P.J. Marcellino was once an international political professional whose experience knew no boundaries—he had worked in over 30 countries and lived in 12 different cities around the world as a photo reporter, journalist, author, editor, and political advisor with international agencies. Now, he’s a Toronto-based film director, writer, and producer, and is showing the country his latest film, When They Awake, which he co-directed with director of photography and editor, Hermon Farahi. An independent documentary that celebrates the power and resilience of Indigenous voices in Canadian music, When They Awake is inspiring audiences across the country, and is the Opening Gala selection at the Calgary International Film Festival. Before hitting up the frenzied festival circuit to showcase his film, Marcellino sat down with us for a chat about his work. Here, he tells us about the Arctic trip that changed his life, how he reinvented himself as a filmmaker, and why he won’t be taking a break anytime soon.
Where did you study and what were your first jobs?
I studied International Relations and Diplomacy (Portugal), International Politics and Economy (Wales), International Development (Canada) and Business Leadership (Argentina). I went on to work as a researcher with various research centres, and as a a political analyst and communications expert with International Agencies (UN, IOM, African Union, European Union) and for a few NGOs. I published academic research and policy papers, and worked for international governments. I’ve also worked as a journalist and editor.
That moment you land somewhere and you're super happy 'cause you're kicking off things… and one day later you realize you kickstarted an #arctic pause… still stranded in #hallbeach but making the best of it. #DocLife #documentary #indiefilm #behindthescenes #makingof #ontour #filmlife🎬 #filmmakers #awakemusicdoc #whentheyawake #Arctictour2017 #intrepid
What made you go into International Relations and Politics?
When I was in high school, I was part of a European project called Young Reporters for the Environment. The European Union was investing in connecting kids from different countries in Europe, as part of a broader European identity-building exercise in the 1990s. A Danish student, a French student and I ended up going to the Arctic to an island called Spitsbergen, about 500km south of the North Pole. It was the middle of winter and we spent time on the research vessel of renown French polar explorer Jean-Louis Étienne (the “other” Jacques Cousteau). The Antarctica, as it was called at the time, was part of one the first international research teams working on climate change.
I came to look at that point as the foundational moment of my geo-biography, and I use the term geo-biography because my personal biography has been associated with so many parts of the world. That was moment zero, when I left my normal existence as a kid, growing up where I was growing up, and I found myself in the Arctic. My mom and I usually joke that she lost me on that particular expedition. That was my inspirational moment, where I got that twinkle in my eye, and everything was possible. When I was a grown up, I started to look back and realize how meaningful that period of my life was. It wasn’t until the beginning of working on this film in the Arctic that I realized that it had been 20 years since I had been there; the most important thing that I’ve ever done professionally happens to start in the same place where I got my bout of inspiration.
How did you decide to go to film school?
I remembered this girl in college, who told me that she wasn’t happy with the course and wanted to quit. I encouraged her to drop out and do whatever she wanted to do, and she confessed that she wanted to do film. She did. I remember her up to this day. In a way, that was the advice I wanted for myself. When I had finished a postgrad degree and was working internationally, I was looking for something complimentary to do for myself that added skills I didn’t have. I went to DFI (Documentary Filmmaking Institute at Seneca College, Toronto). I was quite happy at the end of the course. I felt very excited about the whole spectrum of film knowledge that I had acquired, but I didn’t quite know what to do with it—I sat on it for two years.
That glow you see is the glow of two filmmakers who busted their asses for 40 months straight, and finally put this thing on screen. Done! Now for the fun part! . . . . . #premiere #firstfillm #premiere #worldpremiere #directors #filmdirector #indigenousrights #worldfilm #cinema #filmfestivals #filmfest #doc #doclife #documentary #indiefilm #supportindie #indigenousrising #indigenousmusic #filmlife #filmlife🎬 #nomadlife #filmmakerlifestyle #ontour #filmdebut #setimaarte #7thart #cineaste
When did you transition into filmmaking?
In 2013, I was working for the African Union’s Peace and Security Department in Ethiopia, and they needed someone to spearhead a film about 50 years of peacemaking in Africa, and I volunteered to do it. I went on to interview over 30 world leaders, Nobel Peace prize laureates, peacemakers, and negotiators. When I got back to Canada after my commission, I knew I needed to do something with film. By June 2014, I had completed my first medium-length film, called After the War: Memoirs of Exile. It went on to get nominated for a couple of festival awards, and for one that is very special, a 2015 SAMHSA Voice Award—an Obama White House initiative to promote mental health awareness through film and TV. Nothing much ever happened with that film, but it was a great experience. As I debriefed from After The War, I began work on a new documentary, which is now coming out, called When They Awake.
When They Awake is enjoying success. What’s next?
I’m already starting on another film project—a political thriller based on true facts. It’s fiction, but it seems like all my films deal with “humanity in crisis” and with “politics”. I haven’t strayed too far from the things I knew and learned as an international political professional.
Are you going to take a break?
No break. You know, I found out something. I found out early enough when you get a little bit of success, it’s fleeting. One moment it’s there, the next it’s not, and so right now I have access to certain conversations and certain people and I plan to take advantage of that.
Have you found common sensibilities across all the things you have done?
I feel the happiest when I’m traveling. I also discovered that the things that interest me are within the political slant that I tend to take, because that almost comes naturally to me. And storytelling. Those three elements are the common threads throughout everything I’ve done in my life.
What realities have you learned about producing a film?
There were a lot of slammed doors, unanswered emails, a lot of nos. Part of working as a producer is accepting that that is your job now. Even now, doing the festival circuit, all the emails saying no, we will not show your film, I have to filter them and be ok with it. And I’m ok with it.
Have you ever had a mentor? I am remembering at least four mentors off the bat that are absolutely crucial in the way that I led my life and got to where I am. If you don’t have a mentor when you’re doing stuff, then maybe you’re not quite aware of what you’re doing right. We all follow models and I certainly did.
What movie do you watch again and again? I am a big fan of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. I know, it’s not people’s favorite Kubrick… It’s between Eyes Wide Shut and The Shining.
What keeps you up at night?
Donald Trump. For someone who has worked in the hallways of diplomacy and peace-building, I find myself looking around the world right now and thinking, do I even want to have kids? It’s really sad. And I’m not saying this in a sensationalistic way, you know, I’m a decently informed guy. But it’s really scary to see the way things are going right now.
What would your 16-year old self think of you now?
He would say, why have you not done more? You’re wasting time! I feel the sense of urgency. He would be very disappointed that I haven’t been able to make the best out of all the time that I had.
Do you love what you do?
Right now, I do! I’m starting to not be so stressed out, and right now the answer is yes.
Photos courtesy of P.J. Marcellino and When They Awake, 2017. All rights reserved. This interview has been edited and condensed.