Rise of Valley-wood?

After years of being overlooked, local filmmakers are making their mark—and careers—in film and video production.

By Tyler Olsen | November 17, 2022 |5:00 am

When Matej Balaz co-founded his video production company eight years ago in Abbotsford, the Fraser Valley wasn’t exactly a filming hot-spot.

The lack of activity made the basics of film production and shooting video for clients a little hard. “There was almost nobody,” Balaz recalled. “It was hard to even find somebody to help shoot second camera stuff.”

There were, of course, other film folk present. But they were few and far between, and those who were making a go of it were often overlooked—even by locals.

Today, much has changed.

This weekend, the Chilliwack Independent Film Festival will return for its sixth year. The festival is a wide-ranging event. It will showcase shorts and feature-length films, documentaries and narrative stories, and local and non-local filmmakers.

Those locally-shot films do more than hold their own, and serve as another indication of how the region’s creative industry has grown over the years both artistically and commercially.

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Building a filmmaking infrastructure

Vancouver has been known as Hollywood North for decades. And as its film industry has grown, productions have looked to the east for filming locations. That shift has been encouraged by tax subsidies and cities actively seeking to bring the economic benefits of film shoots to their towns.

The growth of the valley’s homegrown film industry has been more subtle and driven less by location scouting and more by individuals making careers behind (and sometimes in front of) cameras.

The idea of making one’s own story-driven feature film is often what leads a person to try to make it as a filmmaker. But making a living off of ones own movies is incredibly hard. A single person using a collection of 10 cent pencils can write a novel. But well-done films are harder to do on a shoestring budget. You need actors and a good camera (even the best smart phones are still limited in their abilities) and sound equipment and people who know how to operate the equipment.

You need, as Balaz says, “infrastructure.”

Having a job helps. And having one that also helps you develop your camera and story-telling skills (and maybe allows you to expense that camera you need) is even better.

Over the last decade, a wave of film production businesses have set up in the valley. There are large studios. There are also many owner/operator small enterprises. Balaz’s Colla Films is just one of those.

When Matej Balaz arrived in the Fraser Valley, he found it difficult to find other film talent. That has changed as newcomers build new careers. 📷 Camille Candia
When Matej Balaz arrived in the Fraser Valley, he found it difficult to find other film talent. That has changed as newcomers build new careers. 📷 Camille Candia

When Colla was launched eight years ago, Balaz found that local companies and organizations were often looking beyond the valley to shoot their commercials and films. Maybe it was a lack of personnel, or maybe locals just didn’t have the exposure and marketing chops of big city firms. Either way, Fraser Valley companies were recruiting outsiders to tell their stories.

“A lot of the companies that we work with now would outsource their video to Vancouver companies,” he said.

That, Balaz said, has been changing.

The local film scene has grown dramatically. Balaz points to a range of factors.

To begin with, there’s just more talent.

“There’s a lot of young filmmakers and a lot of younger people are getting into video and film.”

Those young people are finding jobs, learning skills, and getting equipment that they can use for their own projects. They’re also helping others follow in their own footsteps.

As they do so, the jobs and creative films are following.

“There’s a lot of opportunities,” Balaz siad. “People are doing short films, they’re giving opportunities to younger filmmakers wanting to learn and get mentorship.”

Since launching in 2017, the Chilliwack Independent Film Festival, Balaz said, has played a large part in showcasing local film talent in all its forms.

(Balaz has had films at many of the festivals. This year, he’s showing a short documentary about Indigenous artist Tanya Zilinski. You can find more information on that below.)

Then there is the way the valley itself is changing. Balaz pointed to the District 1881 development in downtown Chilliwack, where a number of creative-oriented businesses have set up shop. Abbotsford and Langley have also seen a range of new businesses with a more urban feel catering to millennials who grew up online. Those businesses just also happen to be likely to use video to reach new customers.

Local film productions are becoming more common as more locals pursue filmmaking and gain support from businesses and institutions. 📷 Acceptance
Local film productions are becoming more common as more locals pursue filmmaking. 📷 Acceptance

There have also been hugely successful local men and women shooting their own videos not for commercial clients, but for audiences online via YouTube.

