Canadian filmmaker launches My Millennial Life, an interactive documentary that follows the lives of new-grads searching for success in a world not yet ready

Maureen Judge is a Canadian producer, director and mother of two living in Toronto. Her most recent project is the TVO documentary called My Millennial Life. It’s about big dreams, crushing disappointments, love, life and learning how to “adult.” Maureen and her team explore the pressures young professionals face after they finish post-secondary school – a time they’ve been encouraged to look forward to their whole lives, as here, the world taught them, they would receive top-notch jobs and achieve inspiring dreams. Instead, many young professionals and new graduates are working for free at internships or accepting a dead-end job just to barely pay the bills.

When I finished university, I didn’t feel like I was ready to go into work (read: I was petrified, but also very excited and overwhelmed all at the same time). So, I explored a post-graduate program and after completing this academic adventure, I took an administrative assistant position at a non-profit organization just to get my foot in the door. Every day, I woke up and went to work and felt like I left a part of me at home – the part of me I had explored and developed all throughout my academic career. The part of me my parents promised me I could be – because I could do whatever I wanted. Right?

Everyone has to start somewhere, and I am lucky to have had a paid experience right after I finished school, but I know how disheartening it can be to have goals and dreams in your head, but feel like you’re on a highway that’s leading you in a completely different direction, or maybe not leading you into any direction at all. This feeling is actually what prompted me to launch A Quarter Young, now nearly four years ago.

With many friends who work as teachers, a career that often begins with a decade of inconsistent supply work, I see how my peers are faced with similar challenges, too. They take volunteer opportunities to occupy hours after the bell, enroll in additional qualification courses to make them more hireable and spend weekends tutoring, just trying to make some extra money to pay off their cars, something they need when supply jobs are assigned at the last minute and transit is not a reliable option.

Maureen Judge, director of My Millennial Life, with Maya Bankovic, Director of Photography and Jeremy Stone, sound, filming with Hope. Courtesy of Maureen Judge.
Maureen Judge, director of My Millennial Life, with Maya Bankovic, Director of Photography and Jeremy Stone, sound, filming with Hope. Courtesy of Maureen Judge.

After connecting with Maureen on Twitter through Rachel Kellogg, a young communications professional A Quarter Young has previously featured, we sat down to ask a few questions about how My Millennial Life will positively impact the lives of people in their 20s and early 30s.

1. My Millennial Life is an interactive documentary, giving people the opportunity to have single webisodes created about them, that is also part of a larger project – a feature film. Where did the idea for My Millennial Life come from?

The idea for the project began a few years ago, when I became aware of the high unemployment and underemployment of recent college and university grads. I had read about the 50 per cent unemployment rate of 25-year-olds in parts of Europe and began to look in my own backyard. I found that the combined unemployment and underemployment for recent grads in North America was almost 50 per cent. Not as extreme as Europe, but nonetheless, still rough. I felt alarmed about the future of the country and wanted to explore how 20 somethings were coping. In making the film, I wanted to give a human face to the statistics.

2. How much time have you already invested in
My Millennial Life?

I spent three years developing and producing My Millennial Life, which includes the film and the interactive online platform.  We spent about a year filming the lives of the seven subjects, a few months for some and over a year for others. There are five subjects in the film and five in the i-Doc. Three of the subjects who inhabit both platforms. Emily was the first subject I began filming. When I met her she had just graduated and was excited to launch her adult life. She had so many dreams and expectations at that moment, which, little by little, were worn down as she tried to find a job and be independent. Because I didn’t have full finding when I cast her, I asked if she would make video diaries of her life during this period – very short manageable ones. I didn’t know I was going to use them in the film, but she was so honest and open in [these video diaries], I decided to include them and asked Emily to continue making them throughout the filming process.  

3. The aim of My Millennial Life is to follow stories of talented and resourceful millennials as they navigate adulthood and deal with the harsh reality of a tough economy. As someone in my mid-20s, I can certainly relate to this type of story. Why do you think sharing stories like this is so important for generations of today, tomorrow and yesterday?

I wanted to open up a discussion about the struggles of today’s grads, where millennials could see themselves reflected in the film and understand that they are not alone and, also, that there is hope. I tried to make a film that would put a face on the millennial statistics constantly being spouted in the press and hoped the film might bridge a dialogue between millennials and their parents, employers and the boomer community.

Interviewee Emily discussing the My Millennial Life theme, Expectations. Courtesy of Maureen Judge.
Interviewee Emily discussing the My Millennial Life theme, Expectations. Courtesy of Maureen Judge.

4. The webisodes you and your team create often focus on (In)dependence, Love, Reality, Expectations and work. Do you have a favourite theme to explore?

