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Jennifer Hodge de Silva
The life and work of Jennifer Hodge de Silva represents part of a milestone in Canadian film history, and in African-Canadian filmmaking in particular. She was among the first Black pioneers (and African-Canadian women) to make substantial inroads in the Canadian film and television industry in the 1970s. Her work forms part of the beginning of a body of diverse films created by minority filmmakers. Working mainly in the documentary genre in a style described as realist social-issue documentary, her work in the 1980s established the dominant mode in African-Canadian film culture. She demonstrated a set of concerns and a mode of production that could be called "Black liberalism." Hodge de Silva's films went beyond the coverage of topics related to the African-Canadian community; she maintained that her work was defined by a broader interest. Her films included areas such as the Second World War, prison reform and Native peoples. While her career ended prematurely due to her early death from cancer at the age of 38, many of the subjects and issues raised in her films, as well as her interpretation of them, remain relevant today.
Jennifer Hodge de Silva was born on January 28, 1951 to Cullen Squire Hodge and Mairuth Vaughan Hodge Sarsfield, in Montréal, Quebec. One of two children, she was exposed to arts and culture from an early age. She also grew up surrounded by exceptional women. Her grandmother, Anne Packwood, was a teacher and community worker who received awards for her contribution to the Black community. Her mother's career encompassed many areas including broadcasting, diplomacy, and serving on the Board of Governors of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and Carleton University, Ottawa. Mairuth Sarsfield also received the Chevalier de l'ordre national du Québec award in 1985.
Jennifer Hodge de Silva received her early education in Montréal, but in her second year of high school, she moved to Europe to complete her secondary schooling. While in Europe she attended the L'École d'humanité in Hasliberg-Goldern, Switzerland. The combination of innovative curriculum and wide-ranging experiences allowed her to develop both academic and linguistic competencies (she spoke fluent French, German and some Italian) and contributed to the cosmopolitan outlook evident in her later work as a film director.
After completing high school, Jennifer returned to Canada to attend university in Toronto. She completed a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Fine Arts at Glendon College, York University in 1974. This was followed by a Bachelor of Applied Arts in Television Arts at Ryerson Polytechnic Institute (later Ryerson University) in 1979. She married producer Paul de Silva in 1982 and a daughter, Zinzi, was born. The couple also started Jenfilms Inc., the film production company that created the Gemini-award winning Inside Stories (1989), which portrayed the lives of Torontonians from various ethnic backgrounds. Jenfilms Inc. also created the award-winning Neighbourhoods series, covering the history and character of various communities in Canada.
Jennifer Hodge de Silva's career in film spanned more than a decade. She spent her apprenticeship years at the National Film Board in Montréal. There she learned all aspects of the craft, from producing, researching and interviewing, to directing and editing. During that time she also worked on some independently produced films. Some of her early work can be viewed in the films, A Great Tree Has Fallen (1973), based on the death of the king of the Ashanti nation in Ghana, West Africa, and the traditions surrounding his succession, and Potatoes (1978), a National Film Board documentary about the potato industry in Prince Edward Island, covering the shift from the family farm to corporation-run farms. She joined the CBC as a producer in 1982.
Her commitment to film production and direction closely mirrored her concern for the human condition and fascination with human reactions, as distinct from abstractions that lacked a human component. In a 1983 interview, she stated, "Basically, I'm interested in how people react in certain situations, under certain conditions, what happens to people" (Dale, p. 7). Irrespective of their backgrounds, the subjects of her films are portrayed as real people, not as stereotypes, with all their inherent complexities and contradictions.
Jennifer Hodge de Silva has worked on many highly significant films. When the National Film Board co-produced a film with the Ontario Educational Communications Authority (TV-Ontario), on the history of Black people in Canada, she was chosen to work with the film's director, Terence Macartney-Filgate, as assistant director and associate producer. That film, Fields of Endless Day (1978), has been described as one of the first substantive films about Black history in Canada. It covers almost 400 years of the presence of African-Canadian peoples in Canada, from the arrival of the first Blacks to Canada in the 17th century to the wartime participation and activism of Black Canadians during the first half of the 20th century. The two filmmakers later collaborated on other projects. A week after the completion of Fields of Endless Day, Jennifer was hired as associate producer of Macartney-Filgate's Dieppe 1942 (1979), two 90-minute films by CBC-TV on one of the most tragic events of the Second World War.
