Student Film Takes Centre Stage at the Charlies

Student filmmakers from across Waterloo Region came together for the 48th annual Charlie Awards Film Festival, hosted at the Original Princess Cinema in Waterloo, on Thursday, April 25. The event celebrates films made by students in the public, coterminous and private schools in Waterloo Region, and offers the chance for students to hear feedback about their work directly from industry professionals.

Students and judges take in a student film at the Original Princess Cinema during the Charlies.

Started in April of 1972, the Charlie Awards Film Festival, also known as the Charlies, was the brain-child of two local high-school teachers: Wayne McNanny from Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate & Vocational School and Jim Bright from Grand River Collegiate Institute. In the nearly half a century since, the event has gone on to become Canada’s oldest running student film festival.

Marie Snyder, a teacher at KCI, has helped or headed the festival for the past five years, driven by a clear passion for student film. “It’s such a fun day,” said Snyder of the awards, which she has been attending since she started teaching. When she began leading the festival, Snyder’s first move was to create a website to publicize the event, but more importantly, an archive to showcase the past winners and their films. Tracking down the winners from the early years presented a challenge, considering early films were produced on 8mm film, VHS and other early videotapes.

Since then, the methods students use to create their films have advanced rapidly. No longer do they hand-splice sections of film together, but rather they use digital editing software. Instead of grainy 8mm film, students shoot their movies in high-definition. “The quality of films here is always astounding,” said Snyder. “It’s amazing what technology is in the hands of a 14-year-old.”

The Charlies begin with the screening portion; each school is invited to submit two to three films to be screened and receive feedback from the panel of judges. Of these films, ten are selected to be screened in the evening portion, which is open to the public. Of those ten, the top three are selected by judges and receive a cash prize, generously donated by Memory Tree, a local video production and digital marketing agency.

The main entrance to the Original Princess Cinema in Uptown Waterloo.

The Original Princess Cinema plays an integral role in the ongoing success of the Charlies. As Snyder explained, they have been the venue for the festival since 1988, and importantly, offers the location free of cost. “I don’t know that we could afford it otherwise,” said Snyder. As a student, the opportunity to view your film in an authentic cinema setting is important, she explained. It acts as a motivating factor for up and coming filmmakers who get the chance to screen their work in the ideal environment.

John Tutt, co-owner of the Princess Cinemas, served as a judge at the early Charlies and is delighted to be able to continue supporting the event. He sees the passion that the event inspires in students and the opportunity it provides for them to learn from their peers. “The students just totally dig it,” Tutt said. “It gives high school kids confidence in what they can do.”

Supporting student film and the Charlies is important to Tutt and it’s why they continue to offer the space at the Original Princess Cinema to the festival. “We don’t charge anything for the theatre,” he said, adding that he enjoys welcoming the enthusiastic future filmmakers, editors and writers to the community cinema. It also introduces young people to their local arthouse cinema, something which can often seem intimidating. “It’s a way to start them on that journey of discovering worldly films, different voices, things like that. They can see that it’s just a normal movie theatre, but we happen to play the good stuff,” Tutt said with a laugh.

Parker Merlihan, a grade 11 student at Eastwood Collegiate Institute, was thrilled to be able to hear feedback from professionals and his peers simultaneously. “It’s a really cool experience to get to show your film to a bunch of professionals as well as a bunch of people from around the school board,” he said. “I learned a lot about editing and characters.”

He wasn’t alone, as Jillian Jeung, another grade 11 student from ECI explained the chance to see other students’ work gave her a wealth of new ideas for her next film. “Every time you watch a film, usually there’s something you can learn from it,” Jeung said. “It reinforces things that you may forget about.” Her experience left her feeling more confident in her abilities and only reinforced her goal of pursuing her post-secondary education in animation or film.

To Snyder, these are exactly the kind of results that keep her motivated and that have kept the Charlies going for 48 years. After nearly half a century, the event continues to celebrate and inspire student filmmakers in Waterloo Region, thanks to the dedication of teachers like Snyder and the unwavering support of the community.