SELWYN JACOB, then ten or 11, sat in the theatre and saw what he did not want to see on the screen. It is knowing what he did not want to see, which led him to changing the narratives of immigrants and black-Canadians.
The Trinidadian- born, award-winning Canadian documentary film-maker’s work with Mina Shum on The Ninth Floor has changed how the world viewed the six Caribbean students who mounted a protest against institutional racism at the Sir George Williams University, Canada, in the late 1960s.
Jacob produced the film and reframed the perspective surrounding the events which led to Caribbean students, Trinidadians among them, being deported from Canada and damage to the university’s computer centre.
But if Jacob’s story is known, one would know that he has always sought to change perceptions.
In telling Newsday how he got into film-making, Jacob said: “I think it must have been when I was about ten or 11. I remember going to a movie theatre in Trinidad and I saw the movies of the day. As a matter of fact, they gave charitable showings like Joan of Arc and the teachers would take the entire school out. On Saturdays there were matinees and some of the schools would go. I must have seen one of the pictures and I looked at the movie and I looked at how the Africans were depicted in those movies. They looked to me as though they were silly. They came across as a caricature…I kept thinking if I were making a movie and setting it in Trinidad and they [would] see people the way that I would [see them], not behaving like buffoons.
“I just got fascinated by this concept of the movies and said ‘wow when I grow up what I would like to do is maybe become a movie star’. Not a star, in that sense of the word, but become involved in the production.” The former Point Fortin resident attended Queen’s Royal College, Port-of-Spain, with mas legend Peter Minshall whose work on a play written by the late Derek Walcott left an indelible mark on him.
Since then Jacob has won awards such as the 1998 Canadian Gemini Award for his film The Road Taken and again in 2001, he won the Gemini award for the Best Science, Technology, Nature, Environment or Adventure Documentary Programme.
Jacob has created and produced more than 50 films and has worked with the Canadian National Film Board since 1997.
He was recently awarded by the Film and Video Arts Society of Alberta with the Outstanding Achievement Award, recognising his outstanding accomplishment, contribution to media art, and body of work at FAVA Fest, the society’s annual festival.
Jacob arrived in Canada in 1968 and attended the University of Alberta in Edmonton and read for his Bachelor of Education degree.
Then he pursued his Masters in Film Studies at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.
For Jacob, entering the school of cinematic arts “was like walking on thin air…because you have this dream and you’re working in the movie industry. The ultimate goal, at that time, was to come back to TT and to try to tell local stories.” Although, he did not return to TT to tell his stories, his work has re-engineered understanding both in Canada and beyond.
The Canada Government in a news release on Jacob’s outstanding award said: “Since the early 1980s, Jacob’s work has explored the experiences of black Canadians as well as other stories from Canada’s multicultural communities; first as a trailblazing independent director_and the first black Albertan director_and then as a producer with the NFB’s Pacific & Yukon Studio in Vancouver.” He is regarded as Alberta’s first black film-maker. He recalled how he made his first film. “When I graduated and I went back to Alberta.
There was not a film industry per se in Edmonton, the city I lived in at the time.
So I just had to figure out what do I do right now and I had a Bachelor of Education degree so I started teaching. I got a job teaching in the country, Northern Alberta, two-and-ahalf- hours drive from Edmonton….
I ended up teaching in this Northern Alberta community and then someone said to me, ‘you know there is a black community just half an hour from here’. I was completely taken aback by that. Because when I got to Alberta we heard the rumours that there weren’t too many black people in Alberta because of the weather. They could not stand the winters… when I heard that I just got in my car, right away and drove around there and started talking to these people. And these were black Americans who had emigrated from Oklahoma.
“Oklahoma had made it illegal for blacks to vote in their election. So they all migrated and settled in Northern Alberta.
So I did this documentary film and it was called We Remember Amber Valley. Amber Valley was the name of the community. So that was the first film that got me involved in telling the black Canadian story. I was the only black film-maker there.” Jacob has told the stories of people often unheard. His works include 1991 Carol’s Mirror, an educational film about race and culture in the classroom, 1996 The Road Taken, about the experiences of black Canadian sleeping- car porters, and The Journey of Lesra Martin, about Lesra Martin, a Canadian youth who helped to free Rubin “Hurricane” Carter from prison.
At the time when Jacob thought of returning to TT, there was only the Government Film Unit and TTT. Both of which were not a fit for the kind of film-making he had studied.
And so, Jacob’s brand of non-fiction has cemented him as one of Canada’s top film-makers.
But part of the style he chose was also because he wanted to do something that was not being done in neighbouring US.
When asked why he chose non-fiction, Jacob said, “It is a survival philosophy [making non-fiction as opposed to fiction].
A lot of people don’t realise that Canada is next door to the US and the US, through the sort of Hollywood machinery, is the world’s most dominant media production centre….I analysed it in my mind and I said I don’t want to emulate the Hollywood production…” While, Jacob does not have a connection with the local film industry, he only came to the TT Film Festival last year, he believes that the local film industry is on the right track and has seen much development.
He believes “there could be and should be what I call Caribbean story-telling. The language might be different whether they come from Jamaica, Haiti, or one of the Dutch islands but at the end you see something that is Caribbean.” How Caribbean films are marketed needs to be looked at, he said. When asked if he felt Caribbean content was ready for an international audience, Jacob said: “A good story, is a good story, is a good story. I think one of the advantages for me of studying in North America, is that you get to see stories from around the world. Sometimes we use the term insularity but sometimes you just have to expose yourself…When something travels or is well told it would travel the world and TT stories fall into that same category.” “You just have to bring your story-telling skills up to a certain level. The cinema has a certain language and once you have learnt that language, then you can speak the language of cinema to anybody, anywhere in the world.” Selwyn Jacob would be present at The Ninth Floor’s screening on July 20 at the University of the West Indies’, Centre for Language Learning from 6pm.