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True colours 

Halifax documentary filmmaker Sobaz Benjamin sheds clothes and misconceptions to examine his own identity in Race is a Four Letter Word.

Life is a struggle, we’re often reminded. When people engage in a tussle for a truth, the rest of us gather around to watch, in rapt attention. It’s not a matter of cruelty—we’re not intentionally withholding help. We’re waiting to learn from that person’s efforts.

Witnessing struggle may very well be a viewer’s role in response to Halifax filmmaker Sobaz Benjamin’s documentary Race is a Four Letter Word, part of the Atlantic Focus series at the Atlantic Film Festival.

Benjamin’s examination of the impact of race on identity, using his own life experience as an example, takes the discussion out of political and academic realms. There are no talking heads, no experts or activists. It’s just a man, a father and a storyteller in his late 30s, trying to figure shit out. That’s something we can all relate to and that’s an important part of what makes the film engaging.

“I don’t know that race is at the heart of who people are,” Benjamin offers as the conclusion to his struggle, as depicted in the film.

Of course, Benjamin doesn’t suggest assumptions based on race, discrimination, racism and racial violence aren’t made. He simply believes self-awareness and definition—this is who I say I am—provides protection against the slings and arrows.

Race is a Four Letter Word avoids polemics. It’s not a political battle-cry to throw up the barricades and to change this legislation, or that policy or the whole system. “You have to begin with the individual. You begin with the individual experience and then you can make connections with the broader communities,” Benjamin insists in his warm tenor, reflecting his roots in both the Caribbean island of Grenada and in Britain. He repeats, “You have to do the work of getting to know someone.”

Benjamin studied film at York University in Toronto. In 2001 he received an apprenticeship with Halifax’s Triad Films through the National Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television. He and his wife, who grew up in Halifax, and their two children have been here ever since.

There are a few scenes involving his family, but Benjamin focuses Race on the formation of his own identity and personality. He uses his love of running and participation in Halifax’s Bluenose International Marathon as a visual metaphor—“running his own race,” as he says in the film.

Besides narrating, Benjamin, who hosted a CKDU show called Agenda until recently, also appears in on-camera interviews. He talks at length about using skin-bleaching creams when he was younger, because he considered his own skin colour too dark. In working on the film, he made a surprising discovery. “For the longest time I thought I was the only one ,” Benjamin says. “It’s a very isolating thing. And it’s a secret too because it’s not something you’re particularly proud of. You hide it. Then coming out with it, you discover all these different people used it also. What’s going on there?”

What’s going on, the film argues, is that people forget who they say they are and allow others to say it—an idea with universal application, for all people, Benjamin says.

Benjamin attracts to his work others engaged in the same struggle. At once, they’re sounding boards and exemplars as he works out his identity beyond skin colour. During one scene in the film, the filmmaker poses naked with Tim Dunn, a local artists’ model, actor, vocalist, former competitive weightlifter and much more, for a photo shoot with George Steeves. (Look for an exhibition of Steeves’ work early next year at Mount Saint Vincent University Gallery.)

Naked, Dunn’s white and Benjamin’s black skins provide, at first, a study in visual contrast, but it was much more than that, says Dunn. “He was fascinated by and saw the potential of bearing himself in all senses of the term,” Dunn recalls.

Dunn credits the photographer for instructing Benjamin, a point echoed by Benjamin. “George said to me, ‘You’re in the middle of this now. You will reflect later. Now’s not the time.’ He was encouraging me to go with the moment. If I tried to unpack what was happening, we would lose that moment.”

Dunn and Benjamin sit next to each other, stand back-to-back and prop one another up. Dunn was able to help and support Benjamin in this vulnerable position. Their ability to share such an experience extends from a connection they felt immediately upon meeting each other at a cultural performance at the Brunswick Street United Church a few years ago.

“Here was someone who was as ambivalent—that’s not exactly the right word—about his identity and where he belonged, as I was,” Dunn says.

Benjamin recalls seeing Dunn sing and act that first time at the church. “You look at him, he’s got these thick lips. He’s got this big, booming voice. His features seem to me familiar. I was attracted to him right away and went to speak to him after the event.”

Dunn grew up in Toronto. From the time he was about two until he was 13 years old he lived with the Braithwaites, a black family that he lovingly refers to in the film and in interview as “the family.” Doris Braithwaite took Dunn in from an institution called Mothercraft, where she worked as a nurse. Dunn’s troubled parents sent him there when they couldn’t care for him any longer.

In the film, Dunn reminds viewers that race doesn’t have to determine anything if you don’t want it to. “Tim provides this way of seeing race as this learned behaviour,” Benjamin says.

At 64, Dunn still struggles to forgive his parents. In one scene in Race is a Four Letter Word, Benjamin and Dunn visit Dunn’s Aunt Doris in Toronto. Even though Dunn still sheds tears of sadness and anger at his parents for giving him up, and then taking him back years later, Aunt Doris tells him he must forgive them.

“I’m more forgiving of them now,” Dunn says in conversation.

Despite the temptation to see Dunn’s experience as sensationalistic, it drives home the point that forgiveness is an important universal concept that Dunn has learned. It matters little that he learned it as part of a black family.

Diane Rutherford, a black woman from the UK who came to Canada with her husband and two children only to go back to Britain—a decision captured in Race—questions Canada’s claim to diversity and multiculturalism. Rutherford explains in the film how her difference always got in the way of people knowing and supporting her. “What she needed she didn’t find here,” Benjamin says, adding that Rutherford’s stance gave him permission to question things more vigorously.

Camille Turner, a multidisciplinary artist who has crowned herself Miss Canadiana and travels around the country in character—including a stop in Halifax last year—adds another interesting aspect to Benjamin’s story of struggle. Turner tells a heartbreaking story: She goes camping with friends in North Bay, Ontario, and when she goes to a store to buy supplies feels disbelieving, shocked eyes looking at her. Miss Canadiana was born of that experience. Assuming the role of beauty queen allows Turner to send up the perceived value of symbolic and ceremonial positions and accepted definitions of beauty.

Thinking of Canada’s governor-general Michaëlle Jean and Nova Scotia’s new lieutenant-governor Mayann Francis, Benjamin argues, “It’s one thing to celebrate these things as ideals, but it has to become part of lived reality.”

Race is a Four Letter Word, September 17, Park Lane, 9:30pm, $10.

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