BY ALYSSA MAHADEO
Cinematography, the art and creation of making motion pictures began in the late 1800’s. The concept of creating moving pictures to visually represent any story, has allowed for an outlet by which directors and filmmakers across the world can engage audiences by capturing real life instances, encouraging viewers to see the world in new ways by experiencing unique perspectives, gaining knowledge and insight into new material that reflect the realities of the human condition.
For the 5th year in a row the Toronto Black Film Festival (TBFF) rolled out its red carpet to welcome filmmakers and film critics from around the world to celebrate the very best in cinematic work dealing with the varied experiences of black people from diverse communities. Since their inception, they have been dedicated to sharing the unique voices of cinema. Their mandate is to bring audiences a fresh new perspective of the world and connect them with an illustration of major cultural, social and socio-economic issues faced by the Black communities across the world. Every film presented at this year’s festival offered something that spoke to the diversity of the city. These independent masterpieces were only here for the week, making them extraordinary examples of the very best as these films are the most deserving of the privilege of being viewed by the masses. The stories, timelines, inspirations and process behind putting together some of these films depicts many issues that people have yet to address, or haven’t yet been educated on. They bring up concerns that some might have not ever known about if they hadn’t seen a film or discussed its beginnings aloud.
Founded by the Fabienne Coles Foundation, TBFF has made it their mission to provide an opportunity for filmmakers to bring authentic stories to the center stage that reflects the realities of black experiences. Along with its sister festival, the Montreal International Black Film Festival (now in its thirteenth year), TBFF showcases new voices in cinema and encourages audiences to see the world in new ways. In connecting black films with viewers of all ethnic origins, they recognize the differences that make the communities they serve unique while celebrating the shared values that bring people together.
On February 15th at the Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto, TBFF kicked off the festival in collaboration with Global News and TD Bank, as part of their Black History Month celebration events that honor the legacy of Black Canadians throughout the country.
As guests arrived for the night’s opening festivities they were invited to walk the TBFF red carpet networks and speak with other film fanatics, as well as mix and mingle with an elite crowd of filmgoers who shared in their interest of brilliant and inspiring filmmaking. Each year the films presented at the festival take audiences to places that are politically incorrect, they ask and prompt temporary questions and they make them feel feelings that they don’t normally feel empowering visions to continue influencing positive conversation.
To commence the night the woman whose passion and energy brings the film festival to Toronto every year, Haitian actress, director, and producer Fabienne Colas took to the stage to share with the massive audience her initial vision for the TBFF, and the importance of screening the films that are chosen each year.
“A little over thirteen years ago I came from Haiti as an actress to America thinking that I was going to conquer America, that I would be acting and basically for me, the sky was the limit.” Colas shared.
“I brought with me a VHS copy of one film that I had completed and had just won an award for; something that could be compared to the Haitian Titanic. As a popular actress in my country, I promised them that I would come to Canada and this film would be playing everywhere, however when I arrived, no festival would screen the film, it wasn’t accepted by anyone. I felt powerless and humiliated as though I didn’t deserve my voice to be heard, that I didn’t even deserve a platform to make that possible.” she explained her story, shedding light on the difficulty of making your voice heard when no one would hear it.
“In my frustration, I decided that Montreal could accommodate another film festival, they needed it. I recreated the Fabienne Colas Foundation dedicated to promoting education in the arts and started the Montreal Haitian Film Festival, which then expanded to the Montreal International Black Film Festival and has since accommodated films produced and directed by many big names from the Black communities across the globe.” For years Colas has worked tirelessly and passionately to support and promote independent cinema around the globe, keeping her roots intact she wants to offer a platform where people from her community feel their voices can be heard, and their powerful films can be viewed by the masses.
