C Magazine


Issue 135

Making Us Look: Filmmaker Charles Officer on documentary-making, silent film aspirations and the overdue question of national audience in the year of Canada 150
by Esmé Hogeveen

Internationally recognized for writing, directing and producing films about Black Canadians in sectors ranging from sports to culture to activism, Charles Officer works mostly in Toronto these days. It’s the city where he grew up and one he’s come to hold politically accountable. His conscientious scrutiny is evident in recent work, specifically Unarmed Verses (2017), which profiles Toronto’s soon-to-be-developed Villaways neighbourhood through conversations with its youth, and The Skin We’re In (2017), a documentary about anti-Black racism in Canada structured as a long-form conversation with Desmond Cole.

This past June, amid the fervid afterglow of Unarmed Verses’ success at the Hot Docs festival, I spoke to Officer about the challenges and rewards of working in Canada. During our conversation, Officer remarked upon the complex dynamics of pitching and producing films for an ever-shifting definition of “Canadian audience.”

While listening to the interview recording, I was reminded of first meeting Officer at a public screening of The Skin We’re In at a cinema in Toronto’s Yonge and Dundas Square the Q & A was unusually lively, with audience members sitting in the aisles and leaning against upholstered walls as Officer, Cole and moderator Lu Asfaha took questions. After an articulate high school student raised her hand to reflect on the shortcomings of Canada’s dialogue on racism, Officer offered a quotation by George Elliott Clarke about the value of knowing history as a means to better understand collective presents and futures. The room hushed for a moment. We were in the presence of a history, albeit in flux, but one activated by dialogue, first in the film and then again amongst the viewers in the air-conditioned theatre.

It felt propitious to speak to Officer, then, in the weeks leading up to Canada 150 about what it means to tell stories that have been overlooked in a country that’s still interpreting its national audience and voices.

Note: this interviewed has been edited and condensed.

Esmé Hogeveen: Many of your films deal with the power of language, most recently perhaps the portrayal of Francine [a 13-year-old poet living in Villaways] in Unarmed Verses.

Charles Officer: I think language is so powerful, but when I think about language, I don’t think of it as just words. Behaviour and action [are] language. Since I started [working], it’s been my objective to make silent films. That’s why I’m not so crazy about one-hour doc space or television. Everything is so dialogue driven these days. We talk a lot and it doesn’t seem to – I mean, sometimes it does – but talking doesn’t always solve issues.

EH: So, are you interested in building silent, or otherwise reflective, space into your narrative structures?

CO: Yes. I think just watching someone go about doing something in complete silence is a way to focus in. Why do we usually cut so fast? How can [we] sit and watch one story, but not another?

In this country, we watch and praise films of white kids doing absolutely nothing all day long. In making [Unarmed Verses], I thought: how about we watch a kid like Francine, who’s doing something, but in complete silence? She’s not just throwing rocks against a wall; she’s engaging and showing how she thinks. With Francine, specifically, I [decided] to push the edits, to push some scenes to the point where [the audience] starts to say, “Let’s see, let’s see,” and where they have to get to know her.

EH: In making Unarmed Verses or The Skin We’re In , to what degree did you feel tasked with contextualizing your subjects’ experiences for an audience that may, in part, not appreciate the nuance of their experiences? […] I guess I’m wondering about the idea of a “Canadian audience” and whether that is something you care to think about.

CO: I think we make [films] to show them; I’ve learned to understand how important that is to me. I also have a philosophy, or an idea about audience, that may not coincide with what maybe some broadcasters or distributors – the ones who have all the experience and know what people want to watch – believe.

EH: In what way?

CO: When you’re investing time, money, energy and creativity into a project, you have to analyze where the audience is. There are millions of people in this country and when it comes to what projects get green-lit and what projects don’t, suddenly certain people [in production and broadcasting] become all-knowing arbiters of what audiences want. And if they really knew, I think I’d see more successful projects… I see a business where we spend so much money making things and [not enough] energy marketing projects and expanding audiences.

With The Skin We’re In, a note came back after we sent in the first edit [saying] that the film was too hard for [CBC’s] mainline audience. [The note] didn’t infuriate me; it made me sit back and look at the film. When you’re making a piece, you’re trying to please the broadcaster, but you’re also trying to say something – you’re trying to be true and to please the people that are involved. It comes back to the question about audience. When I analyzed the edit, there was nothing radical there, not even in form. So, it put me in a place of really questioning: this “mainline audience,” does is it include anyone like me? The audience that you’re telling me I’m making this piece for – does it include my mother or my niece and my nephew? Does it include my sisters? Because I don’t think that they would think this edit is too hardline.

