BUT YOU’RE NOT BLACK is a short documentary that shines a light on how society’s conceptions of culture and heritage are often perceived based entirely on someone’s visible race — and the impact that can have on an individual’s sense of identity. This film challenges and redefines the correlation between race, skin colour and culture.
The film follows Danielle, a descendant of Chinese-Caribbean parents who was born and raised in Toronto, as she answers the common question “what’s your background” by traveling back to Trinidad.
Danielle and her team are currently fundraising for production costs in order to complete the film and use it to promote inclusivity, empathy and diversity in film. Learn more about the Kickstarter campaign for BUT YOU’RE NOT BLACK and support here.
In advance of This is Worldtown’s One Year Anniversary Event ARCHV RMX, we chatted with guest panelist Maya Annik Bedward about using humour as a tool for storytelling, embracing vulnerability in Jamaican culture and reliving the past through reenactments.
Maya Annik Bedward is a Jamaican-Québecoise filmmaker based in Toronto. In 2005, she launched Third Culture Media with support from the Michaëlle Jean Foundation. Her films have screened at festivals across North America and Europe and sold to Air Canada and the CBC. Maya is a recipient of the WIFT-T Business of Broadcasting Mentorship and a fellow of the RIDM Talent Lab. She recently completed The Haircut with CBC Short Docs and is currently in development on her first feature, Black Zombie through the DOC Breakthrough program.
What are some of the things that inspired you to tell the stories that you do?
In most of my work, I deal with themes of belonging and isolation, and I use humour to talk about these things. It’s connected to my personal experience. Growing up, I lived in many different cultures, but I never felt a part of one. I was always trying to understand where I fit in. It’s something I play a lot with in my work.
Why did you choose film as a format?
I have always loved film. Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a filmmaker. I even went to acting school at the age of 7 to learn how to direct actors. I think that there’s so much power in combining moving images with dialogue and music to create a world where you can be completely immersed. I think it’s a great way to learn about ourselves and the world.
What pushed you to tell this story?
When I moved to Toronto from Ottawa, where I was raised, I was exposed to a much larger Jamaican community and a lot of my peers had a very different family immigration story. My grandfather came to Canada in the 1940s, a time when very few Black people were allowed to immigrate to Canada. He eventually settled in Ottawa, where there was no Black community. When he brought his family over in the early 50s, they had to find their own way. It was difficult for them to rent property and to find work. They faced a lot of prejudice, and learned very quickly how to navigate around it. It’s something they don’t feel comfortable talking about, but I know it had a huge impact on the way my family is today. We just don’t talk about racism, or difference. So I wanted to open up that discussion in my family, and I knew the only way to do it was through humour.
In my family culture, and Jamaican culture in general, humour is a very important coping mechanism. It’s also a great storytelling tool. I knew if I approached the documentary by asking my family what it was like to experience racism in Ottawa in the 1950s, they would close up and not want to talk about it. But if I approached it through the humour of my dad’s disdain for getting haircuts, they would laugh and open up more.
Why the focus on your dad?
When I approached my dad and told him that I wanted to do this, he was very reluctant at first. He doesn’t like to be the centre of attention. But he’s someone I’ve looked up to my entire life, and even though we have very different viewpoints on many things, we’ve had very similar experiences. I know many other people have as well so I thought his story, although quite specific, would resonate with others.
What issues do you hope to change / address through this film?
There’s definitely a way society teaches men, especially Black men, how to behave and gain respect. They have to be strong, not show emotion, and be resilient. But when I was growing up and would occasionally see my father get emotional, I actually felt comforted. It normalized the emotions I was feeling. Children need to see vulnerability in their parents because that’s how we learn how to deal with life. So I wanted to highlight that feeling and the idea that not always knowing how to handle difficult situations is okay.
Can you describe how you used different visual storytelling methods (re-enactments, family archive photos) to tell this story?
When I started working on this film, I wanted to talk about a specific time and place. I thought it was important to use more than just photos, so that I could bring the film to life. I always knew that there was going to be some type of reenactment. When I found the barbershop where my father had his hair cut as a child, still in tact from the 50s, I knew I had to use it. I really loved the process of weaving the old photos with the re-enacted footage to create a seamless account of history, my family’s history.
Can you speak to the importance of reclaiming narratives about diaspora communities?
The level to which colonial narratives have informed the way we understand everything is insane. When I was young in school, we would only ever learn about British or French history. But I was curious about other histories. I wanted to learn about the histories of Indigenous people from this land beyond colonial wars, and I wanted to learn about my history, Black history. But teachers would constantly tell me we didn’t have time for that, or it wasn’t in our textbooks, so we couldn’t cover it. It made me so angry growing up. But now, there’s this resistance happening against these colonial tellings of history. We’re not only changing the way we see the past but how we understand ourselves and our potential for the future. It’s such an exciting time, and I’m really happy to be a part of this change.
What are some of the most important ways people can support work by female and non-binary artists of color?
Learn who we are. Find us, find our work.There’s more and more platforms that are featuring us. And make a point to share our work and encourage people to check it out. The best type of promotion is by word of mouth, so if you see work you love, share it. Share our stories, share our creations. We need that support.
Palestinian performance poet Rafeef Ziadeh is no stranger to being questioned at the border and dehumanized based on ethnicity. Watch as she shares her experience of “being illegal and swearing an oath to the Queen and her ‘hairs’.” This is an excerpt recorded from her performance of her album “We Teach Life” at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in May 2016. It’s a beautiful antidote to the understanding of citizenship, borders, and becoming “legal”.