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"As a filmmaker, you're always looking for the story that's not being told," says Katie McKenna, currently studying Political Science at McGill. "And whenever I heard anything in the media about teenage boys it was the same thing: incredibly negative stories about violence, body image, bullying or antisocial behavior." When McKenna began pondering the subject, she wasn't long out of high schools herself. "So it wasn't that long ago I was hanging out with these guys, I knew there was more to it than what we were hearing. So I wanted to humanize them again."
McKenna took herself back to high school, spending much of 2004-05 with her camera following four boys — Stefan, Mikhael, Mikey and Ali — in their final year at Westmount High. The resulting film, The Year Before, is an intimate, compelling narrative that tracks her subjects as they ponder the future and try to figure out how to make the transformation to adulthood.
"I decided to do the sound and filming myself, which was very difficult," she said. "But the dynamic would have been completely different with a crew of older men who look like their dads hanging around." Just prior to beginning this film, McKenna had completed an undergraduate degree in anthropology at the University of Toronto. "I was studying primates, which involved sitting quietly and waiting for monkeys to ignore me and to act normal. So that's what I did: I sat quietly and waited for students to ignore me. It took months before I got usable footage because high school is a very self-conscious time," she said.
McKenna grew up with story-telling in the air. Both her parents are journalists — her father is renowned documentary filmmaker Brian McKenna. "When we were kids coming home from school and they asked ‘how was your day?' We knew we had to tell a story," she laughs. McKenna began working in documentaries as an assistant in her mid-teens, but wanted to find her own path rather than simply following her father's. While at the University of Toronto, she also worked in behind-the-scenes production for a series of documentary film companies. Her big break came working with Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein on The Take, on which McKenna was credited as a co-producer. "That was a great opportunity for me," she says. "I was on that film for two years, and learned everything from it: like how to fight for what you wanted. Also, that half of filmmaking is maintaining good relations with the people you work with."
The effort seems to have paid off, and response has been extremely positive. At a McGill screening of The Year Before in the Faculty of Education, two of the film's participants (both now CEGEP students) were present to answer questions, as were McKenna and Westmount High principal Claude Dansereau — the film's fifth star. "We had people from all parts of community — guidance counselors, Dawson teachers, CBC listeners — it was a middle-aged audience, and very nice to see the empathy and interest for young guys."
Today, McKenna is pursuing a qualifying year as a political science student, picking up the necessary credits to enter the graduate program. "I've had a lifelong interest in politics, and there are parallels with filmmaking, as both depend on story-telling," she says. Politics is about making a compelling case for why you are putting forward the opinion you're putting forward, so a lot of the same skills you use in filmmaking you use in this domain. We're all interested in making the world a better place, and there are many different avenues to doing that."
Interested in viewing The Year Before?
These days, the best bets are through the Roboteque at the NFB cinema. For information, visit www.nfb.ca.