Justine Stewart and her three-year-old daughter, Violet, who can't wait to go to school. Photo credit: Justine Stewart.

Justine Stewart, a graduating student in the scriptwriting program at Algonquin College, won second place this month at the annual short film contest held by Open Screenplay, the world’s leading online screenplay platform.

It started off as a project for school. Stewart needed to write a short film that was at least five to 10 minutes long, or about five to 10 pages of script.

She came up with We Don’t Have Those at Home, a story set in an American elementary school. It follows a new Canadian student and her classmate in a closet conversing and playing with each other. Stewart spent three months working on it.

“The script is a 10-minute short between two eight-year-old children and at the beginning of the piece, they’re hiding in a closet. You don’t know why but you know the little girl is upset and the little boy is comforting her, trying to play and kind of just trying to get her to come out of her shell,” Stewart said.

The reason why they’re in the closet is revealed at the end of the story, when a teacher comes to get them and the little girl is still frozen in fear not knowing what to do.

“The little boy has to explain to her, ‘This is what we do in the drills. The shooters moved past us, so now we go up the hall’, and the little girl just says, ‘I’ve never done those,’ because she’s already explained she’s from Canada,” Stewart added. “’We don’t have those at home.’”

Stewart is originally from Missouri and came to Ottawa on a student permit while she completes her yearlong studies. She said she took inspiration from the tragic frequency of school shootings in the U.S., especially the near normalization of them and what a child who doesn’t understand what’s happening might be feeling.

The idea for the theme came from having to take her stuff with her every time she left the classroom, since the classroom doors don’t lock.

“The first couple of times I was like, well that’s an annoyance, because you have all your big heavy stuff every time,” Stewart said. “And then I started thinking, that’s got to be a safety issue, right?”

Stewart brought the issue to her classmates, asking them what they do if there’s an emergency. At first, they thought she meant if there was a fire.

“I said, no, I’m the American here. What do you do if there’s a shooter? she asked. “And they said, ‘Oh, well, we don’t have those.’”

Open Screenplay awarded Stewart with a letter thanking her for sharing her talent and US$500, about C$670.

As for what’s next for Stewart, she plans to try and get a job so her family can stay in Canada permanently.

“I think we’re going to start looking at pathways to permanent residence. So even more important than getting a job as a writer is getting a job that can help my family stay here and become permanent residents.” Stewart said.