By Emmanuel John
Good morning, evening, afternoon, or whatever time of day it is for you. My name is Emmanuel John and welcome to my podcast. Today I want to talk to you about two things: I want to talk about art, and I want to talk about advocacy. Now, you know what art is, right? Obviously, I mean, you consume it every single day. You read books, you watch TV shows, sometimes you go to the art gallery and you take a look at paintings. All that is art. Now, how about advocacy? Both art and advocacy are rampant in our lives. I mean, art is easy to identify, but what about advocacy? In what ways is advocacy in our lives? Well I guess the most obvious example would be election season, when politicians are campaigning, right. That’s advocacy. Another less obvious example is your Facebook feed. It’s full of advocacy. There are friends on there, there are family members on there, there are organisations, and all these people, they have a message that they are trying to share with the world. That’s essentially what advocacy is all about. Now do we ever see the two together? Art and advocacy as one? Working as one? Of course, right? Just think about it a little bit. Think about the book you just read, or the TV show you’re attached to, or the movie that you can’t wait to come out, think about those. Do they have some sort of message that they’re trying to get out to the world? The answer’s yes, right? I mean, it’s not always obvious, not all art is like a children’s book that says at the end, this is the moral of the story, this is the message of the story, not all art is like that. But I would argue that all art does have a message, whether it’s hidden or just sub-textual, it’s there. So I’m very interested to explore the relationship between these two and specifically I want to ask the question, “Why is art an important way to go about doing advocacy work?” Why is it important, you know, versus political campaigning or other ways of doing advocacy work?
I started exploring this question by reaching out to a good friend of mine. Her name is Koumbie. She’s an actor and a filmmaker. She’s based both in Halifax, Nova Scotia and Toronto, Ontario. Now as someone who is both a woman and black, she has a diverse voice as a storyteller. Which is interesting, but that’s not exactly what drew me to Koumbie. What really drew me to Koumbie is her passion for the arts, as well as her commitment to creating work that as she says, “influences a Canadian culture of kindness, courage, and inclusion.” Now those are some powerful words, so I had to ask her about them.
Emmanuel: So on your website it says you are dedicated to influencing a Canadian culture of kindness, courage and inclusion.
Emmanuel: Those are some powerful words.
Koumbie: Yes those are my favorite. That’s the mandate of the production company that Taylor and I started (Her filmmaking partner), Afro-Viking Pictures. Kindness and courage are probably the advocacy parts where that’s what we want to celebrate and encourage, and the inclusion part is what I wanted to do for my whole life, but it’s kind of a twist on that where instead of using the word diversity, which is the big fun word that everyone likes to use these days, is we decided to go with inclusion because it’s not just about having you know, a bunch of black people and “Oh look it’s diverse.” It’s about actually just being inclusive and telling stories that reflect the world around us.
Emmanuel: Amazing. Why art? Why do it through art? Why do it through film? Why not do it through politics or something else?
Koumbie: Well that’s something I’m kind of struggling with actually with my “advocacy,” because I have a lot of trouble going on Facebook and ranting about an opinion that I have because a lot of the topics I want to talk about are super complicated and I don’t actually think that I can explain it in a post and I didn’t take political science I haven’t studied these issues, I understand them from a real world life perspective, but that’s pretty much it. So I think art is the best way for me to go about that because It can be complicated or simplified or whatever I need it to be to tell whatever story I want to tell from a more personal perspective, whereas I think if I was a politician I’d have to speak for a lot of people or I would have to say my opinions myself as opposed to through something else.
What Koumbie says here is actually really interesting. She’s saying that with art she can express herself freely. If you think about it, if she was a politician, there would be standards set for how she has to go about getting out her information. Politicians are generally expected to be formal in their communication. Or even in the Facebook example she gives, there are standards for that too. She would likely have to be simple in her communication otherwise people are going to keep scrolling or they will have trouble understanding whatever it is she is trying to say. But with art, these limitations are broken and she can express herself in whatever way she feels is best. So I’m already starting to see the importance of art as a way of getting out a message or in general, doing advocacy work.
Now I’ve seen a number of Koumbie’s films before, and I have to say, her belief in creating a culture that is kind, inclusive, and courageous is definitely evident in her work. In fact, she recently directed a film called Hustle & Heart. It won the best short film award at the Atlantic Film Festival. I asked her to tell us a little bit about the story and why she felt it was important to tell.