Veterans from opposite sides (Canadian, British and German) who had fought at Dieppe, were involved in Dieppe 1942 and the film was shot on the beaches where the raids had actually taken place. As associate producer, Jennifer was responsible for organizing the German involvement in the film. In 1979, in one of her few published interviews, she described her experience with the project:
"I put an ad in the newsletter of the Dieppe Dora association, published by the veterans of the 302nd (German) Infantry Division asking those interested to write me about their Dieppe experiences.... At first they were leery, but the letters began to arrive, addressed to 'Mr. Hodge.' When I pointed out that I was female, they changed it to 'Mrs. Hodge.' They were rather surprised when they met me, when I turned up in Dieppe for the filming. They didn't expect anyone black. They didn't expect me to speak German."
(Telegraph-Journal, "Showtime", November 3, 1979, p. 6).
Jennifer's work on Dieppe 1942 also involved considerable negotiation and persuasion to bridge the gap between veterans from previously opposing sides. She had to convince the German veterans of the army of the Luftwaffe (who fought at Dieppe) to participate in the CBC-TV film. Many of the men were reluctant to take part, because of past negative publicity. Jennifer succeeded in convincing them to be in the film. She recalled, "A few of the former Luftwaffe pilots could speak English, but of the army veterans, all but one spoke only German. I was the only person in the production crew who could communicate easily with them." She would later become part of the veteran community. "During the filming, they [the Germans] made a real effort to understand what really happened at Dieppe and to come to terms with it. Somehow, they had a need to meet these Canadian veterans, even 36 years later. There is heavy correspondence now between some of the veterans, Canadians and Germans, and they send me copies of their letters." (Telegraph-Journal, "Showtime", November 3, 1979, p. 6). Jennifer received the CBC's Prix Anik award for her work on Dieppe 1942.
The widely discussed landmark film, Home Feeling: Struggle for a Community (1983), explored relations mainly between the police and Black immigrant communities in Toronto's Jane-Finch neighbourhood, a densely populated area in North York outside the city's core, and the venue of many social problems, hopelessness and unemployment. The film presents the views of both the police and the Jane-Finch residents. Home Feeling has been described as the most fully realized of her films particularly in its success as a liberal, realist documentary. She delved beyond the surface in her portrayal of the inhabitants of the district, covering the psychological, social and economic aspect of their lives and going beyond the victim stereotype. She was careful to elicit and include material that represents the contradictions and full complexity of the lives she chose to film.
Home Feeling showed the dreams of the inhabitants of Jane-Finch contrasted against the harsh economic reality they faced. The film also brought out the deeper problems faced by the members of the community: conflict with the law, unemployment, family separation and displacement. It became an empowering experience for the people in the district and motivated them to organize their community. Jennifer hoped for better communication between police and community, and believed it was important to give voice to the voiceless: "This is the people's side of the story, the story of those who are never heard and don't have access to the media." (Dale, p. 7). She also hoped the film would bring change to the neighbourhood and that people outside the community would "understand a very human side of Jane-Finch: what people are really dealing with in their day to day lives. Then these people won't just be statistics or something to be afraid of." (Dale, p. 7). As a result of the film, the community gained a voice, an improved profile and hope for the future.
Jennifer's life and work transcended borders, including race, class and gender and her work gained international recognition. She received awards from both Canada and the United States. In addition to the Prix Anik for Dieppe 1942, she received the Award for Creative Excellence (1987) from the U.S. Industrial Film and Video Festival for In Support of the Human Spirit, a documentary on prison reform produced for the John Howard Society of Ontario. For, Myself, Yourself (Jenfilms: for the Curriculum and Program Division, Toronto Board of Education, 1980), an examination of racial stereotyping in the education system and its impact on members of minority groups, she received a silver medal from the New York Film Festival. She also received an award from the CBC for A Day in the Life of Canada: Yukon (1984), and the Chris Plaque from the Columbus Film Festival, Ohio.
