March grad spotlight: Filmmaker, author Christopher Bessette


Christopher Bessette stands beside a relic film camera on display at the Welland Campus Learning Commons. It’s the very camera he used to use when he was a Broadcasting student at Niagara College during the 1980s.

Christopher Bessette is a storyteller at heart.

Whether he’s directing a motion picture in the jungles of the Amazon, producing a program for the Family Channel or typing out a novel or screenplay from the desk of his Thorold home, his mission is always the same: to get his story told.

“Storytelling has always been part of my DNA,” said Bessette, a multi-award-winning filmmaker, motion picture writer/director/producer, and – more recently – author, who graduated from Niagara College’s Broadcasting: Radio, Television and Film program in 1984. “As a child, even before Kindergarten, I remember having my parents cut Marvel comic characters out of my comic books and I would manipulate them to create my own stories with the characters.”

Among his multiple television and film credits, perhaps Bessette is best known for Trade of Innocents, which raises awareness of child exploitation through human trafficking, and features Academy Award-winning actor Mira Sorvino and Dermot Mulroney. He received the Best Director and Best Drama award for the film at the 2012 Breckenridge film Festival in Colorado and the film was the focus of a symposium on human trafficking at Yale University.

He also received a Best Director Award for The Enemy God, an epic tale that spans 50 years of an Amazonian tribe, at the ARPA International Film Festival in Hollywood. The film features 300 tribal people with 86 speaking parts. The fact that most of them had never seen a television before and Bessette taught them how to act for the camera so well that some viewers believed they were watching a documentary, is a great source of pride for the filmmaker. 

It’s his ability to instill a sense of reality to his work that Bessette believes contributes to his success. “Even for the fictional pieces, I always strive to make them very real, to remove that veneer, or sheen of Hollywood,” he said.

Bessette had a radio career in mind when he first enrolled in Niagara College’s BRTF program in the early 1980s. He had been playing in a local bar band called Hyjinx, and thought delving into radio would help make connections for his music. When he got to NC however, his interest shifted to film. “It filled all of my creative needs of being a storyteller – the visuals, the sound, everything,” he said. “That’s where I shone.”

He recalls his inspirational film instructor Elias Petras. “He was significant in my development as a filmmaker,” said Bessette. “It was definitely him that made me realize that this was what I wanted to do.

“I think the right people mentoring others is significant. It’s not just a job, it’s about investing in people’s lives”

After graduation, Bessette intended to take his dreams to Toronto to pursue his career however, life had other plans. His father became ill and he decided to stay at home and help his family. “I was still pursuing my goal but had to pursue it with one arm tied behind my back – but by choice,” he recalled.

After his father passed away, an addition was built to the family home which became home a nanny flat for his mother. That was where Bessette remained and planted the roots of his own growing family. He and his wife of 28 years currently have three children – two in their 20s, and one who is now 12.

While his work has taken him to many places around the world over the years, he spends much of his time in his humble little office at home, located in the nanny flat, where he writes. His new novel, The Mythamore, was written there, as was Trade of Innocents.

While he is a new author, Bessette said the story for The Mythamore – think: the myth of more  –  has been percolating for about 20 years, and he would intermittently work on writing it between projects. While a different medium, writing the novel was just another vehicle for him to achieve his constant goal: to tell stories, as well as to inspire and encourage others, and to provide for his family.

Teaching at NC 

In 2013, Bessette returned to NC, to teach a dramatic scriptwriting class for Acting and BRTF students.  He found the college a very different place than it was when he was a student. The Welland Campus was greatly expanded. The Broadcasting area has been renovated. He chuckled as he pointed out that the film camera he used to shoot on as a Broadcasting student is now displayed as a relic from the past in a glass case in the Learning Commons.

He has been enjoying the teaching experience; first in scriptwriting class in 2013, then in a film lab for winter semester 2013-2014.  In class, he often finds he has more to share with student than time permits. He aims to inspire his students and instill in them the importance of a story well told.

“You can cut around a bad actor, you can cut around a bad shot, but you can’t cut around a bad script … that’s the foundation of everything,” he said. “I love working with the students … who knows what future novelists and screenwriters will come out of those classes.”

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