Q&A with Fabienne Colas, Founder of the Montreal International Black Film Festival
An actress, director, and producer, Fabienne Colas knows her way around the industry. But the journey hasn’t always been easy. After leaving Haiti for Montreal, she discovered a cultural gap in Canadian cinema and has since made it her mission to promote independent films—particularly Black films—around the world. In our Q & A, Fabienne discusses diversity, representation, and the types of narratives she’d like to see on the big screen.
FK: What inspired you to start the Montreal International Black film festival?
FC: When I arrived in Montreal from Haiti, I wanted to screen a Haitian film in which I had the lead role. But no festival wanted to screen it. And at the same time, I learned the Haitian Community in Montreal was the largest Black Community in Quebec (the state). So I decided that Montreal needed a new festival—one that could give a voice to artists like me, who otherwise would not have had a voice. And we recreated the Fabienne Colas Foundation which put together the Inaugural Montreal International Haitian Film Festival, which 5 years later, expanded into the Montreal International Black Film Festival (MIBFF). Today, the MIBFF is considered Canada's largest Black Film Festival. The Festival has screened thousands of films since its inception in 2005, attracted tens of thousands of festival goers, and has welcomed celebrities from Harry Belafonte to Danny Glover, to Dany Laferrière and Souleymane Cissé to Spike Lee and so many more.
FK: How does the Caribbean film industry compare to Hollywood in terms of representations of women and racial minorities?
FC: Women are front and center in Caribbean films. Those are films that reflect the true realities of Black people in those areas, and through their own perspective. In Hollywood, minorities simply don't have a strong representation on screen and even behind the scenes. Spike Lee said it very well when he was receiving an Honorable Oscar in November 2015: It's easier for a Black person to become President of the United States than to become the president of any Hollywood Studios (paraphrasing). We need more people in position of power in Hollywood so we can normalize T.V. and cinema with a true reflection of the true demographic diversity. Thank God there is hope. Shonda Rhimes changed the game a little bit with Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder.
FK: Movies about the female experience or the Black experience are typically marketed as "women's movies" or "Black movies". Why do you think this is, and what can be done to help promote them to wider audiences?
FC: A great film remains a great film whether it's a "Black" or "Women’s" or "Latino" movie. The big problem they have is money. They lack the necessary funds to widely promote across the board. We also have a star system in place that discourages a huge part of the audience from going to see a film with no U.S. stars in it. Django Unchained (Tarantino), 12 Years a Slave (Macqueen), Birth of a Nation (Parker), Malcolm X (Spike Lee) are all be considered to be Black Films but got wide distributions, great promotion and attention. I also believe that a film that is way too dark, experimental and personal (author's film) may not be what the wide audience want to watch either. You have two choices: either you make the film you want to make and risk not getting attention (but you would have remained true to your vision) or you compromise a little bit to get some studios on board or a major producer or someone that can take it further. That's the question. You do need lots of money to massively promote a film to a wide audience. And people with money in the film industry will want you to modify the film in a way that will make it more "sellable" and "appealing" to that "wide" audience.
FK: Women's roles in mainstream movies tend to be limited to a love interest or supporting cast to a male character. As an actress yourself, how difficult has it been for you to find roles that are complex female characters?
FC: I gotta say that in Haiti, I have had lead roles where it was the total opposite. Can you believe that! Although a very small and poor film industry, Haiti has made history in that regard. We need more roles where women can be presidents, prime ministers, CEOs, and the one calling the shots in Western cinema and television. But for that I got a feeling we need more women producers, filmmakers, screenwriters. We also need more women behind the screen in cinema and television industry too.
FK: What kinds of narratives would you like to see more of on the big screen?
FC: As much as I love Black Films, Latino films, Asian Films, Native Films, Women's films and so on, I love the idea of major mainstream films with visible minorities in some of the lead roles too. Star Wars, the Force Awakens sent such a strong signal in that sense. Scandal (Kerry Washington) and How to Get Away with Murder (Viola Davis) remain powerful because they include diversity as a "normality". I want to see more big films with diversity inclusion. As far as the narrative is concerned, as long as it's not some usual clichés it's okay with me. Television and cinema are mirrors of our society and should reflect our current demographic reality, but also make us dream and fantasize. I simply want to feel the film took me to a place I did not know before.
Want to get involved? Visit http://montrealblackfilm.com.