DIRECTOR & PRODUCER GABRIELLE ZILKHA ON CHAMPIONING QUEER REPRESENTATION

In our latest Members Making Waves, we speak with Gabrielle Zilkha, who’s spent much of her career as a Director and Producer blasting open our misconceptions of queer portrayals in the media, as well as passionately working to increase access to training and development for marginalized folks looking to break into the media industry.

Gabrielle shares her initial journey towards film as a medium for expression, discovering queer fandom communities, helping shape the DGC Ontario & xTO Screen Industry Pathways Initiative at POV, queer representation, and how her love of all things ballroom led to her co-creating Canadian Ballroom Extravaganza on CBC Gem.

What initially drew you to a career in film and television?

I grew up as a theatre kid and pursued acting at the Dome theatre program in Montreal (Dawson College). In my journey as an actor, I started writing one-woman shows and plays and recognized that I loved writing and producing content. Then in 2007 or so, I was accepted into Inside Out’s Queer Youth Digital Video Project. In that program, I got the opportunity to make my first short film, which I passionately discourage anyone from watching as it could lead to my untimely death by embarrassment. From there, I continued to pursue film as my chosen medium for expression!  

You were very instrumental in the rollout of the DGC Ontario & xTO Screen Industry Pathways Initiative, which works with community-based organizations to create film and television production training opportunities in underrepresented communities, and provides POV program students access to DGC Ontario training and reduced fees for the Guild Apprenticeship Program. Tell us about the inception of this program and the impact it had on the community at POV.

This was an exciting opportunity for us at POV at the time (2018) because it was one of the very first (if not the first) xoTO pathway programs in the City. At the time, we were seeing equity and inclusion initiatives for creatives and “above-the-line” roles, but very little existed for those seeking to break in as “below-the-line” crew. The pathway into the unions was both confusing and difficult to access for many people from equity-seeking groups. 

The cross-sectoral partnership model we piloted with the POV Production Assistant Training Program was a winning combination: community-driven organizations working with labour unions and the government to fast-track young professionals who have faced countless barriers to the industry. It was quite transformative!

Now we’re seeing this model replicated with other communities and unions, which is amazing. I’ve had the great pleasure of being involved in many of these programs, working with the CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals and the Trans Film Mentorship. 

Fans at a convention in Queering the Script (2019)

In 2019 you Directed the documentary film Queering the Script, about the history of queer representation in contemporary television and “fandom” fan communities, both off and online, centred around queer women characters in media. Tell us about your journey towards developing this documentary and why you felt it was a story that needed to be told.

I can’t take full credit for this idea as much as I would love to. The idea came from Steph Ouaknine, the Producer of the film who was with Shaftesbury at the time. The initial brief was to direct a documentary about the making of the hit lesbian vampire web series Carmilla and its “fandom” community (known as “Creampuffs”). But when Steph and I sat down to discuss the idea, she gave me a Queer Women Fandom 101 intensive course over a three-hour meeting and I was enthralled! From there I knew the story I needed to tell…well, I would lose it and find it again and again…

I came into the world of queer fandom with humility and curiosity as I have never been part of any fandom movement. I found this subculture to be a fascinating community-building project that, when combined with political or social causes, can become quite powerful. I felt welcomed in the spaces I explored and still keep in touch with my fellow Xenites (Xenites = folks who went to The Xena Retreat Camp) to this day!

My goal with Queering the Script was to combine my three passions: education, entertainment and laughter. And women. Okay, four passions. I wanted to bring audiences along with me as I explored the quirky world and history of queer female fandom while also making the case for why 2SLGBTQ+ representation on TV matters. Fair and accurate on-screen representation of 2SLGBTQ+ people isn’t just about queer and trans peoples’ feelings (though we do have lots of those!). Media representation shapes our society, culture and politics, and therefore results in tangible outcomes that affect queer and trans people’s lives in very real and felt ways. I was very driven by making this point, and making sure I made it in such a way that even the straightest cis-gendered white man in the world would say “I think I get it.” 

Another goal of the film was to champion the queer women fandom behind the #LGBTFansDeserveBetter movement that occurred in 2016, when it seemed every genre show on TV was killing off its lesbian characters in particularly cruel ways. I love a good “power of the people” story and love it even more if it involves queer women and funny memes.

The journey in directing Queering the Script was very challenging but extremely rewarding. In some ways, it was healing to re-examine the queer representation I grew up with and investigate what kind of impact it may have had on me as a baby queer.

Shoutout to my Picture Editor, DGC Member Shelley Therrien, who won the DGC Award for Best Editing on this doc!

Team Best Served Bold competes in the Bizarre category in CBX: Canadian Ballroom Extravaganza. (CBC Arts)

You are the co-creator of CBX: Canadian Ballroom Extravaganza on CBC Gem, in which 10 ballroom performers are paired with 10 queer and trans filmmakers in a new kind of ballroom competition, never before seen on television. What compelled you to create this celebratory look at Canada’s ballroom scene?

To me, ballroom culture is one of the most important cultural forces to influence mainstream fashion, music, TV, comedy, language – everything! Ballroom, when you recognize it, is embedded into so much of our pop culture, it’s wild. Yet, it so rarely gets the credit or the platform it deserves. Thankfully that’s changing thanks to shows like Pose and Legendary (not to mention documentaries like Kiki and the seminal Paris is Burning). I wanted to express my love and gratitude to ballroom in a fun, competitive and campy way. I knew I wanted it to be community-driven, community-informed and feel authentic, not just to the ballroom community, but also to me and my voice. I also wanted to elevate the incredible queer and trans talent that exists in Canada – both the ballroom talent and the filmmakers!

Yet, there is a bit of a backstory to CBX…

While my love of ballroom started immediately after watching Paris is Burning as a teen, I only became aware of it in 2017 when I met Twysted Miyake-Mugler – Emissary of Canadian Ballroom, House Founder of the House of Munroe, and co-founder of the Toronto Kiki Ballroom Alliance (TKBA). Since 2017, I have been intermittently working on a hybrid feature documentary about Twysted’s life story and have gotten to know and love the Kiki ballroom community.

In 2020, I really wanted to do something to support the TKBA during the pandemic. They’ve always been so generous and welcoming of me and my crew at the balls and provided access to their stories, lives etc. I felt quite privileged to be trusted in this way and wanted to make sure I wasn’t only being extractive – that I was giving back as well. At the time, I was the Director of Programs at POV, so I pitched an idea to Twysted about having 2SLGBTQ+ filmmakers from POV’s community working with ballroom performers to create little digital videos, as I had noticed that those in the ballroom were getting super creative with videos on social media. 

Fast forward a year or so and we developed the idea further with my producing partner Jenn Mason, and that’s when we got the idea to turn it into a competition series. 

Imagine it’s 2032. What does your career look like?

I’m starring in my own Jonathan Van Ness, Getting Curious-style docu-series where I get to teach audiences about things that will make the world a better place, all while hopefully making them laugh at the same time. I also hope my career looks like the career of someone who makes more money than 2022 Gabrielle Zilkha… but I digress. 

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