There are many issues that impact society and quality of life. Some issues only affect a city or country but some issues have been deeply rooted for centuries and have been infecting the world like a plague. It has a name, but many refuse to acknowledge it for fear of owning responsibility. It has a consequence that can lead to the death of an innocent. This word, this term, this vicious and senseless verb can lead to loss of opportunities in a career, the way an individual is treated in health care, in schools and in society, especially law enforcement. I’m talking about racism – the biggest issue facing our world today. The doctors are working on a vaccine for Covid-19 but what about a vaccine for racism?
Black people and people of colour have had to endure hundreds of years of racism and the world is just now waking up to the movement. I just hope it is not too late to work together to eradicate it. Why should the colour of our skin dictate how we are treated or perceived? There is no logic to it and it stands to prove that ignorance will only be cured through a world effort to bring upon its demise. We are all created equally but that seems to be where the philosophy stops. As we become part of society, we quickly realize that we are not equal at all and that Black people and people of colour have to fight much harder than the rest to succeed in a career, school, politics and society.
OYA Media Group has recognized that and has taken action to create more equal opportunity. It is a Black women-led production company founded by Alison Duke and Ngardy Conteh George. Together they have over 40 years of experience producing documentaries and had formed their company after collaborating on several film projects. Part of the OYA business model involves a program to support Black youth. The program supports Black graduates of film and television degree and certificate programs by increasing their access to networking, mentorship and essential skills training. Many of the participants in the program were hired as the production team in the creation on Mr. Jane and Finch and received their first television production credit. The third year of the program starts in July of 2020 culminating with an online graduation of year 2 participants on June 30th. Mr. Jane and Finch has won 2 CSA Awards and has been appreciated all over the world.
I was very fortunate to speak with one half of the leadership team, Ngardy Conteh George on my first Uber Conference call. I had some technical difficulty but I eventually figured it out thanks to Ngardy’s instructions.
“Hello there, it’s great to finally connect on Uberconnect. Thank you for your patience, I’m new to this. How are you doing?”
“I’m doing okay, I feel like I’m recovering from video-conference overload. We were in the Sheffield Film Festival (Sheffield Doc/Fest June 4-9th) and they had a MeetMarket from Mon-Wed and over the 3 days we had 31 pitch meetings.”
“Is that similar to a Film Market?”
“It’s a film market in Sheffield in the UK and is their biggest documentary film festival, similar to Hot Docs. They have a film market there that pair filmmakers and projects with distributors, broadcasters, funders and sales agents.”
“Are you able to tell us about any new projects your company is currently working on?”
“We have two projects, the first being Bam Bam, the story of Sister Nancy. It’s a feature length documentary that we have in development that looks at the life of Sister Nancy, who recorded the song Bam Bam in the ‘80’s. It’s probably one of the most sampled vocals in the world, over 100 times. From artist’s like Jay Z, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Lauren Hill – it’s been sampled in other country and across multiple genres. For 20 years, she had no idea her song was a huge hit and hadn’t received any royalties. It wasn’t until the owner of the record label that her song was under, was murdered. The family of the estate contacted her and settled the royalties because they had feared, it was one of the reasons he was killed. We’re going on tour with her and joining in her success while looking back at the history she’s gone through. We’ll be interviewing different musicians that have used the song and have them tell us what the song means to them.”
“How do you find your next story/film idea?”
“For Sister Nancy, one of her tour DJ’s contacted us, but it’s a mixture of people touching base. With Mr. Jane and Finch, it was a mutual friend that introduced me to Mr. LaRose. Sometimes the ideas will come from a story that we’ve heard or read, an issue, things we see and personal connections. They’re always connected to social justice issues and many of them are very timely with what’s happening in the world.”
“With the Black Lives Matter movement, has it seeded more ideas for documentaries?”
“Not particularly, but there are lot of others making documentaries about the current situation. We’re not pausing or stopping our ongoing projects to include what’s happening right now because it will be included in some of the ongoing documentaries, just as Covid is. It’s part of what people are going through now and will be in their stories, but we’re not necessarily doing anything related to what’s currently happening now.”
“I’m curious to know if anyone is documenting the police and reform to see what changes actually occur, moving forward.”
