Popular Haitian actress Fabienne Colas thought that when she moved to Montreal in 2003 she was going to “conquer America,” but she was faced with the disappointing reality of the lack of diversity in Canada’s film and television industry.
“I was only considered as just a young Black woman immigrant, with an accent in French, with an accent in English, so that couldn't work at all,” Colas told Yahoo Canada. “It's bizarre because we all know that cinema and television should reflect...society's demographic reality.”
“When I was on the street it was so beautiful and diverse, and lots of different accents and [vibes] and people coming from all over the world... When I turned on the TV, everybody was white and speaking with the same accent in French, and this was kind of a shock.”
Colas was determined to to get through this “uphill battle” and decided try to bring films from Haiti to Canada so people in the industry could discover new movies and talent, hopefully leading to more audition opportunities for Colas herself. Once again, she was faced with another roadblock when there weren’t any film festivals that were willing to show these films.
This led to the start of the Fabienne Colas Foundation in Canada, which works to amplify Black voices on screen and give opportunities to creators that have been “marginalized and invisible,” as Colas described happened to herself personally.
Colas now manages nine film festivals globally, including the Toronto Black Film Festival (Feb. 10 to Feb. 21), the Montreal International Black Film Festival (Sept. 22 to Oct. 3) and the Halifax Black Film Festival (Feb. 23 to Feb. 28).
“They are essential to the wellbeing of our industry because they fill the void, they bridge the gap, they give a voice and a platform to marginalized, underserved Black creators, and they give a platform to great, authentic Black stories that otherwise wouldn't have been seen, wouldn't have been heard of, would have remained really invisible,” Colas said.
“One thing that I love about this festival is we also have films from non-Black people about Black realities. As Black people, we don't just live with ourselves by ourselves in an isolated world, we interact with other people that are non-Black, it's important to see that too.”
The festivals have welcomed stars like Spike Lee, Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover, among others.
“You get to be educated on things that maybe you didn’t know about, or you get to understand why certain people are thinking certain things and see things differently than you,” Colas said.
‘Not much has changed in the industry over the years’
While Colas has continued to call for more diverse filmmaking, both in front of and behind the camera, she believes there is a lot more than needs to be done. Her message is clear, we have to do better.
“Not much has changed in the industry over the years,” Colas said. “We can definitely make the statistics say the story we want to tell... Let's look at the numbers, the real numbers, the actual numbers.”
“It's like if your employer would say, well we have a problem we just have one woman working here so we need to increase the number of women, and then five years later they get to a point where there [are] three women working there. Would it be fair...to say, oh my god the number of women has tripled? I mean this is ridiculous.”
A core component, in additional to showcasing Black artists on screen, is to ensure diversity extends into the decision-making rooms, including writers, directors, producers, distribution companies, grant donors and casting decision makers.
“Whoever is behind the scenes is directly affecting which story, which projects get to be funded and which people get to be hired,” Colas stressed. “People behind the scenes get to tell us all how the landscape will look like the next year, and the next two or three [or] five years.”
“Once we get the green light for [films] telling authentic, diverse stories, well it's important who is behind the lens because whoever is....behind the camera gets to decide what story is being told, and from what angle.”
How Black Lives Matter impacted the entertainment industry
Colas did highlight that the Black Lives Matter movement caused a shift in the entertainment industry, which she describes as more of a “willingness” to change for the better, including more discussions with key stakeholders, like Telefilm Canada.
“We still need to go further, collectively,” she said.
“We still need to create more bridges and make a...pathway for people of colour, and especially Black people who are the most marginalized group in the film industry, to really access this funding so we can have great, powerful, strong productions and films and TV in this country.”
In terms of where diversity in front of and behind the camera is in Canada, compared to Hollywood, Colas believes Canada is even further behind.
She highlighted last year’s representation and inclusion standards announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science for films to be eligible for the Best Picture prize at the Oscars. Each film must meet a standard outlined for on-screen representation, storyline and subject matter, creative leadership and department heads, training opportunities and marketing.
“We're still waiting to hear these kind of measures to be taken here in our own industry,” Colas said. “I would say Canada is behind and we should be leading because we're the best country in the world, we should be leading in diversity.”
“I feel in Canada, we always catch up. When are we going to be the one that Hollywood will be like, oh Canada just did that... I'm dreaming of that day.”
For any Black artists and creators in Canada who are looking to hopefully pursue a career in the film or television industry, Colas said that now is a good time to get involved, educated, mentored and trained.
The Fabienne Colas Foundation created the Being Black in Canada program, presented by Netflix and in partnership with National Bank, which is Canada’s largest mentorship and training program for Black filmmakers. It provides free access to training, mentorship, professional equipment, editing studios and professional crews to support the entire filmmaking process.
“It's a good time now and we're going to continue to push,” Colas said. “We need to keep working, we need to keep pushing, there's nothing we can take for granted here.”