Canadian director apologizes after saying ‘it doesn’t matter’ who tells black stories

Canadian director Barry Avrich has apologized after criticizing his acceptance speech at the first night of the Canadian Screen Awards.

Avrich, who won Best Direction in a Documentary for his film Oscar Peterson: Black + White Monday, said, “There are so many black stories in Canada that need to be told. It doesn’t matter who is telling them, we just need to tell them.”

The documentary chronicles the life of one of Canada’s most acclaimed jazz pianists, Oscar Peterson, who was black.

The speech was criticized by several film organizations who said Avrich downplayed the importance of storytelling by black filmmakers.

“I am so sorry for misspoken, which caused my words to be misinterpreted as anything other than support for black creatives telling their stories,” Avrich said in a statement to CBC News.

“Of course it matters who is telling stories; intentionality, lived experience, an anti-oppression stance matters. I pledge to continue to be a strong supporter of redressing the imbalance that has historically existed and which continues to be a challenge for black and other traditionally creative underrepresented people.”

Avrich said the two film organizations that criticized his speech did not contact him before releasing their statements, but he did invite opportunities for future collaboration.

The “privilege” of telling BIPOC stories

In statements released Thursday, several organizations took issue with the wording of Avrich’s speech, vehemently disagreeing that the Black Canadian storyteller doesn’t matter.

Black Screen Office, an organization that supports black Canadians working in screen industries, raised concerns about Avrich’s speech.

“The BSO congratulates Barry Avrich on his win at CSA, but we are deeply troubled that he is using this as a platform to make such a self-serving point in his acceptance speech,” Jennifer Holnesschairman of the organization’s board of directors, said in a statement.

The Black Screen Office was “deeply disturbed” by Avrich’s comments, BSO Chair Jennifer Holness said in a statement. (Submitted by Jennifer Holness)

The Reelworld Film Festival, which showcases films by Indigenous and racially diverse filmmakers, called Avrich’s comments “extremely discouraging.”

“For decades, white directors have had the privilege of telling Black, Indigenous, Asian and South Asian stories without reproach,” the statement read. “Various creators have fought – with great effort and little success – to gain equitable access to funds and distribution to tell the stories of their communities.

“It’s only been in recent years that the industry as a whole has recognized this oversight and made efforts to give some control and support to these artists.”

The Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, which administers the Canadian Screen Awards, responded to Avrich’s speech in a tweet on Wednesday without naming him.

“Most of all this week has been a joyful celebration of a diverse set of nominees and winners…who produce imaginative, world-class, and authentic work,” reads the tweet. “Clearly, however, there is still a lot of work to be done to dismantle the system that has prevented the diversity of voices from being rightly heard. This is important.”

The Indigenous Screen Office also responded via Twitter, noting that it “stands in solidarity” with statements released by the Black Screen Office and the Reelworld Film Festival.

“It doesn’t matter who tells our stories,” the tweet said. “It is the foundation of our organizations.”