Afro Canada Part II: Diversity Behind the Screen Is Also Key

The Afro Canada documentary series (four 52-minute episodes) will be shown on Radio-Canada starting in August. This long-overdue history covering some 400 years of Afro-descendant presence in 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, is especially noteworthy for its realistic approach and hybrid format, with a mix of narrative styles highlighting a range of Afrocentric modes of artistic expression.

The unlimited freedom creators of the series enjoyed, along with the support of an almost entirely racialized crew – most of them identifying as Black – gives this unprecedented historical work a degree of authenticity rarely achieved.

Now & Next lead editor Gaëlle Essoo met with the key players behind 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 itself.

Part 2 provides an up-close, behind-the-scenes look at how diversity is also important behind the camera, the difference an inclusive and caring set can make, and what it means when your story is told by and through your own community, concluding with producer Daniela Mujica answering some of the many questions engendered by the project.

The power of community is unstoppable

That’s the way Henri Pardo sees it. Far from amounting to inward-looking attitudes, the ability to write about and share the story of a community helps that community find its voice, become stronger, and take its rightful place in the world. There’s no better guarantee of sincerity and authenticity. And nothing is more critical when your story has been erased and intentionally kept from the public for hundreds of years.

When asked about diversity behind the screen, Pardo gives the following analogy. “If you compare it to a tree, what you see in front of the camera is mainly the leaves,” he said. “What’s behind the camera is what really counts, like the roots that bring in the nutrients that keep the tree healthy and growing, where the decisions are made, the catalysts for getting the project off the ground, selecting who does what and when, and ultimately setting the tone for how things are done. You must have a decision-making authority, and some kind of power source. Without those nothing can happen. Nothing written, nothing to direct, nothing to produce.”

Photo credit: Sarah El Attar

Aly Ndiaye, aka Webster, one of the teacher-historians in the Afro Canada classroom, puts it this way. “When we talk about diversity, it usually means putting actors in front of the camera,” he said. “We don’t think about what’s behind the camera. We don’t think about the directing. And we don’t think about the power pyramid either in terms of production.”

The tone was set from the get-go with Radio-Canada. Henri Pardo made it very clear that this was going to be a totally Afrocentric project by and for his people. The concept of family is at the core of everything, and that includes the filmmaker’s decision to use the fragmented narrative that permeates Afro Canada. “The diaspora is boundless. It’s so big and complex that it opened up a natural opportunity to break away from the artistic, scripted form, free from the constraints of conventional, chronological documentary making,” he said. “The truth is we really wanted to unravel and reclaim our history. It’s been a lot of little steps, then partnering with those close to us, not unlike patiently rebuilding an extended family, whether it was for writing or producing. That’s how we did it.”

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Photo credit: Sarah El Attar

Making yourself understood without saying a word

For first assistant director Nadia Louis-Desmarchais, a refreshing climate of cooperation enhanced an already pleasant ambiance of mutual understanding. “Because the crew was racialized both in front of and behind the camera, everyone on the set understood what had to be done without anyone telling them what to do,” she said. “We were all working in a mutually supportive way with tremendous enthusiasm and proud of our role in telling the African Canadian story for the first time.”

Webster was not about to disagree. As far as he’s concerned a team that’s almost entirely racialized changes everything. “There’s so much that goes without saying,” he said. “You don’t have to explain things that would normally require plenty of details in most cases. What a relief!"

Photo credit: Yorick Idriss-Kanago

"You save a lot of valuable time when you’re on a team like this, communicating with each other without even saying a word. Being understood without having to explain anything. There are situations that are very difficult to explain in our work because they involve feelings and emotions, and when trying to get someone who hasn’t lived it to understand it, these things are very difficult to theorize or intellectualize. But when you’ve lived it, you get it. Plain and simple. And you’re rewarded with an extra half-hour of wiggle room to get exactly what you had in mind”, concludes Webster.

This feeling of being at ease on the set was enjoyed by everyone on the creative and technical team we spoke with, including the younger ones. It was a first on-set experience with a large crew for Afro Canada camera assistant Ruth Elvire Dejean. She says she was impressed by the spirit of cooperation and mutual support throughout the shoot. “This was my first experience as a camera assistant, and I really learned a lot. I’m so grateful to have been part of a team where members were so patient and encouraging,” she said. “You could sense the well-being, both psychological and physical, and you could tell this was a priority for the production.”

