An oral history of the Black Film and Video Network
Including Claire Prieto, Clement Virgo and Cameron Bailey, they were architects of Black film in Canada
The late '80s and early '90s were a truly exciting time for Black film around the world. In the United States, filmmakers including Spike Lee, Julie Dash and John Singleton were creating works that would forever reshape the concept of American cinema. In the U.K., the activism of groups such as the Sankofa Film and Video Collective and the Black Audio Film Collective became the launchpad for a new generation of Black British filmmakers to emerge. And here in Canada, Black artists were challenging the status quo in more ways than one.
In 1988, a new collective of Black film and television professionals formed one of the most powerful training, advocacy and lobby groups in Black Canadian film history: the Black Film and Video Network.
Filmmaker Claire Prieto was the founding BFVN president. "It was very clear to us that any inroads into the mainstream film and television industry in Canada would only come through an organized structure with a clearly defined focus and objectives," she says. Those objectives, I learned, were multi-pronged. And the story of the BFVN is a fascinating roadmap for forcing a reluctant industry to change.
According to Prieto, the BFVN's formal mandate was "to encourage and promote the development, production and distribution of the work of Black film and video-makers in Canada." And they emerged during years of protest. Black artists across multiple mediums were mobilizing against racism at various Canadian institutions: the ROM's Into the Heart of Africa exhibit; PEN Canada's exclusion of diverse writers at the 1989 PEN Congress in Toronto and Garth Drabinsky's production of Show Boat. In 1992, frustration and anger over police violence would culminate in the Yonge Street Riots.
I've spent hours interviewing and exchanging emails with former members of the BFVN. With little digital documentation of the Network's existence, researching this story has required an excavation of memories. It has revealed the history of a group that opened numerous institutional doors while also lobbying unions and providing their members with critical training. The organization became the launchpad for an entire generation of Black creatives. Truly, I feel like I've been enrolled in a master class on how to administer a Black cultural movement in Canada.
In their decade-long existence, BFVN membership shifted. But this account will focus on the early years. Early members included filmmakers, curators, critics, publicists, producers, actors and photographers: Claire Prieto, Karen King, Alfons Adetuyi, Colina Phillips, Henry Adarawka, Glace Lawrence, Karen Tyrell, Clement Virgo, Lana Lovell, Cameron Bailey, Roger McTair, Michael Griffiths, Basil Young, Christene Brown, Selwyn Jacob and David Zapparoli. Many went on to become primary architects of Black filmmaking in Canada.
Asking folks to recall the origin of a network that started more than three decades ago was challenging, to say the least. I received conflicting reports on the exact order of events, but two things were consistent. First, the death of pioneering Black Canadian filmmaker Jennifer Hodge de Silva seemed to be the impetus for the initial gathering. Secondly, what began as a social function quickly evolved into a formal organization, led by Claire Prieto.
The following is an oral history of those early years.
The birth of a movement
Claire Prieto: White. Canadian film and television was white.
Clement Virgo: I didn't even know there was a Black filmmaking scene in Canada.
CP: I remember at [one film funding body] early on, I took a project in there and they told me no. Well, why is it a no? They said that they had made a Black film the year before. I'm like, "You did what?" Kind of ridiculous, but that was the point of view. That's what you're fighting against.
Cameron Bailey: Jennifer Hodge de Silva, Claire Prieto and Roger McTair were the other Black filmmakers that we knew.
CP: The white people had all the films that they could make about themselves. It's easy to complain about what is not there, but then who makes the thing? You go and you make it yourself. That's my feeling. You can't expect somebody else to tell your story — that's your job.
Karen King: We didn't know each other existed. Cameron or Lana [Lovell] called a lunch. We were at a restaurant to talk about dedicating a chair to Jennifer Hodge de Silva at the Euclid Theatre. They brought a bunch of people who were working in film and television together to talk, and we had so much fun that day just being together that we said, "Hey, why don't we do this on a regular basis?"
CP: And so we continued to meet, and met a lot of people who were at different stages of development and in different areas. Eventually, it's like, meeting socially — that's cute, but where are we going to take this?
CV: Claire Prieto was the organizing force and a Black leader in terms of Black cinema and Black filmmaking in Toronto. I was young. I was in my early 20s at the time. All I knew was I had this desire to make movies. And I was a writer, so I didn't know the best way to go about it. To have filmmakers like Roger McTair and Claire as examples of people who were doing it, it was empowering. It gave me confidence that perhaps I could also do it. And it gave us a place to feel legitimate. There was a sense of opening, that Black filmmakers and filmmakers of colour could perhaps have a chance. The doors were just starting to open up a crack and it was inspiring to see people like Claire and Roger doing it.
