A curiosity about the world, an empathetic lens and an outsider's take: Oscar-nominated Canadians are being recognized this week for the insight they bring to the wider film industry.
"Being Canadian, fundamentally it broadens your mind," according to Dean DeBlois, who was honoured at a dinner Wednesday night at the official residence of the consul general of Canada in Los Angeles.
The writer-director from Gatineau, Que., is a three-time Oscar contender, in the running Sunday for the best animated feature trophy for How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, the final instalment of his popular coming-of-age trilogy.
Growing up in his Aylmer neighborhood that had a mix of Pakistani, Portuguese and Italian families, "we were such a melting pot of cultures," DeBlois recalled.
"There's something about that melding that broadens your mind and makes you kind of a citizen of the world, which I think is really great for storytelling because you become curious about cultures all over the world."
Watch | Catching up with Canadian Oscar contenders:
It's a sentiment echoed by Sami Khan, who believes it's an asset to be a Canadian filmmaker "able to see the similarities between what's going on in Toronto or Regina and St. Louis... and Delhi, India or Sao Paulo, Brazil."
Khan is co-director of the Oscar-nominated documentary short St. Louis Superman, which explores the story of Bruce Franks Jr., a rapper and Missouri activist who — spurred to action following the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. — ran for and served two terms in the state's House of Representatives.
"There is a real crisis of democracy going on across the world. It's really evident in the United States and India and Brazil, but Canada is not immune from those problems," said the Toronto filmmaker, who originally hails from Sarnia, Ont.
"Being an outsider — being a global filmmaker —allows you to make those connections and sort of put the puzzle together."
For Tunisian-born Montreal filmmaker Meryam Joobeur, it was a compulsion to follow her heart back to her homeland that led to her Oscar-nominated live action short film Brotherhood. A buzzworthy title on the film festival circuit, Brotherhood tackles issues such as family tensions and radicalization in its story about a rural shepherd shaken when his estranged eldest son returns home from Syria with a mysterious new wife.
"I really wanted to go back to my roots to Tunisia and make a film and collaborate with Tunisian and Canadian filmmakers on a film set in my home country," writer-director Joobeur said Thursday at a Los Angeles luncheon celebrating the 2020 Canadian Oscar nominees.
"I'm completely floored by the response because I didn't realize that there was such a strong thirst or hunger for the rest of the world to really get a more humanistic portrayal of a Muslim family. So I'm definitely proud that Brotherhood could have done that."
'Reward for all of our hard work'
The search for a broader perspective was also something that led producer John Turner to Walk Run Cha-Cha, in which a passion for dance helps rekindle a Vietnamese couple's relationship decades after a wartime split and their eventual reunion in the U.S.
Nominated for best documentary short, Walk Run Cha-Cha is an instalment of a five-film series exploring immigration in America that Turner was hired to curate.
The goal was to find filmmakers and stories "that really spoke to the wider issue and complex challenges that people face when they immigrate to the United States and also, I think, when they immigrate to Canada and anywhere else in the world," said Turner, who divides his time between Toronto and Los Angeles.
"I don't think we ever thought in our minds that we would end up on the red carpet, nominated for an Oscar. … It's such an amazing reward for all of our hard work," he added.
"Sunday, when I get up and put a tux on and and walk in the building and feel the presence of all the great folks who are also nominated, I think it'll hit me. Right now, I'm just really enjoying the ride."
This industry... it draws together people from all over the world. — Dean DeBlois, writer-director
Even for those who are making a repeat trip to the Academy Awards, landing an Oscar nod is always special, says sound engineer David Giammarco, a contender this year for the car racing tale Ford v Ferrari.
It marks his third nomination in the sound mixing category, including nods for his work in Moneyball and 3:10 to Yuma. He shares it with Los Angeles-based British-Canadian Paul Massey, his 3:10 to Yuma colleague who was a winner in the sound mixing category last year for Bohemian Rhapsody.
"It's a tickle. It's a fun road for sure," said the Welland, Ont.-raised, Los Angeles-based Giammarco.
It's also a road that any aspiring Canadian filmmaker or film student can take, stresses How to Train Your Dragon filmmaker DeBlois.
He recalled that, growing up in a small town outside Ottawa, "Hollywood seemed about as far away as it really could be."
Today, his advice to young filmmakers is: where you start out doesn't matter.
"This industry, and particularly animation, it draws together people from all over the world. And if it's your passion and you have talent, people will find you."