Afro Canada III: celebrating our unsung heroes

A quest to track down Afro-descendant men and women who left their mark on their community and on Canadian history over the past 400 years. The Afro Canada documentary series (four 52-minute episodes), broadcast in August and September 2022 on Radio-Canada, is monumental in scope, ambitious by design, and essential for setting the record straight. The series, directed by Henri Pardo and produced by Pardo, Eric Idriss-Kanago, and Daniela Mujica, uses an exciting fusion of extremely diverse narrative and creative styles to bring those who made a difference and who are often excluded from history books to life.

Now & Next lead editor Gaëlle Essoo met with the key players in the Afro Canada documentary series and prepared a three-part article on how it came to be, its behind-the-camera harmony, and the ambitious goals it set for itself.

Part 3 examines the stories that make up the history in the words of the series co-writer Judith Brès and creative director Khoa Lê. The unabashed subjectivity in tone and scenario, along with a refreshing degree of artistic freedom, makes Afro Canada a winning documentary on every level.

Not a re-enactment, but a palpable evocation

One thing the Afro Canada team fully agrees on is that the work they’ve created does not resemble – nor was it ever intended to resemble – a historical documentary in the conventional sense. Which explains why there are no scenes re-enacting actual historical events. The most appropriate term for what we have here, given the paucity of archived material and the willful suppression of historical facts, is inspired storytelling. “Okay, but what could it have possibly looked like? What kind of life could this person have had?”

This is how Afro Canada co-writer Judith Brès describes the creative process behind the series. What could have been seen as a serious constraint turned out to be a degree of creative freedom that allowed the team to focus on what was closest to its heart, the human-interest stories of resistance, of overcoming, of family, of cultural and artistic heritage, and the clear historical links with Canada’s Indigenous communities. 

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The four episodes in the series are built on the very moving and often unusual stories and destinies of Afro-descendant men and women that have lived here. Some of the slightly better-known characters, like Marie-Josèphe Angélique, are approached in a more personal way. “Our goal right from the start was to decolonize our view of history,” Judith Brès said. We wanted to move away from the white patriarchal version in textbooks and focus more on women, Afro-descendant families, and individuals. In Marie-Josèphe Angélique’s case, for example, we don’t focus solely on the fire she was accused of starting (and condemned and executed for), but are transported into her psychological journey, her fears, the cruelty she suffered, and her incredible courage in the face of it all.

According to Brès, the objective is unequivocally to “retell the stories of our Afro-Canadian heroes” in a way that will resonate more meaningfully with viewers. For creative director Khoa Lê, the undocumented items provided the opportunity to recreate the stories through the vision of the collaborators. “History is continually being remade, redrawn, reshaped, and being reclaimed, too, as a team effort,” he said. “What makes this so cool, is the artistic freedom it gives you.”

“We were never in the re-enactment business, ever. What we’re really in is the evocation of history, of a state, of the stakes, and that is something clearly established from the very beginning. No, no, no. This is not a documentary series with a place for re-enactments. We couldn’t afford to do it anyway, and I think it would have been pointless and boring to boot. And yes, contemporary speech is more appropriate in this context.” 

A visual dimension above and beyond

Afro Canada presented major creative challenges. One was a thorough, drill-down search for information. A tall order for co-writer Judith Brès, surrounded by teams of researchers to carry out this quasi-archaeological dig. Researching information, genealogies, and players took more than a year. “It was really a long-haul commitment. The screenwriting continued all the way through the filming period. The work never stopped. Researching, screenwriting, plus the final rewriting in editing,” said Brès.

“First of all, a timeline from 1605 to the present had to be established, from the arrival of probably the first Afro-descendant to visit Canada, Mathieu Da Costa (Champlain’s interpreter), and including important characters, research on families, or witnesses...” she said. “Throughout the process, we continually focused on family, testimonials, and life stories.”

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The task of giving perspective and visual impact to this point of view was tailor-made for filmmaker Khoa Lê. Working closely with art director Kenny Dorvil, Lê was also involved in early discussions to ensure that the vision of Afro Canada director Henri Pardo was meticulously translated at the visual level. The challenge was to “think with the team about a format that could embrace all the ideas, while at the same time working with various historical dimensions, more traditional documentary moments, theatrical scenes, not to mention the interviews. If we didn’t get it just right, we’d end up with an all-dressed pizza that no one could digest,” Lê said. “We worked really hard to blend in all these elements while keeping the innate diversity, the texture that makes the project so special.” 

