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Allied Arts & Media

Free to Choose

Sonia Godding Togobo, co-founder of Sunstar Worldwide Studio. Photo from official website for the film Mr. Jane and Finch by OYA Media Group.

Sonia Godding Togobo fell in love with cinema and telling stories when she was around seven years old.

Her parents, immigrants from Guyana in South America in the ‘80s, had taken her to a Black History month event. There, she met one of the organizers who had memorabilia from throughout the Caribbean, the United States and Cuba. He was talking about the different elements of art history when he said something that has stayed with Godding Togobo ever since.

“He said, ‘Most of us want our children to be doctors, lawyers, professionals. But we need more storytellers and filmmakers,’” Godding Togobo recalls. “I didn’t know what that meant, but something about it resonated and never left me.”

Nearly three decades later, Godding Togobo and her husband, Yao “Tuggstar” Togobo, founded Sunstar Worldwide Studio in 2010, a Canadian media company with a mission to illuminate the work of Africa and its diaspora.

Godding Togobo got her start in the industry after earning a diploma in film and television from Humber College. Unlike many other students who were interested in directing or producing, however, Godding Togobo realized she had a knack for editing and focused on post production.

She landed an internship at a post-production house in Toronto then a job working on short films, music videos and documentaries at Nelvana, Canada’s premier animation company and a world-leading producer and distributor of children’s content. She worked her way up to associate editor on CBC’s A Deathly Silence, and edited a variety of programs including an hour special on the crisis in Darfur at MuchMusic, Canada’s pioneering music channel.

Wanting to engage in more serious forms of storytelling, she moved to London, U.K., and produced her first documentary, Adopted ID, about a transracially adopted Canadian who returns to Haiti in search of her biological family.

While doing the festival rounds with that doc, Godding Togobo realized she needed to start her own production company if she wanted to continue making docs – and have control over the stories she wanted to tell. “That was really what attracted me to figure out how to set up a production company.”

From left to right: Filmmakers Alison Duke, Ngardy Conteh George and Sonia Godding Togobo. Photo via the website for the film Mr. Jane and Finch.

Sunstar Worldwide is predominantly focused on post production. The team consists of two other editors, Godding Togobo, and her husband, Yao, also a spoken word poet and writer. They hire on a contract basis if a project requires more hands. Currently, most of their projects involve editing video projects for other filmmakers and storytellers and producing content for businesses, but they hope to produce their own content for broadcast down the line

When choosing projects, Godding Togobo turns to her husband and business partner to discuss the vision for the work they want to create at Sunstar Worldwide. “We have a process that we go through to figure out if it is a viable project. Is it something that we are passionate about? Is it something the market seems to want? We ask ourselves those questions on a project per project basis. I also think a lot of it is just about capacity — do we have the capacity to really push for this project?”

Godding Togobo says she looks for projects that enable her to share authentic Black experiences, especially through the stories of Black women. This is, in a way, part of navigating her own layered identities. “I have lots of different identities that I sort of touch into: I’m African, I’m Guyanese, I’m Canadian, so what does that really mean? There is a lot of history right there, so often, those are the stories that I am looking at.”

Godding Togobo believes the the time has come to explore the interconnectedness of identities given the racial reckoning the world is experiencing — and may just help address racial injustice and aid in healing. “Even when I started (the company), our stories just weren’t important. Now there seems to be a little bit more openness, and there seems to be folks who are really interested in hearing from people of colour, about their experiences … When it comes to racial injustice, I feel like my part in that is showing authentic Black representation that challenges, enlightens and brings awareness to the things that unify us, and to the Black Canadian experience.”

She was particularly proud to work on a documentary about Winston LaRose, an 80-year-old community activist in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood of Toronto who ran for political office for the first time, inspiring his racialized community with his campaign for city councilor.

Titled “Mr. Jane and Finch,” the documentary (on CBC’s Gem) was directed by Ngardy Conteh George, produced and written by Alison Duke of Oya Media Group, and edited by Godding Togobo.

