Q&A with GTA filmmaker Kelly Fyffe-Marshall as she prepares for feature debut at TIFF
Kelly Fyffe-Marshall. (Courtesy of Shak)
Published Thursday, September 8, 2022 11:46AM EDT
Canadian writer and director Kelly Fyffe-Marshall is finally getting the chance to walk the red carpet at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
“I'm super excited to kind of just be back in Toronto, back in the hometown, sharing this beautiful story,” Fyffe-Marshall told CP24.com.
In 2020, Fyffe-Marshall’s short film ‘Black Bodies,’ which centred on racism and police brutality, premiered at TIFF, but the festival was only showcasing films online due to public health restrictions on in-person gatherings.
‘Black Bodies’ went on to win TIFF’s inaugural Changemaker Award and the Canadian Screen Award for Best Live Action Short Drama.
Now, Fyffe-Marshall is preparing to showcase her new feature film which tells the story of a Jamaican boy grappling with his widow mother’s decision to move to Canada.
Fyffe-Marshall took some time to speak to CP24.com about her new film, what it means to be recognized at TIFF and overcoming obstacles as a Black woman in Canadian filmmaking.
Q: First off, can you tell us why you choose a career in filmmaking?
A: It was kind of something I've always wanted to be in, the industry I’ve always wanted to be in. It kind of grew from being in Rick Hansen (Secondary School), when we used to do the announcements on television. And then it kind of grew to going to co-op and then I went to Seneca at York for television production. And then once I graduated, there was a recession. They weren’t really hiring people and they definitely weren't hiring Black women. So I just started doing my own thing and that kind of was- I'm trained in TV- that was my segue from TV to film. And then I started making my own films, and it kind of grew from there.
Q: How was the process of making your production company, Sunflower Studios?
A: I ended up connecting with a fellow filmmaker who is now my business partner in production…we met as volunteer PAs (Production Assistant). And she wanted to produce and I wanted to direct and so we came together. And we made our first short which is 'Haven' and that went to South by Southwest in 2018. And then we kind of built our company up and added more people. We still have our company and then we started another company called Sunflower Studios, which is Tamar Bird, my producing partner, and that includes Sasha Leigh Henry and Iva Golubovic, and now we are all Sunflower Studios.
Q: What has been the biggest hurdle so far that you've had to overcome as a filmmaker?
A: I think for me the biggest hurdle is putting business with creativity. It's a very difficult thing. For me, I'm just a creative being and once you add business to it, it changes things a bit and just so navigating the business side of film has been a challenge for me.
Q: How important is it for you to tell stories with Black characters?
A: I think my job as a director in film and as a writer and film is to highlight the things that I want to say. I always say that film is my activism. And so I'm able to tell the stories that I want to tell. When it came to 'Black Bodies' it was about telling the story of how Black people are treated within the world and how we have to interact in the world. And it also spoke about police violence, and racism. And so with this film, I'm speaking about sacrifice and immigration. And so I just try and find stories that I don't see on TV that are reflected in the way that I experience the world.
Q: How does your personal experience as a Black woman influence the stories you tell?
A: I think a lot of times, especially with the layers of who I am, everyone kind of lives at this intersect right? And so the layers of who I am and the intersects of where I kind of reside in Canada…I think I have this very specific story, but so many people can relate. People can relate to the immigration part of it. People can relate to being a Black woman. People can relate to being ostracized, they can relate to being a part of a community. I also have a different perspective of Canada because I came at that age, I was able to kind of look at Canada differently and kind of look at people's stories and say ‘Wow, how come you don't see this immigration story? Or how come we don't see the story of this person here?’ You know, I think, TV is now becoming representative of what actually is happening or what my Canada looks like but when I was younger TV didn't represent the Canada that I knew. And that for me, it threw me off a bit and so that was something that I wanted to add to the fabric of.
Q: Your film ‘When Morning Comes’ is making its debut at TIFF this year. Can you tell us about it?
A: ‘When Morning Comes’ is a film about a little boy named Jamal who's turning 10 and he finds out from his widow mother that he's being sent to live in Canada for a better life. And so it's kind of my love letter to Jamaica exploring what sacrifice looks like…and just my love letter to what the real Jamaican is.
Q: How does ‘When Morning Comes’ relate to your own experience of immigrating to Canada from England as a child?
A: Yeah, it relates to my personal experience and the different memories that I had growing up in Jamaica. When we were children and we had these certain memories that stick with us, they feel very much like this big moment when they were probably super small. And so I thought about all those big moments that, for me, were like my Jamaican experience, and that's what I wanted to revolve this movie around. But then also speak to immigration from a child's perspective, which is very much what I was going through.
