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The reel deal

Natanga Smith Hurdle

The reel deal

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Frances-Anne Solomon calls herself a “rebel”. To that list she adds artist, writer, producer, film-maker, curator and entrepreneur.  
“How I ended up in the arts was because I am a radical. My dad is a lawyer and my granddad Patrick Solomon was a doctor. He, along with Dr Eric Williams, was one of the politicians who led Trinidad to independence from Britain.  When it came time for choosing a career they asked me to be either a doctor or lawyer. I said no and left Trinidad for Canada to attend the University of Toronto, where I discovered the arts programme.”
Anyone familiar with CaribbeanTales knows Solomon. CaribbeanTales is the trademark of for a group of companies based in Canada, Trinidad and Barbados, all founded by her. These include CaribbeanTales, an educational multimedia production company; CaribbeanTales Film Festival Group, which produces film screenings, festivals and industry training events; and, CaribbeanTales Worldwide Distribution Inc., a full-service marketing and distribution company.
Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in theatre arts, specializing in directing, she then went to France to study mime. When she went to England, she did a post-graduate diploma in film and worked as researcher/ director for Bandung Productions, a company co-owned by Trinidadian Darcus Howe that produced documentaries for Channel Four. In 1989 she joined the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
Solomon was born in Britain but moved to Trinidad when she was nine and attended primary and secondary schools there. “I have a British passport but I identify as a Trinidadian . . . as a Caribbean person . . . as a Caribbean diaspora . . . that is who I am.”
When she went to back to England, it was just after the race riots.
“I left Canada because it was so restrictive to get into my field. It was locked down by certain people. In England I got there during a very bad political situation. I got a job at the reporting on the riots.
“It was madness. Utter madness at the time,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief. She herself said she felt the influence of racism.
“Absolutely . . . . Absolutely. Here I am, light-skinned in England but considered black. Plus a woman in broadcasting? Added to that, there were not a lot of black people at the BBC.”
She remembers when she was one of the few black people working for the BBC. “There was a time when I stood in the middle of the BBC canteen in Birmingham and could not see another black face anywhere in the sea of white heads.”
She calls herself the token black there at the time and says she worked her way up. “I was trained in every department . . . in every aspect . . . including television.”
She added that her time there was an incredible experience. “It was an effective organization – everything was in-house. They created, produced and distributed to an audience. I had a lot of freedom. But yet still I had to fight for what I wanted to do and that was develop writers of colour.”
“They even called in the unions,” she added further. “That was very difficult”.
Solomon, who was working in the drama department, proposed the Black Screen project and became the script editor and series producer. She had to read and judge 600 submissions, shortlist 36 for interview and eventually commission six screenplays.
The 60-minute drama What My Mother Told Me was made on a shoestring for £60 000 (BDS$187 000) and first shown on Channel Four in England. Solomon had to invest her own money during the early stages of the film. It involved the creative talents of a number of Trinidadians: the composer André Tanker, who wrote the music; Karen Martinez, the production manager; Christopher Pinheiro, the designer; and a number of others who worked for little money.
“It was about domestic violence. I drew on experience of violence I saw in my own family. Men grappling with their own demons.”
“It was so healing, as so many people wanted to work with me on it. It was so wonderful. So many people clued into what it was about.”
While What My Mother Told Me is Solomon’s most Caribbean film, she has worked on a number of projects with Caribbean themes and talent. Her 1990 film I Is A Long Memoried Woman, which won the Gold Award for TV Performing Arts at the 1991 New York International Film and TV Festival, featured the poetry of Grace Nichols from Guyana with music by Trinidadian composer Dominique Le Gendre.
“It was a personal narrative . . . a journey of slavery to freedom. It was about personal and physical liberation. We had choreographed dancers from Trinidad, the whole works. All on the film lived in the diaspora.”
Another production for the BBC, the documentary Reunion, centred on some 300 West Indian women who joined the British Army during World War II. The film cleverly mixed archive footage with dramatizations by talented Trinidadian actress Martina Laird and by Adjoa Andoh (What My Mother Told Me). Solomon was pleased with how well the film was received: “It was mostly documentary, but we recreated some footage of the soldiers and Martina played one of the women. There was some archive footage of the actual women arriving, doing this and doing that. They were all dressed up in ATS uniforms and pratting about on Brighton Beach. It was lovely.”
After 14 years she moved on – wanting to do her own thing.
“I wasn’t interested really and truthfully in telling white people’s stories. I was interested in hearing people who look like me and have stories to tell like me. And these stories have been silenced,” she said seriously.
That thinking has helped influence Solomon in her artistic career. She went back to Canada and started her own company, CaribbeanTales, in 2001. She said there was no outlet or platform for Caribbean film work or voices.
“I started the festival in Canada with my own films. When I saw how it took off, I was inspired. It’s bigger than me, so seven years ago I started with other people’s films.”
“It was about doing what I wanted to do at the BBC.”
In 2005, the first CaribbeanTales Film Festival was launched in Toronto to address the underrepresentation of Caribbean and diaspora film and television programming.
In 2008, Solomon directed the award-winning feature A Winter Tale and undertook theatrical self-distribution in Toronto, Montreal, Jamaica, Trinidad, Antigua, New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, London, Dominica and Martinique, to name a few. Additionally, Solomon used CaribbeanTales to build an educational distribution/outreach program in Toronto and across the Caribbean, which presented the film to schools and community-based audiences. As a result, strategic relationships were formed in the Caribbean and, in 2010, the CaribbeanTales Film Festival, Symposium & Marketplace (CTFFSM) was launched in Barbados.
Partnering with the Shridath Ramphal Centre, along with One Caribbean Media, the aim was to develop CTFFSM into a festival that would contribute to the development of the business side of the industry through a range of complementary activities, including a symposium on distribution, a content incubator, a marketplace and workshops.
Solomon enjoys working on films that explore the diasporic perspective. “I feel that I understand particularly about the Indian experience through having worked with a lot of different Indian writers and directors. When I was growing up in Trinidad, I was surrounded by all kinds of different people – families who lived in Canada and whole groups of indentured labourers who went to live in Trinidad at the turn of the century.
She explains that fundamentally she is interested in the concept of personal freedom. “I want or need to grapple with issues that curtail freedom . . . . People trying to be free or racism or sexism. Stories of modern women and or men . . . . Human beings finding self-actualization.”
How did Frances-Anne Solomon achieve all of this? “I don’t sleep much,” she said, laughing.