Glace Lawrence: I wish there was a Claire Prieto working today in the industry. She's a great mentor. Wherever she went, she always brought us with her.
CP: I had a lot of experience from being on the board of the Immigrant Women's Job Placement Centre. I had seen the Black Education Project, the kind of work that they did and how they operated. How do you make things happen? How do you plan and achieve your goals?
The motto: lift as we rise
An astounding amount of work was accomplished in a few short years. Alongside developing their own creative endeavours, the BFVN organized retrospectives and workshops, lobbied institutions and unions, created directories, hired and trained each other and made strategic partnerships. And they had some big wins that came out of all that labour.
GL: One of the early workshops was with playwright and screenwriter Charles Fuller, who's now Claire's husband. I was working with Karen Tyrell coordinating the St. Clair Bourne documentary workshop, and that was great. St. Clair has unfortunately passed away, but he was a really wonderful instructor and motivator. I remember participating in a workshop with Haile Gerima. He did a drama workshop.
CB: When Jennifer Hodge de Silva passed on, we wanted to do something to honour her and commemorate her work. And so the idea came together to dedicate a seat in the Euclid Theatre, which I think is a Starbucks now. And then there was a retrospective of her films that was put together, which I was involved in.
KK: My first credit on a documentary was Jennifer Hodge: The Glory and the Pain. [Claire] hired us. She put us all to work. She saw the Black Film and Video Network as an opportunity for us to actually work together. And I don't think everybody got that. It was really supposed to be "lift as we rise." She also knew the ropes. She had been making films. She knew how to raise money. She knew how to lobby. And she just brought us along, one or two of us to every meeting that she took with the big funders or whoever, to say, "This is who we are, and this is what we do, and this is what we need." And so we all learned it, and we all got access to being known.
CP: We encouraged the membership to not just be a member of the Black Film and Video Network. Go get your credits and join the Directors Guild. Go with the WGC (Writers Guild of Canada). And as you participate in all these various things, call each other's names. So you compete, but you don't compete against each other.
GL: There was also an activist arm of the Network that was pushing the unions to bring more Black people into their membership. I remember I joined the DGC as a third assistant director. Some of the technical folks went into IATSE. There was a lot of penetration.
GL: On the funding front, there was a whole dialogue going on with the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council. When Black filmmakers submitted their work with the mindset of telling the Black story, in some cases the aesthetic wasn't understood because they didn't have any Black representation on their jury. So there was a big push for representation and that was joined by other groups. There was a group that was called Full Screen that was a multiracial group that was all for doing this kind of political work.
CP: It was hell for any Black person to get into [the Canadian Film Centre]. I think Karen was with me and a young woman from Full Screen, and we sat down and talked with them.
You compete, but you don't compete against each other.- Claire Prieto
KK: The challenge is that Black kids don't have trust accounts, so they can't take a year off work. So is there a way for [the Centre] to do a shorter program? And they pulled together the Fall Lab and the Summer Lab based on the conversation that they had with us.
According to the Canadian Film Centre, the 1991/1992 summer and fall labs were "short intensive courses designed to build stronger relationships between diverse talent, the CFC and the CFC's programs — offering participants project development, business and networking support to move their projects and careers forward." As a result, many of the BIPOC participants went on to attend the CFC's core programs. When I asked why they ended, a CFC rep wrote: "We're not exactly sure why the short summer and fall labs ended but we suspect it had to do with funding."
CP: Out of that, I see all the names: Stephen Williams. Joan Jenkinson. Alfons and his brother Amos Adetuyi. Mina Shum I think was there. Clement Virgo. The people at the Centre saw firsthand there's this whole group of people who are just where they need to be, and in some cases beyond. And at the Centre you could get your first feature made. That was Rude for Clement. Boom.
Karen King also worked on the film as a producer. Rude went on to premiere at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section. Later that year it won a Special Jury Citation for Best Canadian Feature at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Karen Tyrell: BFVN also helped to connect filmmakers across Canada and create a database of who was where and their skill sets. The BFVN membership list was used by some productions to find crew, which led to opportunities for many to obtain work on film and television projects. Aspiring Black directors were able to shadow established directors and gain valuable experience. BFVN was instrumental in the launch of many careers, mine included.
KK: I think that there need to be groups that hold governments and organizations accountable. There need to be groups that hold communion where the filmmakers can go for safety and support and training. I think it's really important that we're organized because we took a lot of losses. If there had been a Black Film and Video Network when the National Film Board decided to disband the Special Mandate for Cultural Diversity, they would never have been able to get away with it. If there'd been a Black Film and Video Network when Toronto One decided it was going to abandon its license that we had fought so hard for — to get a station that was geared to second generation Canadians — no. They turned it into whatever the hell Sun TV became. They wouldn't have been allowed to do that.
