Howard J. Davis is a Toronto based filmmaker, the director of C’est Moi, a short film shot on location, about Marie-Josèphe Angelique, a young slave who was tried, tortured and killed for allegedly burning down the city of Montreal.
Howard is a British born Canadian mixed race actor, singer, dancer and emerging filmmaker who studied at Ryerson School of Performance (formerly Ryerson Theatre School) here in Toronto and has performed in England, Canada and the United States. Already in his career Howard has worked at the The Shaw Festival, on a remake of Romero’s film Something in his eye and in the upcoming feature Downsizing starring Matt Damon and directed by Alexander Payne.
Howard is a creative chameleon taking on many roles: not just director, but cinematographer, producer and editor. For C’est Moi Howard also created the musical score. His previous short “Shakespeare Shorts” was an official of the Stratford-Upon-Avon short film festival in 2014 curated by Sir Kenneth Branagh as well as his film “move4equal”, which was in response to Emma Watson’s heforshe campaign for male
advocacy in support of feminism and Madonna’s #Artforfreedom for women’s rights. He hopes to continue building a practice in telling stories of his heritage, marginalized cultures not at the forefront of history and modern original works with an emphasis on bringing classical, theatrical and historical context to a contemporary cinema. The past can always inform the future.
C’est Moi premiered in Hollywood, has traveled the United States and soon will have its first Toronto screening, at the Censured in Canada Festival May 28th.
In anticipation of the Toronto screening of C’est Moi I asked Howard some questions.
Are you more like your father or your mother?
My mother is extremely emotional, compassionate person and possesses a heart of gold. I feel that her and I share the same emotional capacity and both wear our hearts and desires on our sleeves. There is never a time when my mother is not willing to give anyone a big hug, kiss or cuddle [yes I still cuddle with my mum when I get the chance]. She has a very cognitive yet visceral perception of the world around her and I think she is still discovering a lot about who she is. At 60 years of age she is just as vivacious and willing to jump into the unknown [my mother recently began the process of looking into her adoption and I am very proud of her for doing so]. My mother is very opinionated like myself. When she decided to be with my father she broke several social norms to be in a interracial relationship and I have to say that her emblem would be to “do unto others as you would be treated” and she stands up for what she believes in without being righteous.
My father is exceptionally hard-working. When I ever complain it is not uncommon for him to say “Stumpy [my nickname] I’ve been working since I was 13 years old. Every time he tells this story the age gets younger and younger for added emphasis. At 66 years of age my father has also known extreme hardship. Growing up as a man of colour in the Southwest of England in the 60’s-70’s had its struggles however my dad dealt with adversity and prejudice in a very simple manner, he fought back. I am proud to say that I do share this quality with him. Whereas I like to think I use my words to deal with standing my ground, my dad used his fist and there are no end of colourful and funny stories of scraps that he and his friends got into growing up together. My dad is a fighter physically and mentally. He is headstrong, willful and talks a lot [like me]. He is a survivor of cancer 10+ years and going strong. He is also very protective, always has the best intentions and I know he will always have my back.
I think I possess equal qualities of both my parents. I am very proud of my heritage and have used what I’ve learnt of their history and discover new things everyday in my art that informs who I am now, where I’ve come from and how I would like to forge ahead as an artist. I am also in the works of writing about my parents history.
What is the best or worst thing about what you do?
The best thing about what I do is I have many skills that lend themselves to fuelling my artistic endeavours. I began formatively am a performer and grew up doing musical theatre, then trained in classical repertoire and now have begun working in film and television in front and behind the camera. The skills I have include directing, editing, producing, photography, videography, modelling, drawing and music.
The downside of this is explaining what I do to strangers. I don’t just do one thing and find it difficult to encapsulate into one definable term the plethora of things I do. You would be surprised how often people expect me to categorize and define myself as an artist. I don’t like to define myself as one thing. I feel that my career is varied, fluid and will continue to shift and morph as I grow into the artist I know I will be and in whatever medium that will end up being is exciting but also extremely terrifying.
Who do you like to listen to or watch?
