‘Sway’ among Toronto Black Film Festival films telling untold Canadian stories

Although it was filmed in downtown Toronto’s Regent Park neighborhood and features a soundtrack powered by local underground rappers, Emmanuel Kabongo says his new film “Sway” doesn’t feel like a Canadian production.

“Everyone was excited to do something that we, as Canadians, don’t always see on screen: raw, brave, unapologetic,” says the Toronto actor and producer via video call from Los Angeles.

“What I see when I watch Canadian television is that sometimes there is a sense of caution. “You don’t want to go too far or step on people’s feet.”

Kabongo suggests the problem lies in the lack of platforms that amplify Canadian stories from different perspectives. He points to Clement Virgo’s coming-of-age drama “Brother” and CBC’s historical saga “The Porter” as productions that break the mold, but despite cleaning up at the 2022 Canadian Screen Awards, they weren’t properly promoted.

“There is still a key component missing when it comes to getting the stories out there and marketing them the right way,” he says.

“‘Brother’ was made beautifully on a huge budget, but in terms of financial success across Canada, it didn’t do so well. We don’t always know why, but I think there’s room for more opportunities to get the word out there.”

“Sway” is among more than 80 films from 20 countries that will be championed at the 12th Toronto Black Film Festival, which begins Wednesday. This year’s program includes a tribute to the late filmmaker Charles Officer on Saturday and a screening of the 1974 blaxploitation classic “Foxy Brown,” after which star Pam Grier will receive a lifetime achievement award from her on Thursday.

Festival founder Fabienne Colas says the festival is about celebrating local talent.

“It’s about providing a platform and amplifying the voices of black artists and bringing in stars to empower and inspire the next generation,” says Colas.

While there are other broader platforms, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the Reelworld Film Festival, Kabongo says a Black-focused festival provides more opportunities for filmmakers to reshape the perception of what a Canadian film is like.

“There are so many stories out there, from the black and people of color perspective,” he says.

“It’s important to have something like this in Toronto so that those stories can be heard, so that people can create stories from their own experiences and have a stage to show them. Not everyone accesses TIFF or Reelworld, so this is necessary.”

“Sway” is a moody, mind-bending thriller in which Kabongo plays a prominent black community leader whose life falls apart after a one-night stand turns into a blackmail plot and a mysterious gang simultaneously threatens his family.

Co-directed by Zach Ramelan and Charlie Hamilton, “Sway” marks the first film Kabongo has produced, under his company Unscene Piktures, which he founded during the pandemic. It makes its Canadian premiere on Saturday.

“I want to tell stories that we don’t always see on the big or small screen. That has been my approach not only as a producer, but also as an actor,” says Kabongo, whose acting credits include Paramount Plus’ “Star Trek: Discovery,” CityTv’s “Hudson & Rex” and the Simu Liu-starring sci-fi thriller of 2023. “Simulator”.

He says the budget for “Sway” was less than $100,000 and was made possible by passionate people coming together and “figured out a way to make it happen.”

“Instead of waiting for this big budget or for someone to give me an opportunity, I wanted to create the opportunity for myself.”

The 37-year-old attributes his drive to his turbulent childhood. His family fled the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1996 and moved to South Africa just as apartheid was ending. They emigrated to Toronto in the 90s.

“I faced a lot of challenges in life, so coming to Canada I was always a raw kid. My approach to everything was always raw, with a lot of charge and energy,” she says.

Kabongo believes Canadian productions have a reputation for playing it safe. He remembers pitching a pilot to a major American showrunner, who was struck by the toughness of the script.

“He was like, ‘What? Is this what Toronto is like? I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s Toronto.’ A lot of people really don’t know. They have an idea of ​​what it is. But a lot of filmmakers here are starting to break that mold, stepping out of that comfort zone and saying, ‘We have our own voice.’ We have the talent.’”

Some of that talent is on display at TBFF. This year’s festival will feature “Being Black in Toronto,” a series of films by budding directors selected from Colas’ Being Black in Canada incubator program, dedicated to mentoring Black filmmakers in Canada.

Among them is “Tina, When Will You Marry?”, by Toronto director Celestina Aleobua. in which Tina, who is about to turn 30, explores the stories of three Nigerian-Canadian women as she ignores social pressure to get married.

“We should be able to create opportunities for black talent with different perspectives, if not from higher-ups, then at least from ourselves,” Kabongo says.

“A festival like this gives people hope that it’s possible.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 13, 2024.

This is a corrected story. An earlier version referred to Clement’s Virgo trait as “Virgo.” In fact, he is called “Brother.”

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