Ismael Ouattara and Ruth Elvire Dejean. Photo credit: Sarah El Attar

This focus on team wellness also resonated with Ismaël Ouattara, one of the directors of photography for the series. “Having most of those on the set racialized made it feel more like a family work environment,” he said. “Henri always took the time to make sure we all had fun on the set, that we felt safe, and free to say what we thought.”

Not only did the friendly and supportive environment allow team members to thrive as they shared in this historic project, but the authenticity of what they experienced behind the screen was a source of pride and inspiration to pursue similar opportunities going forward. Nadine vividly remembers the sense of accomplishment that came to the fore on the last day of filming in the house after the décor was taken down.

“Frank Ocean’s Pink Matter was playing, and the entire crew was transfixed on Jamal as he improvised the most incredibly beautiful dance in one of the rooms lit only by a single ray of light. I was totally overcome with emotion because the series was finally in the can…and we had done it together,” she said. “We had managed to realistically capture, exquisitely and passionately, an accurate representation of the African Canadian story during 54 days of filming. I can’t tell you how proud that made us feel.”

Henri Pardo et Nadine Louis-Desmarchais. Crédit photo: Yorick Idriss-Kanago

Diversity behind the scenes is one sure way to guarantee that up-and-coming talent can find a place in the industry and continue to feel good about telling their story. Just ask Webster. “Working with a team like this makes things a lot easier. It proves that there should be more of the same, projects that give room for other points of view, other perspectives, other ways of doing things, other sensibilities, other experiences,” he said. “Without this we’ll never bring down the tree of white supremacy. We know from what we’ve been through that its roots run very deep!”

One on one with producer Daniela Mujica

How did you come to be a producer on this project?

I had the good luck of meeting Eric Idriss-Kanago and then Henri Pardo. Eric shared some of the details of the project with me during long walks in the neighbourhood back in 2020. It was about the only thing we could do during the lockdown. I was immediately very taken by its objective. This is something that was really needed. Projects like this should be regular features on the Quebec and Canadian television landscapes. Afro Canada was the total package, from the authenticity of the story, the format, and the production protocol. All the elements were in place.

Eric Idriss-Kanago, Daniela Mujica and Henri Pardo. Photo credit: Sarah El Attar

How is Afro Canada different from other productions you’ve worked on?

Two main factors make it stand out: the format and how it was produced. Its hybrid format embraces a mix of artistic modes, styles, places, and genres and brings them all together fully and with pride. As far as production is concerned, this is the first time I’ve worked on a project with the clearly stated objective to professionalize and collaborate with teams composed almost entirely of Black or racialized creators and technicians. Afro Canada is proof positive that we have the talent now, from all walks of life, talent that is diverse, with a relentless desire to tell our own stories our own way. 

Did the project have a personal impact on you? If yes, how so?

A major impact on my life both at the relational level – I made many enduring friendships – and professionally – I made contacts I know I can count on. It was, without a doubt, the most ambitious documentary project I ever produced. The team was enormous. Fortunately, we enjoyed tremendous support from our partners from day one. The deadlines and the schedule were tight, and we faced many challenges. I’m immensely proud of the result and especially of the team that made it happen.

Photo credit: Sarah El Attar

Based on your Afro Canada experience, why is diversity behind the camera so important?

It was the essential element for telling our stories the right way. And even if others are telling it, we must be deeply involved in the creative process. There would never be a question about this in telling stories about women and equality, for example. It’s a given that women must play a role in the creative process. Even better if the director, screenwriter, and technicians are women, too. Same goes when it comes to diversity. We shouldn’t feel like someone’s doing us a favour by supporting us or getting us involved. Our input always delivers true added value. And with our rapidly growing immigrant population, we are the future of this country.

Do you think the younger technical team members will seek out careers in the field?

I do think many will persevere with careers in the industry. Many are actually very busy right now, sought-after, and committed to their work. We’re very happy with their prospects. We’re still working with a number of them on new projects. My hope is that this new generation will be able to work where storytelling authenticity is a priority, where they can advance professionally under optimum working conditions, and play their part in building their community and a stable industry where all are empowered.

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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