Hi, my name is Israel Ekanem and I am a storyteller.
I have my grandmother to thank for that as she raised me with stories. She always found a way to get her point across with a story. The lessons she shared came in the form of stories. Her ability to always keep me yearning for more was an effective tool. One would think that after listening to her stories for decades, I’d find them boring. On the contrary. There was always a twist I could never see coming and the endings were always heavy enough to get the point across without sounding preachy. I find echoes of her voice in the stories I tell now. Be it fiction or nonfiction, there is a dash of grandma in every story I tell. I’ll touch on one more thing I learned from my grandmother before moving on: chase your dreams and embrace your community. I have held tight to that advice and I have been chasing my dreams.
I don’t know how to dream small.
My dreams are always outlandish, massive and, at times, scary. However, I believe having such dreams has given me the fuel to turn every opportunity I am given into a rewarding endeavour. From my very first short, We Watched the Clouds Form Shapes, shot on a cellphone, to now working on a short documentary, a documentary series, two podcasts and developing a powerful novel by the poet Guyleigh Johnson into a feature film, my scary dreams have led me this far. These dreams have also led me to having the honour of being the festival director of the Mosaic Film Festival.
When you’ve spoken, petitioned, begged, when you are pushed beyond your means, you react and that is what happened. In fact, not just people of colour but humanity did.
I don’t know how to not embrace my community.
As an immigrant, Halifax has become home. I have carved out a sanctuary for my family and me here. I have also been lucky to find a wonderful community. Filmmakers, storytellers, poets, creatives, BLACK PEOPLE.
Let’s explore “Black people” a bit. This part might not be savoury but I advise you to stick with it as it is important.
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a Black man, was murdered by a police officer who had his knee on George’s neck for almost nine minutes. The whole world watched a man being killed in real time. It was heartbreaking and it was just one more example of how systemic racism has eaten into the core of not just the United States but the Western world! That one could find less value in the life of another person and ignore their screams for help, their screams of being unable to breathe, their screams for their mother, only to continue kneeling till the man died, was not only shocking but also revealing.
It started small. Maybe it was because everyone was home due to COVID-19, but gradually the protests started. When you’ve spoken, petitioned, begged, when you are pushed beyond your means, you react and that is what happened. In fact, not just people of colour but humanity did. WORLDWIDE. The protests were about getting our voices heard to say, see us, we exist.
On May 29, 2020, while Atlanta was burning, rapper Killer Mike gave a powerful speech and while he was sharing his words, he wore a t-shirt with the words “Kill Your Masters”. It sparked something in me. It led to writing the script Kill Your Masters. As a Black person, the speech not only resonated with me, it led me to find my own way to speak. As a writer, as a filmmaker and as a storyteller, Kill Your Masters is my contribution to what is going on with the world today. While that project is still being developed, we can see how bringing the unique voice of a Black storyteller to telling a Black story adds to the impact of the story itself.
Thanks to the protests, many people are looking to learn more about Black people from Black people. This has led to people reading more books written by Black authors like Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates; The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander; Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi, as well as documentaries such as Ava DuVernay’s The 13th; Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s LA 92; and Raoul Peck and James Baldwin’s I Am Not Your Negro, which have helped highlight the injustice that Black people have faced and are facing. With all this education, one thing we can all agree on is that representation matters.
However, when it comes to the world of filmmaking, representation is not as evident. Of the five major movie studios, only one is headed by a woman, Universal Pictures’ Donna Langley, and she is white. Tiger Woods’ story is being told by two white men: Matthew Heineman and Matthew Hamachek. Andrea Berloff and Johnathan Herman, who are white, were nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars for the film Straight Outta Compton, a story about N.W.A., one of the most influential Black hip hop groups of all time. It’s almost as if there are no Black directors or writers that can tell Black stories. This is untrue. Black Panther, written and directed by Joe Robert Cole, a Black man, was not only a box office hit but a critical hit too. So, it isn’t a question of the lack of Black filmmakers willing and able to tell Black stories. It’s about getting into the room. It’s about getting past the gatekeepers. It is about saying: This is my story and I should be the one to tell it.
There is change coming. Telefilm just introduced a new development stream for Racialized Persons/Visible Minorities. Netflix is now the title sponsor of the Halifax Black Film Festival. More than 34 per cent percent of the 102 acting nominees for this year’s Emmys are Black, up from 19.8 per cent last year. It would be wonderful if it goes up again next year. Disney just released Beyonce’s Black Is King to critical acclaim. We are being allowed to tell our stories and you can see the difference when you have a Black voice in the room making decisions.
These are our stories. We own them. We have lived through the experience. Wouldn’t you say it would be wise to let us tell our own stories?
Israel Ekanem is festival director for the Mosaic Film Festival