HAMILTON CITY Magazine sat down with Paize Usiosefe, founder and chair of the Hamilton Black Film Festival. The inaugural festival in 2021 showcased seven feature films and 17 short narratives, which included eight foreign films and six short documentaries about the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) community. The hope is that viewers will think broadly about the contributions of BIPOC people, the challenges and triumphs of everyday life, from both in front of and behind the camera lens, says Usiosefe. The festival’s main goal is to invest in a new generation of people of colour to carry on the traditions of their ancestors by way of knowing more about their heritage and roots through film. It also aims to bring people in Hamilton together, and unite them through film. The festival’s motto: Inclusiveness is our strength.
A Nigerian-born filmmaker, Usiosefe is the producer of the feature film Yakubu and Amazon Prime sitcom Family and Friends. An acclaimed author, poet, filmmaker and actor and producer, Usiosefe was an industry delegate at the 2019-2020 Toronto International Film Festival and is the recipient of the prestigious Jackie Washington Award for the Arts (2020). He is the author of Echo from a Valley, and the story of Peter Morgan, From Ashes of Flame. Paize won an Editor’s Award in 1995 for his narrative poetry and was nominated for a City of Hamilton arts award as an established artist in 2010. Usiosefe has a degree in English literature, African history, and religious knowledge. After arriving in Canada, he studied computer technology at business college and creative writing at McMaster University. The city’s arts and film community are very fortunate to have him.
What brought you to Canada and to Hamilton?
"Hamilton’s greatest strength is the community. Hamilton is just natural. Hamilton was very accepting and I’ve been living here since 1991. When I first came to the city, it was evening, we stayed overnight. In the morning we went to the Mountain Brow and I saw the city. And I said this is what I’ve been waiting for as an artist. I was living in Toronto, so I said I’m moving to Hamilton. The people of Hamilton are engaging, a lot of people have come here from different parts of the world. It’s changing, it’s becoming more cosmopolitan. People are more friendly. When this city celebrates, we all celebrate together — whether it’s a holiday or a cultural festival. It’s that Hamilton community thing. "
It was a lot of work developing the festival – two years of planning I believe. I understand the idea came to you after coming home from the 2019 TIFF. What inspired you to develop and launch the Hamilton Black Film Festival?
"I had written a script called Blow by Blow. I had several feature films written, ready to go, on the shelf. Every year I go to Telefilm Canada to meet the person in charge of feature films. So, I went to pitch this script for Blow by Blow to him. I was explaining the film. He said it looks like a good concept. But I need someone to produce it, I need money to produce it. He suggested I go back and look for a producer. I was about to leave, he turned and said, “Paize, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is going to be here in two months, so why don’t you invest in yourself? Yes, invest in yourself and come to the festival.” No one has ever said anything like that to me. I never thought of it that way. Driving home to Hamilton, I kept thinking over and over about what he said, “Invest in yourself.” I got home and bought my ticket for TIFF. "
'When I arrived at TIFF, I went to the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the festival’s headquarters that also serves throughout the year as a venue for other film screenings and smaller specialty film festivals. I was looking at a framed photo of one of the festival’s founders, William Marshall, and started thinking about what I could do back in Hamilton. When the festival was over, I thought, what do I do now? Why don’t I have my own festival – the Hamilton Black Film Festival? I thought for sure the name would not be available, so I did a name search and it was. I grabbed the name and that was the beginning — the Hamilton Black Film Festival was born. "
What do you feel are the big challenges for artists and other creative professionals in Hamilton, and particularly for members of the BIPOC community?
"I think the challenges are the same for all artists, regardless of their background, ethnicity, etc. All Hamilton artists are in the same boat. We’ve been around for many years – if you want to move forward with any artistic endeavour, you need help. Financial help. All artists need financial help. If the city or the community can help us, things will happen. "
What did you discover about the Hamilton BIPOC community as a result of this festival?
"The BIPOC community is not a homogenous group, people are from everywhere. I’m from Africa. During the 2021 festival there were no films from the Caribbean community. Although we are Black and we’re called BIPOC, we are all different — different experiences and different heritage. "
What films will your festival showcase?