I find all of the themes relevant and together they work to frame a story around each of the subjects in the i-Doc. The theme (In)dependence has some very strong scenes attached to it, particularly the family scene with Hope who, at 26, wants so badly to move out of home and grow up, and yet, has to deal with her parents’ very real fear of letting go.

The theme Expectations is fundamental to overall documentary and it’s summed up in Emily’s webisode on Expectations, “In my mind growing up, it was like, after public school you go to high school, after high school you go to university, you get your degree and then you’re somebody. And I thought that that entitled me to some type of career but really that’s just not the case.”  Since 1981, there’s been an almost 60 per cent increase of 25 to 29-year-olds with post-secondary degrees, and as boomers, we believed education would allow this generation to get ahead, and that’s what we taught them. However, these expectations are not being met, even though that’s what we promised.

5. Why did your team zone in on these five themes?

Actually, before we settled on the themes, we fashioned the i-Doc stories around the 1960s milestones their parents would have reached for: “graduation,” “a job,” “marriage,” “buy a house,” “have a family” and “success.” However, we realized that these milestones, though ironic today, might not register and that we should look to themes that encompass today’s world. For example: what are graduates’ Expectations; what is Work today (and what’s available); Finding Love is vital, but it’s no longer necessarily synonymous with heterosexuality and marriage; Achieving Independence is a conscious goal for many 20-somethings in today’s world; and finally, the Reality of where the subjects find themselves and how they are coping is more relevant than a random measure indicated by the word success.

6. How many stories have you heard so far for the My Millennial Life project?

We interviewed over 100 individuals, all of whom had interesting and dynamic stories. It’s always difficult to make decisions on who to film, but once we had one subject, in this case Emily, it became easier to decide who else should be in the documentary. We were looking for diverse stories, and for a variety of personalities to give a broad and exciting and authentic picture of the the generation.

7. What kind of stories did you search for when creating this documentary?

I didn’t have particular stories in mind before my researchers and I started interviewing the subjects. We knew we wanted to talk to individuals with a range of interests in order to reflect today’s world. For example, for the film platform we looked for a tech person and found James, co-founder of the start-up Skywatch. And it was not just any start-up, the company was literally reaching for the stars – a perfect metaphor for someone building their future. We also cast Tim, in both the film and the i-Doc, a very clever and aspiring musician who like many had a mundane day job, but was aiming to be a star.

Interviewee Kirsty at a Pow Wow, as filmed in My Millennial Life. Courtesy of Maureen Judge.
Interviewee Kirsty at a Pow Wow, as filmed in My Millennial Life. Courtesy of Maureen Judge.

We also wanted a grad with a professional designation in order to explore the difficulties finding work despite having a professional designation. Looking for a teacher, we met Kirsty who was both sensitive and super ambitious, already on to studying for a Master’s Degree in her free time. Nonetheless, she was having problems finding a teaching job. Kirsty also ended up being an interesting subject because she was passionately involved in discovering, exploring and celebrating her aboriginal roots, which in previous generations could not have happened.

8. How much time do you spend with each interviewee before putting the finishing touches on their webisode?

Because we were filming for both the film documentary and the interactive documentary, we spent over 10 days throughout the period of a year with subjects who  appear on just in the film or on both platforms, and closer to six days over four to six months with those who only only appear in the i-Doc.

9. What seems to be the toughest situation the millennials you’ve interacted with have experienced?

I feel the toughest situation was looking for work, day after day, only to find low wage dead-end jobs or internships that didn’t pay any wage. The long exaggerated job hunt is demoralizing and undercuts self-esteem. However, I did find that most of the millennials were able to retain an element of optimism and push forward carving out their own path. Hope is what carries each of them through tough periods.

10. On MyMillennialLife.ca, there are numerous (shocking) statistics available, including this one: “Twenty-one per cent of employers believe academic institutions are failing to prepare students for work.” Do you hope this documentary helps provoke change in the post-secondary/post-graduate school systems in North America? How so?

Great question. I believe the more education the better and that, for example, Liberal Studies can be very valuable. However, school curriculums need to include some practical, market driven courses to ensure graduating students can find a relevant jobs with a future in order to be self-supporting. I believe the stats give context to each of the webisodes and inform the user of reality for each subject.

11. You’re working hand in hand with TVO to produce this piece – how has it been working with the team there?

The TVO team has been amazing to work with. I’ve done several films with TVO, including Unveiled: The Mother Daughter Relationship, In My Parents’ Basement and Mom’s Home and I have found that when they commission a film, the commissioning editors are incredibly supportive of the director’s vision.

