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Training for television writing

Michele LeTourneau
Northern News Services

Yellowknife ( May 22/00) - Eight Northern aboriginal storytellers will soon have an opportunity to hone their screenwriting skills.

Cancom (Canadian Satellite Communications Inc.) has launched its Year 2000 Ross Charles Awards.

Eight writers -- either First Nations, status, non-status, Inuit or Metis -- are eligible for this year's awards to participate in a new, two-week screenwriting workshop at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta.

The award will cover the program fees, accommodation, meals, and some travel costs.

Since 1987, the award has honoured the late H. Ross Charles, Cancom's first vice-president of aboriginal relations, who was of Ojibway descent.

"Up until '95 there was an achievement award for one person," says Cancom's Patricia Dumas.

"But in discussions with our partners in the aboriginal broadcasting environment, what became absolutely evident was that they needed professionals of all kinds."

The Ross Charles Award has been evolving since then -- into a professional internship and training opportunity.

"From one year to another, we'd ask the winners what they thought of the course, what it brought to them, how it could be improved. And the reason, finally, why we decided to have a workshop format was due to a comment by Stan Ruben of Inuvik. That year they went to New York, Banff, Ottawa, Montreal, and he said, 'I really would have liked to tire my brain instead of my feet.'"

Cancom's involvement in Northern broadcasting dates back to 1980, when the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunication Commission licensed Cancom to deliver a range of southern programming to Northern and remote communities.

Cancom was then required to provide development assistance to Northern aboriginal broadcasters.

The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network's chief operating officer, Abraham Tagalik, has described the relationship between aboriginal broadcasters and Cancom as an ideal marriage.

"The Indian and Inuit come from a very traditional background and communication has always been very important to them," he has said in a press release.

New program

In 1999, Cancom formed a partnership with the internationally-recognized Banff Centre for the Arts.

The Banff program is a joint-effort between Cancom, which is contribution 50,000; the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, $10,000; and APTN and Banff Centre for the Arts, contributing in-kind support.

The program specifically targets young aboriginal professionals from Northern Canada and other remote Canadian communities.

This year's program has been streamlined from experiences culled from the first two-week course held in 1999, when participants crammed "a two-year certificate into two weeks," says Richard Agecoutay of the Banff Centre's Aboriginal Arts program.

"It was too much too fast," he says.

The first course took participants from the initial stages of an idea to the final taping. The program now focuses on writing scripts because storytelling and writing form the bedrock from which comes television programming, says Agecoutay.

"No content, no program," he adds.

The course will explore the exigencies of television writing and the methods of developing, shaping, writing and producing stories for television.

Writer Jordan Wheeler, director Gil Cardinal and writer/director Carol Geddes -- all award-winning aboriginal artists -- will be teaching the course.

The Banff Centre boasts a world-class television studio, including the availability of three-camera shoots, various editing suites and complete audio backup.

APTN needs programming

"We really need more drama and more comedy. Those are definitely two areas where we need more programming," says Jennifer David, director of communications for APTN.

"Documentaries are easier to do. Dramas are more difficult to do...for anybody. And I think it's not an area that aboriginal producers have gotten into yet. Often, that has to do with money. Dramas are the most expensive thing to produce."

David says that's one of the reasons APTN supports the Ross Charles Award.

"It's the very first step you make. There may be lots of aboriginal people with great ideas and they may even have written a script, but they have no idea what to do with it."

APTN's involvement in the program includes covering the cost to send an APTN programmer and an independent producer to the Banff Centre.

"To tell them (the participants) all about APTN, and also for the producer to assist these writers -- teaching them how to take their projects to the next step. At the end of the two weeks, the best script that was worked on will be given $5,000 in development money.

"APTN does offer development money to producers who send in a letter to us saying, 'I have this idea for a show, I just need a little bit of money.' It gets deducted from the actual production once it's done. It helps them go the next stage," says David.

Development can mean further research, finding actors, scouting locations, or developing a budget.

First draft

Applicants must have a first draft of a complete script for a half-hour or one-hour television drama or comedy in order to apply for the award.

Successful applicants will be notified by Aug. 15. The workshop will take place between Sept. 10-23. Applications and guidelines are available through the Office of the Registrar at the Banff Centre for the Arts. Applications must be received by Friday, July 14, 4 p.m. mountain time.

During the first week participants will work with four experienced writers, and will have time in the afternoons for personal writing and one-on-one consultations. Evenings will be devoted to watching and discussing films.

A guest director will also work with the participants.

For week two, aboriginal actors will be thrown into the mix.

The actors will read selected scenes so that the writers have the opportunity to see their scripts evolve from thought to reality.

Additional information sessions will provide details on how development and production funds can be accessed.