“At our festivals, we don’t care about the director’s skin color, we only care about the content being displayed on the screen.” Colas explains as an encounter with Caucasian director Sandra Whiteley five years ago is what sparked the idea of bringing her film festival to Toronto. “She listed out all of the reasons why our film festival was needed in Toronto, and although I was skeptical at first that conversation is what started this movement in Toronto because that woman gave me the push I needed to bring this project here.” Fabienne is a charismatic leader with an unwavering persistence and perseverance who makes things happen. Once she gets started, nothing can stop her, and she is very thankful to her staff working behind the scenes who are as equally dedicated to her cause a true reflection of the diversity of the festival.
For their opening night the TBFF was proud to introduce special guest speaker notable Hollywood actor Isaiah Washington, best known for his role as Dr. Preston Burke on the ABC medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, and currently starring as Chancellor Thelonious Jaha on the CW’s hit series, The 100. In addition to his acting, he is a NAACP Image and SAG award-winner, producer and activist who is successfully carving a definitive niche for himself as a formidable talent.
“Diversity, as defined by Webster, is the condition of having or being composed of different elements; variety especially the inclusion of different types of people and people of different races cultures in groups.” Washington shared. “My thirty-year career has been for you and I thank you, and I love you as an Afro-American. I stand here before you as a black man, but I am just a man and I am proud to be the ambassador for this year’s festival.”
The main event for the night was the Canadian Premier of a film helmed by Emmy-award winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson, called ‘TELL THEM WE ARE RISING: THE STORY OF HISTORICALLY BLACK COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES.’ it was an unapologetic re-telling of the history of black education in the United States showcasing the brutality of ignorance, how slave owners prevented their slaves from becoming educated, and how knowledge became an opportunity for blacks in America to overcome the oppression of slave owners. The film follows the history of slaves, and their pursuit of education in America, taking matters into their own hands to escape the bonds of slavery. If you were educated you could not be enslaved; slave owners felt that because the slaves were their ‘property’ they were permitted to treat them however they pleased, with the exception of teaching them the basic fundamentals of how to read and write. The film follows the early days of black education in the south, filled with quotes by some of the most famous most educated names of the time. The film takes you on a journey of knowledge and empowerment, many unaware of the issues that had been faced during those times, or even the creation of all black colleges and universities to provide a safe haven or ‘paradise as many considered it for those who craved a proper education. They were tired of remaining as subordinates to their owners, and the laws against educating people of color had them erecting contraband schools where they could ‘catch lessons’. The timeline of events takes us through the rise of the black community in America up until present day where black youths heading into college and university enroll in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). It was an eye-opening film followed by a skype call in Q&A by two of the producers on the film. Many expressed gratitude for providing the knowledge and research done for the film and praised the thought of inspiring even more young people who are the engine of change and possibility for the future. The PBS-backed documentary is an official selection of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Over the next few days patrons from all over the city visited the festival to enjoy 2017’s selection of visual excellence with special events that included panels at the TBFF Black Market to meet the filmmakers and making web series, a master class with Sudz Sutherland & Jennifer Holness and a tribute to Louis Gossett presented with the 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award. Actor, Louis Gossett, Jr. is one of stage, film and television’s most recognized and lauded talents. With over three hundred titles to his credit, Gossett has earned some of the industry’s highest honors; including Emmy’s, Golden Globes, NAACP Image Awards, and an Academy Award for his portrayal of Sgt. Emil Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman, and now adds author, director, and humanitarian to his accomplishments.
The 2017 edition of TBFF included six International Premieres, eleven Canadian Premieres and one World Premiere. One of Canada’s premier festivals for black film showcases they screened forty films from twenty countries in its fifth edition, including Sierra Leone, Nigeria, South Africa, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Denmark, Tanzania, Germany, Namibia, Hungary, Grenada, Rwanda, Canada, U.S.A. and more.
The films presented at TBFF are a brilliant display and a testament to the creative talent, of the community as a whole with the stories we have to offer. Most importantly the TBFF allows filmmakers to flex their creativity and tell stories in engaging Hollywood inspired screenplays to promote cultural diversity and educate people so they cannot remain ignorant of the social issues many face around the world today. The TBFF will continue to keep the conversation going, always in hopes of inspiring more change.