I have an eclectic taste but would say I am a sucker for what is trending. I do enjoy watching Netflix, the newest series or film, the Top 40’s etc. I also have a great love for classical films, theatre, poetry and music. I think history is very informative and trends come and go within artistic practices and I believe that art from the past can inform how we share narratives to our audiences today.
What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I wish I had the ability to speak more languages. If people were able to understand one another more I think that we would be able to solve problems across the globe.
I also wish I had the ability to say no. Saying yes is not necessarily a bad thing but I feel you can get taken advantage of especially as an emerging artist. It takes a lot of gumption and sense of self to say no to things and I think when I begin to care less about other’s think of me I will be able to be self-assured enough to say no.
When you’re just relaxing and not working, what is your favourite thing to do?
I love to cook. It is a fabulous creative outlet and the reward is you get to eat it. I also love thinking, sleeping, Have a new found respect for Crossfit, spending time with my partner and walking my dogs.
Please talk about how you discovered the story that you tell in C’est Moi
More and more lately I’ve had a genuine curiosity into the question of “what is it that makes up the backbone of Canada as we know it today?” Almost everyday I wonder where I stand within this dialogue as a person of mixed diversity, who has emigrated to Canada with a heritage that is heavily contradictory being of European and African-Caribbean descent. 8 years ago, I was fortunate during my University degree, to take numerous courses on the subject of Caribbean and pre-colonial African History studies.
My teacher Terry Roswell, was paramount in sparking my interest on subjects of the African Diaspora which led me to some literature on the subject of Canada’s involvement in the story of Slavery. From there I was led to a book by Afua Cooper entitled the Hanging of Angelique. At the same time I was beginning to create text and movement based work in theatre school that was the leg work for what would eventually become C’est Moi. In no way am I suggesting that I discovered this story however I am proud that I am a contributing voice in the dialogue of this contentious history.
Knowledge is a bridge to self discovery.
If this were 1967 we might see a documentary showing us the events and the trial: exactly what happened to Marie-Josèphe Angélique. But it’s 2017, and so C’est Moi comes at the story of Marie-Josèphe Angélique in a very indirect way. Please reflect on how you came to this unorthodox approach.
In no way did I want the approach to the film to be like the Heritage Moment films that have been produced about significant figures in Canadian History. I love those pieces however that is not my approach to telling stories.
The first thing I wrote was the score, which I had initially intended to use in a musical adaptation before the work became its final realization as a short film with music. Rather than being sung, the lyrics I had written are spoken in the film and are the foundations for which the piece was formulated. My initial goals were that the music accompanied Angélique’s inner peace and thoughts and is almost akin to a lullaby that is juxtaposed with the imagery. The words “c’est moi” were repeated during Angélique’s torture which was the name of the song and seemed an appropriate title for the film. I’ve always had a strong impulse when it comes to creating film and like to approach my work using influences of historical context while wanting to bring to life stories using contemporary cinema. Influences for the use of the camera came from classical techniques seen by Ingmar Bergman. A big influence for me was the black and white film The Passion of Jeanne D’Arc by Carl Theodor Dreyer which chronicles Joan of Arc’s story.
On the occasion of the Sesquicentennial of Confederation, Canadians are thinking about history, who we are and how we got here. Please talk for a moment about what C’est Moi can contribute to the conversation.
I think the Sesquicentennial of Confederation is a time to commemorate Canada but also to acknowledge. New settlements recently discovered off of Vancouver are said to predate the Pyramids of Egypt by 10,000 years and continue to prove that indigenous people have been in Canada longer than 150 years. Canadians are only just beginning to start a dialogue about their involvement in our controversial history in artistic mediums such as the NAC’s upcoming production of Corey Payette’s Children of God about the residential schools, Redpatch a historical drama that focuses on a young Métis solider in WW1 to Marie Clement’s upcoming show Missing about the missing indigenous women on the Highway of Tears. However that is just a handful of examples of stories of minorities that are finally being shared. Not enough stories of diversity are shared or known and I am glad to contribute another in the story of Black history in Canada. I hope C’est Moi continues in the telling of stories that help acknowledge parts of history that have not had light shed on. In the film, the Plaque de la Déclaration de Montréal Contre la Discrimination Raciale is shown to have been demolished in 2016 by the city of Montreal for “restorational” purposes due in part with Montreal’s 375th Birthday. This recent incident is juxtaposed with Angelique’s history and is the antithesis to the film. In an exploration of the past what is inevitably erased in the restoration of history? We cannot move forward to being better people if we do not address these issues.
