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Black film orgs call out director for saying who tells Black stories 'doesn't matter'

FILE - Barry Avrich arrives at the Toronto International Film Festival Tribute Gala in Toronto on Monday, September 9, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young FILE - Barry Avrich arrives at the Toronto International Film Festival Tribute Gala in Toronto on Monday, September 9, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
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TORONTO -

Several organizations dedicated to advancing Black talent onscreen say comments from documentarian Barry Avrich at the Canadian Screen Awards devalued the importance of Black creators telling Black stories.

The Canadian filmmaker's brief acceptance speech for best direction, factual, for his documentary "Oscar Peterson: Black + White" closed with the comment: "This is a testament that there are so many Black stories in Canada that need to be told. It doesn't matter who tells them; we just need to tell them."

The Black Screen Office and Reelworld Film Festival were among the groups to speak out Thursday saying Avrich's remarks were damaging to efforts to dismantle systemic racism in the Canadian film and TV industry.

Avrich, who is white, responded with his own statement saying that he "misspoke" and that an awards speech is no place to make "a nuanced statement."

He also walked back his comments saying: "Of course, it matters who tells stories."

"Oscar Peterson: Black + White" explores the acclaimed late pianist's life, largely through archival interviews with the Black musician, while a list of accomplished Canadian jazz artists appear in musical breaks. Clips of various celebrities, including Quincy Jones, Billy Joel and Herbie Hancock, are peppered through the film to shed light on how he influenced them and others.

The documentary also uses Peterson's song "Hymn to Freedom" to introduce more recent social movements, such as the Black Lives Matter marches and the murder of George Floyd.

Produced by Bell Media and showing on Crave, it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September before picking up six CSA nominations.

Avrich told The Canadian Press in an interview on Thursday that he stumbled in his thoughts.

"You have 20 seconds to make an acceptance speech," he said of Monday's virtual ceremony.

"You're extraordinarily emotional. I didn't expect to win. And I'm a storyteller. I've been so consistent in my career, about making sure that stories are told in this country."

He also said his production company has a track record of supporting people of colour, and that this film had a Black studio production manager, and a BIPOC editor, cameraperson, crew and cinematographer.

Tonya Williams, founder of the Reelworld festival, said Avrich's reactions have been a missed opportunity "to say something healing at that moment."

"He could have said, 'I am so humbled by this award, that it was a privilege for me to be in a position where I can make a story like this. And my hope for the future is that our industry will look to helping Black producers and Black directors tell more of these stories.' He would have been the Black Messiah the next day."

The criticism comes as Canada's film industry grapples with conversations around how broadcasters and other gatekeepers determine who gets to tell the stories of people of colour and receive coveted grants that allow those films to be made.

Avrich is well-established in the Canadian film industry with dozens of documentaries to his name, some of them about entertainers including Howie Mandel and producer David Foster. He's among the country's most active filmmakers.

Joan Jenkinson, executive director of the Black Screen Office, said the reaction to Avrich's comments speaks to a larger issue in Canada's arts community.

"We absolutely agree with Barry when he says there are so many stories to tell, it's just like, why are you the one that has to tell them?" said Jenkinson, whose organization was among those to challenge Avrich's speech.

"Why don't you support somebody who is more appropriate to tell the story?"

Those sentiments were echoed in an open letter sent by Jenkinson and leaders at other Black and racialized organizations in the local film industry addressed to Beth Janson, head of the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television, which runs the CSAs, and copied to Avrich and other prominent leaders in Canada's film festival and production community.

"When a Black creator directs a story about a Black legend, the director's lens is shaped by the injustices they themselves have experienced and lived through, which then inform the storytelling choices they make," they wrote.

"Non-Black directors will simply not have the same first-person lens."

"The fact that Mr. Avrich was greenlit and funded to make this film itself was hurtful to our communities, but for him to reinforce his position by making his remark during his Canadian Screen Award acceptance speech is unacceptable, retraumatizing and harmful," the letter added.

The Academy issued its own statement on Thursday saying "there is still much work to be done in dismantling the system that has stood in the way of diverse voices being rightfully heard." It did not address the incident or name Avrich, who has produced previous editions of the CSAs.

Celine Peterson, the late pianist's daughter and an artist representative in the music industry, raised issues with "Oscar Peterson: Black + White" long before its release. She said the project was already well into its research stages before she heard from the filmmakers. Her mother Kelly Peterson, who is white, ultimately took the title of consulting producer and sat for an interview.

Celine, however, said she had "very different experiences" with the filmmakers compared to her mother and she ultimately chose not to sit for interviews and requested that she not appear in the film.

"I did not want to be a part of something where it was so obvious to me that it was not done with good intentions," she said.

"This was not done because they wanted to tell his story, because it deserved to be told. This was done because it's an excellent stepping stone for someone else's career. And it's very easy to do interviews and say, 'I love Oscar Peterson' ... this was not a project that needed my support."

She said the filmmakers ultimately chose to include footage of her in the film and its promotional trailers, against her wishes.

Beyond her disappointment with the film, Celine Peterson said she believes Avrich has been "rightfully called to task for the foolish, irresponsible and self-serving comments" he made.

"It's hard work to hold people accountable and to fight for a spot that you deserve," she said of the organizations that are fighting for change in Canada's film community.

"Generally speaking, the Black filmmaker has worked harder in a lot of cases than the white filmmaker ... that's just the way it is. You have to work harder as a minority. And to not have the same opportunities, to be dismissed ... and then see someone who has not lived those experiences, get up on a public platform and say, 'it doesn't matter.' It's just so deeply insulting."

Jenkinson of the Black Screen Office urged Canada's broadcasters and funders to take the reaction to Avrich's dismissive comments seriously.

"They need to put weight behind the statements that they're making about equity, diversity and inclusion," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 8, 2022.

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