Three vastly different films. Three female directors. One enriching experience.
This was not the official tagline for this particular Black Star shorts program, but it could have been. Though the centerpiece of the program was Sylvia Hamilton and Claire Prieto’s 1989 documentary short Black Mother Black Daughter, there was a thematic link with the two short films that proceeded it. In both Nadine Valcin’s Whitewash and Martine Chartrand’s Black Soul history, and the importance of women within it, play a vital role in shaping the black experience in Canada. Here are some brief thoughts on each film.
Nadine Valcin’s short can be considered experimental in its execution, but there is a poetic beauty to its approach to history. The film opens with a shot of an elderly woman’s face. As the camera studies the contours of her face and hands, the narrator explains how blacks were brought to this indigenous land long before confederation gave it the name Canada. Throughout the film we see different black women of various complexions, each face helping to emphasize the hardships blacks endured and the way their contributions have practically been erased from the history books.
It is through these stories that Valcin effectively debunks the myth of Canada as a saintly refuge for runaway slaves. Whitewash unflinchingly addresses the harsh reality of slavery in Canada and the impact it has had on nine generations of black families in Prince Edward Island. As the skin tones get lighter on screen, Valcin reminds the viewers that just because you cannot readily see one’s ancestors on the surface does not mean they are not there. The contributions of black people in Canada are vast and, no matter how hard some have tried, cannot be removed from the pillars that serve as the foundation for a nation.
Black Soul takes a different approach to some of the themes found in Whitewash. Using painted images, director Martine Chartrand creates a vivid meditation on the turbulent events that have shaped a culture. Relying primarily on visuals and music, covering everything from traditional African songs to modern gospel, the film tells the story of a young boy who learns the about his heritage from his grandmother’s stories.
Taking six years to complete, as Chartrand had to paint, shoot and erase 10,000 images to make the film, Black Soul is an astonishing work. Charting the black experience back to its African roots, the film tackles slavery, colonialism, the Civil Rights movement, the economic contribution of black labour and modern racism with a graceful fluidity. The film is packed with symbolism, take for example the grandmother’s cup of tea which is used a metaphor for the way society drinks in slavery, but never feels overbearing. Chartrand crafts a film that is full of pain but still offers a sense of hope. For it is only when this history is passed on and learned by everyone, regardless of their background, that society can truly move forward as one harmonious entity. This film should be mandatory viewing for those young and old.
Black Mother Black Daughter
In her captivating documentary Black Mother Black Daughter Sylvia Hamilton explores the influential women who not only shaped her life, but the black community in Nova Scotia as a well. Interviewing a wide range of women, from an acapella group to a politician to a basket weaver to a foster mother, Hamilton constructs a mesmerizing portrait of strength and perseverance. If the sight of a black female mayor in a town that was once notoriously racist is not enough to inspire, Hamilton has a slew of other women that will. When the acapella singers croon “made it through some hard times…” you know they are echoing the struggle of generations of women.
One of the most riveting moments arrives when Hamilton and a scholar go searching local museums for representations of the slave experience. What they find is disheartening to say the least. Though society may have chosen to forget the women who were once treated like furniture for ruthless masters, Hamilton’s film keeps their spirits, and the accomplishments of their descendants, at the forefront. Her film wonderfully preaches the importance of empowering black women from an early age. By seeing and understanding the achievements of those who came before them, it helps to fuel the next generation of women to aim even higher in the realm of what is possible. It is a message that should be shouted from the roof tops all over Canada.
Nadine Valcin, Martine Chartrand, Sylvia Hamilton taking part in post-screening Q&A
These three short films all screened as part of TIFF Cinematheque’s Black Star series running from November 3, 2017 to December 22, 2017.