Talk for a moment about Jenny Brizard and how she fits into the portrayal of Angélique.
Jenny is the beautiful actress who I was lucky enough to be put into contact with before shooting. Jenny has now had the opportunity to play Angelique in two different mediums. Recently, in the stage adaptation of the same history entitled Angelique by Montreal playwright Lorena Gale performed in February 2017.
Thanks to the generosity of Artistic Director of Geordie Productions Mike Payette who directed that show, Jenny came to me October of last year with some understanding of the history however was still receptive to learning more from me. I wanted Angelique to be relevant to today and present amidst a modern day Montreal. When I went to Montreal for the first time I felt Angelique’s presence there and was saddened when I asked people about her and no one knew who she was or the history of their city.
Jenny was very collaborative. She took direction well and listened to what I had to say. In my research I was struck by two opposing ideas that Angelique had either committed deliberate arson or was covering for someone else and was in fact innocent. Jenny and I played with the imagery of Angelique like Joan of Arc who was unwavering from her truth and was burnt at the stake for not folding under pressure. I wanted to portray a woman who was reticent and resolute in her confession. An emotional and strong woman who knew God knew the truth and that she was dying for something bigger than herself. Both theories of Angelique’s crime are valid points of view but my approach lent towards not taking either side. Was she a scapegoat for blame or an emblem of resilience against slavery? Many people attribute ambiguity to being vague but I think ambiguity is mysterious and interesting. I hope the film leaves the audience wondering “did she do it or not?” I know what I believe but as a director it is more rewarding to leave your audiences not knowing what to believe and to make their own choice.
Please describe how your background prepared you for this film.
For me art is an exploration of the self. To quote one of my favourite filmmakers Ava DuVernay director of the documentary “13th” “If you approach your work from a point of view of curiosity and authentic interest you will be successful”. My film began through a genuine interest in the study of my heritage and through questions about Canadian identity. I would go further to what Ava said and add that if you approach subjects conscientiously and with research this is paramount in being not only successful but prepared for your work. Given the historical context of this film I knew it was important to view all opinions before making a statement and having my own view on the history. Having worked on this project alone (aside from the generous collaboration of Jenny Brizard, Paul Moody and Ethan Rising), it has required I utilize all my skills I have however I do look forward to creating work with a team as I continue to grow as an artist.
Are there any shows or films you’ve done that now seem to have laid the groundwork for C’est Moi?
I’ve had desires before this to address gender relationships. I believe strongly that females are not the only people to be advocates of feminism. It is an emblem that men can and should wear and I think my previous work before C’est Moi support this. One short film I created MOVE4EQUAL addresses an issue on the gender wage gap and was in response to Emma Watson’s HEFORSHE campaign, for the advancement of women and to engage men and boys as agents of change. I do believe C’est Moi has established the groundwork for work that tells stories not at the forefront of history about marginalized groups who are victims of oppression. I feel very fortunate to live in Canada and I believe it is healthy to address my own privilege so that I can fight for what I believe in and expose subjects that interest me.
Is there a teacher or influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
There are a number of people that I admire. I would say every teacher I’ve had from primary school in the UK to theatre school have contributed to my development as a human and artist. I have a varied and eclectic number of artistic influences such as filmmakers Lars Von Trier, Alfred Hitchcock, Peter Jackson, writers Charles Dickens, George Elliot Clarke, El Jones, Lawrence Hill and theatre makers Robert Lepage, Julie Taymor and Sam Mendes. Peter Hinton is also a huge inspiration to me and I could not have completed the film C’est Moi without his guidance and generosity. Thank you Peter for your love and support. Also my family (Mum, Dad, Helen and Katie) and friends.
If you’d like to donate to the film and help it be seen at more festivals and to learn more go to www.cestmoifilm.com and follow us on all social media @cestmoifilm
Howard J Davis’s film C’est Moi comes to the Censured in Canada Festival May 28th, CineCycle, 129 Spadina Avenue.