Trinidad-born Frances-Anne Solomon is a blogger and award winning filmmaker who has just completed her most recent project, A Winter Tale. Set in the violent downtown Toronto community of Parkdale, the story begins with the gathering of a black men’s support group, which was formed after a bullet meant for a local drug dealer kills an innocent boy. Multi-layered and expertly crafted, the film speaks to a multicultural community’s experience in an adopted land.
A Winter Tale has been well received in Canada – and it recently made its Caribbean debut at the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival to an appreciative audience. Part of the hype that has surrounded the film has been driven by Solomon herself – she understands the power of citizen media to draw attention to what she calls “Caribbean-themed storytelling”. I caught up with Frances-Anne on Facebook to discuss her latest tour de force…and how blogging and the Internet have helped her promote it.
Janine Mendes-Franco: It’s been a long journey to get this film made – more than four years worth of work from actors’ workshops to finished production. What compelled you to tell this story?
Frances-Anne Solomon: First as a feminist, most of my films have been from a woman's point of view. For a long time now I've wanted to create something that would be from a male perspective… give men a chance to “explain” themselves, take time myself to explore and faithfully render that different viewpoint.
Second, events in Toronto forced the specific issue of gun violence – about five years ago there was a lot of so called black on black violence – death by gun violence. The “perpetrators” – black men; the “victims” – black men. I wanted to create a piece that would explore the inner lives of these “monsters” who were being portrayed so negatively in the media and press. I wanted to start with the fact that each man, whether “murderer” or victim, has a mother, sister, lover; is somebody's son. And that we are all impacted and compromised by violence.
JMF: Do you think the film has made an impact on the communities it profiles?
FAS: I can't say if it has made an impact on “the communities” but can say that individually people have told me that they were very moved, that the film resonated for them. The overwhelmingly positive reaction has been across the board – from black men – and women, white people, young people.
The most surprising audience for me has been young Torontonians aged around 12-17, many of whom said they identified with the story and characters. Since I never set out to make a film for young people, I was very struck by this.
JMF: Has your process on this film been different from others you’ve made in the past?
FAS: I often use improvisation as part of the script development process, because the actor can bring so much to the integrity of characterisation and specificity of language. I thrive working with actors, and see them as collaborators in the story-telling process.
One thing I did a bit differently in this film is really take my time, particularly in post production. When you are working on a small budget there is a lot of pressure to finish the film quickly. It's said that two things make a movie: money and time. If you don't have money, take time. On this film, the edit period was very long – I re-cut the show several times, kept searching. We also shot pickups very late in the day, when we really could not afford to do so. But I wanted to make the film as good as it could be. I did not want to compromise the film because of our lack of financial resource.
JMF: But you utilized another important resource in technology. When and why did you first start to blog? Did you immediately see the potential of the medium to help raise awareness of your work?
FAS: When I started CaribbeanTales – my multimedia company – in 2001, the aim was to use “any means necessary” to showcase and distribute Caribbean-themed storytelling…to exploit the advances in new technology and the digital revolution to take ownership of all aspects of the storytelling process, from production through marketing and distribution.
Accordingly, we developed a website called CaribbeanTales that aimed to be an interactive multimedia resource for Caribbean culture, literature and the arts. It was daunting because I knew nothing about the web, but definitely saw its potential. While this initial project was not entirely successful, (the technology was beyond me), through 2004-5 we developed a rather exciting multimedia newsletter with reviews, articles and audio and video clips on Caribbean culture in Canada.
That was followed by LiteratureAliveOnline.ca – an online resource for teachers and learners about Canadian-Caribbean literature that accompanied our 20-part documentary series Literature Alive.
The newsletter was distributed by email to a mailing list of 6,000 and was very successful – a lot of people read it and responded to it. At that time, we had an in-house web developer who designed and implemented these projects. However, last year, when the newsletter came to an end, I decided to take matters into my own hands – I learned to blog, and created Newz from Leda Serene & CaribbeanTales (updates from my film production company Leda Serene and her not-for-profit sister company CaribbeanTales).
It was initially to communicate quickly and simply with friends, co-workers and communities of interest – nothing fancy like the newsletter which was designed by “an expert”. But the blog very quickly became our main marketing tool. It has been a process of trial and error, – often at the expense of my poor readers – and terrifying for that reason. I think it is effective because I write and manage it myself, so the communication is direct and personal – between me and my audience – and I like it that way.
