Jennifer Hodge de Silva: Telling Our Story, Shaping Our Future
From slavery to present time, storytelling has been an integral form of cultural expression in the Black community. For long, these narratives have been told within communities, and families, to transmit the rich history of Black Canadians and to teach listeners age-old life lessons (Moss 1990). Advancements in technology and civil rights have transformed this oral tradition to a task completed not only by storytellers and community elders, but also by filmmakers. Jennifer Hodge de Silva is a particularly notable storyteller in the Black Canadian community, and specifically in Canadian film history. Black filmmakers such as Hodge de Silva used their films as mediums to raise awareness for social issues, challenge prejudices and discrimination, and advance equality on all fronts. Nonetheless, the contribution Hodge de Silva and other filmmakers had in circulating our diverse heritage and helping create a multicultural, inclusive society is often overlooked.
Hodge de Silva was born on January 28, 1951 in Montréal, Quebec and moved to Toronto in the late 1960s to study Fine Arts at York University (Kroll 2016). During this period, she lived near the Jane-Finch neighbourhood, an area filled with Black West Indian immigrants and plagued with poverty and police brutality (Bailey 1999). Born to a family of exemplary Black females, Hodge de Silva set out to make her mark on film history by following in her family’s footsteps and representing these social issues within her works (“Jennifer Hodge De Silva” 2000).
Hodge de Silva was one of the first Black, and female filmmakers to produce a highly acclaimed film in the Canadian film industry and work consistently alongside the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and National Film Board of Canada (“Jennifer Hodge De Silva” 2000). Mainly focused on the documentary genre, her works in the 1970s and1980s gained international recognition for presenting substantial social issues and conditions (Jennifer Hodge De Silva” 2000).
In conjunction with her husband, Paul de Silva, Hodge de Silva created Jenfilms Inc., a film production company that produced several films portraying the lives and history of individuals and communities from various ethnic backgrounds (Jennifer Hodge De Silva” 2000). By portraying such a wide array of cultures and consistently representing Black Canadians in her films, Hodge de Silva broke social barriers in television at the time. Instead of portraying her subjects as stereotypes, a fault which several filmmakers continue to make today, Hodge de Silva presented them as real individuals, with complex opinions and problems (Jennifer Hodge De Silva” 2000). Through her works such as Neighborhoods and Fields of Endless Day, Hodge de Silva also became one of the first filmmakers to create a substantive history of the Black community in Canada (Jennifer Hodge De Silva” 2000).
Furthermore, through her documentaries, Hodge de Silva empowered the Black Canadian community to create social change. For instance, in her 1983 film, Home Feeling: Struggle for a Community, Hodge de Silva returned to the Jane-Finch area to address issues affecting the community—problems such as conflict with law, unemployment, and disenfranchisement which continue to pervade Black communities today (King 2017). Her sensitive, and personal approach to these issues empowered the inhabitants of the Jane-Finch neighborhood, and invigorated them to organize their community (Jennifer Hodge De Silva” 2000).
Although it is important to emphasize the impact her works had on marginalized Black communities, and transmitting Black history, it is also vital to note that Hodge de Silva was a pioneer for Black women in the film industry. In an industry which continues to be dominated by Caucasians and males, Hodge de Silva was a trailblazer who revealed the essentiality of determination and perseverance. Time and time again, Hodge de Silva upturned expectations and misconceptions people had based on her gender and race (Jennifer Hodge De Silva” 2000). The life and works of Hodge de Silva provided a pathway for future filmmakers such as Clement Virgo, Sylvia Hamilton, and Jennifer Holness (Kroll 2016).
Filmmakers such as Hodge de Silva prove that storytelling is an imperative tradition which must be upheld in Black-Canadian culture. In the same way as Black-Canadian history is often disregarded, key Black filmmakers who helped shape this nation are underappreciated. Nonetheless, while there is a small community of Black Canadian filmmakers their contributions have captured the history and tradition of Black Canadians. In the matter of decades, filmmakers such as Hodge de Silva have revealed a massive archive of untold stories, and have encouraged Canadians to reevaluate their perceptions of Black Canadians and what it means to be a Black Canadian (King 2017). By informing young, Black Canadians about the endeavors and struggles of their ancestors, storytellers can shape the future of their communities and give meaning to the present.
Bailey, Cameron. “A Cinema of Duty: The Films of Jennifer Hodge De Silva.” Gendering the Nation, 1999, pp. 96., doi:10.3138/9781442675223-008.
“Jennifer Hodge De Silva.” Library and Archives Canada, 2 October 2000, Library and Archives Canada, http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/women/030001-1253-e.html.
Kroll, Leslea. "Jennifer Hodge de Silva." The Canadian Encyclopedia, 29 January 2016, Historica Canada, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/jennifer-hodge-de-silva. Accessed 07 December 2018.
Moss, Barbara. “How the African American Storyteller Impacts the Black Family and Society.” Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, 1990, http://teachersinstitute.yale.edu/curriculum/units/1990/4/90.04.05.x.html#n.