Black filmmakers on a roll in Edmonton's thriving film and TV scene
Brian Ghettuba had a dream assignment and a tight deadline.
It was summer 2021 and a director for a major Kenyan film company had tapped the Edmonton screenwriter to come up with a script for a romantic comedy being commissioned by Netflix.
"I pitched him the idea a week later and he loved it," Ghettuba said. "We went right to work."
Ghettuba, whose movie Disconnect: The Wedding Planner was released in January, is among a growing number of Black screenwriters, videographers, directors and documentary-makers in Edmonton's booming film and television industry.
"Right now, Black artists are at a time where it's never been better for them to express themselves and they've never been more confident to express themselves any way they want," said Nigel Hinds, co-owner at Hey You Studios in south Edmonton.
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Hinds left a career in electrical engineering to become a full-time filmmaker in 2018, after spending about a decade doing cinematography on the side.
Along with two partners, he opened Hey You in 2019. With high demand from amateur shooters to million-dollar network productions, it expanded in 2021 to its current 5,000-square-feet facility with four unique studio spaces.
Alberta's film industry is having a moment, with blockbusters like The Last of Us and Ghostbusters: Afterlife injecting millions of dollars in direct and indirect spending.
Statistics from Alberta Culture show that production volume doubled to about $560 million in 2021, from around $256 million in 2018-19, while the number of individuals working in the industry more than tripled between 2020 and 2021.
The provincial government offers an Alberta Made Production grant, which has provided $4.9 million to Alberta producers. The grants are expected to generate further spending of about $19.7 million, the department said.
Notably, 77 per cent of successful Alberta Made Production grant applicants identified that the productions were owned by someone in a "diverse, inclusive or Indigenous group," the department said.
Filmmaker Nauzanin Knight, director at 1844 Studios, an Edmonton-based film and television company, said she's noticed an increase in Black, Indigenous and people of colour at networking events, awards shows and film openings in the city.
"When I started out in the film industry in Edmonton — and this was before the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement — I was pretty much always the only BIPOC woman in the room," she said.
"It was very strange because it doesn't reflect the diversity of our society."
Industry embracing culture
Hey You Studios co-owner Daniel Etoroma said the rich diversity of the city has become more appreciated in the film industry.
"People see culture and they don't say, 'Oh, that's something that's different that I don't want to be a part of.' They say, 'Oh, I want to invite this. I actually love this, I love other people's culture," Etoroma said.
"We have a chance to begin to share stories and people are listening and people are engaging and people are excited to hear their stories."
Ghettuba said Disconnect: The Wedding Planner, his first feature-length film credit, has been well received on Netflix.
"People had a blast and they got to see what the African film industry can do to bring such a project out," he said. "It was a blessing. It was a privilege. And I'm hoping for more."
Over at 1844 Studios, Knight is also garnering international and national attention.
The studio's comedy pitch, titled Notes on Being Unpopular, won an audience choice award at the 2022 Toronto International Film Fest. The Edmonton production house is also pairing up with the National Film Board on a documentary project.
As the film industry makes way for more Black filmmakers in the city, Edmonton has become a place to watch for the next Spike Lee, John Singleton or Ava DuVernay, Hinds said.
"There's no doubt in my mind that there's somebody who's shooting here right now who's next," he said.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.