Award-winning filmmaker / writer Frances-Anne Solomon works in film, TV, radio, theatre, and new media. Born in England of Trinidadian parents, she was raised and educated in the Caribbean and Canada before moving to the UK where she built a successful career with the BBC as a TV Drama Producer. After this, she returned to Canada. Her film and TV credits include: Battledream Chronicles: A New Beginning (TV Movie: executive producer), HERO Inspired by the Life & Times of Mr. Ulric Cross (2018, director and producer), Caribbean Girl NYC (2018, TV Series: executive producer). Reunion: West Indian Women at War (2013, TV Movie documentary: producer), Birthrights (1991, TV Series documentary: producer), Is a Long Memoried Woman (1991, Documentary: producer) Kingston Paradise (executive producer). Her latest film, HERO, will be screened at the BFI on May,18 2019. Between her busy schedule in Canada, Alt A managed to talk with her about her film career, being a women director and her new film.
AA: What was your entry into the film industry?
Frances-Anne: I went to university in Canada. After this, I spent about six months in Trinidad working with a company called Banyan Productions which was the only company in Trinidad that made local content. So that was an amazing opportunity: to learn to create content from a Caribbean perspective. About Caribbean people and their own stories — rather than about anything else. You see, when I was in school in Trinidad, we didn’t learn about ourselves. We learnt about the kings and queens of England, right? So, Banyan was really the first time that I had the opportunity to create content about us! Then I came back to England and got a job at the BBC with a Black magazine programme called Ebony. That was during (or right after) the riots in 1986. It was a very political time and it was an initiation by fire for me. Because London was burning…… along with Handsworth, along with Birmingham. Black people had had it with racism. The first story I covered was the Broadwater Farm Trials when young Black men were arrested and held without trial after a policeman, PC Blakelock, was murdered and decapitated. Ebony followed the trial; hundreds of Black men were arrested and held without charge. Suffice to say, the community was hysterical. At Ebony, we created a news piece about the Trials and about the community response. And just before it was supposed to go out, the Head of Television came down and pulled it — saying it wasn’t balanced. So that was my education. Right there. Both perspectives on a story that was happening in real time!
AA: So, what is the difference between the Canadian film industry and the UK?
FA: Racism is racism, wherever it is. When I left the BBC, I had worked in England for almost fifteen years. I had worked my way up. I had been a Producer in Drama for several years. And now, it felt like all the gains made over those years had begun to slip backwards. And I decided that I just didn’t want to be in England any longer. So, I moved back to Canada. Many of us left at that time. Many of the Black filmmakers and artists working in England at that time, either left the industry or moved away — emigrated to somewhere else. I came back to Canada. I expected Canada to be different, but it was just as difficult. Although over the past several years, I have managed to run a production company here, in Toronto. It has not been easy, but I have done it. I’m not sure I would have been able to do that in England. And frankly, now in Canada, it actually feels as if some things have started to shift. I’m not sure this has happened in England. At least, not from what I hear. Change always seems to move more slowly in Old England. In Canada, a younger society, change seems able to move more quickly.
AA: Tell me about your new film HERO, what attracted you to the story?
FA: Well, you know, when you work in the mainstream there’s great pressure to tell a story that white people will find palatable. Typically, these are stories about Black people at the bottom, or outside, of society — as victims, as criminals or in gangs. Or any number of clichés about who we are. There’s really a very narrow path that you can walk in terms of the kind of story you’re allowed to tell. HERO came to me in 2010, when my mother’s close friend, Desmond Allum, who was very sick, phoned her from Trinidad and said: “I want you to promise to make a film about our friend, Ulric Cross”. Desmond died the next day. So, my mom who is an amazing person in her 70s became a film producer to fulfill this deathbed promise. She actually persuaded Republic Bank in Trinidad to provide substantial funding initially. And then I came on board to help her, basically as the filmmaker in the family. There was a lot about Ulric that wasn’t known when I started on this journey. This, in itself, was revealing, because Ulric was always such a sociable, open gentleman. I wanted to show this gap in the film. Its perspective is his daughter’s point of view. And it starts off with her saying: “You know, I know nothing about my dad. It’s too bad”. So, I began my research. I knew that he had been a highly decorated airman who had served in the Second World War. But honestly, I had already made my WW2 film in the nineties. It is called “Reunion: West Indian Women at War”. And it’s about a group of Black women who served in WW2. So, I felt that I had covered that territory already. Then, after some research, I discovered that after the War, Ulric had been recruited by another West Indian called George Padmore to go to Ghana when it became independent. He went originally as a lawyer to help with Ghana’s transformation process after liberation. Padmore was the mentor of Kwame Nkrumah who was Ghana’s first Prime Minister. These men had a vision. It was that people from all over the African Diaspora, scattered around the world, would come back to Africa and help rebuild the continent after independence. They envisioned a United States of Africa. Africans would take back their countries from the colonial powers and come together. Just like the United of America. Now, that was a story that I wanted to tell! To me, it seemed an incredible story in which these leaders, visionaries and intellectuals, warriors and lawyers, would unite across the world to liberate Africa. Black people who had left Africa in chains, four hundred years before — who had been dragged from our homeland — had not only survived. In fact, our very survival was a miracle. But then four hundred years later, we were able to answer the call to return and help to liberate our homeland. I thought that was a wonderful story.
AA: How long did it take to make the film?
FA: I began working on it in 2011. It took from 2011 to 2019.
