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Actress Tonya Lee Williams seeking successor for ReelWorld Festival

After 15 years at the helm of the ReelWorld Film Festival, Tonya Lee Williams is stepping aside for a younger person with fresh ideas to advance the annual winter showcase.

In the last four months, she has been interviewing candidates to find her successor.

“I will always be part of the festival and I will attend,” said Williams on the eve of this year’s event, which runs from March 2-8 in the Greater Toronto Area. “But it’s exhausting as I get older. The new executive director will make all the decisions relating to the festival, including the hiring of staff.”

Williams, 56, started the festival to showcase Canada’s diversity and provide a platform for visible minorities to display their artistic talent and in the process motivate audiences through film.

“I didn’t launch this festival for me to run or to be that part of it,” she said. “I thought it was going to be more philanthropic. I live in Los Angeles, my life is in Los Angeles and I work there. I wanted to create an initiative where I could donate some money and kick this off. We hired an executive director that first year and some staff and I kind of took a back seat.”

In the inaugural year, the festival didn’t go as smoothly as she would have wanted. To compound matters further, it went over budget.

“I lost money and there is nothing more motivating than when that happens,” she said. “I had to take full control the second year. We had to at least break even or try to make some money.

With the evolution of technology in the film industry, Williams is looking for someone to lead the charge in the new era.

“The whole industry is changing, so I am seeking someone who is tapped into the digital age,” she said. “I know that’s very important, but I don’t know how to drive that forward.”

While embracing business, Williams said she would prefer to produce movies.

“Running a film festival is no different than running a restaurant or another business for that matter,” she said. “I need to get back into a creative space. I am at that stage in my life where I want to do things that I love. I started in the entertainment business when I was 16 and I don’t have to prove anything to anybody. I want to do things that are enjoyable and trigger my creative juices. I don’t care if that’s a play in some small theatre. While building a business is not my style, I like how this festival has turned out.”

The award-winning actress is among a team of advisors selected for this year’s Jamaica Film Festival (JFF), which takes place in Kingston from July 7-11.

Selected by Jamaica Promotions Corporation (JAMPRO), the advisors will provide logistics, technical and management support for the event and will assist local filmmakers with marketing and distributing their films locally and internationally.

Williams has a connection to Jamaica.

Born in England to Jamaican parents, she spent seven years in the Caribbean island with her mother, who was employed at the Jubilee Maternity Hospital. In 1966, Williams and her mother went back to England for four years before migrating to Canada.

Named one of Canada’s Top 25 immigrants in 2012, she won a Miss Junior Personality contest at age 14, was crowned Miss Black Ontario four years later in 1977 and did comedy for 15 years before switching to drama.

Williams landed small TV roles and worked in Canadian theatre for a few years before heading to Los Angeles 28 years ago in search of a major acting role. She’s best known for her role as Dr. Olivia Hastings on the daytime drama, The Young and the Restless, which she was associated with for 23 years.

Several veteran and first-time filmmakers are in this year’s festival. The newcomers include director Alexander Henry and actor Samuel Asante, who teamed up to produce a short film, Do Something.

“This film is about overcoming stereotypes and learning and growing from our mistakes,” said Henry, who was born in Canada to immigrant parents from Barbados and Jamaica. “Doing the right thing means you first have to step up and do something.”

Asante plays the role of Tre in the four-minute film that will be screened as part of the shorts program on March 7 at 4:30 p.m. at Cineplex Scotiabank Theatre.

“Tre is a young man with issues,” said Asante. “His mother is on the verge of losing her job and he is in a dilemma and is driven to do something to help his family. I could relate to that as I went through some of the same challenges he’s facing.”

Multiple award-winning filmmaker, Lalita Krishna, has been with the festival since 2002.

Her documentary, Listen to Me, will be screened on March 7 at 1 p.m. at the Cineplex Scotiabank Theatre.

The documentary follows the story of Farrah Khan, a counsellor, who runs visual and expressive arts programs for young women to talk about issues like body image, forced marriage and family violence. Skilfully interweaving personal narrative with the artistic work of the participants, Listen to Meillustrates the importance of programs which give voice and a platform for young women to safely tell their stories and be empowered to shape their future.

Krishna said the ReelWorld event stands out from other festivals.

“It’s unique because of the diversity of films you see here,” said Krishna, who won the 2010 ReelWorld Film Festival Trailblazer Award. “I go to many festivals and I am on the Hot Docs Festival board, but the vibes you get here and the interaction is different. You almost feel like if this is your festival.”

Last year, the ReelWorld was expanded to include Markham, which is one of North America’s fastest growing cities.

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