Illumine Media shines a light from Toronto neighbourhoods

Illumine Media shines a light from Toronto neighbourhoods


The film series How We Grow, produced by The Illumine Media Project, begins with lines of chalk on a chalkboard that slowly morph into leaves, stems, and eventually a cherry tomato plant.

The Toronto-based Baha’i-inspired initiative presents an organic, growth-oriented perspective through its films, and seeks to apply the same approach to its own development.

The audience for its films are young people and their families, and the theme of growth resonates with these groups perhaps because youth is a time of immense growth and change.

How We Grow explores the idea that humanity is leaving behind its childhood, and is entering its long-awaited period of maturity. Signs of humanity’s adolescence may be seen in the widespread questioning of long-cherished norms and values. Its maturity can be anticipated in the growing recognition of the equality of all people, regardless of gender, race or class. A character in the series, Maya, shares that her grandmother did not have access to formal education, was married at a young age, and did not have any say in who she married. On the other hand, Maya was planning to attend university, and would have a say in whom she married and when.

“Many young people say that ‘I’ve learned by watching this [the film] that humanity is growing up in the same way that I am growing up, over time,’ says Esther Maloney, the project coordinator.

The media project – which formed in 2012 – uses film to shine a light on the reality of communities across Toronto. The images of Toronto shown in the films includes many physical aspects such as buses, schools, and high-rise buildings, but it also portrays altruistic young people who are grappling with the spiritual dimensions of reality, such as seeking to understand how to find hope in a world that is full of despair.

The aim of the films is to spark meaningful conversations among young people and their families, conversations that help young people to not only describe their social reality, but also help them perceive how they can help transform it. Another equally important challenge of the project is to build capacity in a growing number of people for creating and producing films.

Approximately 2,600 youth across Toronto have seen Illumine Media’s films in schools, community centres, and at the Regent Park Film Festival. The roughly 20-person team that creates and produces the films is largely comprised of local youth.

The growth of the media project mirrors the growth of a living organism. Just as a tree begins as a seed, then grows to include a trunk, branches and fruit, the organization began with a few people performing all the tasks, and grew in complexity to include teams focused on learning about specific areas, with higher degrees of expertise. There are teams focused on camera work, gathering audio, editing, acting, and script writing, writing music for film, and facilitating community dialogue. The media project team continues to evolve its organizational structure as it grows and changes.

Five years ago, the project began with films intended to help adolescents reflect on the values of cooperation, truthfulness, friendship, and forgiveness. The film Dancing Into It, for example, portrayed a youth who broke his father’s Blu-Ray player, and had to make a decision about whether to tell the truth about his action.

Many of the people involved in the project at its inception did not have much expertise in film, but had a vision of the type of media they wanted to create. The team had to learn to take action, which they could then learn from, rather than worrying about achieving perfection before moving forward.

The initial reaction of community members to the films was encouraging for the team. Ms. Maloney remembers children who shouted in excitement when they saw apartments much like theirs on the big screen, instead of houses as they usually saw on T.V.

As the abilities of the media project team increased and they became more attuned to the needs of the communities they served, they decided to produce a series aimed at older youth. Making a series pushed the team to a more complex level of functioning. One of the biggest challenges was finding actors that could devote the time to film a ten-part series. All of the actors and crew are volunteers.

“We had to think more about how we could bring people into the process that have an understanding of the commitment that that would entail,” says Safa Mostaghim, who is currently assisting with the coordination of the project. Mr. Mostaghim says that the team found that when participants had a fuller understanding of the purpose of the project, they were able to devote more time to it.

Mr. Mostaghim says that reflecting regularly on the purpose of the project is also helpful in terms of making decisions about the direction the project takes and the technology it adopts. He notes that sometimes audience members recommend that the films be shared widely on social media, but that in reflecting on the purpose of the project, the team has opted not to adopt that approach at this time. “We are reflecting on the project as …a beginning of a conversation and the conversation itself is of value” he says.

Youth react in a variety of ways to the films. A group in the north of Toronto was initially critical, says Anita Sadeghi, who often facilitates discussions after the film screenings. After reflecting on the media they consume and what it portrays – such as demeaning depictions of black people – the group realized that the media project makes positive media and felt more enthusiastic about it.

Recently, the group decided to screen one of the films, which shows the youth navigating the subtle and not-so-subtle workings of competition in their school and in their family dynamics. They held a foosball tournament to help community members gain insight into the themes of competition and cooperation. Other groups have created “response films,” and interviewed people in their own communities about themes that were discussed in the films.

Reports of action taken by youth who have watched the films are encouraging to the media project team. One of the goals of the project is to extend the influence of processes of the Baha’i community that build capacity in groups to take charge of their own spiritual, social and intellectual development. The team often reflects on how a community can go from feeling they are recipients of services to feeling that, by drawing on the talents of many, they can assist with the empowerment of its young people. Learning to become more integrated into the communities it serves and to better reflect the social reality of such communities are some of the ongoing challenges the project faces.

Fortunately, as the film series shows, challenges are also opportunities for growth.