Jake Chirico doesn’t talk like someone who has just made a huge career breakthrough.
The soft-spoken 21-year-old is barely audible as he explains his love of documentaries at a Forest Hill coffee shop.
“It’s something tangible that affects everything going on around you,” the Bathurst Street and Eglinton Avenue area resident says. “You’re dealing with real people in real-life situations, so the film you’re making is actually relevant to the setting.”
And so far, so good.
Chirico is the winner for best documentary at this year’s Air Canada’s enRoute Film Festival for his debut film The Freshwater Plague.
The festival, which promotes the work of young Canadian filmmakers, has featured the film on domestic and international Air Canada flights since June, reaching a potential audience of two million viewers.
He was awarded the prize at an industry-only party on Oct. 20.
“It’s an amazing opportunity,” Chirico says just weeks before learning of his win. “I had no idea when I started filming it that it would turn into something like this.”
The documentary, which highlights the annual invasion of Chirico’s native North Bay by the shadfly population, is the first project the aspiring cinematographer directed and produced.
His interest in the pest hatched two summers ago when he was working nights at a marina back home.
“I was walking the dock at night with my flashlight and the shadflies were just blanketing everything,” Chirico says. “Every time I’d step down, I’d hear this ridiculous crunch and I just thought, ‘You know, a lot of people have never seen something like this’.”
It was another year before he decided to turn a lens on the phenomenon.
At home last summer before starting his final year in the media arts program at Sheridan College, Chirico decided it was time.
“I knew that was going to be my last summer in North Bay and I really wanted to make a documentary there before I left as something to take with me and show to friends and remind me of the city,” he says.
Not having access to sophisticated equipment, he scrounged together what he could, borrowing his father’s new camcorder and bartering a case of beer for the use of a wireless microphone.
At school, Chirico spent months editing the film with the help of instructors, as well as a friend he enlisted to help with sound design.
Last month, when he showed the film as part of the Toronto International Film Festival’s student showcase, representatives from the enRoute festival approached and invited him to submit his film for consideration.
After beating out 300 other submissions, The Freshwater Plague made it to the final round, where it was judged by the likes of renowned Canadian filmmakers like Deepa Mehta (Water) and Michael McGowan (One Week), who both sit on the jury panel.
“I respect those filmmakers a lot,” Chirico says.
But if he’s impressed with the panel, the feeling is mutual.
“There’s incredible talent across this country and what we got to see is certainly no exception to that,” says Judy Gladstone, enRoute jury member and executive director of BravoFACT, an organization that supports young Canadian filmmakers.
“It’s amazing that we haven’t heard about (the shadfly) before. That’s the wonderful thing about film: it introduces us to phenomena that we wouldn’t otherwise encounter,” says Gladstone, adding she felt “an immediate empathy for the folks living there who go through this year after year”.
Chirico’s not resting on his laurels: he’s already got two new projects in the works.
One will explore the cost-benefits of artificial light for humans. The other will examine the recent population explosion of cormorants (black, seagull-sized birds).
He’s wary of being pigeonholed but concedes, “I find I’m really interested in evolution, … it’s just fascinating for me.”
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