For years, veteran Toronto-based filmmaker Frances-Anne Solomon had to justify to Canadian buyers and distributors the niche filled by her independent, non-commercial work, specifically film and television content that mined the Caribbean diasporic experience.
Despite a formidable 20 years in the industry—she has produced and directed films and documentaries for broadcasters like the BBC and Bravo!—Solomon grew frustrated with the arduous process of justifying the marketability of her globally diverse content and took matters into her own hands. So she formed CaribbeanTales, a nonprofit that produces multimedia products drawn from stories that come out of the Caribbean diaspora.
But she didn’t just stop there. While continuing to be a prolific filmmaker, Solomon has flexed her entrepreneurial spirit in expanding CaribbeanTales as a group of Canadian companies which now include a film festival group that runs each year in Barbados and Toronto, as well as a full-service marketing and distribution company. In doing so, she’s managed to transcend her struggles to support diverse emerging filmmakers as well as the Caribbean’s fledging film industry.
“It’s not like my role in life is to create opportunities for filmmakers,” she says. “But there is a need for that to exist and I am just doing what I think is needed to benefit everyone, including myself.”
So what drives Solomon to create these opportunities? Born in England to Trinidadian parents, she’s the granddaughter of one of the key political architects of the country’s independence. As a young woman, she struggled to find a creative profession whilst being raised middle class by her father in Trinidad’s Port-of-Spain.
“There are two schools you went to if you were middle class: the [Catholic] Convent and the Anglican equivalent, Bishops,” she says. “I went to a very academic-driven girls school. It was a very crushing system of academics. You had to come first in the island, get into university and get a career, which was all very fantastic, but it was very crippling in terms of personal development or mental health or creative development. Being an artist wasn’t an option.”
In Toronto, it was. She moved to live with her mother, and decided to study theatre at the University of Toronto. Her teachers included Stephen Martineau, Factory Theatre founder Ken Gass and the late Governor General Award-winning poet Jay Macpherson.
Martineau was the head of the drama program, and could often be found in his upstairs office wearing Indian robes, sitting on the floor with burning incense. The program he shaped—”It was very California, very human development, a mixture of experimental and improv theatre with a combination of gestalt and therapy”—was formative for Solomon. (Other alumni include director Daniel Brooks and the late Tracey Wright.)
“Stephen was all about going inside yourself and finding the authentic voice,” she explains. “So all my work is based on that process. I’ve always developed through starting with research into the lived experiences of the characters.”
Soon after graduating, Solomon moved to Great Britain where she was attracted to the late 1980s/early 1990s multicultural movements that fuelled new British black filmmakers. As a TV drama producer and executive producer, Solomon executed featured film projects like the BBC Film production Peggy Su! (1998), a 1960s comedy set in Liverpool’s Chinese community and the semi-autobiographical Trinidad-set Channel 4 production What My Mother Told Me (1995) that was praised by the Guardian as a “haunting and memorable film.”
Frustrated by racism and the difficulties she encountered in securing government funding, she moved back to Canada in the late 1990s and founded her own film and television company Leda Serene Films. Solomon made her mark here developing compelling Caribbean-Canadian film and television. She was the co-creator, producer and director of Canada’s first multicultural sitcom, Lord Have Mercy! and in 2008 directed the full-length feature A Winter Tale, which dealt with Toronto’s difficult multicultural realities. Tale was a three-year process that utilized the collaborative strategies she learnt at U of T under Martineau.
CaribbeanTales, a nonprofit targeting the educational market, was born out of Solomon’s commitment to telling stories that came from the Canadian-Caribbean experience. Some of the company’s products included series like Literature Alive, a 20-part documentary series for Bravo! on intergenerational Canadian-Caribbean authors that ranged from Jamaican icon “Miss Lou” to dub poet d’bi.young. Solomon embraced online multimedia content back when uploading videos to YouTube wasn’t yet the norm.
“Right from the beginning when the Internet came on stream, I thought ‘Wow!'” she says. “The last 20 years I have been trying to find a platform for my non-commercial work—the work that I do—and here’s this thing that cost nothing and I can do myself, and no one from the Caribbean was doing it. So I wanted to take advantage of it to market and promote and provide a platform for Caribbean content that didn’t exist in Canada at that time.”
Producing the five audio books and five radio shows that were part of Literature Alive, Solomon grew frustrated by the bureaucracy she encountered with government arts funding where she found “this attitude constantly of anything that is diverse treated as a charity handout.” But she was encouraged with all the content she had produced through CaribbeanTales and decided to present a CaribbeanTales Film Festival in partnership with the NFB during Caribana weekend in 2006. “Needless to say, nobody came, because people were jumping in the streets.”
