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Fabienne Colas founded and now manages nine film festivals around the world, including the Toronto Black Film Festival.

The Canadian Press

A serious case of imposter syndrome brought Fabienne Colas to Canada from Haiti. Even though she had worked hard to become a model and an award-winning actress at home, it seemed to her as if the accolades had come almost too easily.

“I thought if I go somewhere where no one knows me … and get success, then [I] deserve it,” she says from her Montreal home.

Once in Canada, however, she discovered her real talent lay in shining a spotlight on others. Colas founded and now manages nine film festivals around the world, including the Toronto Black Film Festival (TBFF), which runs virtually from Feb. 10 to 21.

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This year’s TBFF opens with Foster Boy, directed by Youssef Delara. Starring Louis Gossett Jr. and Matthew Modine, the drama looks at the broken foster care system in the United States. Inspired by true events, the movie has resonance in Canada, says Colas, pointing to examples of systemic racism and prejudice on this side of the border.

The festival closes with Dope is Death, a documentary about an acupuncture detoxification program established in the United States in 1973 – a project led by the Black Panther Party and Dr. Mutulu Shakur, the late rapper Tupac Shakur’s stepfather.

Before the pandemic, the festivals managed by Colas attracted almost a million attendees, supported thousands of artists, and offered industry professionals a chance to network with the likes of Spike Lee, P.K. Subban and Alfre Woodard.

In 2012, Colas launched the Being Black in Canada program, which offers mentorship, training and funding to Black filmmakers. In 2020, the program enabled 20 emerging filmmakers from Montreal, Toronto and Halifax to create short documentaries. Their works will premiere at TBFF before also screening at the Halifax Black Film Festival (Feb. 23 to 28) and Montreal International Black Film Festival (September, 2021).

“We don’t lack the talent, we lack the opportunity,” Colas says, noting her passion lies in creating opportunities for others she wishes she had early in her career as a struggling artist in Canada.

Growing up as a shy child in Haiti, she was driven to become a model after being passed over during a talent-scouting event held at her Catholic girls’ school.

“I was about eight or 10 [years old]. That was my first big rejection,” Colas says. Realizing timidity had worked against her, she focused on gaining self-confidence, going on to win the title of Miss Haiti in 2000. She moved into the entertainment industry, convincing veteran Haitian filmmaker Raphael Stines to cast her in the TV series Pè Toma. That role led to several movies, with parts written specifically for her.

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Then Colas set her sights on the North American market, making several trips to Los Angeles looking for her big break, leaving friends and family confused. While people at home were calling her the Haitian Halle Berry, she was starting to question herself.

“It was the imposter syndrome. I never understood why, but it was very intense,” Colas recalls. “I don’t have an answer for why … because I created my opportunities. I worked very hard to be lucky. Maybe it’s just what we face as women – especially women of colour.”

In the midst of her quest to conquer Hollywood, Colas decided to meet up with a pen pal in Chicoutimi, Que., landing at the Montreal airport in April 2000.

“It was my first time in Canada, and there was a snowstorm. Meanwhile I was dressed in sandals, jeans and a tank top,” she says with a laugh. Her friend showed up with a big coat and a pair of winter boots. “The snow was up to my knees. I had seen it in movies, but I didn’t know what it felt like.”

Her friend convinced Colas to stay in Montreal, and take smaller steps towards her big-screen dreams.

“I was 20, 21 at the time. I thought I had all the time in the world,” Colas says.

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Though she took all the right steps – taking acting classes, finding an agent, signing up with actors’ unions – breaking into the Canadian entertainment industry proved to be just as difficult as south of the border. When she tried to submit Haitian films to Canadian film festivals, she was similarly disappointed.

“At the time, they were digital films,” she says. “Festivals wanted 35 mm films. Our films were considered cheap films from a Third World country.”

Frustrated with the rejections, she started the Fabienne Colas Foundation in 2005 to foster inclusion in the arts, launching the Montreal International Black Film Festival later that year. The film festival expanded to Toronto, then Halifax, eventually branching out as far as New York and Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

There are still many battles to be fought in striving for better representation in the industry, Colas points out, noting funding remains a constant issue. Projects with Black talent taking the lead – either in front of or behind the camera – are still few and far between. Failure is not seen as an option, she adds.

“How many things featuring white folks flop? Still, more get made,” Colas says.

Conversations around diversity in the industry feel a little more meaningful these days, given the dialogue sparked by movements such as Black Lives Matters, Colas adds, but she’s hoping to create even more space for inclusion around the creative table.

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“I’m on a mission to create Black film festivals everywhere,” she says. “Like Oprah said, ‘Find your purpose.’ I found my purpose a few years ago – it is to amplify other people’s voices.”

The Toronto Black Film Festival runs online Feb. 10-21.

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