Meet Frances-Anne Solomon, an award-winning writer, producer, director, founder and CEO of the Caribbean Tales Media Group, the only one and the first one that produces, exhibits and distributes Caribbean-themed content, she founded CineFAM, that supports bold, original film stories by Women of Color creators worldwide, she is the granddaughter of Trinidad and Tobago independence politician Dr. Patrick Solomon.
Who is Frances-Anne Solomon?
I am a filmmaker, artist, and cultural entrepreneur from Trinidad -- and that defines me. But I’ve lived most of my life outside of the Caribbean and so a global perspective is very much a part of who I am. I am a woman of color identifying myself very much like a feminist -- or womanist (as Alice Walker called it). I also see myself as someone who operates from an intersectional analysis that includes class, race, gender, diversity, sexual orientation – that all people are created equal, and that the planet has a right to survive as well. As an artist, I work very collaboratively with other partners in the process of storytelling.
You were raised and educated in the Caribbean and Canada before moving to Great Britain, you are the granddaughter of Trinidad and Tobago independence politician Dr. Patrick Solomon, how those facts impacted your life?
I call myself a Child of Independence. I grew up in the period after Trinidad became independent from British colonial rule -- not during colonial times. My paternal grandfather had been one of the architects of independence. It is part of the folklore of my family that Black Liberation is in my DNA. After playing a central ministerial role within the ruling government, my grandfather became a diplomat, and my family traveled the world as ambassadors for Trinidad. The key event in my early life was the breakup of my parents’ marriage. I lost my mother at the age of four when my father kidnapped me from my maternal grandmother’s home and took me to Canada. I didn’t see her for many years. We were able to reunite eventually, and she is now my best friend.
You studied Theatre at the University of Toronto with Steve Martineau and Ken Gass, and poetry with Jay Macpherson, you trained as a film director in The UK at Bristol University, and the prestigious BBC Drama Directors Program, why did you decide to study all of that?
Growing up in the Caribbean, we didn’t have an opportunity to be artistic. As members of the middle class, we were pressured to follow a very conventional career-driven path. Even though I was artistic as a child, this was not encouraged. When I came to Canada to go to university, my ‘den mother’ at the University of Toronto introduced me to Steven Martineau, who ran the Drama Program. He invited me to study with him and that is where I found my place. The first time I walked into the theatre as a director, I knew it was home.
You began your professional life at the BBC in England, where you built a successful career as a producer, first with BBC Radio then with BBC television drama, you also produced and directed independent films through your company Leda Serene Films. Later you returned to Canada, what is the biggest lesson you learn from working for such an important company like BBC? what was the reason you left England?
The biggest lesson I learned was an understanding of the business model that underpins a media conglomerate like the BBC, that creates, produces, markets and sells indigenous content to a fully engaged local audience. When I left England, that’s what I wanted to do for Caribbean film and television, which is why I set up the CaribbeanTales Media Group. Ultimately, I left the BBC because systemic racism was constraining. Despite personally benefiting from many opportunities, I understood that, as people of color, our perspectives did not have a place there at all. I returned to Canada believing that there would be more opportunities and a more open society than in England, in terms of the representation of diverse perspectives.
For the people who don't know, can you explain what the Caribbean Tales Media Group is? what does it make different from other film companies?
CTMG is a group of companies based in Canada and Barbados, that includes a production arm, a Film Festival (now in its fourteenth year), an Incubator Training program for Caribbean and Caribbean-Diaspora producers, a distribution company and Video-on-Demand platform, and Accelerator programs around the world, including in Belize, Cuba, and South Africa. CTMG specializes in content for and about people of the Caribbean and its Diaspora. No other company includes the range of services that we do, aimed at supporting Caribbean content creators.
" Women of Color are underrepresented, marginalized in the “mainstream” media in our patriarchal societies. Women’s work is not recognized, I have incredible stories and perspectives that deserve to be shared. We need to alleviate those barriers, so women have an equal place in society"
Frances, you are an award-winning writer, producer, director, curator and distributor in film, television, and radio, founder and CEO of the Caribbean Tales Media Group, a pioneer in television. You co-created, produced and directed Lord Have Mercy!, a groundbreaking hit Caribbean sitcom that aired in Canada on Vision TV, Toronto One, Showcase, and APTN. It was nominated for two Gemini Awards. You are the only one and the first one that produces, exhibits and distributes Caribbean-themed content. What's the recipe of your success?
