Testing Ground for the Oscars

Celebrating vision and cultural entrepeneurship, bringing Caribbean tales to the Toronto Filmfest

On a three-day visit to Toronto in 2000, I was hugely impressed by the scene as the city prepared for the 25th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Re-visiting Toronto ten years later, I had more time to immerse myself in the city’s dynamic features. I went there in the beginning of September to support a group of 25 outstanding Caribbean filmmakers who were selected to pitch their film projects in the world’s biggest and busiest marketplace for films, known by those in the business simply as TIFF.

The group was part of a larger vision and strategy to brand the Caribbean region as a market for ventures in the film industry. The exercise included a market development programme with consultant-mentors who coached the participants in the aesthetic as well as business aspects of presenting their strategies and plans to would-be financing partners. Frances-Anne Solomon spearheaded this initiative as CEO of Caribbean Tales Worldwide Distribution (CTWD), a newly established company that was launched during the Festival. CTWD aims to fill the gap and to meet the demand from international investors & distributors for a regional mechanism that promotes and sells Caribbean-themed audiovisual products. Growing up in Toronto, where she also studied and has established networks, the internationally acclaimed Canadian filmmaker of Trinidadian heritage was well placed for this role.

After 35 years TIFF has become the meeting place where buyers and distributors go to assess and exchange views on the commercial prospects of films and the likelihood of a good or disastrous performance at the box offices. TIFF therefore attracts not only investors but co-production venture capitalists as well. There’s a media buzz that is created around the festival, which draws stars and their publicity agents too.

It is said that TIFF has become a testing ground for the Oscar nominations. Black Swan is high on the list. Murmurs put Xavier Bardem’s performance in Biutiful as Oscar-worthy and Colin Firth’s in The King’s Speech as Oscar-royalty. Firth, who was nominated last year for A Single Man plays George VI, the English monarch who struggled to cure a lifelong stammer but was unexpectedly propelled onto the throne by the abdication of his brother Edward VII.

Integral to Filmfests is checking out who’s who on the red carpet. Favourite screen couples like Brad Pitt with Angelina Jolie, and Bardem with Penelope Cruz were among the many screen personalities who graced the red carpet to indulge fans and the paparazzi. A woman pointing at me remarked to her friend: “Look, here’s David Suzuki; shaved his head so that we wouldn’t recognize him; he should be doing his work signing autographs.” Suzuki is a familiar face not only in Canada, having spent several years before the camera educating the public about wildlife and the environment and calling out government and industry for failing to protect the natural world.

TIFF celebrates achievements from a tradition of partnership between both the government and private sectors in Canada, a leading country in terms of an enabling environment for the film industry. In just ten days, more than 400 films were programmed, along with a selection of panel discussions and interactive sessions to address issues vital to the film communities. “Canada First” at TIFF is a tribute to filmmakers who have made the leap over conceptual and financial hurdles to produce debut features with commercial appeal and presents a diverse crop of first films by writers/directors who originated or wrote the concepts behind their own productions.

Booths were set up by promotional agencies from all over the world and I wondered how many others had noticed the absence of Austria. Slovakia had gained spotlights without a booth but with a group of actors in folk costumes that went around the venues and parties to advertise Modra, a film by Slovak-Canadian Ingrid Veninger. Modra is about a 17-year old Toronto girl who goes to visit her mother’s birthplace and nest of relations in the region of Bratislava. I saw the film back in Vienna. It’s one of those gems I tend to discover in Filmfesten.

A new feature this year was the Filmmakers’ Lounge, a work-friendly space, which became a centre of gravity for industry professionals to establish contacts with each other, formally as well as informally. International industry consultants from the fields of world sales, festivals and production were available onsite to offer advice. It was there I met Eric Kabera, a Ruandan who had set up a Cinema Training Centre and produced Africa United, presumably the first road movie about African children, from dire circumstances, making their way to the World Cup. Kabera said, “It’s time to tell stories different from genocide and other harsh realities. It matters that we made a film about children’s resourcefulness and hope; it’s not so important what happens at the box office.”

All that provides the backdrop as to why CTWD chose Toronto as its launching pad.

For me, it entailed preparatory work over the past two years that seemed like a lifetime, after I had agreed to be curator-advisor-cum-coordinator for a Turkish-funded technical cooperation project to promote creative industries in the Caribbean region.

When Inez Wijngaarde, Project Manager for UNIDO (the Vienna-based U.N. Industrial Development Organization) made this offer to me, I didn’t have the slightest inkling that the project was going to end up in TIFF.

Initially, I had consultations with the principal partners in Guyana and Barbados. In view of the low budget of this regional project, the stakeholders of what became the UNIDO-CARRIBEAN Partnership planned pilot activities to focus on capacities to propel the audiovisual sector’s prospects for sustainable development. Thus, technical assistance was given to Cinematic Entrepreneurial & Motivation Awardees (CEMAs) who were selected on the basis of their potential to drive their projects in entrepreneurial ways.

The CEMA collective, with the newly formed Caribbean Audiovisual Network of 17 countries, strongly articulated their wish that the region be seen in a different light. For a start, this meant ending the clichés and stereotyping of Caribbean island countries as stepping stones between two continents, quaint plantations for growing and processing bananas, sugar and coconuts for the world’s daiquiri aficionados, sun-blessed areas for location shooting where pirates and tourists abound, if not traffickers in humans and drugs.

Mahmood Patel, leading a region-wide Film Group, has been highlighting products that can be exported to the world because of the abundance of content-creators – with narratives and capacities for story-telling in the new media, by which they legitimise the region’s struggles and hopes for development.

Going to Toronto with CTWD was an exercise that CEMAs Rubadiri Victor and Ernest Che Rodriguez, both from Port of Spain, and Davina Lee from St. Lucia had acknowledged as an enormous boost in revitalizing their film projects. Another awardee, Guyanese-Canadian Marc Gomes said that being at TIFF definitely facilitated a unique profiling and invaluable networking of the Caribbean filmmakers on the global cinematic stage. Alison Saunders, award winner from Barbados asserted, “this definitely was the way to go”.

Four other leading filmmakers and producers were also sponsored by the UNIDO project for the CTWD-events: Mary Wells and Kirk Buchanan of Jamaica, and Camille Abrahams and Tony Hall of Trinidad & Tobago. Along with other outstanding participants, whom Solomon called “the crème de la crème of Caribbean filmmakers and producers,” they underlined the importance of being exposed to each other’s works through intensive and specialized mentoring sessions including market-simulation and pitching exercises. They actively participated during discourses at Reel World Indie Networking events, which included a Caribbean-themed panel hosted by Tonya Lee Williams, Canadian of Jamaican heritage.

Solomon said, “Exposing Caribbean culture through filmworks legitimises our very existence as a people and a region, with not one, but many original voices. The ability to have a voice, to tell our stories, is key to a healthy society.” However, she contends that effective and targeted distribution of Caribbean content is very much needed, “to give us a platform in the world marketplace.”

CTWD Board Chair Keith Nurse stressed that “without clear outlets and infrastructure, you cannot monetize the work of those who create content. A distribution company is the first step to getting the production of films on a proper business footing.”

Summing up, Sealy said, “This experience truly fostered regional capacity building – learning together about the substantive issues and enabling all key players of the Regional Project to be exposed to how the trade works and the kind of support-services all that would entail.”

Wijngaarde lauded the decision to partner with CTWD and the festive launching within the framework of TIFF, saying “that was absolutely the way to end this project: on a high note.”

My rejoinder: yes, it’s a good feeling to have partaken in a project where Caribbean producers have been set on a highway, with TIFF as the springboard.

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