TORONTO — For Toronto Black Film Festival founder Fabienne Colas, this year’s edition feels like it’s happening in a different era.
Running now through Sunday online across Canada, the ninth annual movie marathon comes amid Black History Month, the first one since the Black Lives Matter movement of last summer raised global awareness of racial injustice.
“We feel a different vibe,” Colas says. “We feel like people are looking for impact and purpose and meaning in what they decide to support.
“And we’ve seen support — from the audience, to donations, to buying tickets, buying passes and then on social media. So we feel the buzz.”
Colas says she’s had film lovers from around the world express interest in buying tickets for this year’s event, which is being held online due to the pandemic. The festival isn’t available internationally but it is open to audiences across the country, and Colas predicts strong audience numbers audience this year.
“We have never seen that much interest for the festival,” says Colas.
The festival also has an inaugural Public’s Choice Award in several categories, new partners, and a record-high 154 films from 25 countries on offer this year, compared to last year’s 75.
There are also more panel discussions: 11 this year compared to about three last year. The panel chats are available for free on the festival’s Facebook page.
Colas says the festival had close to 2,000 film submissions for this year’s festival — another record.
“I believe it’s because, more than ever, creators need to have their voices heard,” says Colas, who has her own foundation and founded numerous events, including the Montreal International Black Film Festival held online last fall, and the Halifax Black Film Festival, running its fifth edition online from Feb. 23-28.
“One thing I’m happy about is that everybody understood after the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, that ‘Oh my God, we live in a chaotic industry, we need to change that. It’s messy. And there’s no equity.’ So that is good. Great conversations are happening,” she adds.
While Colas feels “enthusiasm on the ground from filmmakers and from the industry,” there’s still a glaring lack of Black representation and resources for Black creators in Canada’s screen industry, and several of the festival’s panel discussions address that issue.
“Local artists, they’re not being funded,” Colas says. “Some of them have tried and tried over and over again, and never got the money. So guess what they do? They stop trying, because they understood that, ‘Some people that look like me don’t get the money. So why keep going?'”
Colas notes it takes a lot of time and energy to apply for funding and fill out all the paperwork.
“They’re busy trying to survive, and working two, three jobs to make it and then they have to take some time trying to be a filmmaker at the same time or a producer,” she says. “And then when you’ve been applying unsuccessfully for years, then you know what? You just gather some friends and say, ‘Hey, help me out here for this film.’ And that doesn’t always make the best film, it doesn’t always make the strongest films, because you don’t have all the resources, because you don’t have money to pay for them.”
Such challenges have been talked about before and now it’s time to look at “concrete actions and solutions, and how do we change the system? How do we make it?” she adds.
“We’re working with the industry to change it. And the industry is willing to help, the industry wants to make it work. So that’s a good sign. But we’re not there yet.”
The festival’s opening-night film was Youssef Delara’s “Foster Boy,” executive produced by basketball star Shaquille O’Neal. Louis Gossett Jr., is among the stars of the drama about the U.S. foster-care system.
The festival will close with Canadian filmmaker Mia Donovan’s documentary “Dope Is Death,” about a holistic drug detoxification program founded in New York’s South Bronx neighbourhood by activists including Mutulu Shakur, stepfather of late hip-hop star Tupac Shakur.
Other Canadian films include the drama “Because We Are” by St Christopher (Saint) Bailey, about a corrupt, white cop who shoots an unarmed black teenager.
The festival also has master classes and chats with talent, including actor Taraji P. Henson and Canadian director Clement Virgo, who are each receiving a Career Achievement Award.
“This is an edition that is more significant, more meaningful, impactful than ever,” Colas says, “because we knew it should be up to the moment, it should rise to the occasion. So that was the mindset with which we developed the whole programming.”
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press