Johnny Ma, Director of Grand Canal: 2014 Heartland Film Festival Interview

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Johnny Ma was born in Shanghai, China and immigrated to Toronto at age 10, where he learned his first English sentence “Can I play?” He is a DGA and National Board of Review student-award winning director and a recent graduate from the Columbia University MFA program. His most recent short film Grand Canal screened at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Other than filmmaking, Ma enjoys teaching cats how to play fetch like dogs.

HFF: What is your film about, and how did the project come to be?

JM: Grand Canal is about a boat captain trying to collect a debt in order to save his boats, but the story is told from his son’s perspective who remembers the events vividly. The film was my thesis film at Columbia University. Up to that point, I’d made films in Australia, US and Brazil. Throughout those experiences I’ve honed in on my own process of how to make a film, but I felt I had to return to China, the place I was born, to make a film first. I also just wanted to learn how to make a film in China, as it is one of the more difficult places to make a film for various reasons

HFF: What was your role in the production?

JM: I was the writer and director.

HFF: Why did you submit to the Heartland Film Festival? Have you been to the Festival before?

JM: I’ve never been to the festival before but I had many friends who have and just have wonderful things to say about the city. My goal with the film is to have as many people who have never seen this world before to see it and, hopefully, be touched by it. And I can’t think of another place that is further from China than Indianapolis.

HFF: This year’s tagline is “Shift Your Perspective” – what lasting effect will your film have on moviegoers?

JM: I hope this film will stay with people, whether they like it or they don’t. There will be questions at the end of the viewing experience, and I want them to think about it and then come up and ask me. For me the discussion afterwards is always the best part of the experience.

HFF: What has inspired you to become a filmmaker?

JM: I was once told by a doctor I had only 25 percent chance of living, so after that, you really try to figure out what is your passion. For me [it is telling] stories, but maybe more specifically, finding a way to remember things for myself. So that when I am old and have lost my memory, I have something three dimensional to look back upon and can allow the memory of this wonderful [experience]to flood back in. So it is for selfish reasons.

HFF: What is something that you know about filmmaking now but you weren’t told when you started your career?

JM: You have to go where you are most afraid. That’s where the most interesting cinema can be found. And that’s also where you will find both success and failure waiting. And if you are fearless, then you will find that most interesting place of cinema.

HFF: What are some of your favorite movies? What’s your favorite worst movie (you know it’s bad, but still love it)?

JM: I go through phases, but right now, I am a huge fan of the films of Aki Kaurismaki, and then I am just bowed over by the films of Yasuijuro Ozu. He is a true treasure in cinema.

HFF: How many film festivals has your film been a part of? What do you like the most about the festival experience?

JM: I think it’s been about 30 or so festivals for Grand Canal. For me the best part of the festival experience is to actually attend it and meet the programmers, audience and other filmmakers. I love to watch other films, be inspired by them and discuss them with my peers. The free booze isn’t so bad either.

HFF: Heartland Film Festival moviegoers love filmmaker Q&As. Let’s say a Festival attendee wants to earn some brownie points—what is a question that you’d love to answer, but haven’t yet been asked?

JM: Whatever the first question that pops into your head is, don’t reject it. Just ask it. I know there will be questions at the end of the film. This is why I made it so we can talk about it afterwards.


See Grand Canal in Festival Award Shorts 2 at the 2014 Heartland Film Festival:

  • Friday, Oct. 17 – 10:30 am at AMC Castleton Square 14
  • Friday, Oct. 17 – 6:30 pm at AMC Castleton Square 14
  • Saturday, Oct. 18 – 10:15 am at AMC Traders Point Showplace 12
  • Sunday, Oct. 19 – 12:30 pm at AMC Castleton Square 14
  • Monday, Oct. 20 -12:00 pm at AMC Castleton Square 14
  • Thursday, Oct. 23 – 2:00 pm at AMC Traders Point Showplace 12
  • Friday, Oct. 24 – 4:00 pm at AMC Castleton Square 14
  • Saturday, Oct. 25 -12:45 pm at AMC Traders Point Showplace 12
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