Godding Togobo recently took part in Fifth Wave’s feminist accelerator program, to sharpen her focus on her work as a storyteller and business owner. “Fifth Wave was a real boost in terms of information, in terms of my network, and in terms of giving me access to best practices and how to run a production company in this particular country.”

It also gave her the space to think about the future of Sunstar Worldwide. “I am thinking a lot about what I want the next five years to look like, and the type of projects that I want to be on. I think along with COVID-19, we have had this racial reckoning that maybe would not have had the impact that it did if it was not for COVID-19.

“I am thinking a lot about the fact that now folks seem to be ready to talk about things in a new way, and I am also thinking a lot about what that means for the stories that I’m going to tell.”


Publishers Note:  Sunstar Worldwide Studio is a participant in Canada’s first feminist accelerator program for womxn in digital media, Fifth Wave Labs. The Fifth Wave is a year-round program offered by CFC Media Lab and its partners to support the growth and development of women entrepreneurs in the digital media sector in southern Ontario. All enterprise founders in the Fifth Wave community are selected for both their potential and commitment toward weaving intersectional feminist ideals of equity and fairness into sustainable and scalable business growth strategies. Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to 30% participation by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth Media partner and ally. Apply here.

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Allied Arts & Media

Full Stream Ahead

picture of black woman entrepreneur, Samah Ali, Sistserhoodmedia
Samah Ali, founder of Sisterhood Media

Samah Ali remembers being struck by a disconnect between Black creatives showing their work on social media and the near absence of racialized content on streaming platforms. The self-proclaimed “binger” spent nearly eight years streaming movies and TV series on Netflix, but still found herself hungry for satisfying content. A Somali-Canadian, she didn’t see stories relevant to her community and life.

“I was just really tired of scrolling through Netflix for hours,” she says and finding little relevant to Black folks or other racialized or Indigenous people, certainly nothing sophisticated or nuanced. “I would watch terrible movies that were being distributed because they had a Black face or brown face. At the same time, I was on social media and I just saw all of these brilliant artists that I was following.” But getting access to those stories took time and work to find and follow the artists.

Ali felt there needed to be a single digital space where audiences could access all the work of racialized artists, whether video productions, music or podcasts. And those artists could reach their communities in one place.

In 2017, Ali launched Sisterhood Media, a content production and distribution company with a streaming platform to share stories by racialized artists, from racialized communities, for racialized people.

From creating to educating

Ali says her first hurdle was raising the initial seed funding to kickstart Sisterhood Media. Producing and distributing content is expensive and she did not hail from a family that has millions “to just give for love money for a passion project or business.” She joined Western University’s Propel summer incubator and the Western accelerator program to help her get started, but she says they did not really understand what she was trying to build.  

Ali grew frustrated by investors and accelerator programs who wanted Sisterhood Media to become a tech company because it was more sexy. She saw Sisterhood Media less as a tech  company than an organization that builds community by sharing content from diverse creatives—using tech as the medium to achieve that.

Ali hired a team of three other Black creatives, and together they chose to create two separate entities under the banner of Sisterhood Media: a distribution arm and platform for streaming content called Sisterhood Media TV; and Sisterhood Media projects, which create safe spaces such as movie nights showcasing short films and connecting racialized audiences with filmmakers. A screening series called What If Media Looked Like Us? addresses representation in the media industry.

According to Ali, these spaces help racialized people and artists come together and talk about importance of their stories, as well as exchange filmmaking and digital media skills that they can’t just learn from YouTube.

“[The educational component] has been by far the best driver of our impact because not only are we getting more folks involved in the industry and [getting] people who are already involved in the industry learning new skills, but also they find out about Sisterhood Media TV and end up wanting their films distributed on our platform as well.”

