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From small town to the silver screen

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Tara Jeffrey

Patricia Rozema fondly remembers gazing out onto the St. Clair River, dreaming of where a love for storytelling could take her.

She was 19, working as a summer intern at the Sarnia Observer.

“I thought — how can I make a living telling stories about human beings?” said the Sarnia native and acclaimed Canadian film director, writer and producer, now 57.

“That was my strategy — to try and be a journalist to pay the bills so that I could write fiction on the side.

“And then I discovered television journalism and fell in love with telling stories through pictures.”

The graduate of Lambton Christian High School and Michigan’s Calvin College had a stint with CBC’s The Journal, before reaching stardom with her debut feature film, 1987’s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing — which went on to become one of the most successful films in Canadian history.

Her most recent, Into The Forest, starring Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood, will kick off a brand new film festival in Sarnia next month, and she’s thrilled about returning to The Imperial Theatre for the screening.

“Sarnia is still very much home,” said Rozema, who often visits her father John — co-founder of the Steeves and Rozema development group — with her two children.

“I think that growing up with a father and a mother who had large ambitions, was really instructive for me and taught me that, if you just take one step at a time, and be persistent, you can make something big.”

The South Western International Film Festival, the brainchild of fellow Sarnia native and TIFF programming associate Ravi Srinivasan, debuts Nov. 5 to 8 with a special Q&A with Rozema following the Thursday night screening of Into the Forest — which premiered at TIFF last month.

“I knew I had to get this film to Sarnia,” Srinivasan said of the Canadian drama, set in the not-too-distant future, when two young women who live in a remote ancient forest discover the world around them is on the brink of an apocalypse. “My number one goal was to meet Patricia at TIFF and talk to her about coming for the festival.”

SWIFF includes an impressive lineup of Canadian and international films, with a series of workshops geared toward aspiring young filmmakers — something Rozema is thrilled to see in her hometown.

“I think it’s evidence of the city’s growing interest in the arts and in film,” she said. “And I am really, really proud to show my work there.

“The fact that someone from a small town with no connections in the film business can still make a living at it — and make work that gets seen around the world — is definitely something I want people here to take away from it,” added Rozema, who grew up on Germain Street, and spent time working as a labourer at local construction sites, a waitress at the Guildwood Inn, and an aide at her father’s nursing home, Trillium Villa.

As for her advice for young filmmakers:

“Be persistent. It’s not easy, but it’s unbelievably rewarding,” she said. “And dare to break the rules.”

Into The Forest premieres at SWIFF on Thursday, Nov. 5 at 7:30 p.m., followed by a Q&A with Patricia Rozema. For more information, including festival pass and ticket information, full lineup and more, visit

Opening night will allow Sarnians to see Into the Forest ahead of its theatrical release. And it will be a red carpet affair.

Srinivasan said he contacted the Imperial Theatre and confirmed they have one.

“They said they might have to dust it off.”


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