Talent on Tap – Sheona McDonald Brings Us – Into Light

If you’re a parent, you never forget the day your bundle of joy is born and that your only worry is they’re born healthy. As they begin to grow, you can find yourself putting expectations on your child, once you think they are ready. Yes, a parent can live through their child, it’s common and we want to provide as much guidance as possible to ensure they’re going to be successful. Success, good health and to be loved… is what’s important, for a parent. Some parents enjoy micro managing their children’s life – don’t touch that, take it out of your mouth and quit playing in the dirt. It’s for their own safety and you’re responsible for them and they’re happiness. So, when your child comes to you and tells you that they don’t feel like a girl, or a boy and wants to start wearing dresses instead of jeans or a baseball cap instead of pig-tails. We all know that children are incredibly honest about their feelings/emotions and as a parent, it’s sometimes hard to listen to their wants and needs without putting your own expectations first. That book on how to raise a healthy child, just ran out of chapters and now you’re flying blind and completely outside your wheelhouse.  


The best thing any parent can do is to understand their child. Communication is always essential to a good relationship and having that circle of trust, that safety zone that exists without judgement or a lecture, is very important to the mental health of a child. If they can’t trust you, who can they trust? You are their guardian, their comfort zone, the safety blanket and their psychologist/counsellor. They are innocent, they are trying to understand their new bodies and how everything works and they are confused sometimes. Life is not always a straight line or A to B, sometimes it’s A to Q and there are mountains along the way. 


Gender reclassification is not a common topic but it requires your full attention if it involves your offspring. When a child reveals who they truly are on the inside, how does a parent set aside their own expectations to help them become their most authentic self? Sheona McDonald’s documentary, Into Light captures a season of change as a mother and child navigate the complexities of gender identity together. Coming out in school and in the community, requires care and advocacy on everything from pronouns to playdates. 

This film was directed by Sheona McDonald, who has worked in the film and television industry for two decades – producing, directing and writing documentary features, limited series and narrative shorts. Her most recent projects include the feature-length documentary,Dead Man’s Switch: A Crypto Mystery, about the death of Gerald Cotten, founder of the QuadrigaCX Cryptocurrency exchange, as well as,A Short Essay on Men,Candice,Inside Her Sex,When Dreams Take Flight,Capturing a Short Lifeand the second season of the Knowledge Network’s popular seriesEmergency Room: Life and Death at VGH


The film will make its premiere at Hot Docs on April 29 – May 9 and I had the unique privilege of speaking with Sheona. It was a captivating conversation.


HNMAG “This is a beautiful story and a very necessary story. Did you find this story or did it find you?”

SHEONA “I think good stories find the people to tell them.  The mom is a friend of ours that lived with us when she was pregnant, so I’ve known her a long time. When it had all started, I asked her if she’d be interested in telling her story. Although she’s a very private person, she was quick to say yes, because she was looking for support that wasn’t available and by putting this story out there, it could help other parents from going through the same thing… which is important to her.”’


HNMAG “Was it difficult to determine the best way to approach the film/story?”

SHEONA “I think the biggest challenge was, that we couldn’t see them… but we knew that from early on. We couldn’t show the identity of the mom or the child out of fear of outing them. My concern became – how do you connect to them and the story, as a viewer? I had considered animation and other possibilities… but we knew even early into concepts that we could use the north and the remoteness of Yellowknife and the landscapes as part of the film. I did a pre interview that became the structure of the film and we had just finished filming when covid hit. We were going to go back for more footage, but we were able to finish the film with the footage we had.”


HNMAG  “How many times did you travel up there and how much time did you spend with the family?”

SHEONA “Well crazy enough, I had gone up to shoot the pre interview with Shirley Vercruysse from the National Film Board in 2019. I had sat down with the mom for an interview to help determine how to cut the material together and how the story would play out. We went up again last year from March 6-9th with a crew. We had intended on going back for 2 more seasons but it got cut short, so we basically used every frame from the footage we shot.”


HNMAG “What type of camera was the footage captured on?”

SHEONA “Simon Schneider was the Director of Photography and he shoots such beautiful imagery. It was his idea to shoot it anamorphic, to give a sense of the landscapes and the space. Because of that particular lens, it also ended up cutting out a lot of details from people so you couldn’t tell who they were, without feeling like we needed to hide them.  I believe he was using the Arri Alexa camera.” 


HNMAG “What size of a crew did you bring up with you?”

SHEONA “Simon knew the subject before the documentary, so there was him and producer Teri Snelgrove from the NFB, there was a sound person from Calgary that also knew the mom, then 2 other people – so it was kept pretty small. More important than the size of the crew was really having a safe crew, a safe space and respecting the schedule of the child. Everyone there was committed to the telling of the story in a transparent way without inhibiting anyone.”


HNMAG “As a mother, were you naturally drawn to this story and the sharing of it?”

SHEONA “It’s hard enough being a parent, then there’s the added weight of navigating forward, that most parents are not used to doing. The minutiae that you might not think about – swimming parties, sleep overs, sports games or getting changed are all things that we don’t think about. There are things that add layers of complications – who do you trust, who do you tell and who has the right to know?”

Sheona continued to share with me her best hope for the film.

