By ANGELA WALCOTT
From the outside, the headquarters of Hungry Eyes Film & Television Inc. looks unassuming enough, but climb the steep staircase of the office space and another story unfolds. Large film posters line the narrow corridor and members of the staff are engrossed in various forms of work – it is a hub of activity.
This is where the award-winning husband and wife team of David ‘Sudz’ Sutherland and Jennifer Holness are telling ground-breaking stories. The two are currently putting the finishing touches on their latest project, Home Again, a film that shows the honest depiction of lives uprooted as a result of deportation.
Holness raises both arms triumphantly in the air. “We just finished shooting,” she says enthusiastically.
Home Again tells the story of three Jamaican-born people who were deported from Canada, the U.S. and England and who are struggling to survive in Jamaica. It stars Tatyana Ali, Lyriq Bent, Fefe Dobson, Jean Paul, Stephan James, Paul Campbell and acting heavyweight, CCH Pounder, who many will remember from TV crime drama, The Shield and the film, Baghdad Cafe. “We always wanted to work with CCH Pounder,” says Sutherland. “She was available and wanted to do it.”
The idea for the film came after Holness heard of a friend’s murder after being deported. “It was a tragedy,” Holness says. “I remember thinking ‘What is going on?’ All these kids who grew up in Canada that I knew are being deported.”
Holness and Sutherland approached the National Film Board with a pitch for the story and received the go-ahead after which they made their way to Jamaica where they interviewed deportees.
With the trip came the realization of how serious and commonplace deportation had become – it proved to be a life-altering experience.
“One of the things we are telling is the story of people who are kind of in-between,” says Sutherland. “They are raised abroad and have no physical connection with the country. They don’t know Jamaica, yet they are seen as Jamaicans, legally.”
Filmed on location in Toronto, Trinidad and Jamaica, there were elements that the filmmakers did not anticipate from a logistical standpoint. “There were things that we had to put in place that didn’t exist,” Sutherland said. “There was a learning curve for Trinidad and Canada and logistically we overcame it.”
With a budget of approximately $4 million, Jennifer Holness recalls how amazing her funding partners were when it came to making the movie. While some didn’t come through, it was Jennifer’s producing partner, Don Carmody, who made it happen in the end. After reading the script, he knew that the film could do great things and agreed to partner with them after one meeting.
The couple has been carving out a niche for themselves with films that encourage dialogue and challenge the status quo. As a result, they are responsible for creating the Gemini award-winning miniseries Guns and the TV movie Doomstown, bringing hard-hitting news stories affecting the Black community to the forefront.
“We couldn’t do sugar-coated stuff,” Sutherland says, referring to the many Blaxploitation films they have turned down over the years. Their mission statement of sorts is to tell stories that others aren’t telling.
“Fundamentally, everything we do, we stand by,” Holness adds. “I want to tell stories that are part of the community, but from our point of view.”
While Holness and Sutherland have established a name for themselves in the filmmaking industry, the path was not a straight one for Holness who was studying political science and business administration at York University. “When I went to university I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life,” she says. “How I grew up and where I grew up, there wasn’t a sense of being a writer or a producer.” She started producing because she enjoys organizing things and has an affinity for multi-tasking.
Holness handles the producing side of things and Sutherland directs, but the couple share the duty of writing. As she started to have success with producing, she was always editing stories, which eventually led to writing scripts, something she does fairly quickly.
“I often approach the task by asking, ‘Who are these people and what is it about them that makes them compelling and interesting to an audience? Why would the audience come back to them?’”
Sutherland is more of a procrastinator when it comes to writing, but the York University film graduate forces himself to move faster to meet production deadlines because he knows that “if it doesn’t get done it won’t get shot.”
“Sudz is a deep thinker,” says Holness of her husband. “He has good ideas and thinks them through. I’m very analytical, so we complement each other. When we bring a script to the table, it is at a higher level.”
As with many projects that Sutherland and Holness have created in the past, the idea is to educate, entertain and, more importantly, subvert stereotypes. Sutherland says he strives for his audience to see the rich storytelling of his films that challenges stereotypes.
When their critically acclaimed first feature film, Love, Sex and Eating the Bones, was released in 2004, it was revolutionary because it challenged the role of the Black male stud which has become a cliché in North American films. The film garnered international attention and went on to win numerous awards including Best Canadian Feature at the Toronto International Film Festival; and Best Feature Film at the Victoria Film Festival, Denver Pan African Film Festival and London Film Festival here in Canada.
The dynamic duo has a diverse roster of films to their credit including the documentary, Speaking for the Dead, which chronicles the well-kept secret of an unknown Black cemetery in Priceville, Ontario that was desecrated to make way for a farmer’s potato patch. Their work also includes directing for television shows such as Degrassi: The Next Generation, She’s the Mayor, Murdoch Mysteries and ’Da Kink in My Hair.
The busy pair is currently working on a documentary called The Numbers Game, a feature called Red Dog and Color Blind. While their body of the work includes comedy, drama, documentaries and romance, it will soon expand into the world of science fiction.
“There is no limit to what we can do,” Sutherland says. “We are students of film – there is no genre I don’t want to touch. We walk on this earth to make movies and have fun, not be limited to one genre.”
Hungry Eyes Film & Television Inc. has a strong following and the general public appreciates the honest message this talented couple delivers through their vast body of work.
“People have come up to us and said ‘that is my story’ and ‘that is my friend’s story’,” Sutherland says. “When you strike a nerve, you get those reactions. People say ‘You got it right.’
“That’s what we strive for. It doesn’t have to be verisimilitude; it has to be an essence of the truth.”