We wanted to be artists. We had to be activists
Many members talked fondly about the informal way BFVN shaped their growing politicization. It became a site where they could explore their ideas about identity, representation, expression and activism within film. These conversations sparked debates about the responsibility of Black filmmakers to their art and to their community. Many of these debates continue today.
CB: I don't know if it would have been possible to not be political as a Black artist at the time. Some of these battles, a lot of them are still being fought, but there were some things that were just unbelievable. As I hear myself talk I feel like — has it really changed that much? White liberal cultural institutions really had a problem with it being pointed out that there was a lack of representation. They were just aghast. Couldn't believe it. And [we had] to make that case over and over again that voices were being excluded. The people who seem the most progressive, the people who ran those institutions, were the ones who were the most outraged at having that being pointed out. So yeah, if you wanted to open a space just to tell the story you wanted to tell, you had to be political.
I didn't feel like it should be our duty to represent. The burden that put on us as artists — I still wrestle with it.- Clement Virgo
CV: I never saw myself as an activist. I just saw myself as someone who wanted to make images about people that looked like me. But my first short films were political. I never thought of them that way. But looking back, yes. Yes, it was.
CB: The thing that I remember most in terms of the BFVN was writing an article about Jennifer Hodge de Silva's films called "A Cinema of Duty." It was an article that was a little bit controversial at the time because I was arguing that the burden of Black filmmakers, at least at that moment, was representing your community. And that there was something great about that, but that it was the first thing that a Black filmmaker had to work through. What it meant to actually have access to the technology and have access to a platform where you can make and show your films — how do you do that without addressing these massive gaps in representation of your Black community? And that was sort of a frame that I put Jennifer's films in, because her films were very much about giving visibility to Black communities.
I remember arguing with Clement about it. He didn't like that framing at all. I wanted Black filmmakers to push beyond a cinema of duty and to make personal expression. But there was very little of it at the time. Dawn Wilkinson had a film, Sunflowers or something, and it was this beautiful, experimental short. I was so thrilled to see it because it wasn't about community; it wasn't a cinema of duty at all. And then when Clement made Save My Lost Nigga Soul — again, these are people who are telling something that's personal and it touches on community, but it's not about documenting or being responsible to the community only. And I felt that gave some freedom which I really liked. But that was a debate within the meetings of the BFVN.
CV: I had that debate yesterday. I'm in this writing room on a Netflix show and we're talking about the burden of representation — the burden to represent and how much as an artist are we responsible to our own impulses as opposed to the collective and to the cinema of duty. At that time I didn't feel like it should be our duty to represent. The burden that put on us as artists — I still wrestle with it. I'm more comfortable with it now as someone who's been making films for 25 years. I've worked on a number of Black TV shows over the last few years now and being aware of, "OK, what are we saying about skin colour right now with his character? What are we saying about Black women or Black people or Black men at this moment?" I'm aware of it and I'm conscious of it, but I try as a writer to locate the story through character first and try to not feel a pressure to represent, which I think a lot of Black artists struggle with.
KK: There is still so little understanding of our experience in this country. There's just so much room for us to represent our realities and our truth. The white industry is into fantasy and all that kind of stuff because they've covered their reality already. They've done all of their permutations and computations of themselves and they can go into that realm now. We still have to focus on getting our reality covered because that's not been done.
CP: That pressure is always on Black filmmakers. It's like the only thing you talk about is racism. People wanted to make comedies, documentaries, feature films, different subject matter. That wasn't the problem. The problem was that our own stories needed to be told by us. When you tell your own story it's from your own perspective and a whole lot of things happen there as opposed to when somebody is looking in at you. That's a different thing. I think that was the main focus.
This woman's work
As I spoke to various members, I wondered about the cost of all this work. Creating films while simultaneously training, advocating and lobbying was a behemoth task. For some, particularly women who took on many of the leadership roles, BFVN drew a heavy toll. They reflected on this time with a mixture of pride, wistfulness and, in some cases, regret.
GL: While we were giving birth to the network, [Karen King] was giving birth to her first son. I remember her at meetings with a feeding cover because she was breastfeeding. So, yeah. It was intense.
