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Alumni Spotlight: Alison Duke (MFA ’20)

Alumni Spotlight: Alison Duke (MFA ’20)

A visionary, pioneer, and mentor, Alison Duke (MFA '20) is an award-winning Canadian filmmaker and a Black queer-woman who uses her craft to produce distinctive entertainment content, and most importantly to talk about social issues and ways to overcome them. Alison co-founded OYA Media Group in 2018 to continue producing unconventional content and support other emerging filmmakers. She has worked on some ground-breaking documentaries, feature films, and short films – all to give a voice to underrepresented communities.

Why did you decide to pursue your Master of Fine Arts at York?

I selected York because I admired the Faculty of the Department of Communication and Media Studies as I know most are embedded in the filmmaking community and are actively working toward bridging gaps for many aspiring filmmakers. I liked the fact that I could go to the professors for guidance in a genre of filmmaking that I wanted to pursue. I wanted to add more dramatic and experimental work to my portfolio. I knew that faculty such as John Greyson and Phillip Hoffman could guide me through that process. My thesis film was called Promise Me and was received really well in the film community. It was shown in over 30 film festivals. It won several international awards and helped me get funding for other scripted projects such as a feature film that I am currently writing and a dramatic series I’m producing. So, the entire learning experience really helped me in making significant developments in my career.

Can you talk about your work with OYA Media Group and the strides that you and your team have made?

One thing that happened when we started OYA Media Group was that there were a lot of young people coming to us very early on for support. Another thing we noticed is that we were making work for television, mostly about racialized communities, and it was really hard to find young talent from these communities to join our team that were qualified. So, we decided to provide a way for Black youth who just graduated from film, television, and journalism schools, and post-secondary schools to get industry-level experience by working on productions that were specifically going to broadcasters. We decided to develop a program called the Emerging Filmmakers Program. Applicants have to be graduates of post-secondary film, television, or digital media programs or demonstrate a commitment to building a career in this industry and have a tremendous portfolio that shows that this is what they want to do for the rest of their life.

You seem very passionate about mentorship, particularly for Black creatives. Where does that stem from?

Through a study with the Black Youth Action Plan, we found that after Black youth graduate from post-secondary schools they stop pursuing their passion after five years because they're so deflated about how they are received in their respective industries. We also saw how well the film industry was doing in Canada, I think we're generating close to $9 billion a year in business across the country – over $3 billion a year in Ontario. We thought our industry was doing so well we needed to do better for Black youth.  We wanted to fill in that gap. If these folks are going to school and/ or have demonstrated that they're really serious about being in the film and television industry, we should provide an opportunity.

We hired a really wonderful team of mentors and facilitators for our programs to do that. It's a very robust program. I curate the curriculum.  We get funding from the Ministry of Children, Community, and Social Services. The Emerging Filmmakers Program was only supposed to run for three years. But after three years, the Ministry saw that we were doing a great job. They could see the benefits; they could see people coming through the program and actually getting jobs, and they decided to extend it for another two years.

A lot of your content is about stories and struggles of women and the Black community. What initially inspired you to make it the subject of your content and what keeps you driven to share their stories?

Growing up I found out that there was a lack of that content featuring Black women and the Black community. And so, as I thought about getting into this industry, I really wanted to try my very best to fill that gap of the content that was missing. And because it's of interest to me, I don't feel like it's a burden because I am genuinely curious to know more about my community. And I believe, that if you don't see yourself reflected, how are you going to learn about yourself and your community? And I think we all need that. We all are these vessels, and we need to be filled with positive stories and stories about ourselves.

Having won a plethora of accolades, what is that one moment that you feel most proud of?

Well, I really appreciated my York University Faculty of Graduate Studies award (which used to be called the President’s award) for my thesis film Promise Me and supportive paper. I do appreciate that award because that was my goal, not exactly to get that prize but to produce a piece that would be recognized for excellence among so many incredibly talented and gifted faculty and students. I also really appreciate the WIFT Crystal award for Mentorship that I received in 2019. It's a wonderful recognition for being someone in the industry that supports different people, women and men of all races, young people, and opening doors for those people. Wherever I can I think I definitely want to continue providing mentorship which is the reason why the award is so special to me.

I am very proud of my two Canadian Screen Awards for writing and producing the CBC documentary Mr. Jane and Finch. That was amazing.

Do you have any advice for students at York about how to embark on the next chapter of their lives and how to find their passion?

I always think that young people should try what they're most passionate about early in their career. So, try not only to study it, but get practical experience, get internships in that field because sometimes, you might like it in the classroom environment but when you get out there and you see the dynamics of how that industry works, you might not like it, or you might love it even more and that just helps in affirming your decision. Also, try to get mentors from inside your industry and from outside of that industry because it's good to have that outside perspective too. And just practise. You have to practise what you do to become really good at it. Nothing replaces that. I always tell people there are not really any shortcuts.