Sheona McDonald has always been intrigued by stories based in real life. “As a kid I found ‘real people stories’ interesting,” she recalls. “My mom would have on The Fifth Estate or 60 Minutes, and I’d sit down and watch it with her.”
It’s fitting, then, that Sheona grew up to be a documentary filmmaker, a career that’s allowed her to immerse herself in different worlds and perspectives. Her first short film, made as a student at North Vancouver’s Capilano college, was about author Rosalind MacPhee’s fight against breast cancer. She followed that production with Breaking the Cycle, exploring an Aboriginal man’s work to end domestic violence in his own life and the lives of people in his community.
“I found out fairly quickly that I was drawn to more intense, ‘taboo’ subject matter,” says Sheona. “I didn’t mind. I was curious about stretching outside of my own experience and learning about worlds that I didn’t live in.”
Her films continue to explore deeply personal and emotion-charged topics, from Lifers: Stories from Prison, about men serving life sentences in Canadian prisons, to Capturing a Short Life, a look at families dealing with the tragic loss of an infant. She’s currently working on two films: one following a former adult film star and women’s rights advocate in her search for the mother who gave her up; the other about the contemporary state of manhood. She’s delved into lighter fare, too, with When Dreams Take Flight, about a group of students in Ontario who build a human-powered ornithopter – basically a giant, flapping plane.
Sheona finds the variety in her work rewarding, but making a documentary is not an easy endeavour. It can take years to develop and produce a film, and budgets are typically tight.
“So much of our funding is tied into having a broadcaster on board a project, so it’s hard to make a documentary without one,” she explains. “The relationship is symbiotic and so important. Places like Knowledge provide not only a platform for people to see the work of filmmakers, but it is also really a partnership that drives how we get films made.”
Sheona is a Knowledge Partner because she values this vital relationship – and, of course, because she loves watching documentaries and appreciates the quality and quantity she finds on Knowledge.
“I think it’s important to support our local broadcasters. There’s really interesting programming on Knowledge that allows us to see what’s going on here in BC.... Where else are you going to get that? Local stories are so important.”
Sheona, a monthly donor, speaks from first-hand experience, having directed the second season of the Knowledge Network series Emergency Room: Life and Death at VGH. Spending more than five months filming in the ER not only bolstered her appreciation for the people who work there, it also made her a bit of an armchair medical expert, able to use terms like “hypertrophic cardiomyopathy” and actually understand what they mean.
It’s this opportunity for learning that really fuels her passion for making and watching documentaries. “You get to immerse yourself in a person or a world that you otherwise wouldn’t have access to. And there’s so much out there... If you have a curiosity about people and places it’s at your fingertips, and that’s kind of amazing.”