Dogged persistence. My gift seems to be that I see the gaps in what is possible and available to people like me -- people of color, women of color, Caribbean creators -- and I am driven to fill those gaps, regardless of what it takes, even if it isn’t lucrative. I can’t imagine not doing this work. I need to make the world a better place, and I will do whatever it takes to make it so for everyone. When someone is motivated by money, they will let obstacles stop them or get in the way of their goals. When passion is pushing you, you don’t give up, you can’t give up. It all depends on how you measure success. For me, it’s the process of creation, and beyond that, it’s a cinema with no empty seats; a rapt audience taking in a story that I need to share. That is a priceless experience.
You founded CineFAM, that supports bold, original film stories by Women of Colour creators worldwide, what 's your purpose? what does drive you?
As a woman of a color creator, I recognize the barriers and obstacles that stand in the way of non-white women getting access to money and support to tell their amazing life stories. Women of Color are underrepresented, marginalized in the “mainstream” media in our patriarchal societies. Women’s work is not recognized. Immigrant women, women whose realities are outside the mainstream, have incredible stories and perspectives that deserve to be shared. I know from my own experience, that we need to alleviate those barriers, so women have an equal place in society.
What is the reality of your day-to-day?
The time between when I get up in the morning and start working is the time for me and my family – my mother, my five cats, and two dogs. From 8:30 – 9:30, I have an online team meeting with my staff (about four to eight people-- they are based all over the world) to check in, to go over tasks and goals, but most importantly, it’s about team building. Throughout the day, I have individual meetings to achieve specific projects. Monday and Friday are office days when most of us meet in person. I go to bed fairly early, about 8 or 9. I try to get in Hot Yoga throughout the week.
Do you have any particular philosophy that guides your career decisions?
I don’t overspend. A lot of my decisions are gut-driven, they are instinctive and then I do an analysis of the logistics. I tend to be very practical about how to achieve things. I am, most of the time, working within my means. I am always ready to cut back. As a creative entrepreneur, you are always a breath away from closing, that’s the reality. I’ve seen so many businesses close around me.
I think I am an odd combination of creative and practical. I get both worlds. At my best, I’m very people and relationship-driven and also very results oriented.
"One of the most valuable assets that you can have as an entrepreneur is the loyalty and commitment of the people that work with you. And you can nurture that as well as having your eye on the bottom line"
If you could, would you change any steps you took in your career, and if so, what would you change?
Hmmm, what would I change? Quite often in my career, I have put the results before the process. I didn’t believe I could do both, and because of that, I burnt a lot of bridges. So, my position now, 58 years old and still going strong, is that one of the most valuable assets that you can have as an entrepreneur is the loyalty and commitment of the people that work with you. And you can nurture that as well as having your eye on the bottom line. Equally, sometimes it’s important to build relationships despite a difference in values. I have dug my heels in on principle at the expense of relationships and I’m learning the value of maintaining relationships. I would have engaged more self-care mechanisms to protect myself along the journey. At times the stress level was so high, it took a toll on me -- my health as well as my relationships.
What do you love most about your job as a filmmaker? & what is the most difficult part?
I love the opportunity to give voice to stories that are part of our collective history and consciousness as human beings. Stories that, if I didn’t tell them, wouldn’t get told. And which affirm and acknowledge the lives and experiences of human beings that I care about. The difficult part is getting support for those stories, both financially and through acknowledgment. The mainstream media prioritizes certain perspectives and not others, and so the ‘pushback’ to telling my stories is very real and difficult to navigate. In terms of funding, on average, Black stories and stories by women get about a tenth of the funding compared to those of white people - if that. Sources of funding are very, very hard to find. That includes all regions of the world.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else does?
I go over my finances on a daily basis. I try to connect with the key people I work with daily, so I understand what they are doing, and they feel connected and know what I am doing.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
I only do things that I believe in. That is the only way I am able to continue to fuel the work with the intensity that is necessary to complete it. I stay centered in who I am and honestly assess and analyze what needs to be done and how to do it.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I like to spend time by myself with my cats. I go for walks with my dogs. I really enjoy my alone time.
"When someone is motivated by money, they will let obstacles stop them or get in the way of their goals. When passion is pushing you, you don’t give up, you can’t give up. It all depends on how you measure success"
Many authors say women can and must strive to have everything – a shining career, a blossoming family life and a perfectly balanced lifestyle all at once. Others point out that women are placing unrealistic expectations on themselves if they believe they can have it all. You are single with no kids, so according to your experience, what do you think about these statements?
