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Lighthouse keeper
October 2016 | Profile by Jane Ledwell

Cheryl Wagner (photo: Buzz)Oh my heart—“ begins Cheryl Wagner, with a flourish of her hands, “I was in a movie theatre waiting for a film to start, and I reached for a seatbelt.” She mimes the gesture for belting up and then for embarrassed confusion. “In a way,” she says, “we need psychological seatbelts to watch a film. You invite into your brain forever images that are possibly indelible!”

As the organizer of the Charlottetown Film Festival, Cheryl Wagner is dealing in indelible images. She says. “All cultures tell stories—I’m doing my little bit of the big dream to tell our stories to the world.”

The Festival, which Cheryl calls the “Little Festival of Big Dreams,” highlights “the gumption, tenacity, and commitment of filmmakers.” Cheryl says, “I’m very excited about the activity, against all odds, of our film storytellers, of their persistence. My little motto is ‘Moving Pictures Forward.’”

I joke that Cheryl speaks in big-screen titles. “I’m willing to say one of my strengths is word play—I should have worked in advertising,” she laughs. “I like playing with words. And puppets. And children. And dogs.”

Known internationally as a producer of television for children, creator of the Big Comfy Couch, Cheryl sums up her accomplishments in soundbites. “My career all started here in PEI in the 1970s, when Pierre Trudeau offered Local Improvement Project grants, and we talked them into a grant for a touring puppet show. We didn’t know what we were doing, but it turned out we had talent. It led to working with Jim Henson and the Muppets in Toronto and then to my own clown/puppet work.”

She says, “I always say my memoir would be called The Further Adventures of a Coward… I never intended to be a producer—I had an idea that became Big Comfy Couch, and surprisingly it got full financing…

“What I learned (as a producer) is it’s like you’re a lighthouse, turning 360 degrees, looking for problems you can shine your light on it. You’re looking for disasters in all directions,” she says. “It’s like being a mother. Every mother can be a producer!”

And, Cheryl, as a mother, says, “My kids pulled me back to PEI to live in Charlottetown.” One of her children, Harmony Wagner, is a filmmaker, too, and her feature Singing to Myself will be part of the festival.

“It’s so remarkable,” she says, “and I’m not saying this because I’m her mother.” The film was made as part of what Cheryl lovingly calls a “ridiculous challenge” for women to make feature films for just $1,000.

“I was involved, I was watching how hard it was. I took a call for Harmony during shooting and said she was out shooting on location, and the caller said, ‘Location? With $1,000, everyone else has an agoraphobic in an apartment.’

“She had $1,000 to make a film—but it’s a million dollar film. That’s its value. But you can’t sustain that…” It’s perhaps a microcosm of filmmaking on PEI today.

“What this community has pulled off is humbling,” Cheryl says. “The next generation is not just coming—they’re here.”

At this stage in her life and career, Cheryl says, “I’m not making films—I’m trying to make a film festival.” The Charlottetown Film Festival will show over 40 films from Atlantic Canada (and a partnership with Ireland), including “some feature films and a wild array of eclectic shorts.” Sponsored by the Charlottetown Film Society, the festival all takes place in City Cinema, “our little treasure box.”

Organizing the Charlottetown Film Festival, Cheryl says, “I’ve shone the light on our community. What is true about PEI is that culture pulls people here and keeps people here. It is a valuable, valuable asset.

“PEI is the only province without a media fund, and I hope that will change. We want to keep young people here and have families—not just retirees…

“We need to see ourselves mirrored back to ourselves, for a sense of pride and recognition…one film and one film festival at a time.”

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