Arts·Point of View

7 African-Canadian female filmmakers you need to know

These are the Canadian movies to watch during Black History Month and beyond.

These are the Canadian movies to watch during Black History Month and beyond

Home Feeling: Struggle for a Community, a documentary by Jennifer Hodge de Silva, is one of Amanda Parris's must-see films. (NFB)

The chance to see work by African-Canadian female filmmakers is rare. But this Saturday in Toronto, Harbourfront Centre's Kuumba Festival is presenting a showcase of short films by Karen Chapman, Ella Cooper, Shailene Garnett, Alicia Bunyan-Sampson and Nadine Valcin.

It's the kind of programming we should see more often, especially during Black History Month.

So much of our film history is unknown, and it's time that changed.

TV networks and movie theatres already make a habit of bombarding us with holiday fare — Home Alone and Love, Actually during the Christmas season, horror movies at Halloween and rom-com marathons come Valentine's Day.

In February, I want to be seeing films featuring and made by black people in honour of Black History Month. And since we're in Canada, I want to see the best of African-Canadian cinema. So much of our film history is unknown, and it's time that changed.

Start by learning about these seven African-Canadian female directors, artists whose films should be celebrated at this time of year (and beyond).

Jennifer Hodge de Silva

Jennifer Hodge de Silva. (NFB)

No conversation on the history of Canadian film is complete without mentioning the name Jennifer Hodge de Silva. Born in Montreal, she was the first black filmmaker to work consistently with both the NFB and the CBC and her documentaries covered a range of social issues, telling the stories of Chinese-Canadian immigrants, Indigenous artists and diverse neighbourhoods. She died of cancer in 1989, aged 38.

Must-see film: Home Feeling: Struggle for a Community (1983)

Hodge's best-known work, this documentary was one of the first attempts to explore the deep-seated tension between black communities and the Toronto Police Services. Through candid interviews, the film reveals the systemic racism of the police force and the rage that simmered in the largely immigrant community of Toronto's Jane and Finch neighbourhood. When I was an educator, I screened this film numerous times for my students and they frequently remarked on how little things have changed in the years since its release.

A scene from the documentary Home Feeling: Struggle for a Community. (NFB)

Claire Prieto

A still from Black Mother Black Daughter. (NFB)

As one of the first black filmmakers in Canada, Claire Prieto helped to open doors by mentoring numerous emerging creators and developed the Black Film & Video Network (BFVN) as a platform for writers, producers and directors. In 1977, Prieto produced and directed Some Black Women, the first film made by independent black filmmakers in Canada. She also produced the first Caribbean-Canadian sitcom, Lord Have Mercy (2003).

Must-see film: Black Mother Black Daughter (1989)

An intimate intergenerational examination of the lives of black women in Nova Scotia, it combines music, interviews and oral storytelling to explore how the community's history has shaped the lives and identities of its people. For the making of the film, the NFB's Atlantic Branch hired an all-female crew — a first for the organization.

A scene from Speak It! From the Heart of Nova Scotia. (NFB)

Sylvia Hamilton

Legendary filmmaker, writer and educator Sylvia Hamilton was born in the historically black community of Beechville, N.S. Her films, which have appeared on CBC and TVO, often rely on primary research and storytelling, and she uses cinema to challenge and reshape Canada's history. She's been awarded multiple honours, including Nova Scotia's Portia White Prize for Excellence in the Arts.

Must-see film: Speak It! From the Heart of Black Nova Scotia (1993)

This Gemini Award-winning film put the voices of black youths front and center while exploring the failures of the education system. A group of black students who attend a predominantly white high school in Halifax share their perspectives and discuss various coping strategies for dealing with their daily experiences of racism. Eventually, they build a space beyond the classroom to find affirmation and empowerment.

A scene from Martine Chartrand's animated film Black Soul. (NFB)

Christene Browne

African-Canadian cinema is dominated by documentary films. That's largely because of the high cost of making feature films. But in 1999, filmmaker and novelist Christene Browne became the first black woman to write, produce and direct a dramatic feature film in Canada. The movie was the semi-autobiographical Another Planet. Born in St. Kitts and raised in Toronto's Regent Park, Browne studied film at Ryerson University and began her own production company, Syncopated Productions, in 1990. Her first two short films premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and she has worked as a film programmer, curator and media arts instructor.

Must-see film: Another Planet (1999)

An unconventional coming-of-age story, Another Planet follows a young woman in search of her roots. She signs up for a Canada-West Africa exchange program, but before they'll ship her overseas, she needs to do some work hours in Quebec — on a pig farm.

Martine Chartrand

Alison Duke. (Jalani Morgan/Courtesy of Alison Duke)

Born in Montreal, Martine Chartrand is a filmmaker, visual artist and educator. In 1992 she made her first animated film at the NFB, TV Tango. A student of Russian artist Aleksandr Petrov, Chartrand learned the craft of painting on glass, which she used to make her second award-winning film, Black Soul. She gives lectures, master classes and glass-painting workshops in Canada and around the world.

Must-see film: Black Soul (2000)

This beautifully poetic short film follows a young boy who learns about his ancestors and the history of Indigenous and African diasporic people through the stories of his grandmother. A silent film, the stories are told entirely through images and music. It went on to win 23 international prizes, including the Golden Bear of Berlin in 2001.

A scene from Raisin' Kane: A Rapumentary. (Courtesy of Alison Duke)

Alison Duke

Frances-Anne Solomon (Akley Olton/Submitted by Frances-Anne Solomon)

The music video world is dominated by male directors, but in the mid '90s Alison Duke left the field of journalism and began directing and producing music videos for artists such as K-os, the Rascalz and Nelly Furtado. Her first feature documentary, Raisin' Kane: A Rapumentary (2000), was an inside look at the underground Canadian rap scene. Her work since has dealt with a number of social justice issues such as HIV/AIDS, the environment, violent crime and homophobia. Last year, Duke executive produced The Akua Benjamin Legacy Project, a series of shorts inspired by Canadian black activists. Each of the films in the series were directed by black female directors.

Must-see film: Raisin' Kane: A Rapumentary (2000)

Alison Duke has made many films since, but as one of the first in-depth accounts of Canada's independent hip-hop scene, it's a must watch. I saw it for the first time during my first year of university. When someone's potential is limited by systemic barriers, hip hop can be a way out. This film made me realize that.

Still from A Winter Tale, 2007. (Courtesy of Frances-Anne Solomon)

Frances-Anne Solomon

Prolific producer and director Frances-Anne Solomon began her career with the BBC in England, working as a radio and television producer and script editor. She developed and produced several films in the UK on British-Trinidadian and Chinese communities before moving to Canada. In 2001, Solomon founded Caribbean Tales, a multi-platform charity that among other things hosts a film festival in Toronto, has an online streaming network of Caribbean films and an incubator program for emerging filmmakers from the Caribbean and its diaspora.

Must-see film: A Winter Tale (2007)

This is the first narrative feature-length film directed by an African-Canadian woman that I ever watched. Tackling the painful issue of gun violence in Toronto, it engages powerful performances to uncover the grief, paranoia and mistrust that wreaks havoc over a community in the aftermath of senseless violence.

Reelworld presents New Perpectives at Kuumba Festival. Harbourfront Centre, Toronto.


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