6 questions for change-maker Tonya Lee Williams
Founder and director of Reelworld Film Festival, Tonya Lee Williams has been a force to be reckoned with in Toronto for a number of years. With Reelworld, she changed the game for creators of colour, finally giving them a voice and a platform. Prior to initiating the festival, Tonya was a well-loved actress, garnering fourteen NAACP Image Award nominations and an ACTRA National Award for Excellence, to name a few. Ms. Williams has made huge strides in her career and has accumulated an incredible amount of wisdom to go with it.
Any emerging filmmaker or fan will be extra satisfied with her interview below.
Q: You’ve led quite a prolific career so far. What qualities do you think it takes to be successful in this industry?
A: You have to be smart, strong, resilient and of course talented. You have to have a vision of yourself as a human being. You have to create a moral code that you live by. You have to be generous. You have to be self-aware, which is not the same as being aware of what others think of you or who they think you are. You have to have a curious spirit about the whole world, and in particular the humans that live in it – what makes them do the things they do? You have to be a good communicator. You have to have a likeable quality. You have to be a critical thinker – meaning you can understand what is being said to you, what is being asked of you, process that information and execute it successfully. You have to continue to educate yourself – you need to know what you don’t know. You have to know your power, which is different than being arrogant. You have to know when it’s valuable to speak in a room and when it’s valuable to stay quiet and listen. Listening is the most valuable quality – there is power and strength in listening.
Q: Did you have a career trajectory in mind when you started?
A: No. I wanted to work as an actor – I had more of a working actor mentality, rather than a ‘want to be a star’ mentality. while i was in the drama program at Ryerson, we spent a lot of time learning from our mentors how to have a long career working professionally as an actor – that was useful to me – to create a career that is a combination of stage, voice over, commercials, tv, film, teaching acting, musical dinner theatre – also we were taught that the work is across the country in small towns, small cities, rural areas. So i just knew i wanted to work, and shaping and finding where that work was, was just part of the job.
My move to LA was to include that market in the overall access to increasing that work – if things had not worked out that well in LA – I would have found other markets. The only specific rules I had, was that I didn’t do work that included any nudity, profanity – I had standards and I didn’t choose to put myself in work that I would have considered embarrassing to my race and my gender as a woman. I’m still very strict and conservative in that area.
Q: You have been quoted as saying ‘other people’s opinions do not define me’. How has your self-confidence shaped your career?
A: Self-confidence is something that is crucial to every person in any job. You’re less likely to be taken advantage of, or manipulated if you have self-confidence. My parents instilled that in me for as long as I can remember. They always made me feel that I was capable of achieving anything – they didn’t achieve that by just saying those words to me, they showed me by being living examples, they were both incredibly successful well educated professionals. My parents had me work on tasks that I would succeed at – they also exposed me to a lot at an early age, like starting ballet when I was 3yrs old (I did that till I was 18yrs old) – they started me in piano when I was 5yrs old (I did that until I was 19yrs old), they took me to other countries and I experienced other cultures, this is vital to building your self-confidence. They also had me in elocution classes at the age of 5 years old – this allowed me to value speaking clearly and precisely, it’s something that people commented on even today (I am not under the belief that black people speaking clearly means we’re trying to be white). They took me to see theater and classical musical performance – instrumental and opera. They sent me to private schools, where my education was enhanced on many levels. I was taught at an early age how to eat properly (what all those glasses, knives, forks, spoons and plates were for). The also oversaw my religious life – I was raised with Christian values and that was instrumental in me having clear boundaries on what was right and what was wrong actions in my life.
None of these things we are born to know, someone, hopefully your parents, need to teach these things to you. So my parents created a platform where I always had the confidence to feel that I could walk into any room and to speak to anyone, about anything with confidence. If you were not fortunate to have parents who could give you this, then you have to take the time and find someone to teach them to you – pay them if you have to – but learn – culture matters.
