“The first duty of love is to listen” – Paul Tillich

DrMU8qRXQAAmqHL.jpg largeThe following are the introductory remarks I gave at the second night of the 2018 Core Collaborative Learning Canadian Homelessness Film Festival, a series of films focusing on homelessness. The majority of the films presented were shorts made either by those who have lived experience of homelessness, or those who work with organizations that work towards alleviating it.

This year the CCL festival was done in conjunction with the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness‘ annual conference, which was held in my hometown of Hamilton, Ontario. The film festival portion of the event was held over two nights and showcased 20+ short films from across Canada. I served as a film mentor to one of the festival’s first-time filmmakers, as well as was part of a post-screening panel.



Good evening. My name is Shane Pennells. I’m a filmmaker here in Hamilton, and I do a lot of work with at-risk and marginalized youth throughout the city. Cole Gately has graciously given me an opportunity to share some of my thoughts with you. My first thought is that it has been an absolute honour to be working with Core Collaborative Learning bringing tonight’s films to you.

I’ve been serving as a mentor to one of our first-time filmmakers tonight and it gave me a moment to reflect on the power that film and the Arts have as a tool for social justice.

I think it’s safe to say that we all like watching movies. If I asked “what’s your favourite film” I’d probably get as many different answers as there are people here tonight. My fellow filmmaker and dear friend Terry Odette and I discussed that very question.

His favorite film is the Jimmy Stewart classic “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Good choice. An even better choice, maybe even the best choice, is my favourite, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. However, when Terry heard my choice, he just shook is head and said, “You are such a child of the 1980’s.” Everyone has a favourite movie and because of that, it’s obvious that film is an immensely powerful way to reach people.

As filmmaker I have a public voice that not everyone does. For me, that means I have a certain responsibility to use that voice to help raise awareness of issues and people that might otherwise escape our attention.

The philosopher Paul Tillich once wrote that “the first duty of love is to listen”. That is what tonight is all about: listening. Tonight we’ve flipped the script, as it were. Usually stories about homelessness have to be brought to the public’s attention via a newspaper article or TV segment.

I can tell you from working in media for many years that it is often very difficult to engage the public on topics like homelessness, but here that’s not the case. That’s what makes tonight so unique: you’re already here, ready to be engaged, ready to listen. Ready, I hope, to ask “what can I do to help?”

The films being presented tonight are, by and large, films on homelessness *by* the people who’ve lived it. The films are raw and unfiltered. They are insightful. They are heartwarming. They, at times, will be uncomfortable. However, the voices heard tonight can not and should not be ignored.

The films aren’t just about exposing the hard truths of homelessness, but they are also about starting discussions on how to end it. Homelessness doesn’t mean you’re just without a stable place to stay; it can involve many other issues, such as mental health challenges, addictions, the loss of self-identity and so much more. And there is no one singular root cause of it either.

Because of this there is no one singular answer, no panacea, no silver bullet that will just make the spectre of homelessness vanish, and because of that honest discussions need to be had and new ideas and new solutions have to be found. One idea I can offer from working with at-risk youth for many years is that it is often as much about the restoration of self-worth and dignity as it is about the ending of any financial barrier.

If we take away someone’s dignity, we have to give some of our own away in the process. We can not tear someone down without tearing a part of ourselves down at the same time. It’s natural law. However, to build someone up can sometimes take nothing more than a kind word, a listening ear, and a helping hand.

That is why those of us who have the ability to help have a certain responsibility to help those who are vulnerable and marginalized, because of we don’t… who will?

The first duty of love is to listen. The duties after that? Well, I’d listen to your heart and go from there. Thank you and enjoy the evening.


“There is always a philosophy for lack of courage.” – Albert Camus

“I shouldn’t have to feel like an immigrant in my own country.”

I said that during a dinner with some friends a few weeks ago. Shortly after that I became the target of a hate crime.

We were discussing how we can reach out to the Aboriginal population of my hometown of Hamilton, Ontario. Hamilton has a Aboriginal population of roughly 17,000, bolstered by the Six Nations Reserve, which is about 20 minutes away. Things have been tense in the Hamilton area for Aboriginals ever since they occupied a housing development in nearby Caledonia, claiming it was on land given to them in a treaty signed in 1784. After the occupation and its fallout, I’ve noticed a definite increase in anti-Aboriginal sentiment in Hamilton. Those sentiments flared up again when Idle No More was at it’s height last year.