EH: Thinking about creating documentaries that are intercultural, but also clearly relevant to you as someone working primarily in Toronto, I’m curious if you can speak to the process of developing NIA [an upcoming documentary about Nehanda Isoke Abiodun, an American political exile] and whether you faced challenges making a film about an American subject.

CO: That project has been a long, interesting journey, obviously because of the nature of the subject. I first engaged with [Abiodun’s story] back in 2005, but I didn’t meet her until later. I’d known about her and that she was living in exile in Cuba, an American woman from Harlem, New York, who was part of a movement that involved former Black Panthers and Black Liberation Army members [including] Assata Shakur, Mutulu Shakur, Kathy Boudin and the Weathermen Underground.

I was very interested in trying to take on [Abiodun’s] story, but I knew that there were other filmmakers who had more experience and who had possibly been in touch with her. Nehanda is wanted by the FBI and you can’t jump into a project like that without doing some homework, so I had to catch myself. [In 2005] I said to myself, “I’m going to have to make a feature documentary at some point and then I can have a conversation with [Abiodun] about making the film.”

When I applied for funding, a common question was, “What’s the Canadian angle?” We [in Canada] want to make projects that have international appeal and [I was] like, “I am the Canadian angle.” To have a Canadian who has access to this particular story… but again, it’s about a Black woman who’s in exile, so the first question [from prospective funding bodies] is “Did she kill anybody?”

EH: Because that would make the documentary too hard for a “mainline” audience?

CO: Yeah, it becomes a moral judgment. If [Abiodun] says that she didn’t kill anybody and you still have doubts, then let’s make the film and see it. Again, though, the relevance of telling the story became an issue… In America, I think it was hard, because I think Sam [Green, who made The Weather Underground] wanted to make this film, but [Abiodun’s] considered a domestic terrorist. Who’s going to fund that?

I was under the illusion in the beginning that Canada [was] the answer, because we come from a place where we want the truth. We want to be that person that steps in – like the Hurricane Carter story, the Canadians [have to] be the saviours, right? Perhaps if I wasn’t Black and I was “more objective”… maybe [funders] would have [thought], “Oh, this guy wants to tell this story – he must have an interesting angle.” […] I guess I just really clearly see that if there’s space for films about the Group of Seven, whom I respect, then there’s definitely room for a film about Nehanda.

EH: Abiodun worked at a drug rehabilitation centre during the ’60s and ’70s, right?

CO: Yeah, she worked with Mutulu Shakur in rehabilitation clinics for heroin addicts and Shakur introduced acupuncture. [Abiodun and Shakur] built their own sort of clinic [the Lincoln Detox Center in the Bronx, which was connected to the Black Acupuncture Association of North America] – they’re even recognized by the World Health Organization – but [the clinic] was deemed a domestic terrorist cell, because during [the] Vietnam [war], they taught patients about how drugs arrived in their neighbourhoods. Building awareness about addiction led [the clinic] to get shut down by the New York police.

[Eventually] there was a big robbery that happened when [Abiodun and others] ex-appropriated funds from Brink’s trucks with arms. Do I agree with those actions? [That] isn’t important. For me as a filmmaker, [I’m] trying to understand what happens [when] a woman who has been through [those experiences] is able to reflect and offer our youth some insight as we deal with [similar] issues today.

I shot this film in 2014 and into 2015, when Obama was opening talks with Cuba. I felt there was an urgency then, but now, in 2017, Donald Trump may have actually saved [Abiodun’s] life, because if the borders opened up and these conversations about extradition continued… She’s still wanted by the FBI. There’s a bounty on her head, so with borders opened up, people could go after her. We haven’t heard a peep about Cuba since Trump has been around, but he’s off doing other things, hanging out with the Russians and whatever.

EH: Golfing

CO: Exactly, golfing and eating chocolate cake. So it’s an interesting period right now [to complete NIA].

EH: Are you self-producing NIA then?

CO: Self-producing with my team, Jake [Yanowski, Officer’s co-producer at Canesugar Filmworks] and the producer Christina Carvhalo and I had support from Ron Mann. Some people have heard about [NIA] already and now that I’m getting closer to finishing production, I’m cool [with taking questions], but, for a period there, I was even questioning putting it up on the website. But it’s interesting to put it out there and see what comes back.

EH: Yeah, you just mentioned NIA briefly when we met and I was like, wow, that sounds so interesting, not that I represent the Canadian viewer

CO: But you do represent the Canadian viewer and that’s why we have to see more spaces for content that [Canadians] want to watch. […] This country has dedicated a lot of funding towards this 150 celebration of confederation, but we still haven’t been able to tell certain stories about our history? It’s just really fascinating to me and I’m just going to keep being honest about what I’ve seen and what I’ve experienced.