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Blackness, from Lagos to Toronto

National Film Board screenings explore two black identities

Black identity is a fluid and abstract concept to tackle. This is precisely why the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) decided to take it on, in the form of a screening and discussion about two documentaries for Black History Month – Nollywood Babylon and Invisible City. 
Nollywood Babylon deals with Nigerian cinema, and the way that Nollywood, as the Nigerian film industry is called, has popularized and democratized cinema in that country. Surprisingly, the Nollywood film industry is booming, producing upward of 200 films a month. African films don’t often get screened in Quebec, so a panel discussion that followed the film tackled issues such as the importance and influence of African film, and its place in Quebec. Damien Chalaud, coordinator of the Vues d’Afrique festival, and Erica Pomerance, director and coordinator of Initiative Taling Dialo, led the discussion.   
In Quebec, the speakers commented, there is less space for diversity in film, especially compared with a country such as France, where African filmmakers have access to newly-created programs and workshops. This seems to stem from the fundamental difference between France and Quebec; France is already independent, while Quebec struggles for its sovereignty. With a desire to uphold French Canadian identity amidst a swarm of anglophone provinces, African and other immigrants’ identities are pushed to the back burner. “Often people of colour are seen as only recent immigrants and seen as secondary immigrants. [Canada] is a country that dominantly constructs itself as white, and even though we have a multicultural policy, we need to think about how that gets enacted around issues of race and culture,” commented Professor Charmaine Nelson, an associate professor in McGill’s Department of Art History and Communications who has done extensive research in the areas of race and representation in visual culture. 
Filmmakers from both Togo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo were among the audience. They attributed Nollywood’s success to the cinematic representation of its citizens.  Nollywood has enjoyed such tremendous support because it tells its own stories: stories about Africa and African peoples.  Seeing yourself and those who look like you on screen – as opposed to Hollywood stars – is an extremely crucial part of understanding your own identity and background. As one Nollywood actress said in the film, “Some of us don’t even want to go to Hollywood anymore; we want to make Nollywood the best it can be, because really, Hollywood is white.”  Nigerian film producer Lancelot, one of the documentary’s subjects, shared this sentiment. In the film, he commented, “America has been able to colonize the world through music and movies.” Nollywood has been his chance to create an alternative to this Western dominance. 
The following night was a screening of Invisible City: a film that follows the lives of two boys, Mikey and Kendell, as they grow up in Toronto’s social housing development, Regent Park.  With a high concentration of the city’s poor located in their neighbourhood, both Mikey and Kendell live a troubled youthful existence, filled with violence, drugs, lack of education, and altercations with the police.   
Leading the discussion about the film was Joanne Lacoste, from a community organization in Montreal North. Youth development and the consequences of containing poverty in specific areas dominated the discussion.  Montreal North shares many similarities with Regent Park: both are mainly immigrant and multi-ethnic communities, victimized by racial profiling that can lead to events like Fredy Villanueva’s death in 2008. Lacoste discussed the importance of supporting disadvantaged youth, and providing a space for them to contribute to their own community.  Communities such as Regent Park have suffered from social, physical, and racial discrimination. “We do have to ask the questions, not just where do people want to live in the space of Canada, but where are people made to live?” said Nelson. 
By choosing two films from very differing backgrounds for this year’s Black History Month, NFB demonstrated that Canadian black identity cannot just stem from one place: it encompasses a wide range of experiences filled with intricacies and diversity. Even in a city such as Montreal, there are countless stories to be told.