“It’s my hope that 10 years from now, this film will be redundant and it won’t matter why I made this film because there will be more acceptance and better conversations. I have 3 kids, 17, 14 and 10, that I’m so impressed with because of their language and their acceptance.”


HNMAG “Did you have to do a lot of research on the subject of trans children before starting the project?”

SHEONA “Not a tremendous amount, the mom in the story had already done so much research herself, that it was really about listening to her story. As I had mentioned before, the research was largely on the language; how do you describe things, what’s okay to say, what’s not okay to say, how do you use safe language and what are the pronouns? I think it’s a matter of framing and reframing, keeping up to date and being sensitive and asking questions about things I don’t know, as well as giving myself a break for not knowing everything.”


HNMAG “How has the audience reaction been to the film?”

SHEONA “It hasn’t had an audience yet, so Hot Docs will be the first screening, coming up on April 29 – May 9. It’s playing with a medium length doc film called Drop Stones, that I haven’t seen yet. Tickets went on sale yesterday.”


HNMAG “Do you see yourself championing for other social issues?”

SHEONA “I guess we’ll see. The National Film Board produced this film but I’ve done a number of social issue projects. As I’ve said… subjects seem to find the person that’s going to tell it… so I won’t say yes or no (laughing), we’ll see what else tracks me down. I also have my Crypto Currency film showing at Hot Docs, which is another feature doc.”


HNMAG “Is it difficult to get a feature length documentary to screen at Hot Docs?”

SHEONA “It is, I had some films in there in the early 2000’s but it’s been about 15 years since I’ve had anything else in there. Now I’m going in with two, so that’s fun.”    


HNMAG “How much do you miss physically going to film festivals?”

SHEONA “Oh, it’s so sad – all the parties, all the events, all the screenings and all the people. The good thing is that it becomes more globally available to everyone. Hot Docs has decided not to geo-block it, so my films will be available to everyone – which is good but sad because I’m going to miss my people.”


HNMAG “Have you been in touch with the family since finishing the film?”

SHEONA “Yes I have. We worked really closely with the mom and she was able to view the rough cut and the final cut, because it was so important to have that dialogue along the way. We’d run publicity material by them, even the shots – to ensure we weren’t overstepping boundaries/stepping on any toes. It’s been a very collaborative process, which was really important in this film. When I had interviewed the child, it always came back to ‘letting kids be who they are’, it’s that simple (laughing).”       


HNMAG “I’d like to switch gears a little and ask you about your other film, Dead Man’s Switch – Crypto Currency, the death of Gerald Cotten. Can you explain what the story is about?”

SHEONA “If you’re not familiar with a ‘dead man’s switch’ it’s where you have something setup on your computer, requiring that you check in and input your password every 7 days… and if you don’t, it will trigger a reaction. If you were responsible for a large amount of money, you might have to login every 24 hrs or every 30 days as a security measure. If you are unable to do it within the specified time, it could trigger the account information to be sent to 5 people, as agreed upon.”


HNMAG “Did you uncover information or facts that weren’t previously known to the public?”

SHEONA “It’s a very well researched film, but it’s not investigative. It’s more about talking to people that investigated along the way. There are a number of reporters, there’s some creditors as well as people involved in securities. I’m not sure if we uncovered anything, but I think we brought/accumulated a lot of complicated information into one spot (laughing). One of the representatives of Hot Docs told me I made bitcoin understandable.”


HNMAG “It sounds like there were many interviews in making that film.”

SHEONA “Yes, there were about 15. We had interviews scheduled for last April in New York, Montreal and Toronto that we didn’t go to because of Covid. Similar situation, where we had to look at the material that we had, to see what was missing. Over the course of the year, I had a team shoot some recreations in Toronto, a team shoot in LA and a team in India. It’s a bit complicated, but it’s a good story at its core.”


HNMAG “Would you say, that story found you as well?”

SHEONA “That one, I sort of inadvertently pitched it by stating in a nondescript, ‘hey, isn’t crypto currency kind of an interesting story?’ I ended up with some money to figure something out; that was in 2017. I really couldn’t come up with anything and became a little bored and wanted to get out of it… and then I heard the story about Quadriga and Gerry (Gerald Cotten). I immediately knew – this is why I’ve been waiting, I could just feel it. I was in a position to get started on it pretty quickly.”              


HNMAG “What’s the most extreme food you’ve ever tried?”

SHEONA “Okay… hmmn, we were in China in the early 2000’s and I didn’t try the live shrimp, so that’s not a good story – but my husband ate it. They came soaked in alcohol and were still moving… I couldn’t do it. It would’ve been China though, because there was a lot of food I didn’t recognize, so… yeah, I don’t have a good answer but it will come to me later.”  


HNMAG “If the pandemic was over tomorrow and you could take your family anywhere in the world for vacation, where would it be?”

SHEONA “We have this conversation all the time and everyone seems to have different answers. My youngest wants to go back to Costa Rica, we missed a trip to go to South Africa for Christmas with friends last year, so I might want to do that. I’ve never been to South America and would love to go down to Machu Picchu and tour around South America a bit.”  


Such an insightful interview that I sincerely hope will help to educate and provide information on the subject of trans children. Acceptance for all is essential if we dare to call ourselves a free country. We have miles to go but I know we’ll get there.  


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