12. In university, it always seemed that professors had a really hard time trying to find Canadian content that was both timely and relevant for lecture material. I remember feeling like I had over-consumed American content throughout my four year undergraduate program. As someone who has experience teaching at the post-secondary and post-graduate level, why is producing Canadian content that is relevant for so many young people in this country beneficial and important to you and to the future of education here?

Producing relevant Canadian content is is absolutely essential to share with other Canadians (including students). It allows us to explore and reflect upon our lives here and now as a conscious nation. It’s also inspiring to see creative initiatives by other Canadians, knowing that it is possible to make work at home that has an impact on others.

13. You’ve been in the film industry for a long time and are the co-founder of makin’ movies inc., a production agency based in Toronto. With Shaw Media, makin’ movies just completed a documentary called Living Dolls. It seems you have many projects and campaigns on the go! How do you manage your time efficiently and effectively?

I always feel like I should do more. But to answer your question, I tend to throw myself into one project at a time. It’s an all-consuming process. Luckily, I’ve also had the opportunity to teach over the years which gives me a break from time to time and a chance to catch up on my own study of film. Most importantly, I find joy in teaching. I love working with young aspiring filmmakers who are excited by the process and full of energy and ideas.

14. Being in a creative industry myself, I understand that sometimes, it takes a lot of time and effort to find a unique angle or to find the source of inspiration before a project can really take flight. Where do you go, or what do you do, to find creativity and inspiration?

I read a lot, see a lot of films, watch TV, go out to art shows, but most of my inspiration comes from my everyday life of being a mother, wife, friend, daughter and grocery shopper [and by] cleaning the house, taking a walk and observing others. The spark for My Millennial Life initially came from news articles about Europe’s struggling economy, but the ultimate passion came from having two kids who are millennials and valuing their hard work, insight and drive. I wondered about their daily struggles and those of others their age. I began to wonder about their future. So I made the film.

The idea for my previous documentary on doll collectors, Living Dolls, came from another film I had just made, Mom’s Home. While making Mom’s Home, one of my subjects, May, collected dolls and was in the early stages Alzheimer’s. While filming, she had to give away many of her dolls because she was moving back to her Scottish homeland and couldn’t take them all with her. Each doll had its own story – how she got the doll and what it meant to her. It was as if with each doll May had to give away, she lost that part of her life. It was very sad. Seeing this, I became interested in the kinds of relationships many people have with dolls, which though inanimate objects, are human representations.

15. What has been the most rewarding aspect of your career in the film industry?

I love meeting people and listening to their stories. I’m always learning about life, the upside, downside and the funny side. I love to laugh and I try to imbue my work with a sense of humour. Laughter for me is a way of making bearable an often difficult or demoralizing situation.

16. Did you always want to get into film and TV?

I had no idea I would be in film during my undergraduate years. After graduating from the University of Toronto, I went to the University of Strasbourg for a year to study French and that’s where I discovered film. I went to films almost every night – that’s what the students did. Movies weren’t just entertainment, they were part of the French culture. I came back to Toronto knowing I wanted to pursue film, but I didn’t know if it would be an academic or practical path. After a few years of working at CBC in radio and taking film courses at York and Ryerson universities, I went to NYU to do a Master’s Degree in Cinema Studies where I was able to also take production courses. And once I began making films (tiny one-reelers at first), I never looked back. At that point, I was making narrative films and my first few post-school films were satiric comedies. I made my first documentary with the National Film Board, And We Knew How To Dance: Women and WWI, and fell in love with documentary.

17. What is a lesson you know now that you wish you knew in your 20s?

Time is on your side and it’s worth pursuing your dreams. In my early 20s, I was always rushing thinking I better hurry up before I missed the boat. I graduated at a young age from undergraduate studies and just when I thought I was getting old, at 25 I arrived in New York to discover that I was still young and able to try new things. Even now, many years later, I’m still interested in learning. The latest is interactive documentary, which didn’t even exist as a form a few years ago.

18. What do you hope audiences take away from My Millennial Life?

I want millennials to watch the film, relate to it, laugh and cry and come away able to discuss the struggles and not blame themselves for their situation. If this audience recognizes the optimism and glimmers of hope portrayed by the documentary’s subjects, perhaps they can find that spark in themselves. I also want the film to open a dialogue with parents, bosses and co-workers, and understand that dreams and expectations of each generation are important and should be respected and applauded.

To watch the My Millennial Life i-Doc, visit mymillenniallife.ca, which also has information about the film – including bios on the subjects, the credits, a news blog and more statistics like the ones we’ve discussed in this feature.  

My Millennial Life received two nominations in the Canadian Screen Awards on March 12, Best Documentary Program and Best Cross Platform Project – non-fiction. My Millennial Life took home Best Documentary Program a the 2017 CSAs.

Learn more about My Millennial Life through the documentary’s Facebook,  Twitter and Instagram.

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