Sisterhood Media TV operates on a membership basis, with a monthly membership costing $5.99 and a yearly membership $54.99. The educational component and support for racialized creatives is supported by a three-year funding grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation.

Raising the funding for Black creatives

One of the things Ali’s most proud of is how the organization is creating investment opportunities for racialized artists in the media industry through its partnership with Snail Mail Media, an independent production company based in Toronto. It specializes in narrative projects with a focus on diverse, commercially viable, impact-driven films for niche audiences.

That collaboration offers filmmakers early investment in their projects, from pre-development through post production as well as guaranteeing video on demand distribution on Sisterhood Media TV.

Ali wants to make it easier for young filmmakers, new filmmakers, and especially racialized filmmakers to find investment without having to go through a lengthy application process where they may be competing with thousands of other, more seasoned applicants.

“They simply have to submit their films Sisterhood Media and we’re able to look at their assets, look at their pitch deck, look at all the information that they’re offering us, and then we let them know if we want to be an early investor and offer them a pre-sale deal, or if we want to distribute other films that they’ve made in the past.”

Ali says this process of “acquiring content and pushing it out” helps create exposure for short films and web series because they may make it through festival rounds and receive exceptional acclaim, but don’t always get the distribution deal from broadcasters the way a television show might.

“It’s all about exposure, it’s all about showing content, and how people can produce these brilliant stories in these very short episodes, which need not go to some television broadcaster—it can go right to the user,” she says.

From producing to collaborating

As a feminist content production and distribution company, Sisterhood Media created a nonhierarchical structure, with a core team consisting of four members: Ali; Shewit Kalaty, who is the marketing director; Mandeq Hassan, who is responsible for programming and acquisitions; and Zenab Hassan who oversees the digital content. Ali says all four all have a say in decision making because “all our voices matter.”

The team makes decisions about the organization and direction as well as what content they choose to support. One of the main questions they ask every time they watch a movie or receive a pitch is who the audience is. They want to make sure the content they’re sharing reaches a diverse audience.

She says they ask themselves key questions. “Who is going to be brought in with this film? Who are we attracting around the world and around the entire globe? What geographical region do we think that this is going to be most applicable to?”

“What we’re trying to do is not just serve one audience—we’re trying to serve a plethora of audiences and that’s very hard to do.”

To do so, they collaborate with other BIPOC media makers, to achieve the “impact together.”

An example is a three-episode web series Somewhere In, created by Muna Dahir. Set in Scarborough, the series follows two young girls, Amina and Sara, who are going out of town to “save face” with family members. Amina’s mother trusts the two girls with money to deliver to the neighborhood auntie, but the pair get themselves into a sticky situation after losing it along the way.

Sisterhood Media co-produced the series with Badass Muslimah, a digital content creation project that launched in Toronto in 2016. It provides access to skill training through podcasting, filmmaking and web development programs for young Muslim women.

The project, says Ali, proudly, brought young creatives into the process of filmmaking. “Everybody behind the scenes is a racialized person. It was their first opportunity to be on a film set. Everybody who worked on it really saw their impact on what they can make, not only as a personal artist and a creative, but also as a team.

Mandeq Hassan, acquisitions director at Sisterhood Media (photo provided).
Shewit Kalaty, marketing director at Sisterhood Media (photo provided).
Zenab Hassan, digital content manager at Sisterhood Media (Photo provided).

From cultivating to sustaining

This year, Sisterhood Media joined the Canadian Film Centre’s (CFC) Fifth Wave accelerator, created to accelerate and sustain the growth of women-owned and led enterprises in southern Ontario’s digital media sector.

Fifth Wave is the fourth accelerator that Ali has taken part in, but she says the CFC program is unique because of the kinds of conversations it provokes, most notably what it means to build an ethical, sustainable business that puts people at the heart of all its work.

Ali says becoming a business owner was challenging as she saw capitalism as a trap. She wanted to build an organization where members are seen “as people—not as numbers, not as dollar signs.” Fifth Wave helped her meet other women entrepreneurs who share those same basic principles.

