The Toronto Black Film Festival has returned to show audiences why Black cinema matters. Running from now until February 21, TBFF is Toronto’s largest film event devoted to celebrating Black stories in the thick of Black History Month. This year’s festival goes online as health precautions related to COVID-19 make in-person events impossible, but the shift means that TBFF is bigger than ever with a whopping lineup of 154 films—nearly three times as many films that screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

The online version of TBFF means that the festival is also more accessible than ever. After the tumultuous events of this summer, which saw the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and protests swelling worldwide to address systemic racism following the murder of George Floyd, the appetite for Black stories has never been higher. This year’s festival features many films that confront the broken system directly, tackling issues of police brutality and institutionalised racism in dramas, documentaries, features, and shorts. But there are also stories that go beyond the triggering images of violence and brutality, offering windows into Black experiences told from Black perspectives.

Ahead of this year’s TBFF, Complex spoke with festival director Fabienne Colas about the 2021 iteration. Colas, known as Canada’s “Queen of Festivals” runs TBFF along with its sister events in Montreal and Halifax, and a handful of festivals worldwide devoted to Black storytelling. She gave us a hint of what to expect at TBFF’s first online edition and told us why the festival is worth logging onto during Black History Month.

Why did you choose Foster Boy to open this year’s Toronto Black Film Festival?
The film touches on the reality of the foster care crisis in the United States. This echoes our reality in Canada, mostly touching visible minority kids, marginalized kids, and Black kids, so it was relevant more than ever. It’s a great opportunity for us to spotlight youth on opening night. The film stars Louis Gossett, Jr., Matthew Modine, and so many great actors. Shane Paul McGhie delivers an Oscar-worthy performance and he’s a younger actor. The film will make people better understand the situation. We can educate them and inspire them to change things.

Image via Publicist

How are you adapting to the virtual experience? How has it worked with your other festivals?
We do nine festivals a year. There are the three Black Film Festivals in Montreal, Toronto, and Halifax, and then internationally including Brazil, New York City, and Port-au-Prince [Haiti]. We had a wonderful Montreal Black Film Festival in September that was online. It connected 300,000 festivalgoers. This is something we wouldn’t have had if the festival had been in person. People could suddenly attend from all across Canada, from coast to coast to coast, and participate in this debate. For our Haïti en Follie multidisciplinary festival, we had over a million people online. TBFF is our first festival for Black History Month online, so we’re excited and we’re more experienced. We have a record number of films—154 films!—from 30 countries. Most of the shorts are available worldwide. The feature films are accessible throughout Canada, and all the panel discussions and conferences are available worldwide and are free on Facebook. The beauty of it is that it gets people together from all over Canada. The online version democratizes the process.

“People from Toronto said, ‘Hey, we want that here. We are the city with the most Black people in the country and don’t have our own festival.’”

What are some of the moments where you realized there was a gap in representation that you felt needed to be filled by events like TBFF?
My story began in 2003 in Montreal, when I came from Haiti. I was a popular actress in my country. I had won an award [the Ticket d’Or] as Best Actress [for Barikad] and people were calling me the “Halle Berry of Haiti.” When I moved to Canada, I wanted to conquer America and Montreal. Unfortunately, I could not get into the Canadian film industry or TV industry because I was the wrong colour. I was a young Black immigrant woman with an accent, so that didn’t work for me. I had the idea to get some films from Haiti and screen them all over Canada, and people would discover Haitian films. Somebody might say, “That girl can act, let’s give her a chance to audition for something big.” Unfortunately, no festivals wanted these films, so there was no audition, no opportunities. Everybody telling me go to law school or medical school, and forget the madness about culture and cinema. I didn’t have a platform to screen films that had been done before—not just films [starring] me, but any film. We recreated the Fabienne Colas Foundation, which existed in Haiti for a different purpose, with the mission to build bridges to the arts, foster more inclusion of Black people, and get them included off and on screen. 

Image via Publicist

Why Toronto when it already has some major festivals?
After the Montreal Black Film Festival, it became a movement. People from Toronto said, “Hey, we want that here. We are the city with the most Black people in the country and don’t have our own festival.” A lot of people in Toronto said, “We need that platform because we have a lot of artists and a lot of talent.” It became a local movement. We want to make sure that these festivals are all over the country and reflect the reality happening in Canada. We are the messenger. We are the people with the expertise and the network, and we want every city to use that expertise.

How are events like the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests of the past summer fuelling the festivals as you’ve been working on them?  
The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement definitely changed the game. I feel that people are listening for the first time and that they get it. They understand that they need to be part of the solution in the film industry, whether it’s in Toronto, Montreal, or elsewhere in the country. We’re nowhere near where we should be in terms of inclusion. That was the gap that we’re trying to fill, to make sure that people who look like me can have a place to showcase their work. The Black communities are not short on talent. They just lack opportunities. That’s what this festival is about: teaching people, mentoring them, exposing them with new knowledge from other people. Can you believe last year we had Spike Lee at the festival? 

I’m amazed by his support for Toronto.
Spike is a friend. He’s been to the Montreal Black Film Festival three times, so I said, “Did you know, Spike, that Toronto is where they have the most Black people in Canada?” He was like, “I’m coming, I’m coming. That’s all I needed to know.” He’s been very supportive. 

But there was this movement before Spike Lee and there’s a movement after Spike Lee. Black Lives Matter has changed everything because people are listening more and they understand more. Now, is everybody taking action? No. Is everybody doing something? No. Is everybody putting money where their mouths are? No. But we feel there’s an awakening. We are on the way toward change, but we’re not there yet and there’s a lot of work to be done. 

Where do you think the most work needs to be done?
One problem is that we don’t have people in decision-making positions who are Black or people of colour. These people right now are making decisions about which films are going to be funded. These films will get out in one year or two years. If we want to solve the issue for next year, for two years or three, five years, we need to take decisions today to change tomorrow. That’s how the film industry and TV series are done. They’re not done overnight. How many diverse people are around those tables, taking decisions in the juries and [among] the funders, producers, distributors? We need more people of colour so we can have more films with authentic stories of Black people and people of colour to be told.

The Toronto Black Film Festival addresses this with the Being Black in Canada program, an incubator program for Black filmmakers that produces work for the festival. Why add this to the line-up of films?
It was created because I wish this kind of program existed when I came here. When I saw nothing was working for me, I said I was going to write my own short films. Unfortunately, I did not have the support I needed. A friend of mine—we’re still friends today—is a producer and a white guy who’s very pro diversity. However, he said he was going to produce the film and pair me with a white screenwriter to help tighten the script. At the end of the process, my film became something else. My script became from a point of view of a white male, trying to tell my story in his way. We did not get the funding because I could not even defend that story in front of the funders. I learned a lesson. That’s why I decided to form a program for Black filmmakers to make sure there was something somewhere where they didn’t have to tell stories in a certain angle to please a certain demographic. We can only be empowered to be part of the solution and when we tell authentic stories.

5 Highlights at the Toronto Black Film Festival