allowed five votes, but it’s not clear the scrutineers have any way of counting whether you vote too often.

These are two fantastic young Nova Scotians. Please take a few minutes to give them a few richly deserved votes.

* What’s N-Dub, you ask? Why, New Waterford, of course, as in N-double u. I’m sure you knew that.

Ashley’s party

Ashley on Short Film Faceoff

New Waterford filmmaker Ashley McKenzie (erroneously identified by the CBC as a Halifax filmmaker) looking pensive Wednesday night at a taping of CBC-TV’s Short Film Faceoff with host Steve Patterson (center). The show’s semi-final episode pitted McKenzie’s award-winning Rhonda’s Party against two other good shorts, Down to the Wood by Newfoundlander Kelly Davis, and In Between by Montrealer-turned-Torontonian Nadine Valcin. The episode taped last night will air June 25, after which Internet voting will determine an over-all winner of $50,000 in cash and equipment rentals toward their next production.

New Waterford filmmakers cop Best Canadian Film – updated


And in Cape Breton news…

New Waterford filmmakers Nelson MacDonald (producer) and Ashley McKenzie (director) took top honors – Best Canadian Film – at the YoungCuts Film Festival in Montreal last weekend for their short film Rhonda’s Party, the story of a birthday party for a nursing home resident played by the ineffable Marguerite McNeil of Glace Bay. Rhonda’s Party has also played to enthusiastic audiences at the Montreal Film Festival and the Atlantic Film Festival, where it earned a rave review from The Coast. It plays the International Women’s Festival in St. John’s next month, and the greatest little film series of them all, in Sydney, November 18.

Nelson and Ashley are the moving forces behind New Waterford’s Coastal Arts Initiative. They also provide invaluable film selection advice and legwork for the Cape Breton Island Film Series. They are wonderful, and their success fills us with pride.

Update: Jesse Harley, not a Cape Bretoner but a man who can trace his lineage directly to Gen. John. Cabot Trail, won best picture and best cinematographer in the Five Minute Film category at the Atlantic Film Festival for his film Like Father. Hmmm. Wonder who that could be about? Congrats all around.



Thursday night, the Cape Breton Island Film Series screened its 200th film, a milestone we had no thought of reaching when we began the series in January, 2003, with Bowling for Columbine. You can download a pdf list of all the films we’ve shown here, and you won’t find many turkeys. The list makes a great aidemémoire at the video store.

Ten films I particularly liked were:

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
City of God
House of Sand
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Lost in Translation
Man on Wire
Rabbit Proof Fence
Shut Up and Sing
Thank You for Smoking

The Lives of Others

Hardly anyone liked:

Russian Arc

The Empire company’s head office and their fantastic staff in Sydney have been wonderful to work with. Many volunteers pitched in over the years, including Ron Keough, Terry and Lynda Casey, Sadie Richards, Ashley McKenzie, Nelson MacDonald, and many, many others. The ineffable Prof. Noreen Golfman of the MUN Cinema Series in St. John’s showed me how to do it, and held my hand through the first few months. Most rewarding of all, Cape Breton’s film-goers have been incredibly loyal and appreciative. Deep thanks all around.

Top photo: the late Ulrich Muehe in The Lives of Others; Bottom: Anamaria Marinca in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days.