Companies like Drumeo and individuals like Abbotsford hairstylist-turned-YouTube stuperstar Kris Collins have built worldwide audiences through video content shot locally.

The development of the industry, Balaz said, has gone hand in hand with changes in the valley.

“A lot of companies are settling down in the valley and a lot of people are comfortable actually having creative practices in the valley. I think that might just be a testament to the fact that the valley is growing so much.”

And an increasingly diverse range of organizations and companies are hiring filmmakers. Balaz’s company has produced videos for tourism organizations, sports teams, musicians, farms, art galleries, and media companies over the last year.

“There are a lot of [film] companies that are popping up and people are busier and busier now,” he said. “We’ve been busy to the point where we recommend projects to other companies.”

Balaz said that the growth and evolution of local film companies should have a positive impact on the narrative story-driven films being produced in the valley.

“It’s hard to make creative work when you’re unable to make any living off of it,” he said.

Commercial gigs might not be what every filmmaker dreams of. But Balaz has seen how having a commercial career has enabled creativity beyond client-driven projects.

“It’s making a living and paying the bills, but it’s also having the infrastructure to produce creative films,” he said.

Those jobs also help filmmakers learn how to use a camera and screen to connect with viewers to convey a message.

“That’s how you understand the audience itself,” Balaz said. “It might not necessarily be the audience you want to speak to right away, but you’re developing that [and learning] ‘What do I need to do for people to have an emotional connection.’”

The Grizzlie Truth is one of dozens of films that will be screened at the Chilliwack Independent Film Festival 📸 The Grizzlie Truth
The Grizzlie Truth is one of dozens of films that will be screened at the Chilliwack Independent Film Festival 📸 The Grizzlie Truth

More this weekend

Tyler will host a panel on Sunday at Cowork Chilliwack all about filmmaking in the Fraser Valley.

Panelists include local directors Brendan Taylor and Daniel Sparrow, and actor Alexander Wallis. Taylor directed What Might Have Been Lost, which debuted in January. Sparrow’s short, The Divine Dance, will premiere at the Friday Fraser Valley Films screening. Wallis starred in Tear You Apart, which will also debut on Friday.

You can attend the panel for free. Just register in advance for a ticket.

Balaz’s film, Ó:xwest kw’e Shxwelí lá ye Mestiyexw (Giving Spirit to the People), profiles Hope artist Speplól Tanya Zilinski and will be shown Saturday at the Chilliwack Film Festival during a screening of documentaries. Tickets are available here.

The film was made to accompany an exhibit of Zilinski’s fine beadwork and tapestry currently on display at The Reach Gallery Museum.

The Current has partnered with Chilliwack Independent Film Festibal to help present the unique cultural event.

The event kicks off on Friday with the screening of short films made by Fraser Valley-based filmmakers. Among those filmmakers is Mik Stolz, who we recently profiled. That screening will be followed by a question-and-answer session moderated by Current managing editor Tyler Olsen.

Saturday and Sunday both include a range of fascinating features, and short film screenings. Those will also all include question-and-answer sessions with the filmmakers. (Tyler and Current publisher Stephen Smysniuk will host some of those.)

Among the films being screened are two high-profile documentaries: Love in the Time of Fentanyl, a look at the downtown eastside during the overdose crisis, and The Grizzlie Truth, a documentary about fans of the two decades-gone Vancouver Grizzlies.

Saturday also features an hour-long chat with stuntman, actor, and director Nash Edgerton, who worked on The Matrix Trilogy and as Ewan McGregor’s stunt double in the Star Wars films. Admission is free, though you have to register ahead of time.

Highlights also include a screening of short films by students showing Sunday at 1:30pm. Among the films is Lucid, a film by Daniel Walker about a man who studies lucid dreaming to try to improve his poor social skills.

Sunday also features a panel on Diversity in Filmmaking moderated by local podcaster Aaron Pete.

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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