January 2017 | Profile by Jane Ledwell
"I want my work to be a love letter to the East Coast, the people who live here,” says filmmaker Jenna MacMillan. She’s hoping that she won’t have to write that letter from Toronto, where she works six months a year.
Increasingly accomplished and recognized as a documentary filmmaker, Jenna’s heart is also divided between telling true stories and fictional ones. She’s currently working on a documentary for Health PEI about methadone use for pregnant women, telling a kind of mental health story she cares about deeply: “It’s a documentary that tells the stories of the underdog, people we need to hear, people who don’t have a voice.”
Jenna says both her parents are social workers: “I knew I’d either be a social worker or psychologist—or a filmmaker.
“Stories help,” she says. “You can touch people, and change lives.”
Fictional stories take longer to tell in film, Jenna explains, because of the challenges of financing, not to mention production and distribution. Several short fiction films Jenna has worked on are “living lives of their own”—including Desperately Seeking Signal, “an experiment, shot for a day with zero dollars,” recently selected for the 21 Islands Film Festival in New York, and Not My Brother, “the story of a family torn apart because of undiagnosed mental illness” with screenings and awards regionally and in Montreal and Australia.
A project in development would blend drama and documentary, based on songs from musician Kinley Dowling’s album Letters Never Sent. “There’s been so much feedback from women from Kinley’s song ‘Microphone,’” Jenna says, of a song about sexual assault. “We’re hoping to make a series of documentaries—that would coincide with music videos—about women talking about something they are battling, not necessarily sexual assault or sexual abuse but something in their career, or misogyny…using direct-to-camera telling.”
Before dividing her heart between fiction and documentary, Jenna’s heart was first divided between acting and filmmaking. “I applied to the National Theatre School and was wait-listed, but I went to Montreal anyway and started to study psychology. But I signed up for a film studies class, and that was the only class I ended up going to. My whole (early) life, I was going to be an actor. This split me apart!”
Jenna was encouraged by the emerging PEI film sector of the early 2000s. “I was an actor, but because of filmmakers on PEI, I went off full of piss and vinegar to learn to tell our own stories, to come back and be part of it. And I came back, and it had ended,” she says, due to the cancellation of a provincial media incentive in 2009.
She still looked for a way home. “I was in the Toronto film industry… I was working on a show that wasn’t challenging me,” Jenna recalls. “The content wasn’t something I wanted to put out into the universe. I was approached about Coastal Stories—did I want to be involved in 10 documentaries for a low budget?” Her answer was an enthusiastic yes.
“I left to come back to PEI and started a company, and my colleagues thought that was a crazy thing to do,” she recalls. “In Toronto, the cost of living is so high and filming is so expensive… On that trajectory, it was going to be so long before I could tell my own stories.”
With urgency, Jenna says, “My stories need to be told now.”
The challenge on PEI, she says, is “to get beyond telling stories for free. You hit the ceiling. I split my time, six months in Charlottetown and six months in Toronto, keeping my community active in both places.”
It sounds exhausting, but of those who stay on the Island year-round, Jenna says, “You have to do it all yourself and for free, and that’s hard.” Jenna is part of the media community urgently lobbying for a sustainable provincial media incentive fund.
Dividing her heart and art between Toronto and PEI, between documentary and fiction, between her stories and others’ stories, is a fine balance for Jenna MacMillan. “I want to tell real stories,” Jenna says. “I’m really curious how I can forge my own path.”