Growing up in Toronto's Regent Park community, making a life from filmmaking was a dream that seemed beyond Abduallahi Ali's reach.
Pursuing a career in anything creative wasn't in the cards because it wasn't seen as a serious way to make a living, the 26-year-old recalls.
"My family was very academic-heavy, you know — go to school, get a degree, get a job," Ali told CBC News.
But two years ago, that changed when he learned through a friend about a filmmaking initiative called The Regent Park Project that brings together youth ages 15 to 26 and provides them with training in acting, writing and directing.
"Something like this wasn't around when I was growing up," Ali said.
"That whole idea was kind of blown away for me over the past two years where I see that you can actually make money, you can actually make a living, you can actually find success."
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'Everyone is on the same level'
The program is run by Kick Start Arts, a Toroonto-based organization that uses the arts to help empower youth and offer opportunities to thrive in creative fields.
Ali describes the program as "a community-based project that helps the community, especially younger people in the community, look at art as a means of expression, as a form of talking about their issues, talking about problems."
Since joining, he's had the chance to act in a monologue series that was released over the summer, and is working also on a play.
In 2018, the initiative launched a two-season, 16-episode web series based on characters and storylines that connect to Regent Park.
Those involved with the project have been able to pitch to media companies like Netflix and CBC, and some, like Mandeq Hassan, have even gone on to find careers in the industry.
Hassan, 23, has been a part of the project for close to eight years. She's now represented by an agent and has worked on shows for various production houses.
One of the important aspects of the project, she says, is how it's changing the way filmmaking is done.
"When you look at the industry standard, a lot of it...has a strong hierarchy," Hassan said. "We talk about a decolonized approach to filmmaking."
"We have this method called story circles, where everyone will take their real-life experiences. From there, we'll pull out the themes that we want to explore, and then we will improvise characters or improvise storylines. And then from there, we'll actually get to writing," she said.
For a young person new to filmmaking, the process can be "overwhelming," she said.
"[This] just makes it a very smooth process," she said. "Everyone is on the same level."
An opportunity to be 'vulnerable'
Sheena Robertson, the artistic director of Kick Start Arts who oversees the Regent Park Project, says the program offers a safe space for young people to have the freedom to be themselves.
"The freedom to make mistakes, the freedom to be vulnerable...the significance of people asking if they don't know something and being able to advocate for themselves in that way — to me, that's really how we change everything for young people."
When the project first began, Robertson says, the plan was to run it as an acting program. Very quickly, the organizers realized there weren't enough scripts that reflected the participants' lived experiences. From there, she says, the focus turned to writing.
"I think we're starting to maybe hear stories that are more diverse stories. But are they actually being written by the young people whose stories they are? I think that's one of the places that we're really... successful," Robertson says.
For Ali, the program not only allows young people in Regent Park to see themselves working in filmmaking, it also means those in the industry are more likely to notice the talent in Regent Park.
"There are great actors, musicians, producers, directors, photographers, people who are already making their own lives who are known globally at this point, coming out of Regent Park," he said.
"There is so much talent, there's so much grit and heart, and there's so much strength in this community. And through this, we will be able to showcase it."