The dinnertime discussion touched on that Aboriginals in Hamilton face an uphill battle in truly showing what they have to offer. Aboriginal education rates are far below the levels of their non-Aboriginal counterparts in both secondary and post-secondary graduation levels, and Aboriginals are disproportionally over-represented in Canada’s criminal justice system compared to their non-Aboriginal counterparts.

The dinner discussion led to brainstorming ways that we can help Aboriginals, especially young men, rise above the social disparity facing them. We talked about the need for respect, tolerance and forgiveness. We talked about how education was the single biggest factor in determining the potential one’s life has. Unfortunately, all that anger towards Aboriginals came right back to the forefront as we were leaving the restaurant.

A man followed us out and singled me out, convinced that I was one of the Aboriginals who occupied and damaged his home during the Caledonia blockade. I told him that he was mistaken and that I purposely avoided Caledonia because I didn’t agree with what was going on there and didn’t want to be associated with it. My denials only served to further enrage him and he took out that rage by punching me several times, including one hit that broke my nose.

After being hit several times, two police officers on a routine patrol of the area stepped in and arrested him. When I was done giving my statement to the officers, one of them said to me “it’s not that often that we have an Aboriginal file charges. Most of them they seem to want to avoid having anything to do with us”.

In the weeks since that incident, I’ve reflected on what it means to me to be Aboriginal, especially in light of such overt racism. It’s one thing to hear someone talk about an something like racism or a hate crime. It’s a completely different thing to go through that yourself. I’ve read about hate crimes, the victim’s statements, the newspaper commentaries about how our society should be better than this. It’s suddenly all taken on new meaning for me.

As I replay in my head what happened to me, how the incident unfolded, one thing becomes crystal clear: a feeling of being helpless. It’s not that I couldn’t have fought back. I know how to fight. I know how to throw a punch, block an opponent’s punch, look for an opening in their defenses to exploit. No, rather that feeling of helplessness came from the realization that in this type of situation, I couldn’t fight back without quickly being viewed by some witnesses as the troublemaker.

The hardest thing to do when someone is taunting me, trying to get me into a fight, is to stay calm and not go for it. I’ll be honest with you, I have a temper. It can be very difficult to turn the other cheek knowing full well that when I do, the person trying to goad me into a fight will just redouble their attack because they see I’m not fighting back. With the assault, if I fought back just as hard as my attacker fought me, it would be very easy for him to justify to the crowds that every negative thing he believed about Aboriginals was absolutely true.

I wanted to fight back. I wanted to hit him as hard as he was hitting me, but what good would that have accomplished? Most likely I would have been charged with assault, same as he was, and any victory, moral or otherwise, that I could have achieved as an Aboriginal would have been gone. I couldn’t fight back during the assault. It’s almost humiliating on a personal level to stand there and take my attacker’s punches when I know how to fight back. Yet, I took them, knowing full-well that I didn’t want to give him (or any onlooker) any justification for his hateful beliefs. The same goes for times when I’ve been out and people have made racially charged comments towards me. Comments like “I’ve never seen a sober Indian before”, or “What are you doing off your reserve?”, or “Waiting for another government handout?” do get under my skin, even if I seem to not have let them register with me.

The racial comments do get to me. I can’t lie to myself and say they don’t. There have been nights, after someone has said something or done something particularly vicious, that all I can do to get out that anger is punch a couch pillow until my arms feel like lead. There have been nights when I’ve screamed into a pillow until my lungs hurt because that is the only way to get this built-up anger out of me in a way that doesn’t cause more problems. I could have made a snide remark back to the people making loaded comments towards me. I could have pushed back when someone purposely pushes me aside just because of my racial heritage, but what good would that do? Nothing worth doing.

I’m not going to let being assaulted get me down. I have too many other things to work and focus on than being defined by someone else’s anger. As I’ve said before, if we truly desire justice, change, and healing, it can only come when we end our desire to see the other person hurt. I honestly do forgive my attacker for his outburst of anger towards me. He was wronged and mistook me for the person who wronged him. I would imagine hearing someone you believe blockaded, occupied and damaged your home talking about fairness, justice and respect towards others would seem like an extremely hypocritical act.