Q: Can you give an example of one of those memories that you had as a child that might be reflected in the film?
A: Yeah, I had a grand uncle and his name was Mr. Campbell. And he used to put us in the back of his pickup truck and drive around. So there's a scene there where his best friend's dad, who’s Mr. Campbell, has them in the back of the pickup truck and they're driving around eating mangoes. So that's a really fond memory I had as a child.
Q: You went to Jamaica to film this movie. How was that experience?
A: I mean, it was amazing. Like I always say it was the hardest, most beautiful thing I've ever done. It's always difficult to go to another country… I don't know Jamaica in the aspect of filming. And then also we're kind of in the end of what the pandemic is or whatever it becomes now. So obviously, shooting during a pandemic is difficult, and it was also a micro budget talent to watch. And so that also makes it a little difficult but, you know, being home and being able to be in these spaces and places and kind of navigate Jamaica in this way, I definitely found a newfound love for my home. And I was able to take my friends with me and they were able to have other experiences of being able to connect ancestry to our land. And that was a really beautiful moment.
Q: How does it feel to be back at TIFF with a feature debut?
A: Yeah, it feels good. The first time we were at TIFF it was during the pandemic, so it wasn't a person. And so a lot of the success of 'Black Bodies' was all online. And so to be in person is going to be a great experience. I didn't get to see ‘Black Bodies’ on a big screen because it was all during the pandemic. One of the things that I really like as a director is to watch the audience take in the film. And so that's been something that I really enjoy. And so, I'm super excited to kind of just be back in Toronto, back in the hometown, sharing this beautiful story, sharing this real Jamaica. I get to have my family present, which is going to be really beautiful. And I’m just, you know, excited to kind of ride the wave of emotions.
Q: What do you want the audience to take away after watching ‘When Morning Comes?’
A: I want people to take away a new love for Jamaica…I want people to also think about the sacrifices that immigrants have to go through. We always think about immigrants coming here and having to start up new and start fresh. But we never think about what those moments were before when they had to make this huge decision to move. Maybe to turn their lives upside down, to move from whatever they’ve known, their family, to go for this better life and we never think about what that struggle and sacrifice is. So I think just more thought process around, and empathy, around what people who are immigrating and refugees have to go through.
Q: You have been hiring predominantly Black people on and off set. How important is it to you to use a Black cast and crew?
A: When I first started in this industry I was always the only Black person in the room. I was always mistaken as hair and makeup. And so even now as a director, because I'm normally the youngest person in the room, being the person in the director's chair- I'm always hired on great sets so I've never had this issue- but I know that people will look and kind of be like ‘Oh, wow, she's the director.” And so for me it's important and also why we made the production company, Sunflower Studios, was for true inclusivity. We wanted to make sure that we could run our sets in a way that could be mirrored out, we could be the example of what we want our sets to look like. And so that was something that was really important to us. And then also a lot of things that I hear is like, “Oh, you know, BIPOC folks don't have enough experience or we don't know where they are.” And so this was an ability for us to be like here they are, and here's their experience and look what they can do, look what they can be a part of.
Q: What is your family saying about all of your accomplishments in filmmaking?
A: Filmmaking is such a strange career to be in, especially from a Caribbean family. It's so non-linear and you can't really explain to your family what's going on. Like, all these small wins, like ‘I got an email from this person’ and they're like ‘Okay.’ And so it's really good to have the kind of success I've been having and being able to share with my family who's really supported me and this career move. To say ‘I want to be a director’ is kind of like this really vague statement to make when you don't know where your finances are coming from and all this stuff. And so, I'm happy that it's paying off in this way because they get to kind of relish these moments with me, because they also had to sacrifice quite a lot by me not going the traditional route for a job.
Q: Do you have any other projects on the go? What can we expect from you next?
A: I'm actually about to work on a TV show called ‘Bria Mack Gets A Life.’ I'll actually be in prep while TIFF is happening. It's going to be a beautiful time because it's the same team that I work with. And so my producer on this project, her name is Sasha Leigh Henry, her show that she created, it got greenlit Bell/Crave. She's the showrunner and she's directing two episodes I’m directing four episodes. And then my producing partner Tamar Bird is the producer on the project. And so we get to come back again in a different configuration and make a TV show, super excited for that.
Q: What do you think your future in filmmaking will look like?
A: I mean right now it's going to be TV and film and like, I just want to grow an organization that can help other filmmakers flourish. And, you know, I always say like, the next step in everyone's career in Canada, where they get to my level is to leave and go to the States. And so for me, it's so important to stay. It's so important for me to kind of stick around and grow the industry that we have here. And so that's the goal is to stay here as much as possible. And to build and make my films in Canada and grow the industry that we have here.