HALIFAX, N.S. —
Halifax filmmaker Israel Ekanem is a firm believer in the power of staying positive, and says being “a super-optimist” has only helped him move further along his path.
Even when working on his latest project Slave/Servant/Human — part of the augmented reality exhibit The Unseen debuting at this week’s Halifax Independent Filmmakers Festival — he is able to take sobering stories of exploitation and oppression from African Nova Scotian history and use them to show how change can and will happen.
Ekanem is one of five multi-media artists taking place in The Unseen, an app-based presentation by the Centre for Arts Tapes designed to uncover hidden stories and unknown spaces in Halifax, connected by themes of community, identity and intimacy. While HIFF runs from Thursday through Sunday, The Unseen will be available to download and experience for the next four weeks.
Although the free HIFF 2020 programming of features, shorts and special events will all be taking place online due to COVID-19 restrictions, The Unseen encourages participants to explore the city and experience its stories and discoveries through the LARGE augmented reality app at sites around Halifax and Dartmouth.
Along with Carrie Allison, Annik Gaudet, Merle Harley and Wren Morris, Ekanem’s contribution came together over the summer and early fall, inspired by events of 2020, which prompted him to look into the past. He was overwhelmed by the local response to the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the widespread support for the Black Lives Matter movement, which included moving tributes to Floyd on the streets of Halifax.
“When George Floyd was murdered by a police officer, the whole world got to watch. We weren’t out and about, everyone was at home, everyone was on lockdown, and it was right in front of us.
“When that happened, it galvanized and raised a fire in a lot of people. Not just Black people, but the entire planet.”
Looking at Nova Scotia history with fresh eyes
Originally fron Nigeria, and a resident of Canada since 2015, Ekanam began work on writing a film inspired by a speech by hip-hop artist and activist Killer Mike titled Kill Your Masters, but the COVID-19 restrictions at the time put the making of it on hold.
But it was perfect timing for the call for contributions to The Unseen from CFAT, where he’d been the 2018-19 artist and “social cyber activist” in residence, and which remains a homebase for many of his projects and the Blackout Podcast which also airs on CKDU 88.1 FM.
Ekanem saw that using the new technology of the LARGE A.R. platform would be an immersive way to share his experience of becoming part of a new community while also learning about its past.
“Nova Scotia is great, as a country Canada has been really, really good to me, but I just wanted to contrast the history and the now, and then see what people think,” says the filmmaker, who worked with his wife Monica as producer and frequent assistant director John O’Brien to pull together the elements for Slave/Servant/Human.
Together, they used the online resources of the Nova Scotia Archives, as well as the Black Cultural Centre to put African Nova Scotian history in perspective in the places where significant events took place. From the last days of slavery in the British Empire through the bulldozing of Africville to Halifax’s policy of conducting street checks on Black citizens.
“So what I did was to take a video like ‘Come to Nova Scotia, it’s really beautiful’ — which it is — and I contrasted that with the history of what I found out,” says Ekanem. “Nova Scotia is beautiful, the nightlife is great, and then you cut to a film about a woman who was a freed slave, but it’s ironic because ‘freed’ is in quotes, who took a person (who tried to reassert his ownership of her) to court and the person was found not guilty.
“Or I have an image of a boat, someone with their yacht on the sea, and then I contrast that with the case of a slave who was killed by her owner and his sons. And they were taken to court and found not guilty.
“So learning things like that was really painful and eye-opening for me.”
Embracing new technology for innovative forms of expression
The filmmaker finds CFAT’s future-forward embrace of new technology and platforms with digital installations like The Unseen an important way for him to learn new storytelling skills that will prove valuable in future. Meanwhile, he’ll continue making dramas and documentaries through his company Ubuntu Media; Ekanem has several films in various stages of pre- and post-production and the new feature documentary Good Earth: The Pots and Passion of Walter Ostrom about the influential Nova Scotian ceramicist screening on the festival circuit.
As his infectious optimism has shown on so many of his projects, things just have a way of falling into place right when he needs them. Just like while he was nearing the end of assembling all the pieces for Slave/Servant/Human towards the end of September, Premier Stephen McNeil made his historic apology to Black and Indigenous Nova Scotians for systemic racism in the justice system.
“That was a really, really beautiful bookmark to end (Slave/Servant/Human). But I couldn’t just end it that way, so people who get to experience it will see how I think that even though Nova Scotia and Canada have come a long way, some things have changed but some things haven’t changed.
“And that’s why I made Slave/Servant/Human.”