“I think there will be and I know that there are many filmmakers across Canada and the US who are following those stories. It’s really interesting, because in Mr. Jane and Finch, there is a gentleman by the name of Isaac Ibowa that goes to see Mr. LaRose to ask him to advocate on his behalf. In 2017, Isaac’s son was going through mental distress, so he had called the police to come assist his son with the matter – his son ended up falling from a twelve-story building. It’s eerily similar and plays out the exact same way the young black woman in Toronto, Regis Korchinski-Paquet had fallen from the 24th floor. The cops were called and the family was forced to stay outside the apartment with the police inside dealing with the person in distress. Whatever transpired in there ends with Regis falling to her death. In Isaac’s case, he was seeking help from Mr. LaRose to get an inquiry with the coroner’s office and is still fighting to this day to get answers about his son’s death. His son was tasered before he supposedly jumped 12 stories, which is a mystery in itself. These stories are coming back up and are timely and newsworthy, so there’s been publications that have been interviewing the father to bring the story back into the light to help change the way people with mental distress are handled by the police. Hopefully it won’t be by police after there is reform.”
“Have all of your documentaries been about social issues?”
“Looking back, I think so. I think social issues are what I’m drawn to. It’s my form of activism and my form of giving back. I’ve always been interested in stories that have that extra layer that can promote meaningful conversations that we need in our society.”
“I know that your organization has started a mentorship program for Black youths focused on filmmaking. Can you expand on how it works?”
“One thing that Alison and I have always done is to give young Black people an in, because we know how difficult it is to get that chance or that first gig to get that first experience. As Black women in this industry, it hasn’t been easy to be where we are now and we recognize that. It was really Alison’s brainchild to form the Black Youth Pathway 2 Industry program/Emerging Filmmakers Program. Alison has taught for many years, for different film festivals, different community organizations such as Lyft or Ryerson University. With her background in teaching we’ve been able to formalize it with the program that we have, which is to create networking opportunities and professional career development.”
Black youth statistically have a higher unemployment rate in comparison to other youths, especially in Toronto. There’s a statistic that says 40% leave the profession they had studied in 5 years later, due to lack of opportunities of finding gainful employment in those industries they’d studied in. We want to be that bridge to help them get that extra networking as well as filling out their resumes to help them get into the specialty fields of interest. It also creates opportunities for internships, shadowing and mentoring on sets to help build up their resumes. It’s been very successful and we’re coming up to our 2nd year graduation. Our 3rd year will be starting this summer.”
I had asked for some figures to demonstrate the success of the program and the numbers are both impressive and inspirational. Before entering the program, only 8% had been employed in various sectors but after year 1, 96% had found employment with 86% finding employment in their specific sector. In year 2, the program focused on a much wider array of digital media production. It led to 80% finding employment opportunities and new work experiences in the industry. 54% had increased their employment within their area of focus. The numbers clearly reflect that the program has made a significant difference in employment and success for the former students. This program has been able to foster achievements within the film industry where other programs have fallen short. A game changer that is leveling the playing field.
“Has the success of your film Mr. Jane and Finch helped with funding the program?”
“Absolutely, with that film we had 5 young people from our program in various roles from production assistant to set photographer. One had made the poster and our second assistant editor was also from the program. They’ve all been able to get their first broadcast credits on a production as a result of the program and now they can put Award Winning Production on their resumes. After the win we were picked up by an educational distributor. We have another opportunity that I can’t talk about yet but hopefully it will be finalized by next week. Since the documentary we’ve had increased interest in our content and had more partners reaching out to us to be involved in our program, which has been great and promising.”
“When you established your company OYA Media group, you filled all positions with women?”
“No no no, we’re not all women, we’re women led. It’s myself (Ngardy Conteh George) and Alison Duke, led by 2 Black women. I’d say the majority of our employees happen to be women but we’re not hiring based on a particular sex or race. We want to hire the best person for the position that believes in our vision, believes in the kinds of films we’re making and want to support the stories we’re making moving forward. Our team is small but the majority are women, probably 70%.”
“How are black youth made aware of your mentoring program?”
“It’s available in the Greater Toronto Area, so we reach out to the universities, colleges and specifically to their film, journalism or media programs. In addition, we reach out to private schools like the Toronto Film School, our program coordinator will go out to the different schools and will sometimes do an information session. We also share our callout with participants in the community or organizations involved with Black people and art organizations. A lot of people hear about us through word of mouth, which reflects our connection to the community. There are also festival’s, TIFF is one of our partners and a lot of partners involved in our workshops also spread it out amongst their networks.”
