‘I think it’s rare for Newfoundlanders to see a serious portrayal of the island.’

Newfoundland film Riverhead gains two nominations at Canadian Screen Awards and plays to a sold-out crowd in Victoria, B.C.

Kyle Greenham

Sitting in a dining room with a gun safe and a fireplace behind him, and sipping a cup of Tetley tea, Newfoundland filmmaker Justin Oakey displays a deep connection with the island’s culture, and it reflects strongly in his work as a director.

His debut feature film Riverhead is now set for a sold out screening at the Victoria Film Festival in British Columbia on Feb. 4. The film is an atmospheric and visceral look at rivalries in rural Newfoundland, set in the communities of Riverhead and Harbour Grace.

“To me, it’s a serious and honest portrayal of Newfoundland characters,” Oakey said. “I feel that most people are so sick of the toothless-men-in-rubber-boots stereotypes in a lot of movies set here. I think it’s generally rare for Newfoundlanders to see a serious portrayal of the island.”

Riverhead features a cast entirely of locals, and Oakey encouraged actors to adapt the dialogue to their own dialect, adding to the films gritty and naturalistic style.

Newfoundland filmmaker Justin Oakey is hoping to make films that display a naturalistic, but gritty and dramatic take on Newfoundland culture. His debut feature film, Riverhead, plays to a sold-out crowd at the Victoria Film Festival in B.C. Saturday. Kyle Greenham/Kicker

While going to film school in Toronto, Oakey still maintained a deep connection to his island roots.

“Newfoundlanders are ravenous for Newfoundland content,” Oakey said. “Anytime something gets produced here, whether they’re Newfoundlanders on the island or abroad, people are dying to see it.”

Now as a working director, Oakey draws from his own life experiences growing up in the province.

“What I want to do is take that love of Newfoundland culture people have and show that it doesn’t have to be (a) parody or caricature. It can be natural, mysterious and realistic,” he said. “I do think Riverhead shows Newfoundland as a place with texture; it’s not just this colourful tourism commercial.”

Riverhead has garnered the attention of the Canadian Academy of Cinema and Television, getting two nominations for the upcoming Canadian Screen Awards, to be aired on CTV March 12. Actor Evan Mercer, who gave his first feature film performance in Riverhead, was shocked to hear his name called on the list of supporting actor nominations at the awards’ press conference.

“I was in utter disbelief really,” Mercer said. “I’m still having a hard time believing it.”

Mercer will be attending the awards ceremony with fellow Riverhead actor, Lawrence Barry, who was nominated for best lead actor.

“I feel I’m more of a representative of all the people who were in that cast because everyone was fantastic,” Mercer said. “And I’m just very flattered someone decided to single me out for my work.”

After the Victoria Film Festival, Riverhead will next have four screenings in Grand Falls-Windsor. It plays Feb. 6, 8 and 9 at the Classic, as well as an additional screening at the Arts and Culture Centre, March 1.

Oakey said the Newfoundland showings are a trial run.

“If it does well in Grand Falls, it may play in a couple (of) other rural communities,” Oakey said. “That’s more interesting to me than any festival – the idea that Newfoundlanders around the province will get to see the film.”

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