JMF: Tell me about the online avenues you use and how they've been working for you.
FAS: Apart from the “Newz”, I maintain a number of other blogs…and will admit to being quite the amateur nerd! Despite my complete lack of technical education, I am dogged in my assault on the digital world and see it as offering real hope to those of us whose work and interests are sub the interests of the so-called mainstream. The web is democratising, effective and liberating. So yes, all our business takes place online, and I am all over Facebook, MySpace, Google Groups, e-commerce, CD Baby, Flickr….you name it. Of course, none of this is anything a five year old today can't manage, but it has changed the way that we can and do communicate. For a small business like mine with limited resources, it has offered great, very tangible opportunities for expansion, marketing, communication, networking.
JMF: I read your piece on Geoffrey Philp’s blog – in it you said, “as artists we face terror daily when we choose to express whatever it is we call our truth. Creation is a form of Terror, particularly when you come from a colonial context and background in which Empire (read: a sense of inferiority) was imposed through education, language, culture, as much if not more than through the barrel of a gun.” Does this terror fuel your creative drive?
FAS: Yes it does. But the end product is very satisfying.
JMF: In your film, is there a lesson for West Indians to learn about channeling fear into something positive?
FAS: I wouldn't presume to lecture…however for me, yes…underlying the whole piece is of course the concept of the support group “for men to talk about their feelings”. I am all for truth-telling, and believe art has that function. There is healing in the honest emotional expression of a painful story.
Perhaps the truths released in this story are too explosive for this particular group of characters to bear…but ultimately the result may be positive…for example, for an audience…and definitely for the storyteller!
For me, the creative process of crafting this film has been positive because every story in the successful telling allows you to define yourself – in this case myself, my language my world.
JMF: Do you consider yourself a Caribbean filmmaker?
FAS: Yup. I am also of the “diaspora”. Fully both.
JMF: And what does that mean when you’re operating in a country like Canada?
FAS: It's been interesting. A few years back, the yardstick culturally was Black America. But that is changing. There is a greater awareness of the Caribbean now… some excitement in the air too.
The reality is that we are all interconnected. Big Caribbean communities in every major urban center…and those at “home” travel a lot and are connected by relatives to Europe, North America, etc.
JMF: Does “being Caribbean” make it easier (access to ethnic/minority grants and funding) or more difficult (considered to be an “outsider” by the mainstream industry) to run a production company like Leda Serene?
FAS: It makes it harder. The work is not valued at the same dollar amount as “mainstream” (read white/Hollywood-ish fare) work. We are always working with a fraction of the budget of a white production/producer/director, etc.
JMF: What do you think other West Indian filmmakers need most in order to develop their craft?
FAS: Training…the opportunity to fail; to hone craft through trial and error, by taking risks on a number of productions. That is the way to find your voice, and develop craft, over time.
JMF: You said at the screening that it was “a very hopeful time” for Caribbean film. Where do you see the industry going in the region?
FAS: I am very excited to see: The Trinidad and Tobago Film Company funding production, development, marketing; the T&T Film Festival bringing awareness to local film, building an audience; Gayelle, local television with a huge audience; Awards and recognition for international filmmakers like Horace Ove; production houses, film festivals and production in Haiti, Barbados, Antigua, St. Maarten, Jamaica…
“Hopefully” this wave will be sustainable. I'm also “hopeful” because the technology for it all is now affordable and will become increasingly so – this gives us, with our small economies, a fighting chance in the big bad sea…
JMF: What are your hopes for this film in particular?
FAS: For as many people as possible to see it and talk about it.
Great interview! – Frances-Anne Solomon is probably the rarest filmmaker around, i.e. someone whose priorities are truth, artistry, people and integrity through every single step of the creative and productin process.
Frances Anne Solomon has produced an absolutely visually and topically stunning film which NOBODY black/white, young/old, romantic/cynical, with/without higher education will be able to remain indifferent to.
Mainstream distributors will ignore this film at their own cost, because word if mouth is spreading fast! This film deserves every award and more, it certainly deserves to be distributed and shows as widely as possible….and who knows, it may even change the world.