Producer-Director Jennifer Holness’ ‘Subjects of Desire’ Opens Doors to New Doc Projects (EXCLUSIVE)

Jennifer Holness’ 'Subjects of Desire’ Opens
Courtesy of Hungry Eye Media

Known as a producer of award-winning Canadian documentary and narrative films, a showrunner and, more recently, as the cofounder of Canada’s newly minted Black Screen Office, Jennifer Holness is chatting up her feature-doc directorial debut, “Subjects of Desire,” this week at Hot Docs where it screens in Special Presentations.

In an interview with Variety before her industry conference Masterclass (now available on-demand to festival attendees), Holness confirmed that negotiations are underway with a U.S. premium cable and satellite television network, with an offer on the table for the film. (Bell Media’s streamer Crave is the Canadian digital broadcaster, TVO the TV broadcaster.)

“Subjects of Desire,” which had its world premiere at Austin’s SXSW in March, is described in Variety’s review as “a superb overview of how Black culture has influenced, and been influenced by, contemporary beauty ideals from Civil War times to #BlackGirlMagic and beyond.”

“I wanted to make a film that honors the Black female experience and that, at the same time, reveals how Black women have been positioned in the culture in a way that is harmful,” said Holness, who just inked a deal with pubcaster CBC for her next feature doc, “No Harm,” about Black women and medical terrorism, which will likely lens mid to late 2022.

“Subjects” was sparked by Holness’ desire to understand why her teenage daughters’ non-Black girlfriends coveted their beauty; her decision to return to the director’s chair was inspired in part by the rigor and power of Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary “13th.”

But Holness said “Subjects of Desire” was far from an easy sell. “Some commissioning editors told me, well, we should be concerned about things like women’s rights and economic freedom and equal pay, we’re past all this—and I’m saying, well, ironically, that attitude comes from a very privileged position.

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Singer Alexandra Germain, one of the interviewees in “Subjects of Desire,” was a participant in the Miss Black America Pageant’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2018. Courtesy of Hungry Eye Media

“It’s important to show people where these narratives came from and that they’re with us today, but at the same time show how Black girls and women are tossing them away.”

In the wide-ranging Masterclass interview with film critic and programmer Sarah Tai-Black, Holness discussed the events and early film successes that led to her cofounding the Toronto-based Hungry Eyes Media around 20 years ago with her director husband Sudz Sutherland.

Born in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and raised by a single mother in a Toronto housing project, Holness has had a persistent interest in illuminating little known aspects of Black Canadian history in her work. As she says in the Masterclass: “Growing up in Canada, I never felt I was an immigrant, yet [we were] always seen as immigrants. Any history that was taught to us was Black American history.”

Holness and Sutherland are currently prepping “BLK: An Origin Story,” a four-part series for Canada’s Corus-owned History channel that will “shake up how we understand Canada,” she said. Production on the series begins this summer.

The only Black woman to win a Gemini (Canadian Screen Award) for writing, and the only Black producer to win the Toronto film festival’s Best Canadian First Feature Film award (“Love, Sex, and Eating the Bones”), Holness is also working to connect under-served BIPOC film talent with the traditional industry power systems she has navigated for over two decades.

In addition to cofounding the Black Screen Office five months ago, Holness—who graduated university with a specialized honors in policy analysis—joined the Canadian Media Producers Association board in 2020, after its bylaws were changed to stipulate that 25% of its membership must represent diverse communities.

“I think about like how amazing our society can become when we really become truly inclusive, when we throw away these cultural and racial barriers that keep us locked into these positions,” Holness said. “My whole career I’ve been advocating that we’re stronger together.”

On Monday, the Black Screen Office (BSO), in partnership with Telefilm Canada and with the assistance of the Bell Fund, launched a four-month national consultation—Being Seen: A Directive for Authentic and Inclusive Content—focused on the representation of Black, people of color, LGBTQ2+ and Persons with Disabilities in the screen-based sectors, and tasked with developing a set of directives to the Canadian screen industries.