KK: When I was thinking about quitting, Cameron was saying to me, "Karen, you can't. We need you. There's nobody else." And so I just kept going. What was difficult for me about producing was creativity is my number one strength. I had been a line producer of commercials and I essentially was in very much a line-producing role with Clement and Damon [on Rude]. I gave my creative input, but the line producing was not really my thing. I wanted to do something more creative. I was more interested in writing, but I never got to explore it.
GL: I recall that at one point I was on five boards and I had to pull back. It's time to pass the mantle for the next generation. I think that you pay a price in a way, but the price was worth it because we all benefited from the work.
KK: It just felt like you were fighting an unending battle on both sides and there was no appreciation of what was being done. I [was on a panel with some filmmakers] the other day. I'm sitting on a stage [with them] and they say, "Oh, we've never had any help. No one's ever mentored us. No one's ever supported us in our career." And I'm like, "Excuse me? Who paid for you to go to L.A. to do your directing workshop? Who paid for you to go to the Film Centre?" So yeah, you get burnt out.
CP: Yes, it was exhausting, but you're a lot younger and the fire is in your belly and it's just like, "Well, I have to do this." After my son was born and growing, it's very difficult for a parent to leave their child and say, "Oh, I'm gone for seven days." What I would say to myself and to other women: feel guilty and get on the plane. When you get the chance to do the thing that you absolutely love, do you walk away from it? I may have been exhausted, but I had a lot of energy and I put all the energy there. I was not the party animal. A lot of things you have to give up. The house I can't get. You can't have the car. I used to have, at one time, one pair of pants and one battered green shirt with epaulets. This was my "I'm going for the money today" outfit. I didn't have to have 10 of them. I didn't care about that anyway.
Many of the members I spoke with mentioned Black Women Film! Canada, CaribbeanTales, BIPOC TV & Film, Reelworld, Black on Black Films and the Toronto Black Film Festival (alongside its Montreal and Halifax chapters) as the groups continuing the work of BFVN. They had mixed feelings about the current state of Black film in Canada, expressing admiration for some individual achievements but maintaining a general disappointment in the industry's lack of progress.
KT: There are certainly more Black filmmakers working in film and television than in previous years, but there's room for more. Technology has certainly made it easier for filmmakers to create and develop their craft. Social media platforms have made it easier for work to be seen. However, gaining access to funding and large-scale distribution continues to be an issue. The challenges are ongoing.
GL: I am hearing people say that they're the only ones. They look around a set and they're the only ones. They don't see Black people on sets. It's 2020 and that's really, really unacceptable. It is almost as if people lost their way in terms of diversity on set.
There's a lot of initiatives right now for diversity, but trust me, they can be gone just as quick as they came.- Karen King
CB: Now the Black film landscape in Toronto and in Canada is way beyond what I could have imagined and what any one institution can contain. There's so many different paths. Karena Evans, and so many other young filmmakers, have got really great aesthetics and are ambitious and smart and doing the work. They're going to do big things and they don't necessarily need an organization to do that. Maybe it would've helped, but maybe they don't need that anymore. But I always think there could be more. I think feature films especially are still a challenge, even for people who are established. Stephen Williams went to the States and has done very well in TV, but getting a Black feature film made in this country is still very hard. Cory Bowles and a few others have done it, but it's still a challenge, and that shouldn't be the case 30 years on.
KK: I was at a festival last year and there was a film being shown and it was a film about Black hair. I'm like, "Oh my God, if we do another film about Black hair I'm going to frickin' die." We need to know what's been made already, and we need to move on and tell another story. It's difficult because the gatekeepers are happy to have us stay in one little corner. What we have to be willing to do is kind of blow their minds and say no. There's a lot of initiatives right now for diversity, but trust me, they can be gone just as quick as they came.
CV: There hasn't been a lot coming out of English Canada. In those days there was a lot of work coming out of English Canada that was vibrant. I found a voice in that. Sudz [Sutherland] found a voice in that. Charles Officer. Now, in the U.S., Stella Meghie. So there's a few of us now that are making it. But I think increasingly, at least for me, I have to think about the approach as much more international as opposed to local. It's tough to stand out because there's so much noise.
KK: Hire each other. People have their own television series right now and they're not hiring each other. We should know, one of us is going to get a series every five years. So if we hire each other we can actually keep ourselves alive. You hire me when you get your show, and I'll hire you when I get my show.
CP: It's a fight. I think you just have to have a clear idea of where you want to be. How do you expand that population of makers and doers? Who is shooting? Who is the assistant? Who is editing? Who is the person making the sets? Who is doing the makeup? The hair? Who is the producer? Who is the production manager, the line producer, the location person? So you build out that infrastructure and keep working. Because if you don't keep working, you're always beginning. You have to add to your craft as you keep going. You get better as you keep going.