“We are focused on our clients and our people first, rather than our shareholders and the dollars that we bring in.” In Fifth Wave, she is able to connect with founders who share the same mindset and values.

Through the program, Ali wants to focus her work in 2021 on making Sisterhood Media a more sustainable enterprise.

“Last year, we were focused on cultivating. This year, we’re [focusing on] sustainability. We’re really focused on perfecting everything that we have started, and then building on it and making it better by building more partnerships and by funneling more money into filmmaker-driven programs.”

 

Racialized creatives looking for a Canadian streaming platform to share their work and distribute their films can submit their idea for consideration to Sisterhood Media here

Publishers Note:  Sisterhood Media  is a participant in Canada’s first feminist accelerator program for women in digital media, Fifth Wave Labs. The Fifth Wave is a year-round program offered by CFC Media Lab and its partners to support the growth and development of women entrepreneurs in the digital media sector in southern Ontario. All enterprise founders in the Fifth Wave community are selected for both their potential and commitment toward weaving intersectional feminist ideals of equity and fairness into sustainable and scalable business growth strategies. Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to 30% participation by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth Media partner and ally. Apply here.

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Transformative Ideas

If These Streets Could Talk

Chloe Doesburg on Driftscape | Photo Provided

There’s something special about exploring a city on foot. Whether you’ve lived in the same place for twenty years or are visiting someplace new, going for a wander—headphones in, music on, people watching, popping into shops, turning down a side street and discovering a hidden gem—is a consummate pleasure. 

What if, though, you could engage more intimately with the cityscape by accessing information about it—events, history, restaurants, music—as you move through it? That’s the idea behind Driftscape. Co-founder and CEO Chloe Doesburg calls the app a “cultural discovery platform,” which allows the user “seamless connection” to the physical spaces they occupy. 

Driftscape offers a selection of topics—from architecture to history to arts and literature. As users approach things that might interest them, the app on their cellphones will send a notification. This could be a piece of trivia, a festival nearby, or what Doesburg calls the most “sophisticated” option: an immersive experience such as a Jane’s Walk, free urban tours inspired by Jane Jacobs, who penned the classic, The Life and Death of American Cities, and advocated for mixed-used, walkable streets; or First Stories, which documents the rich Indigenous history of Toronto; or Queerstory, which will leads to sites in Toronto’s vibrant LGTBQ2S+ culture.

Driftscape, which now employs six, officially incorporated in 2017 but had been “in the works” for at least a year before that and involved a lot of “serendipity,” says Doesburg. She was inspired by a “location-specific project” called Murmur, which existed before smartphones: You could dial in and hear a story about a specific place. She was also working with a musician friend who was recording an album of location-specific songs set in Toronto; they created Track Toronto, which allows users to listen to music associated with places in the city as they pass through them, now used by Driftscape.

“People were super enthusiastic” about the experience, says Doesburg. While working on that concept, she met programmers working on a similar project, and together they dreamed up Driftscape.

The project has evolved significantly since its inception, adding more layers of information by becoming a subscription platform. For a fee—Driftscape partners—which range from not-for-profits to private content producers to businesses and municipalities—provide content for the app, such as visitor’s guides, self-guided tours[1] , and digital walks. There’s a sliding scale for partners, ranging from $1,000 to $4,000 a year. More content draws more eyes to the app, which draws more users to the app and, in turn, more partners subscribing, creating a positive feedback loop.

Says Doesburg: “We’re working with municipalities who are layering these things with tourism information so that we can become (their) digital visitor’s guide, which is even more relevant now, in the time of COVID-19. People want to do more digitally. People are looking for self-guided tours, for ways they can be their own guide, and also just looking to rediscover their own city and places nearby, the way the way you would as a tourist.”