Jennifer's other films include Helen Law: Portrait of an Immigrant Woman (1979) for the National Film Board series, Canada Vignettes. This film presented a portrait of Mrs. Law, a Chinese immigrant to Canada, through the eyes of her son, a first-generation Canadian. Toronto's Ethnic Police Squad (CBC, 1979) discussed the Toronto police force's 12-man ethnic relations unit. Joe David: Spirit of the Mask (Jenfilms Inc., 1981), profiled West Coast artist Joe David who specialized in the art of the Northwest Coast and his work with ceremonial masks. The Edenshaw Legacy (1984) showcased the work of Charles Edenshaw, one of the first professional Haida artists. Hodge de Silva also directed parts of the Neighbourhoods series, namely, Kensington Market (1985), which featured Al Waxman as host, and Outremont-Montreal Neighbourhoods (1986).
Terminal illness did not slow her interest in filmmaking, which she maintained to the end of her life. While in France to attend the Cannes Film Festival in 1989, Jennifer became ill and returned to Canada. She died on May 5, 1989, at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montréal, where she was born.
Her work remains part of the discussion on Canadian and Black Canadian film. At the time of her death, she was developing a feature-length screenplay, "No Crystal Stair", about the African-Canadian community in Montréal in the 1930s. The novel, No Crystal Stair, written by her mother, Mairuth Sarsfield, was published in 1997. A biographical film, Jennifer Hodge: The Glory and the Pain (1992), covers her life and themes in her work as revealed in interviews with friends and relatives. Her films are often featured in Black History Month celebrations, and in reading lists of film courses. A commemorative film catalogue was produced by the National Film Board for Black History Month in 1992. The producers of Black on Screen: Images of Black Canadians 1950's-1990's state (p. 1): "This catalogue is dedicated to the memory of the late Jennifer Hodge-de Silva [sic], in honor of the pioneer film work she accomplished", a brief yet appropriate description of her legacy.
Much of the information in this biography was obtained from the filmmaker's mother and step-father, Mairuth Hodge Sarsfield and Dominick Sarsfield.
Bailey, Cameron. "A Cinema of Duty: The Films of Jennifer Hodge de Silva." In Gendering the Nation: Canadian Women's Cinema. Edited by Kay Armatage, et. al. Toronto: University of Toronto, ©1999, p. 94-108.
"Black Images." Montreal Gazette. (February 15, 1993), p. C3.
Black on Screen: Images of Black Canadians, 1950's-1990's. Montréal: National Film Board of Canada, 1992.
Brand, Dionne. "Jane/Finch Occupation." Fuse: The Cultural Newsmagazine. Vol. 7, no. 3 (September/October 1983), p. 112-114.
Dale, Stephen. "Hodge Probes Corridor Struggle." NOW: Toronto's Weekly News and Entertainment Voice. Vol. 2, no. 46 (July 28-Aug. 3, 1983), p. 7 and 14.
Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. "Positive Presence of Absence: A History of the African Canadian Community through Works in the Permanent Collection of the National Gallery of Canada." [Ottawa, Ontario: Carleton University, 2003]. www.carleton.ca/~mflynnbu/PositivePresenceAbsence/ (accessed February 10, 2004).
Hezekiah, Gabrielle. "Don't Go to Dat Place and Fool Around Like Rich Girls: Black Canadian Women Filmmakers and Video Artists." CineAction: Radical Film Criticism and Theory. No. 32 (Fall 1993), p. 68-76.
Jackson Lord, Marva. "Black Canadian Film: The Hidden Story." Originally published in Black Filmmaker Magazine. London, United Kingdom: 2001. www.griots.net/archives/focus/bcfilm.html (accessed February 10, 2004).
"Jennifer Hodge de Silva." In Some Black Women: Profiles of Black Women in Canada. Edited by Rella Brathwaite and Tessa Benn-Ireland. [Toronto]: Sister Vision, ©1993, p. 24.
Jennifer Hodge: The Glory and the Pain: A Prieto-McTair Production: Pressbook. [Toronto: Prieto-McTair Productions, 1992.]
"Jennifer Hodge: She Contacted German Vets for CBC Film." Telegraph-Journal, "Showtime." Saint John, New Brunswick. (November 3, 1979), p. 6.
"Quest for Visibility Loses a Champion: Black Film-Maker Dies." The Spectrum: Making Minorities Visible. Vol. 6, no. 5. (May 15, 1989), p. 1.