Kelly Fyffe-Marshall makes a big impact with the short Black Bodies

Kelly Fyffe-Marshall behind gold balloons

Kelly Fyffe-Marshall calls herself an “impact filmmaker” because her short films and upcoming debut feature are created with the purpose of shedding light on unsung stories. “Make ripples where you are” is the advice that the Brampton-based writer and director gives to anyone who asks for guidance.

Her short films Haven, Marathon, Black White Blue and Black Bodies have screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, SXSW and Sundance, and tackle childhood sexual assault, police brutality and anti-Black racism through a visceral but often poetic lens. 

Black Bodies was one of six Canadian projects in this year’s Sundance Festival, out of 118 total films. In February, Fyffe-Marshall tweeted about the Canadian media’s relative disinterest in the film, a tweet that caught the attention of American director and producer Ava DuVernay. After she reposted it, the tweet went viral and Fyffe-Marshall was invited to speak with numerous Canadian outlets.

“I told every interviewer that they were proving that what I said was correct. I got the American co-sign and now I’m being asked about my film.”

Black Bodies is a metaphorical interpretation of an experience Fyffe-Marshall had in 2018 in San Bernardino, California. She and friends rented an Airbnb to attend Kaya Fest, the Marley family’s annual festival. On their last day, as they were loading the car with luggage, seven police cars and a helicopter swarmed them.

An elderly white woman called the cops because she assumed they were breaking and entering. “She called the police on us because we were Black people in that neighbourhood.”

Fyffe-Marshall wrote Black Bodies immediately after the traumatizing incident. She often heals through her filmmaking, “it’s definitely a way for me to push things out. I’ve realized that I start a lot of my movies, not with ideas, but with emotions. Something will happen and I’m like, ‘That would be interesting to write a movie around.’”

A photo of Kelly Fyffe-Marshall in the woods by a log
A photo of Kelly Fyffe-Marshall on a balcony with the CN Tower in the distance

She’s been working with her producer Tamar Bird and director of photography Jordan Oram since they met as PAs on the same set eight years ago. Their next venture together is a set of feature films, When Morning Comes and Summer Of The Gun. The former is an immigration story about a young boy from Jamaica. The latter finds the same protagonist implicated in events during the 2005 summer in Toronto, which was rife with gun violence. Both are deeply homegrown stories, but of a kind that the Canadian film industry hasn’t been so willing to accommodate.

In her 10 years in the industry, Fyffe-Marshall worked mainly on American productions. She attributes this to it being very difficult to secure funding for Canadian projects.

“We’re very heavily dependent on grants here, so all of our filmmaking goes through gatekeepers,” she said. “The infrastructure of Canadian film means that we’ve gradually become this service machine for American film production. There’s no support here for Canadian creatives to flourish and to build their career here.”

Earlier on in her career, mentors warned Fyffe-Marshall that if she stayed in Canada she would become a martyr. “I told them I’m going to be the one who stays here, because if we continue to leave, the problem is going to continue. What we’re trying to do is figure out how not to hinder our own careers and also create a new trajectory for those coming up behind us.” 

Lockdowns meant we couldn’t host the usual photoshoot our annual Canada’s Rising Screen Stars feature. So we sent this year’s actors and filmmakers disposable cameras to shoot themselves. All photos by Kelly-Fyffe Marshall

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