I don’t harbor any ill-will towards my attacker. I’d rather forgive and move on and hope that he finds a better way to deal with emotions and sentiments he obviously hasn’t dealt with. There’s nothing to be gained by holding on to anger or letting that anger turn into prejudice.

In the weeks since the attack, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the evening’s events. I think about the conversations I had over dinner about wanting to find a better way to help Aboriginals live up to their potential. Unfortunately, I can see all too clearly that the road to achieving a better world for Canadian Aboriginals is one that is going to be littered with more incidents like what happened to me, and done by both sides.

I do dream of a day when I no longer feel the need to say “I shouldn’t have to feel like an immigrant in my own country”. I can’t accomplish that dream on my own and I am well aware that for all the positive steps taken towards eliminating prejudice and intolerance, there will always be those who, when confronted with the choice of self-education or racism, will choose racism because it’s the easy road.

I don’t know if my attacker is racist or just someone who reached their breaking point after having to go through a situation where there were many mistakes made by all sides involved. I’d prefer to believe that he just reached a breaking point and made a bad decision. I’d like to believe that in the weeks since that night he too has spent time contemplating a better way. I could be completely wrong but I want to believe in the best in people.

After all, you can’t truly hate someone you believe in; if they do let you down, you hope that one day they can do better.

I hope that better day comes soon.

“There’s no business like show business!” – Ethel Merman

I recently had the privilege of having a short film I directed shown at the Hamilton Film Festival. The film, Mrs. Neverlate & Mr. Betterlate, follows the story of a first date gone wrong. Although it was shot in 2011, this was the premiere showing. The night after the premiere it was shown again as part of a charity screening. Stephen Hayes, the director of Lucky 7 (a past winner of the festival’s “Audience Choice” award), was recently badly injured and Lucky 7 was shown as a fundraiser for him. Hayes personally chose two shorts to be shown in front of his film and it was a big honor to have my film chosen by him as one of those two, especially with me being a first-timer when it comes to film festivals.

While this was my first short film, I’ve worked on and off in film and TV production since 1998. I can’t think of a moment in those 15 years that I was more nervous than when the first title card for Neverlate came up on the screen. I’ve seen my work (and myself) on TV before but that’s always been as part of someone else’s production. To see Neverlate shown in public was nerve-wracking for me because as the film’s director I have a lot riding on the audience reaction to the film.

When Neverlate was playing I was paying attention to the audience. I was hoping they would respond to the beats of the film in the different ways I had hoped they would, that they would get drawn into the film, laugh at the right places and have a smile on their face when the credits began. I had a myriad of thoughts running through my head when the film first started up: will they like it? Will they hate it? Will they find it enjoyable? If they like it, do they actually like it or they just being polite? Is their honest opinion something more along the lines of “that was so bad I think it gave me cancer”? When the applause began I finally started to relax. I said to my wife, Michelle, “I think they liked it”. She smiled and replied “Told you”.

When Neverlate was shown in front of Lucky 7 the anxiety started up again. Showing it as one of several shorts is one thing but to be shown in front of an audience choice winner was something different. Stephen Hayes saying “I personally selected the shorts” gives the audience an expectation of certain level of quality. When the lights dimmed and Neverlate started I quietly grabbed the sides of my chair and held on tight. When the film was done, and everyone applauded, I looked around. I said quietly to myself “No one seems to have randomly died…” and started smiling. “Maybe I do have some idea of what I’m doing after all…”

Even though I’ve worked on film and TV projects before, this was fundamentally different. With previous projects I wasn’t part of the audience when whatever I worked on was aired. When I worked on a show or film, I finished my part and was on my way. This is very apparent to me when I think about my time working on weekly TV programs. I never bothered “admiring” what I had done because I was all too aware that next week’s show, with all its tight production deadlines, was staring me in the face. With the short film, those deadlines aren’t there and I’m actually in the audience getting instaneous feedback on whether or not I hit the marks I set out to.

