'What it's really like to live and be Black during the 21st century': Canadian filmmaker processes personal trauma in powerful TIFF film

Kelly Fyffe-Marshall

Back in 2018, Canadian writer and director Kelly Fyffe-Marshall was one of four people involved in a high-profile incident when a white woman who lived nearby a California house they were renting through Airbnb, called the police, claiming they were burglarizing the home.

“As a result of that the police came, there were seven cars and a helicopter that came around thinking that we had broken and entered into someone's house when it was just a...property that we were renting,” Fyffe-Marshall told Yahoo Canada.

Following the traumatic incident, the filmmaker is now premiering her short film Black Bodies at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), created as a way for Fyffe-Marshall to cope with what happened to her.

“I needed a way to really process that trauma, and film and art is the way that I really do that,” she said. “ I want to share this perspective of what it's really like to live and be Black during the 21st century.”

Both Donisha Prendergast and Komi-Oluwa Olafimihan star in the film and were also staying at the California Airbnb in 2018. Black Bodies is an impactful and moving piece of art that is a powerfully poetic look at reality of race and discrimination.

“The starkness and the simplicity of it is just how I feel,” Fyffe-Marshall said. “It was,...how do I get this trauma out and so people can watch it, and not necessarily for Black folks, but if they watch it they can say yeah, this is the feeling that I feel.”

“But it's for other folks to be able to look at it and say, you know, this is how they feel and I have a slight understanding now about the feeling, and what it's like to live in that skin colour, and how do I adjust the way that I live every single day.”

Although the film was conceptualized before 2020, the festival premiere of Black Bodies comes as anti-racism protests ignited around the world, largely following the brutal deaths of Black Americans like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, just to name a few.

“I think for me it’s incredibly saddening that the film is so timeless,” Fyffe-Marshall said. “I want it to be more historical, I want people to look back and be like, that's how it used to be.”

Still from 'Black Bodies" (Courtesy of TIFF)
Still from 'Black Bodies" (Courtesy of TIFF)

‘We need to do better…Canada is the mosaic’

The writer and director also highlights that more needs to be done to make Canada’s entertainment industry, in particular, more diverse and inclusive.

“The film industry in Canada is doing a terrible job,” Fyffe-Marshall said. “There’s a huge lack of diversity within the industry, we have Kim's Convenience and we have Transplant, those are the two shows that are the most diverse right now.”

“We need to do better because Canada is known for that, Canada is the mosaic.”

She added that the industry hasn’t gotten to the point where Black characters can “do anything” and moving away from “tokenism” is necessary.

“How can we make sure that when we walk into the writers room that it's inclusive?” Fyffe-Marshall said. “So when the Black character does this, the Black lady in the room could stand up and say hey, that doesn't make sense, that's racist, and so that's where I'd like to see us, I would like to see us being fully inclusive and not performative.”

The filmmaker revealed that she is still finds herself as the only Black person on set, which is a reality for many people in the film industry and can make it uncomfortable for people to speak out about changes that need to be made.

“You're going to spend 14 hours with these people, if they think that you're a troublemaker...what does that look like?” she said. “How are [the allies around you] creating a safe space? How can they also fend for you so when you speak up, you feel safe and you feel like you have a community around you, so you can say the things that are true.”

Behind the scenes of 'Black Bodies'
Behind the scenes of 'Black Bodies'

‘Make ripples where you are’

Fyffe-Marshall has one main message that she wants to get out to in her work and in her advocacy, “make ripples where you are.”

“If we make changes in our community, within our friend circle, within our family circle, within our workspace, if we all do that then...it's the tidal wave of change that we all need to see,” she said. “We don't need to be the next Martin Luther King or the next Malcolm X, we can't wait for those leaders, but it's self-governance.”

“I'm not asking folks that aren't Black to come out and stop racism but what I'm saying is that if you make the changes within your circle, if your grandfather's racist you can figure that out at Thanksgiving, don't let him go out and make hell for other people...As humans it's our responsibility to create safe spaces for everybody at all times.”

For any aspiring filmmakers looking to follow in Fyffe-Marshall’s footsteps, she stressed that she did the work, being on set, studying and making films until she found her voice. She also credits her success to being able to have her film team, her “sisterhood,” around he so they can elevate each other.

“Just having that support system, networking horizontally, making sure that we're all in the same space and we all grow together has been very great for my career,” she said. “We didn't just work together, we worked on separate projects so that we could turn around and come back to each other and share knowledge.

“Sharing knowledge and having that community of filmmakers is super important.”

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) takes place from Sept. 10 to Sept. 19. Information on screenings and tickets at tiff.net.