Q: As founder of Reelworld Film Festival, you’ve made an indelible mark on the Canadian film fest scene. What do you think is in store for the future of the industry with regards to diversity and intersectionality?
A: I have seen many diverse filmmakers who are given great opportunities and they squandered these opportunities. They use their platform to create even worse stereotypical characters and stories, than white creators were creating before. What is sad, is we have more content, but it’s not necessarily good content. I wonder what will young people learn from these stories? How will these stories shape them to be healthier and productive citizens in our crazy world. If anything a lot of this content is contributing to the violence and anger you sense around you.
But I am an optimistic pessimist, so of course there is always hope that things could get better – but I feel things only get better if we can admit that there’s a problem, and we haven’t reached that stage yet. When I was young all the characters on tv and in film who were black, were always servants, slaves, people lacking any kind of intelligence or power – so we have to ask the question, what images are young people seeing of black people now – most of it is gangsters, killers, drug dealers or addicts, violent people beating on their women, women who can’t take care of their children, or women promiscuous, all living in poverty, housing projects – it’s dark and unhealthy. Of course there are the exceptions, but I’m speaking about the norm.
I’ve not yet achieved what I set out for Reelworld to represent – even after 17 years, I’m still working towards the goal of Reelworld being that place were creators build their confidence to say ‘No’ to the broadcasters and distributors who only want to use them to propagate the same discriminating programming that they have always.
Q: Reelworld is incredibly supportive of emerging filmmakers. Any advice on how to hold your own in an industry full of idols?
A: Idols is not something that our present industry created – as long as there are weak people who need something earthly to believe, there will be idols. What’s funny about your question is that most emerging filmmakers crave to be those idols – so it’s not about how do they hold their own, it’s more about, how do we help these filmmakers understand that their own personal goals should not be to be idols themselves. They will focus more of their energy on this goal, than the goal of finding good true universal stories, that they can be proud of having their names attached to – stories with integrity and real value in our world. My advice to emerging filmmakers is to hold your own values and integrity and not focus your energy on chasing the money at any and all costs. It would be better to take a menial job for money and continue to make your films from a place of honesty, than make crap for money and sell your soul.
Q:What are your thoughts on the current #metoo movement and sexual harassment in the film industry?
A: Every women on this planet deals with sexual harassment on a daily basis, sometimes from her own family members. I won’t state the obvious – Men sometimes behave badly and I for one am happy to see them being ‘outed’ for their poor behavior, in some cases dangerous behavior. Men are wrong when they do these things. I am more interested in the conversation about how we women contribute to their bad behavior. We can’t say we want equality and not also take responsibility for our behavior in this tragedy. Every time we allow a man to make a comment or do something inappropriate, and we say nothing, we are in fact allowing that man to continue his bad behavior – and behavior like that unchecked will only escalate. A women must always be vigilant in not allowing herself to be trapped into any situation she can’t get out of. Never go up to a man’s hotel room unless you wish to have sex. Never consider taking a job with any man who attaches any strings that make you uncomfortable, best you never work for someone like that, no matter how desperate for money or fame you are. I have spent over four decades walking away from Men who speak to me or treat me in a way I consider unprofessional. I also take the opportunity to let them know that I felt the things they said to me were completely inappropriate and demeaning to me as a women.
I have noticed over the years that some women, when men are saying inappropriate things to them that they hate, they find it uncomfortable to confront that man – one of things those women might do, is smile or giggle embarrassingly – what they don’t seem to understand is that most men think they are flirting when they do this – most men don’t understand that its some women’s way of trying to diffuse an uncomfortable situation. I have witness this and spoken to men after, who have told me ‘no’ that women really enjoyed my comments – she was laughing with me – you’re just too uptight Tonya”! – So be clear to men – you are NOT interested in anything other than a professional relationship – and by clear I mean – direct eye contact, no smile, clear strong voice – no confusion on either side.