"In filmmaking, the first thing we look at is the producer. If you’re producing a film and a Black or Indigenous actor, or a person of colour is in a leading role but you’re not part of the BIPOC community, we still want the film to be part of the festival. The film would be welcomed to our festival. We want the festival to be a transformative experience — allowing producers outside the BIPOC community to submit films to our festival, as long as BIPOC actors/actresses are depicted humanly in their films. You don’t have to be a producer who is BIPOC. That is how our festival is different from other festivals. Because at the end of the day, we want to showcase BIPOC in films. If you shut the door and deny a white person or someone who is not BIPOC but produces films with BIPOC actors, you are not doing anything good for the community. You’re not bringing the community together. You are actually shutting down people and at the same time, shutting down yourself. That’s what I saw – And that is the vision of the Hamilton Black Film Festival. Why would you want to punish someone for who they are? If we want to come together, there are ways we can look at it differently. At the end of the day, we have to think: How can we bring the community together? Everyone, not just the BIPOC community, but the entire Hamilton community. It’s like Sidney Poitier once said, 'I never had an occasion to question colour, therefore, I only saw myself as what I was … a human being.' That’s all. That is the distinction. So, you just have to be yourself. It’s about bringing the talent together. "
What challenges did you face in the development of the film festival? Is there anything significant you learned or discovered about Hamilton along the way?
"There were some challenges. Financial issues are always a challenge in film. When you have money, you can do a lot of things. There are a lot of people right here in Hamilton, white, BIPOC, etc. who have the talent to do great things. It’s just money. The arts need money. I want the community to understand what we are doing. It’s kind of like restaurants that are opened by people from around the world—we have Vietnamese, sushi, Mexican, Indian, etc. Everyone can go to these restaurants, Black, white, people of colour, Asian, etc., not just people of the same heritage or ethnicity. They eat the food and they become part of that restaurant community, that experience. It’s the same thing we’re doing in films. It’s not a restaurant but we bring films from around the world, from different cultural backgrounds. The moment you pay to go and watch one of our films, you’re already part of the community. Some people might think the festival is just for BIPOC but it is not – it is for everyone to experience. Like my restaurant analogy, if the BIPOC food and restaurant community had a food festival once a year, people don’t think oh, it’s only for BIPOC people. It’s not just for people from that particular community, it’s for everyone to try and experience. It’s a big cultural picture perspective."
Did COVID and the lockdown restrictions have an impact on the festival?
"Because of COVID, we find ourselves in a difficult situation. Today, we all have to learn how to adapt somehow. For 2022, we have decided to go forward with a virtual festival. If the lockdown lifts come, we can adjust and move to the theatres, but for now we’re planning the festival as a remote festival. We’re focusing our efforts on what we want to do, what we can control at the moment. So, we’ve made that decision. It helps you keep focused and not having to worry whether it’s on, it’s off."
Has the Black Lives Matter and Every Child Matters movements had an impact on the BIPOC arts community?
"The life we live today is political. Everything seems to be political. I try not to get myself involved in those things. But I very much admire their courage. Our festival is open to everyone, open to every producer who embraces BIPOC actors. When you look at some of the events going on in these movements, you know and understand where they are coming from. But where they are going – when a wave of violence starts to evolve, that is not what I want. If you believe in and want to be like Martin Luther King Jr., violence cannot be part of it. It is not an option. It starts to degrade the intentions. "
Have you experienced any form of racism — here in Hamilton or elsewhere?
"Yes, many, many times. But I won’t allow it to disturb me or stop me. I wrote an article several years ago that racism is uncivilized. When I see a person who is racist, I think they are not civilized. And I move on. This guides me. It is sad that a person can be like that, but I hope they can change. "
What are your expectations for 2022? Anything special being planned?
"Last year, we had three high points: the mayor’s office endorsement, Telefilm and ACTRA endorsements, and enormous support from the media and communities like the Westdale Theatre. We’d like to see more publicity and support in 2022. This year’s festival will run from May 25-30. We’re in the planning stages right now. We’re using the same platform as we did last year. The program is coming along little by little. People are submitting from different parts of the world. We want people to understand that we are here to stay, that this film festival is real, and that we are inclusive. That is our motivation."
For more information on the Hamilton Black Film Festival, visit https://hbff.ca/