Jenn Smith and I have known each other a long time, and our lives tend to intertwine quite a bit. We met years ago when we both sang with the Milton Choristers, and for a while, that was our only connection. Then an offhand comment from Smith one evening after a concert sent me down the rabbit hole, to the very different world of Nero’s Fiddle, Celtic music, corsets, and amazing freestyle creativity. What a wild ride that was!
Then the opportunity arose to stage manage for her latest and greatest adventure; the Milton Film Festival (MFF). For a weekend in January every year, Milton has its own TIFF-style festival, complete with panels, guest speakers, and an array of hand-picked films currently doing the TIFF circuit.
Jenn Callum: Jenn, we’ve known each other for years, in many different capacities. I checked earlier, and we actually have 62 mutual friends on Facebook. And then I looked more closely at those friends, and the vast array of where we know them all from was rather staggering! It certainly makes for an interesting life. Tell me a bit about “a day in the life of Jennifer Smith,” and how some of these vastly different characters come into play.
Jenn Smith: I work part-time as a graphic designer for a promotional products company. I’ll get home from there at 2:30 or 3pm, then work on the theatre scheduling spreadsheet for the Oakville Film Festival, taking a break to send the latest email newsletter out about upcoming events around our own Milton Film Festival. After dinner it’s off to a meeting of Heritage Milton, then stop by Bryden’s after to watch the end of the Jays game before heading home again to put the finishing touches on Ron Base’s latest book cover before bed.
Jenn Callum: People talk about the circles they travel in, but your interests are so vastly contrasting, it’s more like a giant overlapping scribble, isn’t it! Politics, classical music, Celtic music, renaissance festivals, and film. The list goes on! Which passion came first for you?
Jenn Smith: I suppose classical music came first. I went to a private school with an outstanding vocal music program where I was singing in Latin by grade 3. I sang with our school choir in some of the greatest cathedrals in England in grade 9. Unfortunately, with so much going on in my life, music is the one passion I’ve ended up having to drop to make room for other pursuits. But I’m sure I’ll pick it up again at some point.
Jenn Callum: The Bluejays. Go.
Jenn Smith: My Mom has been a Jays fan since their very first season and even has a little Jays shrine in her laundry room, but I only really got into it about three or four years ago. I’m lucky to have a friend who goes to games regularly and lets me tag along when she has a spare ticket. I love baseball because it’s orderly but never dull, and anything can happen. Also, I want it on the record that I already had Justin Smoak picked out as my guy LAST YEAR.
Jenn Callum: An equally eclectic partner, your husband Adam is an amazing artist who designs leather and other costumes and equipment for film and TV. Is this tie to films what drew you together in the beginning, or was it a natural progression later on?
Jenn Smith: We actually met 30 years ago through mutual friends, long before either of us became involved with film, and we both came into it in completely different ways. I had aspirations of becoming a writer and started a movie review column in the Milton Canadian Champion. Adam started doing costume work when he and I were selling our wares at the Ontario Renaissance Festival. He was approached by someone from the series Starhunter who asked if he could do gun holsters. That brought him into contact with that show’s designer, and then onto another show, and some indie film work, and the next thing you know he’s the go-to guy on major productions like American Gods, Reign, and Suicide Squad.
Jenn Callum: You attend Ebertfest every year. Tell me a bit about why, and how important it is that you make that annual journey.
Jenn Smith: Roger Ebert was a big inspiration for me, first as a writer and later on when I started the Milton Film Festival. I had always wanted to attend his festival in his hometown of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, so in 2012 I finally screwed up my courage and drove ten hours to be there. It’s a single venue festival held in an absolutely gorgeous 1,500 seat, beautifully restored, 100-year-old vaudeville theatre, and the people there are like family, all bound by their love of film and their admiration for Roger. The first year I attended was the last year he was there. The next year’s festival was held two weeks after he died and it was like a wake, but also a celebration of his life and work.
I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that the Milton Film Festival owes a lot to Ebertfest. In its format, in many of its film selections, and very much in its central philosophy that movies allow us to stand in someone else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes for a while, and in that way can change the world for the better.