“We’re working with municipalities who are layering these things with tourism information so that we can become (their) digital visitor’s guide, which is even more relevant now, in the time of COVID-19″.

Chloe Doesburg

That style of subscription service, however, is not without issues. Open the Driftscape app and you’ll be presented with a map of Canada, with Driftscape’s points of interest and services— loaded by its subscribers. The first thing you’ll notice is that most of the content is based in Southern Ontario, and the vast majority of that in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), making the app, at present, tremendously urban-centric. In Northern and rural areas, programming options include things like Historica Canada and its Heritage Minutes, providing a perspective that can skew to colonial, cis-heteronormative Settler norms. That’s a very different experience than users can access in the GTA, where Driftscape offers more of a mosaic.

This discrepancy is due to growing pains, Doesburg says. Driftscape can’t offer a wider variety of content in more remote areas until they bring on a wider variety of partners. “That’s certainly something we’ve spent a lot of time talking and thinking about and we’re trying to layer in other perspectives wherever we can. We are especially working to grow the Indigenous voices on the app.”

“We would certainly welcome organizations anywhere in Canada and in North America to host their content on the platform,” she adds.

In April, Doesburg participated in Fifth Wave Labs, a four-month feminist incubator geared towards supporting women-identified digital media entrepreneurs in Southern Ontario. She says the program provided mentorship and networking in a time when, due to COVID-19, everyone was feeling very distanced from each other. It also altered the way she thought about her business practices. 

Although Doesburg doesn’t necessarily consider Driftscape a specifically feminist enterprise— “We haven’t really been using that word”—she thinks of it as being in keeping with those values.

“Before doing the Fifth Wave labs program, I didn’t really think about feminist business practices,” says Doesburg, “but certainly while we were part of that program I was like, ‘Oh, this is what we already do.’” 

Doesburg says she thinks of Driftscape as a social enterprise. That “seems very, very similar, although not identical (to feminism) but certainly in terms of just looking at business as something that has profit as one of its goals, and not its only goal.”

The company’s social values, she says, include “a commitment to supporting the cultural community and being part of that ecosystem” as well as “how we run our business, that we’re committed to making the best place to work for employees. “We’re committed to having a really transparent company where we involve everyone at all levels of decision making. We’re really open about what we’re doing and what our values are, what our challenges are.”

In contrast to multinational social media giants serving up information, Driftscape features diverse local experts. Says Doesburg: “We boost the voices of local organizations who are creating fantastic content, and we create a place where users can access a wide-range of otherwise hard-to-find local information on an ad-free platform at no cost to the user.”

Driftscape is Doesburg’s first entrepreneur venture. Until 2015, the University of Waterloo graduate worked as an architect, a profession that obviously gives her a special appreciation for cities and the nature of place. “Being an entrepreneur certainly offers more freedom and flexibility,” she says of the change. “Buildings take years to complete so, compared to architecture, working on software is refreshing because it’s possible to iterate quickly, see what works, and make changes easily.”

With Driftscape growing, adapting and adding new directions, Doesburg is content knowing what entrepreneurial path she is on. “I don’t have any next steps in mind. For now, I’m focused on growing Driftscape.”


Contributor’s Bio: Lori Fox is a queer, non-binary journalist based in Whitehorse, YT. Their work focuses primarily on issues of class, gender, sexuality and environment, and has appeared previously with Vice, The Guardian, CBC, and The Globe and Mail. You can find them on twitter @fox.e.lori.


Publishers Note: Driftscape is a participant in Canada’s first feminist accelerator program for womxn in digital media, Fifth Wave Labs. The Fifth Wave is a year-round program offered by CFC Media Lab and its partners to support the growth and development of women entrepreneurs in the digital media sector in southern Ontario. All enterprise founders in the Fifth Wave community are selected for both their potential and commitment toward weaving intersectional feminist ideals of equity and fairness into sustainable and scalable business growth strategies. Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to 30% participation by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth Media partner and ally. Apply here.

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