“We need diversity. Diversity doesn’t just mean black people. It means black people alongside white people, alongside Latinos and Arabic people. It’s everybody together!” proclaims Toronto Black Film Festival founder Fabienne Colas. The Toronto Black Film Festival is one of the many festivals Colas has created under the Fondation Fabienne Colas, which advocates for black engagement in the arts. The award-winning actress, filmmaker and activist moved from Port-au-Prince, Haiti to Montreal at a young age and has been advocating for POC ever since, including starting the Montreal Black Film Festival (now in it’s twelfth year) and founding the Calgary Black Film Festival, which launches this year.
Toronto’s festival is unique, she says, because the city is such a cultural hub: “Toronto is the city of films in Canada, and it’s where you have the largest black communities.” This year’s festival—which runs Feb. 15 through Feb. 19—will feature films and workshops with some of the most prominent black figures in the industry. Tonight’s opening film, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, is the first film to address the 150-year history of black colleges and universities. Other festival highlights include a master class with Academy Award-winning actor Louis Gossett Jr. and a workshop on how to create a web series. Colas opened up to FLARE about her personal experience with discrimination and how that continues to influence her work.
What inspired you to start the Fabienne Colas Foundation?
When I moved to Canada in the early 2000s, I came here as a very popular actress from my country, thinking okay, so I’m going to be screening my latest film, Barikad. That film was our Titanic at the time. That was our biggest film! I had the lead role and I had just won an award for it. So I came with a VHS copy of that film and I said to all the journalists in my home country that I would be screening that film in Canada. And guess what? No festival would screen the film, so here I was, left with a VHS copy and no platform. I was frustrated, I was humiliated and I didn’t know how I would face the journalists in my country. I was like, if I was the most popular actress from Haiti and there’s no festival that would accept the film that was the most popular for us at the time, how many other people are in that same situation? And that is how we started the Fabienne Colas Foundation in Canada, with a mission of promoting and screening films that would otherwise not be seen or heard, and give a voice to other actors or filmmakers like me who do not have a voice here.
“In America, it’s more difficult to be the president of a [film/TV] studio than it is to be the president of the United States.” —Spike Lee
What do you think is the biggest injustice in the arts right now? One of my biggest challenges is to really push diversity on screen nationwide. For some people, it’s just a slogan. Everyone’s like, oh, yeah, we love that! Who doesn’t? But we need to walk the walk. It’s not normal to have Canadian productions where everybody is the same colour. This is the diversity I’m trying to advocate for and this is what Canada is about. Not just on-screen, but also behind the scenes. Spike Lee once said when he was accepting an Oscar, “In America, it’s more difficult to be the president of a [film/TV] studio than it is to be the president of the United States.” We need more people in positions of power in the film industry; the more we have producers, distributers, writers and directors that are of colour, the easier the shift will be.
Can you recall a time when you’ve experienced discrimination, as an artist and/or an entrepreneur? Anytime I enter a room, I am reminded, somehow, that I am black. Not that I am a woman, but that I’m black. Not that anybody would say anything, but because of the context and the way people try to make it extra-nice and try to be extra-cautious. You’re being treated differently. As for the film industry: when I used to go into an audition, I knew there was no way for anybody that has my skin colour to get that role. We’ve got to stop being politically correct and saying “we will open the audition for everybody” when we know we aren’t accepting any person of colour for that role. We need to have a discussion nationwide about that, and decide to make the shift. The best way to make that shift is from the top down. The audience is ready for diversity, otherwise festivals like ours would never have anybody coming to buy a ticket. But you have people in positions of power that decide the audience is not ready. The shift should come from all the federal and provincial levels of funding. If you don’t have those people in Canada saying, “okay, from now on we will not be funding any film that doesn’t reflect diversity,” then it won’t change.
“When I wanted to go to Canada, I did not anticipate seeing that many non-white people. I thought everyone was white because that’s what I was seeing in films.” —Toronto Black Film Festival Founder Fabienne Colas
Did the lack of diverse representation have an impact on you as a young actress in Haiti? I did not know that black people represented such a huge population in North America because I didn’t see them in films. When I wanted to go to Canada, I did not anticipate seeing that many non-white people. I thought everyone was white because that’s what I was seeing in films.
Have you witnessed any changes in representation since you first arrived in Canada? I don’t see the change I’ve been waiting for, almost 15 years later. If we can identify some non-white actors easily, like five to 10 of them, then that means we still don’t have enough. We are a very open-minded nation and we have a great cinema industry—our films are being nominated for Oscars, we are winning at Cannes Festival—but we just need to make sure to include everybody so that we can be sure that the world understands who we are and sees us for the beauty of our diversity, just as Justin Trudeau said. I don’t believe only people of colour should be expected to bring that change. Of course it helps when you have people of colour on screen, but we need to have non-black people to get in the game as well and push for diversity.
What are you looking forward to the most at this year’s festival? It’s a celebration that coincides with two major things: the 150th anniversary of Canada, and the great news that Viola Desmond is going to be featured on the $10 bill next year. We are so proud to be Canadian and we are definitely dedicating part of the festival to her memory because her actions really set the tone and help us be where we are today. Anybody in any cinema can sit wherever they please, regardless of their skin colour. We’re very happy to use her example as how we should get involved in our communities today and denounce inequalities. If you see injustice in one place, there’s injustice everywhere.