This filmmaker's work is a gift back after being given so much by Toronto's black LGBTQ community
Phillip Pike's films and 'Bigger Than We' event celebrate his community's almost-lost history
On June 18th, in advance of Toronto Pride, 130 black community builders, artists, academics, activists and entrepreneurs gathered to honour the many generations of trailblazers who've contributed to making Toronto a more welcoming and safe space for black LGBTQ individuals. The historic event, entitled Bigger Than We, was the brainchild of Jamaican-Canadian filmmaker Phillip Pike and centred storytelling, using the mediums of music, dance, ritual, testimony and performance to trace the building efforts of black LGBTQ individuals over the past four decades.
The task of creating platforms for the sharing of stories is not a new endeavour for Phillip. For nearly two decades, the human rights lawyer turned filmmaker has been documenting narratives of communities whose voices have typically gone unheard. Now, he's focused his sights — and camera lens — a bit closer to his present home, towards those relatively unknown and unsung individuals in Toronto's black LGBTQ community, with his current documentary project, Tell the Children the Truth, scheduled to debut in early 2018.
The film — funded through the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council and Toronto Arts Council — chronicles the histories of queer black Toronto framed as an intergenerational dialogue, and explores just what it's taken to create much-needed community where there had been none. It represents another significant first for both Phillip and the communities he's chosen to give voice to.
Winding down from the success of the event, Phillip sat down with CBC Arts to offer some insights into his work and motivations, the importance of archiving overlooked histories and his thoughts on the future of community building for Toronto's black and LGBTQ communities.
How do you understand your role as a filmmaker?
I was told recently that documentary filmmakers only really make films about themselves. We may think that we are making films about other people or other subjects, but if we dig deep enough, the reality is that we can only tell stories that resonate with us in some way, even if we don't necessarily recognize the connection in the moment. I have found this statement to be true in the case of the films I have made to date.
What stories are you attempting to tell?
My first film, Songs of Freedom, tells of the life experiences of gays and lesbians living in Jamaica. A part of those life experiences is the homophobia and homophobic violence present in Jamaica. I emigrated from Jamaica with my family in the early 70s. In many ways, my quest in making Songs of Freedom was to experience gay life in Jamaica with adult eyes and ears, and to understand what my life might have been like had my family remained.
The film is essentially my story: arriving at a point in one's life, realizing there are pieces of one's identity scattered about as a result of migration and the effects of racism and cultural assimilation; discovering one's "tribe" and feeling affirmed; then being able to reassemble the missing pieces and re-gifting that sense of affirmation to others [who are] on the journey of reclaiming themselves.
I was ushered into a world of folks who looked like me and talked like me and were queer like me when I joined the board of the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention (Black CAP) decades ago. There, my blackness, my queerness, my Jamaican-Canadianness and many of the other parts of me were affirmed. I met black queer activists who drew out my activism. I met black queer filmmakers, poets, singers, writers and publishers whose energy I soaked in. I was given a gift: the gift of myself.
My current documentary project Tell the Children the Truth is my gift back to community. It's also an important record of our history — a history which is often so easily erased.
Where did the Bigger Than We event fit in?
I made an early decision to attempt to structure the film Tell the Children the Truth as an intergenerational dialogue. I did not want to do a "time capsule" historical documentary. A number of people mentioned that the black queer community in Toronto was lacking intergenerational spaces, and so I pulled together folks to form a planning committee.
Bigger Than We was important and significant not just as an element of the film but also as part of a history of community building. And it couldn't have been possible without the generous support of our primary sponsor the Community One Foundation, the support of the Ontario Trillium Foundation, the efforts of Sunset Service Toronto Fellowship and our friends at The 519 Community Centre.
I met black queer activists who drew out my activism. I met black queer filmmakers, poets, singers, writers and publishers whose energy I soaked in. I was given a gift: the gift of myself.- Phillip Pike, filmmaker
The event was absolutely fierce! The energy that was unleashed in the room is hugely significant. There were moments like the opening ritual of pouring libations and calling forth the names of our black queer ancestors. Then there were moments like the chants of Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder Rodney Diverlus, or legendary drag queen Michelle Ross' performance and the tribute she received by DJ Mykel "Black Cat" Hall on behalf of the community. One of my favourite moments was being invited to dance by activist Faith Nolan as the Sunset Service Choir sang Bob Marley's "Redemption Song". There were so many instances watching long-time friends and activists sing, dance and hug each other for no reason other than the sheer joy of being in the space and experiencing the moment together.
What does "community" mean to you?
My vision for the Bigger Than We event grew into something bigger than I had envisioned because I called upon my community of friends and acquaintances. That is the power of community: pooling our energies, skills, talents and perspectives together to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Community is about something bigger than ourselves. It's about something "bigger than we." As the African proverb states: "If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."
Where do you see the future of black and black LGBTQ community building going?
The time has come for our black LGBTQ community in Toronto to have a home — a physical place where we can go to do the things that nourish us [and] a home for our artifacts, our photos, flyers, newspapers, all the objects that tell the story of our presence and community building in this city. I am joining forces with some other community builders to explore how we can make this a reality. I have a vision of a building called "Sherona Hall House" honouring one of our fiercest and most compassionate warriors and community builders who left us too soon.
What do you think your contribution to community building will be remembered as?
I guess I see myself as part of a continuum of giving and receiving. I feel privileged in some ways. To whom much is given, much is expected. My parents, and my mother in particular, lived and exemplified this phrase. I have received more from being involved in community than I will ever be able to give back. But the circle of giving and receiving goes on. Ase!