Black Representation in Storytelling
By Amin Fereg
Films, often for better or for worse, take inspiration from real life experiences and as a result it’s important to have as many individuals as possible telling their own story.
In this episode of VIBE Talks, VIBE Correspondent Amin Fereg had the opportunity to speak with Ella Cooper – Founder, Black Women Film! Canada, an organization that provides mentorship and training to Black Canadian, identified women in the film industry.
They discuss the history and creation of the organization, some of the programs and resources the organization provides, the current state of Hollywood in relation to Black creatives, as well as how to get involved with Black Women Film! Canada.
Amin: What exactly is Black Women Film! Canada?
Ella Cooper: Black Women Film! is an initiative that I started three years ago. It started off as a leadership program, and now we’ve grown into a collective which offers professional development, leadership, opportunities; we partner with folks to create screenings, master classes with growth and development happening every year.
Amin: Is there a specific moment or experience in your career or life that made you create this organization to help others?
Ella: Yeah, definitely! I actually moved to Toronto to study film and that experience was a great but even then I started to experience the “Boys Club”. When I first jumped into film and television, I really didn’t feel like I had a place within it and I definitely noticed who was getting bumped forward and who wasn’t getting as many opportunities. Ironically, I didn’t continue there; I actually decided to get involved in community film programs and I started teaching folks who didn’t have access on how to use photography, video, and film equipment to tell their own stories. It was through that work two things had happened. Then it hit me; one I’m directing and creating my own films and it also made me go, two, “Where are the professional opportunities for Black Women working in this industry to support each other and grow?”
Amin: What are some of the specific programs Black Women Film! Canada provides to Black Women that you saw were lacking before you created that organization? What are some of the specific programs provides to Black Women that you saw were lacking before you created that organization?
Ella: We started off with a leadership program that we offer every year and that’s by application only. We get almost 100 applications for 15 spots that are available. We also now offer master classes, which allows people to go super in depth. For example, we might offer a cinematography workshop and in that they’ll be able to go into a high end studio, work with gear that’s often really inaccessible to folks that are on a budget. In addition to that, we also partner with others, so people and organizations will come to us and go “Hey, we’re running this festival will you help us highlight different Black women filmmakers at the festival, will you create screenings in partnership with us?” etc. We also help broadcasters to connect with Black Women filmmakers who are out there, because a lot of people don’t realize there are a lot of Black women making films and media arts projects, and so they reach out to us to connect to them with those people.
Amin: So they kind of use it to as a way to connect the dots and bring people together essentially?
Ella: I started off just wanting to create a leadership program, I wanted to give people more access on a professional level so I reached out to TIFF, the CBC, the NFB and the CFC. I went to them because I find that there’s a lot of really great community level films programs that give people a first taste, but there wasn’t any that was high professional for Black women only. What I found was that people who went through the program ended up working together, they ended up getting hired by those same companies that we had partnered with and it hit me that Black Women Film! Canada has become a catalyst and so I’m really excited to just see the ripple effects of what’s happened in such a short period of time.
Amin: For Black identified women that are looking to apply for the program, what are the requirements that you guys usually look for on your panel to accept somebody into the program?
Ella: Firstly, I get three people who are on the jury so I’m not the one making the choices. What we’re really looking for are people primarily based in Canada, they have some years of experience so they can show they’re serious about this, they’ve made a couple of films - they don’t have to be major films but they’ve had to made some work to show they’re serious about moving their career forward. They share links to their work, they share why this would be an opportunity for them at this stage and then I throw it to the jury and the peer assessors to decide who they feel would really benefit and who would be a good fit.
Ella: But I also found that I didn’t want to end up being this group that was “cliquish” because there’s a lot of cliques in the film world as we know, and it’s all about who you know. That’s why we started the Elevate series and that’s open to any Black woman who’s interested in honing their skills. I got funding through the Ontario Arts Council and The Canada Council to offer professional development opportunities that were as rich and exciting as the leadership program, but not as involved. What this means is instead of a two week intensive, they’d be more of a weekend or a short day thing.
Amin: As someone who has had some experience within the industry, do you feel there are strides being made in the world of film when it comes to the Black experience with the influx of black creatives seeing success in recent times?
Ella: Yeah, definitely. I had the opportunity to be on TIFF’s Canadian Features jury and also a programmer for them for the Black Star series, and what I’m seeing is that there’s and more people emerging in the field and then you’ve got individuals that are established but we don’t know them as household names. So people like Alison Duke, Jennifer Holness, Dawn Wilkinson are people who’ve been doing this for a long time as producers and directors, and then you have younger filmmakers coming up like Karen Chapman, Lakeeya Kinghorn, Alicia Bunyan Sampson, Lu Asfaha… different folks like that who are making really awesome independent work, short film work, they’re starting to work with like CBC and CFC. Then you’re also seeing festivals like the Afro Prairie Film Festival in Winnipeg that’s really starting to big up Black filmmakers there, while you have film festivals in Toronto like The Caribbean Tales, an international film festival that’s been doing this for a really long time supporting Black identified filmmakers.
Ella: I think what it is, is that we don’t always promote ourselves well to the general public, so people don’t realize how much content is actually being created by a really talented group of folks.
Amin: In your opinion, do you feel common black centered depictions in mainstream films such as those based on single stories like slavery and civil rights do more to hurt or advance the progress of black creatives in the film industry?
Ella: I really think it depends on who’s telling the story to be honest. Unfortunately, there’s been too many instances where those type of important stories can become yet another trope or stereotype that you see in the film industry, depending on who’s directing and who’s writing the story. I was talking about this with some filmmakers that just because you’re Black doesn’t mean you only have to tell stories about the Black experience. What’s exciting is when you do and when there’s more of them, it starts to diversify the stories that are told so it goes beyond just civil rights movements. I think what excites me is that instead of having one tokenized person in a show or movie, now you’re seeing diverse voices and examples of the black experience in one web series or one film. That’s where it starts to get really interesting because then no one can say they know what the Black experience is, they can only share the stories that excite them and that are relevant to them.
For more information visit www.blackwomenfilm.ca