The number of African-Canadians making films four decades ago was infinitesimal.
Fil Fraser was one of the few writing, producing and directing documentaries for television in the 1970s. At around the same time, Claire Prieto came along, making films with dramatic themes.
In recognizing the film pioneers with Lifetime Achievement awards last week, Caribbean Tales Film Festival founder Frances-Anne Solomon said she knows 45 Black filmmakers who are currently working on projects.
That pronouncement was music to the ears of both Fraser and Prieto.
“You could count on one hand, the small number of films that were made against incredible odds by Blacks in the late 60s and early 70s,” said Fraser. “That’s why what you are doing collectively is so amazing.”
Prieto, who is married to American playwright Charles Fuller, said Fraser and the late Jennifer Hodge and her husband Paul De Silva were the only visible minority filmmakers she knew when she came to Canada from Trinidad & Tobago in the early 1970s.
The daughter of Canadian activist, author and TV personality, Mairuth Sarsfield, Hodge succumbed to cancer in 1989 at age 38.
In 1991, Prieto produced Jennifer Hodge: The Glory and the Pain that paid tribute to the life and ground-breaking work of Hodge whose pioneering projects in the 1980s established the dominant mode in African-Canadian film culture.
Former federal Member of Parliament Jean Augustine made the presentation to Prieto.
“She is an outstanding human being, an outstanding professional and a woman who can be called visionary and ahead of her times,” Augustine, the province’s Fairness Commissioner, said. “This recognition of Claire, her work, her mentorship and her role in moving the agenda forward for talented people of colour in her industry needs to be shouted.”
Prieto, who has produced several films that explore the lives of Blacks in Canada, said she was honoured to be recognized by her peers.
“Caribbean Tales is making it possible for the filmmakers and their work to get out to audiences in Canada and internationally,” she said. “That’s crucial so that those stories that people want to tell in all kinds of ways get told.”
A former executive producer of Echo for Sun TV, Prieto produced and directed Some Black Women in 1977, the first film made by independent Black filmmakers in Canada and produced and line-produced Lord Have Mercy, the first Caribbean-Canadian sitcom. She and ex-husband Roger McTair co-produced and co-directed Home to Buxton which aired on TVO, CBC, Vision TV and PBS stations in the United States and she co-directed Black Mother, Black Daughter and directed Older, Stronger, Wiser for the National Film Board which she worked for as a New Initiatives in Film producer.
Prieto also served as executive director for Alison Duke’s debut documentary feature, Raisin’ Kane.
“She has an amazing clarity about the politics of making film,” said Duke.
In 1988, Prieto co-founded the Black Film & Video Network (BFVN) as a strategic resource for Black writers, producers and directors.
“Claire showed us that there are ways to run an organization so it can be influential, powerful and be heard,” said BFVN founding vice-president Karen King. “We lobbied for access to change, funding and to the industry in a way we didn’t have before.”
Fraser produced several films, including Why Shoot the Teacher, Marie Anne and The Hounds of Notre Dame, organized and chaired the first Alberta Film Festival and founded the renowned Banff International TV festival. He was a member of the Alberta Task Force on Film whose report led to the establishment of the Alberta Motion Picture Development Corporation.
“I have had a long life of being lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and things happened,” said Fraser in his acceptance speech.
Caribbean Tales also honoured husband and wife filmmakers David “Sudz” Sutherland and Jennifer Holness with the Cultural Entrepreneurs of the Year award and Hubert Davis with the Award of Excellence.
Sutherland and Holness wrote the epic CBC prime time series, Guns, which portrays the randomness of gun violence in the city. Their other credits include their breakthrough feature film, Love, Sex and Eating the Bones and the short films, My Father’s Hands and AfricVille.
Davis’ first feature film, Hardwood, earned him a 2005 Academy award nomination for Best Documentary Short and his most recent and critically acclaimed feature, Invisible City, won the Best Canadian Documentary at last year’s Hot Docs festival.
“I work so much in isolation that it’s actually nice to see what the response is to what I am doing and also see the community come out to support your work,” said Davis who graduated from McGill University with a degree in film and communication. “This award means a lot to me and it’s quite nice to be honoured on the same platform with Claire and Fil who are trailblazers.”
Hardwood, Invisible City and Guns are among several classic and contemporary Africentric films that will be screened during Black History Month in February for high school, college and university audiences.
Toronto District School Board (TDSB) administrator Lloyd McKell promised that his board, which has an enrolment of nearly 260,000, will encourage its students to attend the youth film festival.
“Despite the fact that the TDSB has been very innovative and progressive in our approach to inclusiveness, we are still fundamentally a Eurocentric system where the sources of knowledge that students in our schools learn come primarily from a Eurocentric context,” said McKell.
“In our last secondary students census, 78 per cent of Black students told us that learning about their history and culture will actually make learning more interesting for them. A total of 68 per cent said they will actually enjoy school more and 58 per cent said they would do better in school. Those are powerful arguments in favour of bringing our art forms to the classroom and to our schools for all children.”
The screenings take place February 2-25 at 9.30 a.m. and 1 p.m. at the University of Toronto’s William Doo Auditorium, 45 Willcocks St. (at Spadina Ave.)
Tickets are available at the U of T box office (416) 978-8849 or uofttix.ca.