How Canada is failing its black filmmakers

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Arnold Pinnock’s dream project did not come about easily. Instead, in the years the Canadian actor struggled to present and produce a series rooted in the history and culture of this country’s black people, there seemed to be little interest.

“In the past, I’ve been told directly to my face in certain circumstances that there was no audience,” Pinnock told CBC News. “So financially doing a project … it was not beneficial.”

In the eyes of many network leaders, he said, there was little appetite for such narratives, and investing money in them would only show how much the public cared.

Since those early experiences, however, things have started to change, Pinnock explained. And this change helped him bring the historical drama The doorman, which examines the real struggle for the civil rights of the railway carriers to create the first black union in North America, to life. Now, the series is jointly produced by CBC and BET +, and is currently filming in Winnipeg as the largest black-led television series ever to premiere in Canada.

But while its success highlights the progress the industry has made in supporting black creators, other events provide a darker look at how far ahead – a delay in progress that some say. creators, is masked by positive press releases and the limited number of successes of a few creators.

Pinnock appears in this behind-the-scenes photo at The Porter. The series, which is currently filmed in Winnipeg, is the largest black-directed television production in the country. (Submitted by Arnold Pinnock)

For example, even though Telefilm Canada promised Last year increase representation “in order to abolish systemic racism” through its Action Plan for Equity and Representation, a recent study by the Canadian Media Fund noted that Canada has failed to capitalize on “the global demand for content from Indigenous, black or racialized creators.”

Telefilm Canada only announced its plan after admitting that it could not provide detailed answers on the amount of funding allocated to BIPOC filmmakers (black, aboriginal and people of color) over the past five years. has not historically collected this data.

While Canadian actor-brothers Shamier Anderson and Stephan James created The Black Academy, Canada’s first-ever awards ceremony dedicated to celebrating black talent on screen, a Toronto nonprofit Women in View 2021 report at the same time, gave the country a “dismal” rating when it comes to hiring black and indigenous women in the film and television industry.

“Job growth for black women and women of color has not kept pace with general industry trends. The field of television writing is of particular concern,” the report notes in its conclusion.

“As film and television draw on the same talent pool, it seems there are hidden barriers preventing black women and writers of color from accessing television.”

“Very, very difficult road” to make series

Pinnock noted that it was a “very, very difficult road” for The doorman developed, but said the change that has been made is important – and can be sustained.

There is a vanguard of black Canadian creators who are building strong stories, bringing more black narratives back to Canada and changing what policymakers see as safe bet. Of The doorman’his own crew of Charles Officer, RT Thorne, Annmarie Morais and Marsha Greene at Diggstown showrunner Floyd Kane and many others, Pinnock said black Canadian voices continue to turn the tide.

And the more they are able to do it, the more the trend will continue.

“After, you know, all the relevance that’s happened over the last couple of years, I think there are more eyeballs on the networks that want to change,” he said. “Because let’s be clear, BIPOC products [weren’t] into the mainstream of shows under development, and they are certainly [now]. “

WATCH | A Toronto filmmaker explains what it means to be black in 2020:

Toronto filmmaker Kelly Fyffe-Marshall turned her trauma into art with her latest short, Black Bodies. During a visit to California, Fyffe-Marshall and his friends were checking out a rental property when someone called the police, accusing the group of breaking into the property. Black Bodies won a prestigious first at this year’s TIFF. Marivel Taruc spoke with Fyffe-Marshall about the film – and its message. 3:18

But even though the projects of these creators are successful, Kelly Fyffe-Marshall explained that there are still underlying issues to be resolved.

The Brampton, Ont., Filmmaker was successful and gave her career a boost earlier this year when her short film, Black bodies, was presented at the Sundance Film Festival.

While that alone was an incredible accomplishment, Fyffe-Marshall says she was forced to see it in a very different way. Although she found herself in the rarefied company of one of the most famous film festivals on the planet, she said no one in Canada seemed to notice or care about the directing.

There was little celebration or media coverage until she took to Twitter to shed light on the situation. Although she is one of the six Canadian productions at the festival, she wrote: “It’s been crickets in Canada”.

A little after, Selma and When they see us Filmmaker Ava DuVernay shared the tweet – and Fyffe-Marshall said that’s when people started to notice him.

While Fyffe-Marshall said the support was “beautiful,” the fact that she needed validation from outside her own country was disheartening.

“It also proves that you need the US co-signer,” she said. “You have to go to America to get what you want in Canada. And so [it was] very bittersweet. “

She explained that Canada “has a very low glass ceiling” – most of the opportunities in this country are for American productions, and this problem only increases when you seek to create original programming that focuses on US productions. BIPOC perspectives.

Black filmmakers struggle in Canada

Because of this, Fyffe-Marshall said, talented black filmmakers rarely see their careers encouraged in Canada, and they are forced to either quit, move to the United States, or subsist on a low level for years.

Combined with a film industry heavily focused on grants rather than commercial success, the creators of BIPOC, she said, are left behind compared to those in the United States.

Fyffe-Marshall, right, works behind the scenes on the set of his short, Black Bodies. It premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. (Yvonne Stanley)

“How have we helped people who are halfway there, like me and my peers,” she asked. “How do we help the people at the top who have struggled for 15-20 years in the industry and are not where they should be, where they deserve to be? “

To provide a path to success for black Canadian creators, Fyffe-Marshall said she wanted a fundamental restructuring of the way the film industry encourages filmmakers and promotes its films to audiences in Canada and abroad. foreign.

This is something that director and president of production company Hungry Eyes, Jennifer Holness, agrees with. Although she has spent over 20 years making films in Canada, until recently she wondered if she should even continue in the industry.

Much of it, she said, was a general lack of investment in Canadian content, “that there just isn’t enough money in the system.”

Without this money, all Canadian productions flounder. But the flip side of the problem, which Holness says primarily affects the creators of BIPOC, is a related lack of “triggers” – a smaller number of companies that could develop your project.

And with fewer broadcasters and developers come the Guardians – a small number of people who, if they say no to a project, are effectively killing any opportunity to do so. Until very recently, said Holness, these gatekeepers were predominantly white and less motivated to tell stories of underrepresented communities.

Holness, director and producer, has been directing films for over 20 years. But until recently, she says, she was willing to step down because of the burdens that BIPOC’s creators face in Canada. (Submitted by Jennifer Holness)

“I’ve never really had a Black or, to be honest, a diverse person of color to talk to in my 20-year career,” she said.

That has also started to change in recent years, she said, but the system in which the industry operates is still broken and still does not do the creators of BIPOC a favor. Despite this, Holness said she wanted to continue in the industry and find ways to tell stories that have historically been overlooked.

“If I can tell a story, you know, it helps a young person to feel valued, to feel seen, to feel that they are part of the fabric of this country and, you know, and that they have a place.” , she said, “I think it’s more than anything that keeps me going.”


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