Jennie Cyril chased her dream all the way to Canada’s East Coast, and it’s the best decision she’s ever made
By Caora McKenna
Photos Caora McKenna
Jennie Cyril’s passion for filmmaking began before she had ever watched a film.
Cyril, 30, grew up in a poor Haitian community in Nassau, Bahamas with no electricity to turn on a TV. She remembers sitting on the ground with her 12 siblings, waiting impatiently for their eldest brother to get home from watching a movie at his friend’s house. As he retold the story, Cyril’s imagination would explode. Her brother’s stories opened and expanded her mind, and just like that she was “hooked on television and storytelling,” she says.
She worked on small productions as a boom operator, went to the New York Film Academy in New York City, and returned to the Bahamas to try and make it in the industry. Cyril’s parents are Haitian, and because of that she never felt like she belonged on the island. She wanted a career in film production, and sensed doors were being closed because of her Haitian last name.
“I felt like I was in a box,” says Cyril. “I wanted to change my life, I wanted a different experience, I wanted to grow.”
She entered a film in a competition put on by a local cable company and HBO, and won. Her prize brought her to the Toronto International Film Festival. Suddenly “my eyes just opened up to Canada,” says Cyril. Initially she thought about Toronto, but she took a chance on “a little place called Nova Scotia.”
“When I first came here I felt like I belonged,” she says.
She graduated from the Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC) Radio Television Journalism program in May 2017, majoring in television and film production, and is now the co-owner of Zantan Productions. When she is not out on shoots at Peggy’s Cove or in Yarmouth, she is editing and building her business from her apartment in Dartmouth.
The name Zantan means pretty girl or beautiful woman, and speaks to the beauty and diversity of Cyril and her business partner, Whitney Milton. The two are passionate about storytelling, and amazed by the support offered by Nova Scotians to help them get their business off the ground.
Cyril is an active participant in the Stay in Nova Scotia Program, Halifax Partnership’s connector program, and gets regular advice from the international centre at NSCC and CEED, the Centre for Entrepreneurship Education and Development. They have all helped her navigate the process of immigration and starting a business. She is sure she wouldn’t have found so much success in another province.
“All of these people are in our circle, just helping us,” says Cyril.
The first person in her circle was her business partner, Whitney Milton. During Cyril’s second semester of school, the workload became too heavy for her to keep her part time job. She was worried about running out of money. Milton took her under her wing and offered her a place to stay if she needed it.
“Having her open up her doors,” says Cyril, “was really amazing.”
She returned to the Bahamas that summer to rethink things. Being home solidified the life she’d started in Halifax and her big plans for the future. She raised some funds and came back.
The beauty of the Bahamas is always close to her heart and the tip of her paintbrush. She often paints scenes of Bahamian beaches, and gives them away to friends as gifts. But Nova Scotia’s scenery is proving to be tough competition. The view of the Halifax skyline from NSCC’s waterfront campus is among her favourite vistas in the province and one of her next paintings will be of Peggy’s Cove.
Since her arrival in 2015, Cyril’s circle has continued to grow. As a panelist in NSCC’s Working with International and Immigrant Students discussion, she told her story and plans to start a business. Soon after, she got an email from someone who was in the audience. He said he wanted to connect her with people he knew who could use her production company.
“Coming here, I’m already a foreigner, I don’t know anyone, and people are just like ‘this is how I’m going to help you’,” she says. “It’s just mind-boggling.”
“I’m so happy,” says Cyril, describing her move to Nova Scotia as the “best decision I’ve ever made.”
Each new connection opened and expanded her network, the same way her brother’s stories sparked her imagination and led her to telling and watching stories through a camera lens.
She is proud of herself for finding her passion and following it all the way to Nova Scotia. She hopes Zantan Productions continues to be an all-female team and grows across the country.
“I don’t go to work. I just wake up and do what I love,” says Cyril. “Once you find that, it is the most rewarding thing for you as an individual.”