When Michelle Kahn was five years old, she had a crush on Elvis. She can also remember watching The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and falling in love with them. She thinks about growing old, but says she doesn’t want to retire from directing films, her passion since high school.
Kahn is only 23.
The Toronto-born filmmaker has old-fashioned sensibilities but keeps herself compulsively busy, jumping from gig to gig. When she is not making short films, Kahn teaches drama and produces and directs plays for Jewish day schools and community centres around Toronto. She says she could not see her life moving at any other speed.
“I’ll get on a project like a play. I’ll have just started producing it, and then my dad will turn around and say, ‘I think you can also do this. Why don’t you try that?’” she says. “So I’ll have five or six things going at once, and I’ll just do them. I’m like an Energizer bunny.”
Kahn was not drawn to filmmaking by venturing out to the local cinema, which she seldom does, but by planning her life around the schedule of the cable channel, Turner Classic Movies. TCM first exposed her to silent films, which she quickly fell in love with – especially the films of Charlie Chaplin.
“I thought [silent film] was the coolest thing in the world,” Kahn says. “I couldn’t understand how they filmed it. I didn’t understand how you got the words on the screen. So, I researched all about it.”
She shuffled biography after biography of pioneering early Hollywood figures to her classes at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto’s Kimel campus. Many of the books focused on how the entertainers she revered never went to high school but started working on their passion in their teens.
“I was afraid I was going to be late in the game if I waited until after CHAT,” she says.
Kahn wrote her first short film – a silent, Chaplin-inspired slapstick comedy called Sunset and Camden – in an hour, during a French class. She spent the next two years preparing the 10-minute film about two men vying for a young woman’s affection at a bus stop.
Sunset and Camden was a family affair: Kahn played the female protagonist, her father, Trevor, held the camera, sister Orly did the makeup, brother Joseph starred as a paperboy, and mother Gracy provided the craft services – including pies that were thrown at the actors’ faces.
When she entered the film in the Tanenbaum CHAT film festival, Kahn says she was the underdog. “Everyone told me I was going to lose because it was a silent movie and it was in black-and-white and it was a period piece. Nobody votes for that.”
However, the presence of many parents and grandparents in the audience shifted support in Kahn’s favour. She won with 70 per cent of the vote.
Inspired, she began submitting Sunset and Camden to different film festivals across North America. That film and a sophomore short, In the Army, were screened at Sprockets, a family-oriented film festival in Toronto. Kahn’s shorts have also been screened at festivals in Idaho, Nova Scotia and California.
She says her early short films were silent because she didn’t want to tackle sound mixing. Kahn produced her first “talkie” at her father’s behest when she attended York University for film studies.
“[My family] wants me to be in movies. That’s weird for a Jewish family,” she says, noting that her parents would encourage her to skip class to follow up with festival organizers. “My parents were the ones who always said, ‘Send them an email, send them a phone call… It’s a business call. It’s more important.’”
When she is not shouting orders behind the camera, Kahn is doing the same thing behind the curtain. She directs and produces musicals at several Jewish day schools, including the Associated Hebrew Schools’ Danilack Middle School, where she is currently working on a version of Mamma Mia, cheekily titled Ima Oy! As the head of Oy-Oy Productions, she is also working on a production of A Chorus Line featuring adult performers. Both shows will be staged in March.
She also teaches drama at J Roots Supplementary Jewish School, which she says is her way to give back to the Jewish community by helping kids express themselves through acting, especially kids who are being bullied or who have low self-esteem. Even though she doesn’t want to work as a teacher full time, Kahn hopes that putting on plays can help lift the children’s spirits.
“I want to inspire them because when I was little, I was bullied really badly,” she says. “I was the class loser.” She says that other kids picked on her for being quiet and different, with her interest in classic movies and television, more attuned to The Beatles than The Backstreet Boys.
To distract herself from her peers’ scorn, Kahn resorted to watching movies. “I’d like to think that if I wasn’t bullied as bad as I was, I wouldn’t be in movies right now,” she says.
Kahn has plans to shoot another silent short film this spring and hopes to write a feature-length film. Later this year, she says she plans to shop around to festivals in North America a feature documentary she made about her grandfather, Wanted: The Joseph Esses Story. It chronicles her grandfather’s difficult life growing up in Aleppo, Syria, where the Jewish community was often the target of harsh criticism and violence.
When Kahn screened the film in Toronto in January, she was thrilled to see her grandfather’s glowing reaction. She says that watching his face was one of the proudest moments of her young career. That response, however, did not compare to her watching Sunset and Camden with an audience at Sprockets in Toronto, an experience that she says changed her life.
“There was this three-second or less shot of my face as I wait for a bus. I saw my face on the big screen and said, ‘I want to make movies.’”