Jenn Callum: Politics in this town are always polarizing. I know you are very involved in not only your own ward but the general goings-on of Council and things that directly affect life in Milton. You have thrown your hat in the ring to run for council in the past, too. What does your political future look like? Will you be running for council again, or has your focus changed in that regard?
Jenn Smith: I still haven’t decided whether to run again next year. I may not be able to afford it. The changes to the council composition have basically tripled the size of my ward and therefore tripled the cost to campaign. Plus, the boundary realignment has spliced it together with both the largely rural Nassagaweya region to the north and the new developments of the Scott Boulevard neighbourhood to the west. I got into municipal politics wanting to revitalize and grow downtown Milton, but now I really don’t know. We’ll see how things play out next year. I may just end up supporting another candidate who shares my vision for Milton.
Jenn Callum: The Milton Film Festival is a growing phenomenon here in town. Our own TIFF, right here at home, where no one needs to fight traffic or stand in long lines just to get tickets. Coupled with world-class dining a stone’s throw from the arts centre, it’s a film fanatic’s dream! What prompted you to start the MFF, and what have some of the challenges been?
Jenn Smith: Because of my movie review column, I was approached by Rob Mackay of the Milton Centre for the Arts (now the FirstOntario Arts Centre Milton) to help with a monthly film program they were launching through the TIFF Film Circuit. Our first year was very successful, so I suggested adding a weekend-long film festival. This was a town-run program, however, and they weren’t willing to take the risk. So a couple of us decided to just do it ourselves.
Our biggest challenges, as with most arts events in Milton, have been getting the word out and getting people to take a break from their busy lives to get out of the house and enjoy a film, a performance, a concert, in the company of other human beings. I hope that as Milton grows and evolves into a more self-sufficient and demographically diverse community, this will become easier.
Jenn Callum: The next MFF is January 26-28, 2018. Any sneak peeks available for your film lineup? When will ticket sales go online?
Jenn Smith: Patience! We always try to program current films that people haven’t had the opportunity to see before, so we don’t select and announce our films until mid-November. For comparison, most film festivals don’t announce their line-up until three or four weeks out.
Jenn Callum: Are weekend passes available, and what perks do they include?
Jenn Smith: Weekend passes are on sale right now, which includes one ticket to each of our eight screenings. Or, you can buy a VIP membership which not only includes eight tickets to the films of your choice but also access to our exclusive Opening Night Gala Reception, discounts with our sponsors and for other local events, premium swag and more.
Jenn Callum: Are you accepting submissions from local filmmakers? That has been such a phenomenal addition to the MFF in past years!
Jenn Smith: Film submissions just opened last week. Local and regional filmmakers are encouraged to submit their short or feature length films through our online form at http://www.miltonfilmfest.com/film-submissions/
Jenn Callum: Fantastic! To wrap up, here are the Spotlight quick-fire questions…
Jenn Callum: Your favourite Milton restaurant and dish?
Jenn Smith: Most attended is certainly Bryden’s, where I can watch the Jays game and have my favourite craft beer–Orange Snail’s Iron Pig. My favourite dish there would be the Chicken Pesto Linguine.
Jenn Callum: Favourite place in town?
Jenn Smith: Favourite street is Charles Street. Big trees, lovely gardens, beautiful historic buildings, but also a great eclectic mix of grand Victorian homes, modest duplexes, clapboard houses, stores and apartments.
Jenn Callum: Favourite colour.
Jenn Smith: Green. Hated it as a kid, but only because it was our school uniform colour.
Jenn Callum: What do you like best about Milton?
Jenn Smith: The sense of community.
Jenn Callum: Who else do you think I should spotlight in the future?
Jenn Smith: Daniel Pearce, the young filmmaker who screened one of my favourite short films at a previous Milton Film Festival.
Jenn Callum: Many thanks to Jenn Smith for sharing a generous slice of her world with me. Life is certainly never dull when she’s a part of it!