I’m not someone who likes to see something I’ve done. I never have been. I don’t mind other people viewing or enjoying something that I’ve had a hand in making but my own personal preference is to leave the room when something I’ve done is presented. For example, I’ve done TV interviews and podcasts and never listened to the final version. During a networking event for the film festival I was surprised to find out how common this attitude is among filmmakers, including actors. One actor I spoke to said he loved to perform but always closes his eyes when his character was onscreen.

In the week I’ve to decompress from the rush of the film festival, from having my first short film shown, to all the people I met, to the the fact that being at the theatre night after night was far more tiring than I had anticipated, many thoughts have crossed my mind. I know the reason I was so anxious about the film being shown is a fear of rejection. A film, even a short one, is something deeply person. I’ve heard premiering a film being compared to raising a child and having to send them into the world on their own for the first time: you’ve tried to do things the best you can, done what you can to achieve a certain level of quality, but once those lights dim and the projector starts it hits you that all bets are suddenly and irrevocably off.

During the festival’s social networking times I got into several discussions about filmmaking and they always ended up along the same lines: even if you’ve been doing it a long time, films are very hard to make. Even if you’re focusing on one single aspect of production, be it producing, directing, screenwriting, acting, cinematography, editing, you name it, it is very challenging to get everything just so. When Neverlate was filming, my cameraman said to me “there’s only so much energy in every project. I’ve been on sets that have great ideas but no direction and they just fall apart. But I’ve also been on sets with crappy ideas but they made it through because even though it was crap there was a singular idea of what the end product should be”.

I can attest first hand to how true that statement is. Directing a short film for the first time showed me first hand how difficult being a film director can be. It was very challenging because the main part of directing is, to me, keeping everyone involved, both in front of the camera and behind it, and keeping the project within an often very specific emotional area. If you stray too far in either direction the tone of the film risks suddenly becoming either too dramatic or too comedic, and that quick shift in tone can easy throw the audience off. If you lose the audience, even for a moment, it can be disastrous. With the rise of short videos on Youtube and the success of Vine, audience attention spans are shorter than ever. It’s now an uphill battle to keep the audience involved in the story from beginning to end.

It can be exhausting bringing an idea to fruition, navigating all the steps from initial concept, to scriptwriting and casting the roles, to getting locations and equipment, to actually filming, to editing and putting all the final touches on it. And that doesn’t even touch on everything that can go wrong during any one of those points in filmmaking. I’ve found that the hardest part of filmmaking is actually getting everyone together at the same time, especially when the budget is low or non-existant. I’ve worked on projects that have been delayed at the last minute, sometimes for months, because someone suddenly was unavailable. It’s frustrating but that’s part of the nature of filmmaking.

I was asked by a gentleman at the festival “you know how hard it can be to make a movie… why do it?” I replied that the hours can be long (Neverlate was shot in two 16 hour long days), unexpected things happen all through production (we had one of our actors bow out three days before shooting and replacing him wasn’t easy because we were a unionized shoot), but that moment when you see something that started out as just an idea in your head but is now projected in full color on a big screen… well, that is a feeling that is very hard to beat.

Neverlate was described as “an homage to silent films” by Stephen Hayes during an audience discussion after the Lucky 7 screening. I guess that’s as good of a way as any to describe it. While there is dialogue, it’s only in the form of narration done by Mrs. Neverlate and Mr. Betterlate, relying more on music and imagery to inform of you what’s going on. While Neverlate isn’t the type of project I’m usually drawn to, I’m very happy with the outcome. I usually am more drawn to a story with a more “philosophical” bent (perhaps that’s a side effect of studying Philosopy in university) but sometimes a story just strikes you in a certain way. Any filmmaker reading this should know what I’m talking about.

Now that the film festival is over and Neverlate had a good reaction, what now? Do I put something else out there? If so, what should it be? Neverlate was based on a poem by a local writer and actor. If I do something new, chances are it will be based on my own original idea, which means it will be that much more personal, and therefore that much more nerve-wracking when (if?) it has its first public showing.

Maybe I should see if the makers of Pepto-Bismol are interested in a product placement in my next film…


*Authors’ note: A very big shout-out and thank you to the organizer of the Hamilton Film Festival, Nathan Fleet! Cheers, Nathan!