First of all, I don’t think “having it all” necessarily means having children and a conventional family structure. From my perspective “a perfectly balanced lifestyle” does not involve either of those. As an artist “balance” for me comes from the eventual satisfaction that I get from my sometimes all-consuming creative work. My “family” includes my work family -- people with whom I have strong, and sometimes lifelong bonds that deepen and grow over time, defined by the important and sustaining work we build together. The strength and importance of these creative and business relationships cannot be underestimated. So, I believe that humans define their lives and there is no set path defined by gender -- we find it in ourselves. On the other hand, there is no doubt that it’s difficult for working women to balance childcare and raising a family with a big career. Women who “have it all”, seem to be those who are wealthy and have very strong and supportive networks. Childcare and women’s work is not valued in our societies and the pressures on women who choose to be mothers as well as professionals are intense and difficult to navigate.
What are your plans for this 2019?
To build upon the success of the CaribbeanTales brand globally; to promote Hero on the world stage and get the story out to the African and Caribbean Diaspora. I would like to leverage my base and connections in Canada, England, and Europe in order to get more co-productions off the ground with Africa and the Caribbean.
There is still the glass ceiling for women in the world: Fewer opportunities, jobs underpaid just for that fact of being a woman, etc. Have you experienced the glass ceiling? if yes, what are the biggest challenges you have faced and how have you overcome them?
Yes, of course. I don’t think I have overcome those challenges. What you deal with is invisibility, lack of recognition for your ability and achievements. What I have tried to do is to create a marketing and publicity machine around the work that I do. But that doesn’t address my personal lack of visibility, acknowledgment, and access. So, recently I got a personal publicist because I have come to understand that my brand is my value in the marketplace. We will see how that goes. There is something to be said as a woman for building a team around you that manages your career objectively. Men do it all the time. I’m not sure what else I can do.
You also need to build relationships with white allies, who don’t patronize you and don’t treat you as a project, who try to understand the dynamics of systemic racism and sexism.
What tips can you give to young girls who want to work in the film industry as you?
It is important to stay grounded in your values and who you are as a unique presence and gift to the world – and to have the audacity and confidence to put yourself out there, without apology or regard for anybody else’s opinions. You have to learn to protect your essence, your “brand,” that which is recognizable as ‘you’, and make your contribution to the world. Authenticity is at the core. You have to be able to look everybody you meet in the eye and know that you are doing the right thing for yourself and all those you represent. You have to be able to eyeball your naysayers, as well as your competitors and know that what you’re offering has real value. And you have to be able to walk away from what doesn’t work for you - fall flat, fail…get back up – bright-eyed, still fixed on the prize.
"Women who “have it all”, seem to be those who are wealthy and have very strong and supportive networks. Childcare and women’s work is not valued in our societies and the pressures on women who choose to be mothers as well as professionals are intense and difficult to navigate"
I think in your position, many people may have the wrong idea of who you really are (personally), and what do you (professionally), with this idea in mind, what is being Frances and what's not?
I think people who know me know that I am kind, that I am talented, that I achieve amazing things with very little resources, that I am creative, that I am a good friend and a good person to work with and that I care about people a lot. They also know that I take on too much and they want to help me. I think people sometimes think that I am unfriendly or a bit severe because I have such a big external personality. They are surprised to learn that I am 100 percent introvert. People are surprised to learn what a softy I am; how little I’m interested in money. I’m not a bad person. People think I am harsh and stern, but I’m not – that’s my Cancer personality, I have a protective shell.
Who is the woman you admire the most and why?
There are so many women I admire. The first person would be my mom. She had a huge professional career at a time when very few women of color in Canada were in prominent positions. She has been a superintendent of education and a senior bureaucrat in the government, a management consultant to both the corporate and public sector, and a change agent in Canada. She is both creative and practical, which is something I think I inherited from her. She has really given me permission to be the artist and person that I am, to be the strange flower that I have grown into, at the same time being very clear about the human values that she adheres to. You can be whatever you want as long as you’re a good person. She is an example of an extraordinary, powerful and effective leader. She was, and still is, a great role model and mentor for me.
Someone else -- do you want to add or share with us?
Leonie Forbes, the great Jamaican actor. She is an amazing talent, really a channel for the creative force that drives through her. She has the ability and skill to embody a creative vision, while at the same time being very clear about how she projects her talents so that they are in line with her values. For me, it has always been astonishing to watch her work. We have collaborated on many projects. She has been a great friend to me for all my adult life. I am also amazed by Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados. I am impressed by what she is managing to embody as a black female leader in the Caribbean -- which is often a brutal chauvinist space. She is the kind of leader and politician that you don’t often find in the Region anymore -- who is connected to the people and to driving social change.
Name: Frances-Anne Solomon
Sector: Entertainment/ Film
Company: CaribbeanTales Media Group
Designation: Founder and CEO
Social media: Instagram: @labelleshabine Twitter: @francesanne Facebook: francesanne.solomon1 YouTube: Frances-Anne Solomon