Koumbie: We’ve had a number of log lines or mini synopsis but I guess it’s basically about Hunter, a high school football player at a new school. He tries out for the football team. He gets a place on the team as a second quarterback and is told by the coach to get notes from the starting quarterback, Nick, who’s played by Nathan Simmons. So they start hanging out and Nathan is teaching him the plays and there starts to be a little bit of chemistry there. Nick sort of makes a move that’s rebuffed and then they kind of have to figure out where to go from there. The reason I thought it was important is because I’m so over homophobia of any kind that I’m just sort of bored with it but I do think we’re still in a place where we need to tell stories where it’s just normal and it’s fine, but especially with this story I really like the way we cast it. By having Nathan Simmons play Nick, who is black, we had this black, jock, football player encounter a gay man, and have it not be really a problem. Like the problem is mostly that Nick has a girlfriend and that’s the issue. Where it’s not actually about him being gay, that’s not the problem. And seeing a black man accept a gay person is honestly something that I haven’t actually seen a ton of because there’s a lot of homophobia in black culture that hopefully is changing now as this wave continues to go, but definitely something I wanted to be a part of for sure.
So it’s clear to me that inclusion is something that Koumbie really believes in, and art is a way for her to freely express that, so I wanted to take things a step further and move from the realm of art and storytelling to her real life experiences with that, to find out what it’s been like for her as a black, female, actor and filmmaker.
Emmanuel: So film’s a tough gig as you know, the film industry as a whole, but it’s an even tougher gig if you’re African-American and a woman.
Koumbie: So I’ve been told.
Emmanuel: So what’s your experience with that?
Koumbie: Well it’s really tricky right now actually because there’s this huge conversation happening about the lack of women, especially as directors, but also in the stories that are being told and the way that women are perceived in stories, and there’s a huge conversation at the exact same time about diversity in film and TV, or really just in general, and so in some ways I’m really lucking out because people are realizing there’s a real lack of those voices, so I’m getting more opportunities in some ways because of that, so in some ways being a woman in this case has actually helped me a lot, but I’m hesitant to say that because, I mean, the statistics are still very problematic and very clear and I think it’s going to take a while for them to change, even with all of these programs, because there’s that ceiling, people talk about it all the time in other industries.
Koumbie is part of an organization called ACTRA, which is a union for actors and other kinds of performers in Canada. Now within that organisation is a branch called ACTRA Diversity, and ACTRA Diversity’s beliefs are in line with Koumbie’s own. They exist because of issues like the one Koumbie was just talking about - the glass ceiling, which refers to inequality in work opportunity, especially for marginalized groups. Now ACTRA Diversity first began in 1984 as it says on their website, “...to address the challenges faced by the physically and culturally diverse artistic community within the film and television industry in Canada.” They’re dedicated to initiating policies and advocating support structures in order to provide a better understanding of the need for change within ACTRA and the industry at large. They are made up of a group of volunteer professionals whose long term goal is to contribute to the shifting consciousness of colonial thinking with the hopeful outcome of an industry and association that is inclusive of all its member no matter what culture or diverse background.
So let’s talk about that for a minute. Let’s talk about what all that means. What in God’s name does it mean to shift the consciousness of colonial thinking, I mean, one can infer that what they’re referring to is the history of oppression and a history of inequality that is rampant in North America. And I think what they’re trying to do is tie that history with what’s going on today. And they’re right. It all does come back to that history. I mean, that’s the very definition of being marginalized. Feeling less than, feeling insignificant, being treated less than, right? That’s what it means to be part of a marginalized group, so I think that’s what they’re getting at there. But why are they using these terms? I mean your everyday Joe is not going to stumble upon this website and understand what it is they’re saying, I mean, I don’t understand what they’re saying right away without having to really really think about it. So it leads me to think that this is targeted towards decision makers, right? Because if you read up on their website, they are advocating for policies, for political change, right? This is bigger than just telling filmmakers to tell inclusive stories. That is obviously a part of what they want to do and that’s how you start making the change, you start by telling stories like Koumbie’s doing, that reflect the world around us. But this is an issue that is bigger than just film and television. And they recognize that. They recognize that it’s a social issue, something that we all take responsibility in as a society. So that language they’re using, that’s what I like to call government-speak. That has to do with policies, that has to do with history, it's kind of academic in the way they’re communicating, it’s not a general public sort of message. It’s more of, like I said, a policy-based message. Which is great. Which is really good because we need more change on that level, on the level where change can be made on a big scale. Decisions that governments make, decisions that organisations make, those have huge impacts on society as a whole, and I do believe that is what they are trying to get at.
I want to thank Koumbie for all her words, thoughts, and wonderful insights, I’ve definitely learned a lot and I hope those of you listening have to, I want to now wish you a great morning, a great day, or a good night, whatever time of day it is for you, my name is Emmanuel John and thank you for listening.
“Actor. Filmmaker. Activist.” Koumbie, n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2016.
“Diversity Committee.” ACTRA Toronto, n.d.. Web. 07 Dec. 2016.
All music used with permission from creator under Creatives Commons license.