Searching for Canadian film's Black Radical Imagination

Black Radical Imagination is a curated touring program of visual shorts, traversing the fields of new media, video art and experimental narrative. Assembled by film programmers and curators Erin Christovale and Amir George, the series was inspired in part by the limitations of representation for people of colour in cinema.

Travelling series touches down in Toronto in Montreal this week

A scene from Swimming In Your Skin Again, directed by Terence Nance. The film will be exhibited in Toronto and Montreal as part of a travelling exhibition called Black Radical Imagination. (Black Radical Imagination)

A few years back, I began to wonder where the films by and about African Canadians reside. Several of my peers, professors and elders pointed me to the works of pioneering filmmakers who created, and continue to create, important works that document various facets of black life in Canada. However, I quickly noted that almost all of the specific films that were recommended to me were documentaries.

Last year, I stumbled on a 1997 article in Revue Noire magazine entitled "Displace" by Cameron Bailey — then a film critic, now artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) —  noting that many black Canadian filmmakers in the 80s and 90s found the resources to make their work through government institutions such as the National Film Board.

"The result was a displaced, tentative cinema that saw most strong expressions buried under state aesthetics," Bailey wrote. "We have produced good documents, necessary histories, important chronicles, but very little cinema."

"Right now you have people like Ava Duvernay or her cinematographer Bradford Young who are really creating new lanes for black cinema."- Black Radical Imagination co-curator Erin Christovale

This month, a touring film series has arrived in Canada that will provide a space to experience and engage a rarely exhibited aesthetic. I wonder if it will ignite a spark of inspiration among African Canadian filmmakers, to explore these artistic landscapes.

Black Radical Imagination is a curated touring program of visual shorts, traversing the fields of new media, video art and experimental narrative. Assembled by film programmers and curators Erin Christovale and Amir George, the series was inspired in part by the limitations of representation for people of colour in cinema.

The series, which SAW Video Media Arts Centre in Ottawa brought for a three-day event that marked its Canadian debut, moves beyond the resurgent popular debate on diversity in Hollywood, one that's often reduced to an analysis of numerical representation (i.e. How many female directors have made films this year? How many South Asian actors are cast in leading roles?).

Their series addresses diversity outside that narrow frame — namely diversity in form, exploring narrative structures that step outside the bounds of linear storytelling and use technology and new media to tell stories inspired by artistic movements such as Afrofuturism and Afrosurrealism.

George and Christovale see their series as a critical addition to a black film movement currently happening in the United States. The vanguard of the movement, led by artists like Ava Duvernay, has mobilized a new generation of artists who are working together to transform the American indie cinematic landscape. George and Christovale say Black Radical Imagination is an opportunity to showcase the brave and experimental works of emerging filmmakers, encouraging them to take advantage of technology that was previously inaccessible to them, and to tell their stories in new and dramatic ways:

"Right now you have people like Ava Duvernay or her cinematographer Bradford Young who are really creating new lanes for black cinema and black storytelling," Christovale explains, "but who are also forming this new collective where we work with our people and we always work with the same people and that's part of the whole production process. So [Black Radical Imagination] is kind of like the child to that. [We're showing] short films because a lot of filmmakers start out making short films, in order to move up to a feature. We kind of just want to focus on these short film origins and see how these filmmakers progress."

Crow Requiem, directed by Cauleen Smith, is one of the films being screened at Black Radical Imagination. (Black Radical Imagination)

Black Radical Imagination has been touring for the past three years traveling across the United States, Trinidad, Switzerland and now Canada. Each stop provides more evidence that there is an audience interested in and excited about films that are often ignored or dismissed by the Hollywood-dominated North American film industry. The series also attempts to transcend the narrow confines of a specifically African American experience and tap into the stories of a larger diaspora, addressing issues that are pertinent and tangible for many people of colour around the world.

"The stories relate to a black global culture," George says. "Whether it's coming from the States — we have an artist from Trinidad, a filmmaker from Spain — these different stories make up this relationship that you share within the black experience."

Each screening is followed by a discussion with the artists and curators as an invitation to deeply engage the work and collectively explore its significance. Beyond seeing the films, I am excited about the conversation it will hopefully generate.

In Canada, I see the exploration into an Afrofuturist aesthetic in the works of visual artists such as Quentin Vercetty, Komi Olaf and Danilo McCallum, musicians such as Brendan Philip, Sate and Keita Juma and in the performance work of Camille Turner and d'bi young. But I wonder about its presence, and absence, in the African Canadian film canon. I am eager to experience our own movement, one that will push us to be artistically bold, courageous and experimental in our cinematic vision. 

Black Radical Imagination, curated by Amir George and Erin Christovale. With films by Ja'Tovia Gary, Amir George, Lauren Kelley, Terence Nance and Cauleen Smith. Wed, Nov. 25 at Innis Town Hall, 2 Sussex Av., Toronto. 6pm doors. Free. Fri, Nov. 27 at The Other Film Festival, Articule, 262 Fairmount O., Montreal. 6:30pm doors. Free.


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