But the festival has continued, thanks to the support of the Caribbean-Canadian film community and because Solomon was convinced that it provided a solution to the exhibition and distribution problems she has faced.
“When you make independent, non-commercial films that have a niche audience, the problem is you make the films and they aren’t distributed, so no one sees them,” she says. “So when I had this festival for four days at basically a free cinema, I thought, ‘Wow, if you get a cinema and show the films, people will see them.’ The problems of exhibition and distribution can be resolved by having a film festival, and screening not just my films, but everyone in this niche.”
In taking the festival outside Toronto, Solomon drew on connections she had made with Caribbean film industry players in the 20 years she’d spent regularly shooting films in the region. In 2007, the Trinidad and Tobago film retrospective honouring the British-Trinidadian filmmaker Horace Ove received support from the country’s consulate. Over the next few years, partners have included the Jamaican consulate and the University of Toronto. These consulate partnerships, in particular, paid off. In 2010, the festival’s symposium programming and marketplace activities were launched for the first time in Barbados.
The symposium has provided a necessary forum to discuss the issues that affected the region’s film industry: audience development (many of the islands are very separate, and their own individual audience reach is quite small) and the ways regional and diasporic film and television need to be branded in order to have global reach. The effort was a rediscovery of the authentic voice, privileging the lived experience. Suddenly, those struggles in Great Britain and Toronto had a greater purpose—to be shared with others who needed to overcome similar hurdles.
“One of the most illuminating things that first year were two women [who came] from the South African Broadcasting Corporation,” recalls Solomon. “[They] talked specifically about how the industry in South Africa transformed from one that was built on the needs of a white minority to [becoming] an Africentric industry that served a huge and diverse population.”
Indeed, there are obvious parallels to South Africa with the Caribbean in the still lingering impact of colonialism. In the Caribbean, one can also argue that American imperialism still manifests itself, as local broadcasters question buying local content “when they can buy 150 episodes of CSI for $50 a piece,” says Solomon.
If Solomon learned anything in convincing Vision TV to recognize the diverse television viewers with Lord Have Mercy!, it was how to address the marginalized, so-called “non-white” cultural group as a global audience niche.
“I think a lot of us are recognizing that we have power and we don’t have to sit around complaining,” she says. “So there is an opportunity to build something that is our own, even though it’s a bit late. But it’s still there and we can do it just the way they did it in South Africa, as those countries recognize the power of the media to transform.”
That’s meant channeling her work into a greater “Caribbean” brand.
“By saying that [CaribbeanTales Film Festival] is a Caribbean-wide and Caribbean diaspora festival, it immediately says that our audience is everybody in and out of the Caribbean that is of Caribbean heritage that are interested in the Caribbean,” she says. “That is huge. Then we can talk about audience building and sustainability based on that size of audience.”
After the first Barbados festival, CaribbeanTales Worldwide Distribution (CWTD) was formed, the first and only company dedicated to the marketing and sales of Caribbean-themed content in and out of the Caribbean. It’s committed to take a leadership role in developing the region’s fledging film industry by acquiring, marketing, selling and delivering that content worldwide.
In two years, CWTD has acquired a catalogue of more than a hundred films, many that have screened at the festival. CWTD launched internationally at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) with the CaribbeanTales Toronto Incubator, a market incubator program aiming to raise the profile of Caribbean producers and help them gain entry into the international market. (The incubator also runs in Barbados during the CaribbeanTales Film Festival there.)
The Toronto Incubator is a three-day intensive program during TIFF. Participating filmmakers are given the support and access to sell their film to the buyers, distributors and agents that flock the festival. In two years, the calibre of talent that has emerged is impressive and the partnership with TIFF continues to develop. Earlier this year, CaribbeanTales co-presented during TIFF’s Black History Month, screening the Canadian premiere of the Jamaican film Better Mus’ Come. When introducing the film, TIFF’s artistic director Cameron Bailey singled Solomon out as a “motivating force in the Caribbean film world, someone who is bringing people together.”
Despite the tireless work Solomon does in maintaining Toronto as a base for her companies whilst pursuing global business opportunities, she has continued her own filmmaking, with at least six projects currently in development and two currently in production. She recently completed a one-hour doc called Human Traffic : Past and Present. Still, she finds that creating opportunities for others is another kind of creative work.
“There’s a real ego-driven mentality in the film industry that it’s all about ego, stars and Hollywood. And that gets people nowhere,” she says. “I really think you need to build that understanding among people that the more you give to [this] larger picture, the more everyone gets out of it.”