AA: Let’s talk a bit about Caribbean cinema. So there appears to be a revival right now. For me, films like Shottas, Third World Cop, with actors like Paul Campbell, were like the last biggest films coming out of the industry, recently we saw Yardie, made by a British director but partly shot in Jamaica, with a Jamaican cast, and with new faces like Shantol Jackson for example. What has started this revival?
FA: Well, honestly, I’m not really seeing this as a revival. At my company, –CaribbeanTales, which I started in 2000 — we’ve continually been developing and working with Caribbean filmmakers. I left the BBC because I wanted to build an organization that would tell our own stories. In the same way that the BBC does in England with British stories. So, in 2006, we started the CaribbeanTales Film Festival. We are now going into our fourteenth year. In 2010, we started the company, CaribbeanTales Worldwide Distribution. We have distributed over three hundred (300) films since then. We’ve had an Incubator Program for Caribbean filmmakers who come from all over the Caribbean Region. We workshop and hothouse projects. You know, there’s been a steady development of work by Caribbean filmmakers from all over the Region over the last ten to fifteen years. It seems that it only now is beginning to resonate in England. But there certainly has been a bit of a buzz, for a while. I think it’s still a difficult business environment. Yes. It is difficult for Caribbean film because the Caribbean Region, itself, is so small! However, I think that those Caribbean artists who now live in the Diaspora are telling their stories wherever they live. We are telling our own stories rather than choosing to integrate our voices into those of the mainstream metropolis. We are able to get a little funding from Caribbean sources. Sometimes, we make connections with funding in Europe or America or Canada in order to tell our stories the way we want rather than tell “metropolitan” stories. You know, there have always been Caribbean artists living in those places. But they haven’t always told Caribbean stories.
AA: How easy was it to fund HERO in Canada?
FA: It was hard. It’s always hard. We were originally funded by Republic Bank in Trinidad, who is the main sponsor for the film. And we completed the film in Canada so, it’s a Canadian film. I think today in Canada there are more funding sources, but things are not all peachy. There are still barriers. But there’s a shift and an openness to diversity and to authentic stories from all over, wherever we come from. There’s a real celebration going on here in Canada now that recognises the different cultures that make up this country — which is great. I think it is on the heels of “Oscars So White” and the #Metoo Movement. We are benefiting from those kind of liberation movements. And certainly, there are organizations here that prioritize stories by women, stories by people of color and stories by indigenous people.
AA: Are you optimistic about these new movements and that things are getting better for women in the industry?
FA: I don’t think they can close the door in our faces anymore. You know it’s not acceptable. No, we are not going to have that. There’s a way in which we were silenced previously. The door was closed, and it was impossible to open it. Women were excluded, people of colour and Black people were excluded. But now that it’s opened a crack, we are going to break it down. You are not going to keep us out. It is not acceptable; Ours is a human right. And we will call them out, we will. We will not allow things to go back. That’s not going to happen. So, it’s not any longer a question of whether there is an open door. It is simply not an option for us to be excluded any longer.
AA: What were some of the challenges you faced when making the film?
FA: I think, the big challenge at the beginning was to tell a story that was mine. Because, as I said, there was a very limited number of narratives that we were supposed to tell. This story would be a historical narrative that would travel from Trinidad to England to Africa. It would be about intellectuals. It would be about global changes. That sort of thing. To start with, as you know, there was no appetite in the international film industry for a story like that. There was little or no understanding about why I would want to tell such a story. In fact, there was no need for that kind of historical story. The “powers-that-be” knew from experience that they could tell their stories about their past and current leaders, kings, queens and heroes ad infinitum. They had absolutely no interest in our heroes. It’s their myopic inability to empathize. And then, at the same time, there were the budget restrictions. The film would have to be made on a very, very, limited budget. And, you know, it is a historical saga that goes over seventy years and spans four continents. We had a huge challenge. That was the reason it took so long to make. Because I was determined that it would look professional. It would stand on its own merit. It would not look cheap. I was not going to sacrifice one bit of the story. It was a huge challenge. Then, too — as a female filmmaker telling a huge story like that — you know there will always be naysayers. And every Tom, Dick and Harry will have an opinion about what the film should be. And what I should do. It’s still happening to this day. And I’m now almost a senior citizen. But it seems like yesterday that I was on set and some gaffer wanted to give his opinion about the scene and the script and how we should shoot it. It’s such a cliché. But you know that as a woman director, some people will take liberties with you being in a position of authority. And you just have to deal with it. Men don’t face those issues.
AA: Which other directors inspire you?
FA: I think that, as a young person, I just loved those stories that packed an enormous emotional punch. I don’t know if you remember a film called The Piano by Jane Campion. I went to see it with my friends on my birthday in England. And it just transformed my idea of what a movie could be, it was this huge epic scope. The central character is a woman, going on an adventure. Women can tell huge epic stories about whatever they want. And more recently, Ava duVernay has been an incredible inspiration to us all because she just does her own thing. I love the way she says: “I have no interest in telling white stories, not of interest to me”. “I am proud of being a Black female filmmaker. Because that’s who I am. Those are the stories that I want to tell”. And, her standing up constantly for Black stories and women’s stories. There is no limit to what she thinks she can do. And she just does it. And that is something. She is an inspiration.
AA: Finally, HERO screens at the BFI on May 18, what are the plans for the film here?
FA: Well, we’re going to do a City to City Tour across the UK and get it seen by as many people as possible.
HERO screens at BFI Southbank on Saturday 18 May 2019 at 14:00 pm.
NFT1 Tickets are Tickets £12.50, concs £10.50 (Members pay £2 less) go to: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk