It’s rare to sign onto the true dumpster fire that is Twitter and have a positive interaction. But for Toronto-based director Kelly Fyffe-Marshall, that’s exactly what happened. What started out as a tweet by Fyffe-Marshall about the lack of exposure in the Canadian film industry turned into an exciting exchange with — and acknowledgment from — one of her favourite directors, When They See Us’s Ava DuVernay.
On Feb. 2, Fyffe-Marshall voiced her ongoing frustrations around the lack of Canadian coverage of her film, Black Bodies, which premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival. The 31-year-old writer and director tweeted: “We’re 1 of 6 Canadian projects in Sundance this year, out of the 118 films they selected, out of thousand that submitted — with an all Black female production team. And it’s been crickets in Canada, which is wild. This is why we [lose] so many of our artists to the US.”
We're 1 of 6 Canadian projects in Sundance this year, out of the 118 films they selected, out of thousands that submitted -- with an all Black female production team. And it's been crickets in Canada, which is wild.— kells // Black Bodies @ #Sundance 2021 (@directedbykells) February 2, 2021
This is why we loose so many of our artists to the US.
Black Bodies, which was created by a production team led entirely by Black women and premiered at the prestigious film festival on January 28, is a poetic short film that explores the unfortunate reality of racism and violence that Black people have endured, and still experience, daily. Black Bodies is a continuation of Fyffe-Marshall’s Marathon, which was released after the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery while he was running and features Black actors running, interspersed with images of violence, meant to portray “the never-ending run of being Black.” Black Bodies stems from Fyffe-Marshall’s own experience with racial profiling. In April 2018, the director and her friends were ambushed by police in California after a white woman called the cops reporting them as “suspicious” for merely checking out of an Airbnb while Black. The story went viral and left Fyffe-Marshall reeling (the 911 call featured in Marathon is actually from this real-life incident.)
Like Marathon before it, Black Bodies features poetry set to the powerful images of police violence. It would be an important film any year, but it’s especially poignant in 2021.
And yet...the majority of Canadian media ignored the film. Enter: Ava DuVernay. Shortly after Fyffe-Marshall and her collaborators shared their frustration online, DuVernay shared her admiration for their work.
Looking forward to watching the short film, BLACK BODIES. From Toronto to #Sundance2021, this film from @directedbykells and her beautiful Black Women team of collaborators should make Canada proud. Congratulations, sis. 🖤 https://t.co/KSEC51rYbZ— Ava DuVernay (@ava) February 3, 2021
Fyffe-Marshall’s name —and short film — are now on everyone’s radar. But Fyffe-Marshall should be well-known regardless of whether or not she’s co-signed by a famous director. On top of being one of a handful of Canadian films admitted into Sundance, the filmmaker also debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September 2020, taking home the inaugural Changemaker Award for Black Bodies. Her work speaks for itself. Or at least, it should.
Just days after her debut at Sundance, Refinery29 spoke with the former journalism grad about the genesis of her film, working with a female-led production team, and why Canada is still slow to give flowers to its Black creatives.
I can imagine that after your Airbnb incident, you had a lot of feelings. When did you decide that the incident was something you wanted to explore through Black Bodies?
For me, it was a way of feeling catharsis. I was struggling a lot with trying to find a way to get through the emotions I was feeling after the incident. This was my way to sit down, write down all the emotions I was feeling, and then channel them into ideas that I thought would hold the emotions and be a vehicle for them so that I could transfer my message to the viewers.
What were some of those emotions that you were trying to work through at the time?
Fear and anxiety. I definitely had PTSD from the incident. At the time, in 2018, I was sad that this was happening. Now, there's anger. My emotions ran the whole gamut, being upset that this is still happening to Black people, and also relief that I didn't die; because so often, our brothers and sisters don't make it through these incidents. We were really just happy that we made it through.
Since you shot the film in 2018, there have been a lot more public conversations about racism and bigotry outside of historically marginalized communities. What was it like for you to watch all those conversations unfold in real time having explored them in your film?
It’s disheartening that it’s still happening. To have this film that we filmed in 2018 be so timeless is very disheartening to see. It's something that people can relate to, and I'm sure we're going to have more incidents this year.
I'm also happy that we were able to react to the times and that we had this piece of work [that can] speak for so many people. A lot of people messaged me and said, “when George Floyd passed away, I didn't know how to talk about it. But I started Marathon and I was able to send it to my co-workers, family members, and other community members. So, I didn't have to talk, it spoke for me.”
The production was led by all Black women. Why is that still unique within the industry?
Outside of our team, I haven't seen it happen before. It’s something that's very rare, which is why we made the effort to do it. We're very intentional about our team because I know from being in the Union [Fyfee-Marshall is a member of the Directors Guild of Canada] that the experiences you need to get by and to get through [can be a barrier]. And so we made an effort to hire people that don't typically get that experience so that they can go on and get the jobs that they deserve.
What was it like to be able to create in a space surrounded by other Black women?
I think that’s why the film is so good. It’s important that the environment is a safe space, but also that every crew member was intentional. Before we start all of our films, we all pray — everyone who feels comfortable to do so. We speak about what the intentions of the art are so that we can carry it through from the production assistant all the way up to the producer. That's what helps the art flourish.
That intention has had such a big impact on people. You received the 2020 Changemaker award at TIFF. What did it mean for you, the film, and the team to receive that recognition?
It was amazing. This award was so fitting for what we were doing, and it was just great to be seen by my hometown.
It’s not always like that. You recently tweeted about the fact that Black Bodies was receiving such little coverage. Ava DuVernay shared your tweet and also tweeted about the film. First of all, did you completely freak out when you saw that?
Yes, definitely. She’s a filmmaker that inspires me. I think she is someone who mirrors my career when it comes to making impactful work for the community. I definitely freaked out and called the team. But also, her retweet was proof of my tweet, that the U.S. needs to co-sign it for everyone else to really tune in.
Why do you think that is?
It’s infrastructure. Canada has been made into a service industry where we serve America. I've worked on films [in Canada] for the last 10 years, and 80% of them are American films. They're on American TV or in American theatres, and nobody knows that they're Canadian.
We need to move away from that so that we can foster our own talent. And we also need to work on marketing our own talent. I couldn't tell you the last time I've gone to the movie theatre to watch a Canadian film, and I'm a filmmaker and an avid watcher.
What happens if we don't change that infrastructure?
We're going to lose everybody to America. People are going to go where opportunities are and also they're gonna go where they’re loved and celebrated. And I'm celebrated more in America than I am in my own country.
It’s interesting because there's so much talk around how Canada loses creatives (like Drake and director Karena Evans) to the States, when it sounds like it's pretty self-inflicted.
Definitely. With the recent racial uprising, there has been a shift in our infrastructure, but the shift needs to keep going further. We need to figure out a way that we can uplift our own homegrown talent, and figure out a new structure that will foster homegrown talent to stay.
Now that you have this buzz here in Canada, what are you planning to do next?
Our production team, Sunflower Studios, is working on my first debut feature. It’s called When Morning Comes and it’s a coming-of-age story about a little boy who was sent to live in Canada with his grandmother [from Jamaica]. It’s a goodbye letter to Jamaica, but also as Jamaicans it's our love letter [to our country].
Lastly, I’m sure working on a film where you're mining from your own personal experiences is emotionally taxing. I want to know what has brought you joy in the past year.
Sisterhood brings me joy. Most of my sisters are in film or are creative in some way, so we find it hard not to work, but being around other women that share the same ideals as me brings me sanity, joy, and hope. It grounds me.
This interview has been edited and condensed.