That’s when Lê had his Road to Damascus moment, a vision of a colonial style mansion that would house the creative and technical teams for the duration of the shoot, and where nearly all the scenes would take place. An all-in-one location that the teams could rearrange in a thousand-and-one combinations to create pretty much any ambiance, setting, or backdrop. Lê is particularly proud of the backdrops. “We succeeded in creating something with an editorial feel, that projects a specific vision, and with a very distinctive language,” he said. “Kenny did a spectacular job, especially with the resources he had at his disposal. I am beyond pleased with the way the vision materialized.”

Beyond the creative opportunities, the humane aspect of the project also appealed to him Lê said. And by drastically reducing the number of filming locations, they could carry out another of Henri Pardo’s missions, that of transferring technical knowledge to the next generation, a generation that has the passion but often finds itself excluded from conventional filmmaking because it doesn’t have the experience. Lê also believes that it’s important to continually innovate. “We did do things differently. I’ll admit that did generate some difficulties but at the same time, we do have to change the system. We must rethink it and I’m really hoping this series will become an example for others working in television, including the funders, that they will understand that we can rethink the way we produce, whether it’s TV, or movies, or commercials, or whatever, we must free ourselves from some of the constraints the existing system imposes!”

“You can’t just Google it.”

Judith Brès co-wrote the series with Henri Pardo. She freely admits she knew little about Afro-Canadian history three years ago. She knew about slavery and some of the main topics, like the Underground Railroad. That’s about where most viewers are when they first tune in to the series, although some may be surprised to learn that slavery did take place in Canada. “The Underground Railroad is really just a myth that became part of Black history in Canada. I knew that Black people had lived in Nova Scotia, in the Maritimes, for a long time, but honestly, I didn’t know more than that,” she said. Today, she jokes that she did a fast-track PhD on this little-known history. So how did she go about selecting the stories the series would shed light on?

“I’d say the first consideration was finding characters with a perspective that resonates with us. People who, in one way or another, are not that well-known so there is some leeway in how we present them. We favoured those whose message was more emotionally moving and conveyed an image of strength, the strength of their resistance, their will, their talent, or their humanity.”

Among the most touching moments in the series is a segment where Brès herself is in front of the camera during a meeting between two Algonquin chiefs evoking the symbolic adoption of the Haitian-Canadian community by the Algonquin people in 2012. It was particularly meaningful to Brès whose mother was from Haiti and who was also there for the ceremony. The link between the two cultures is clearly perceptible, she said. “While we just touched on it in the documentary, it’s really fascinating to see how much, ultimately, these two peoples have in common even with their histories erased or completely transformed by colonization.”

Photo credit: Sarah El Attar

Among the many factors that make Afro Canada stand out from conventional historical documentaries is simply the fact that the final episode is devoted almost entirely to the future, a future that the next generation can start building today. Students of every stripe rub shoulders in the classroom, one of the main threads in the series. And while there’s a lot of talk about the past, there are also questions about a more peaceful future where everyone can take their rightful place without fear. That’s why the children symbolically say goodbye to Aly Ndiaye (alias Webster) who was their history teacher in the first three episodes so we can turn fully to the future in the last one.

According to Judith Brès, this new generation will now be able to say, with full knowledge of the facts: “Okay this is our history. Sure, there are plenty of tragic things, absolutely violent and dramatic, but there are also many things to celebrate. It’s up to us to play our role in building a new world, open up to this world, not black or white, and not binary in terms of gender either, neither male nor female, but something else. By working together, we can all look at the world differently. I know we can do it.”

Gaëlle Essoo
Gaëlle Essoo works for the Canada Media Fund as the Lead Editor for the Now & Next editorial platform, and as the French market liaison for the organization's Growth & Inclusion team. Prior to joining the CMF, she worked as a producer for international news channel France 24 where she focused on programs dedicated to women’s rights across the world. She also worked as a press counselor for the Embassy of France in Canada.
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