Culture | Pioneering black film

The International Black Film Festival (IBFF) continues in full force this week, with dozens of films playing through October 3. The organizers’ explicit aim is to promote the notion of an international “black culture,” transcending nationality, religion, and language – thus the festival’s impressive range of international content. Films from Rwanda, Burkina Faso, and Senegal will all be playing over the next few days.

The festival could be criticized, however, for how few Canadian films it has managed to scratch up. Is this an oversight, or can we blame the lack of funds for filmmaking in Canada and the marginalization of Canadian black filmmakers for this absence?
Whatever the reason, it’s hard to stomach the fact that more American films are playing this afternoon than Canadian films will play over the entire course of the festival. Though the black culture the IBFF identifies with transcends national borders, one could hope that this festival, at least, would work to counteract the marginalizing forces of a country that so often makes its black people invisible.

The one Canadian film playing this week, then, plays an important role. Billy is the story of a black pioneer who, at the age of 94, tells his story to a young white journalist. It’s a story which demonstrates just how neglected black culture is in Canada; the image of the pioneer, so fundamental to Canadian national myths, is generally reserved for white, anglophone Canadians. In actuality, black Canadians have filled the settler role since the 19th century, and at the beginning of the 20th played a large role in the Canadian government’s expansionist policy in the West. A 1910 petition from the Edmonton Board of Trade to Prime Minister Laurier, quoted in the Canadian Encyclopedia, demonstrates both how important these settlers were, and how brutally they were treated by their fellow pioneers. “We, the undersigned residents of the City of Edmonton, respectfully urge upon your attention and that of the Government of which you are the head, the serious menace to the future welfare of a large portion of western Canada, by reason of the alarming influx of Negro settlers,” the petition reads.

The structure of Billy echoes the position of the film within contemporary culture: the black settler finally gets the chance to tell his story to the culture that his labour built, and that has since forgotten him. Billy’s age reminds us that this story is being told far, far too late. Nonetheless, it’s time Canada listened.

Billy is playing at Cinéma du Parc (3575 Parc) at 9 p.m. on Tuesday and at the ONF/NFB Cinema (1564 St. Denis) at 8 p.m. on Saturday. Visit for more information.