“Have you had to tailor the program since the Covid virus has hit?”
“Yes, year 3 will be entirely online and part of year 3 is for emerging new filmmakers to create their own web-series. We hope that will happen toward the end of the program, in January or February. If the restrictions are lowered, then we’ll be able to complete that in person. However, we’re structuring the program for a worst-case scenario.”
“Can you explain the mentorship component of the program?”
“The program is structured with a mixture of workshops and professional development. We send them out to the workshops with other organizations and each individual selects the specific workshops that they’re aiming for to help stream them toward the group they’re in. Whether that’s a crew and they’re wanting to become a camera operator, gaffer, grip or sound person; they can complete workshops to focus on that development. If they’re writing/producing, they can participate in writing/producing/directing workshops. Once they’ve completed the workshops suited toward their focused interest, we then host our own master class workshops where we bring in people that work in the industry and are successful in their specific field. We try to ensure that they’re Black or of colour, so the youth can see themselves and their own stories reflected in the person running the workshops. We also provide soft skills development, where we focus on being professional, job interviews, resumes and how to recognize network opportunities.”
Ngardy continues, “Last year they made a short film as a team and in year one they made a promo video and some archiving. Every year there’s a practical aspect of it. Depending on the focused interest of each individual, we’d bring in a mentor for producing or a mentor for directing, it all depends on the individuals desired field of interest. I’ve seen the confidence levels go through the roof from the beginning to the end. Another bi-product of the program is that it’s building a community and they’ve become friends that can now have people to call on when they need a crew, that they never had before – especially other Black youth. Some of them have been the only Black person in their program or one of three and might feel isolated because they have no one to talk about the complexities of being Black. They now have this community that wants to tell similar stories and can hop onto each others projects.”
“Has the program evolved since it started?”
“At the end of each year we have an assessment and hear back from the youth about what worked, what didn’t and what they liked. One thing we changed from year one to year two was to switch the programs to evenings and weekends because most had day jobs. We became more flexible in the scheduling of the program to meet that need. Going into year three, we’re going to be incorporating one on one mentoring, which we didn’t have before. The mentors were coming in but would address the group and tell them they could reach out if they had any questions but I think a lot of them felt too intimidated. We’re going to incorporate a more formalized mentorship where we partner them with somebody working in the industry that’s a senior and can accommodate a monthly meeting to answer any questions.”
“Have you heard anything about a production startup date?”
“I think Ontario is easing restrictions as of this week but I haven’t read what those details are. Since Covid is disproportionately affecting black communities and communities of colour, we are being extra cautious and will be the last to open things up. Alison’s partners’ aunt passed away from Covid, we have someone in the program with a parent that has Covid along with a lot of people associated with us that have been affected by it, so we’re being really cautious. If production opens up, we’ll be one of the last to hop on board.”
Ngardy adds, “Someone had said that it’s not race that is affected by the virus, it’s racism that affects the virus. It’s the way that people of colour and immigrants in society are more susceptible to catching the virus more frequently because of different treatment in the health departments and because many are also front line workers.”
“Do you foresee your company starting up production sometime next year?”
“We’re doing productions in other ways because we have three feature documentaries in production right now and all three of them are focused on people outside of Canada. We’ve sent one person a bunch of equipment to film themselves and I also have a documentary in development in the Caribbean where we have them filming themselves. We’re finding other ways to continue to film remotely and we’ll be developing a lot of work so we can be ready to go early next year or when things open up. We have done some corporate videos and film from a distance, so we haven’t put everything on hold. We’re also working on projects that use archival footage, so we don’t have to go out to film. We’ve been able to find alternate ways to continue making productions.”
“What did it feel like to win the CSA Award for Mr. Jane and Finch?”
“It was incredible, I was completely surprised. The nomination was good enough for me. That night I was not expected to win at all, to finally be nominated was a feat. My feeling was, I had already won. To actually win, was an out of body experience, it was surreal and it took about a week before it sunk in. For so many years we had to fight to justify why our stories mattered, so it felt like vindication. People connected, they got it, they enjoyed it and we did a damn good job in telling those stories. I’m just so proud of it.”
OYA Media Group is incredibly passionate about impacting Black youth and in shining a light on important social issues. Let’s all stand with them to create change for a better world.