Art rooted in journalism has the potential to bring truth to new audiences in ways that legacy media does not generally examine.

By Sandrinette M. Maniania  

Growing up in Beechville, Nova Scotia, filmmaker and writer Sylvia Hamilton seldom saw images of African-Canadians like herself in the media. She wished to see more individuals who looked like her and hear their “voices big” on film. Instead, news stories from her community were mostly negative. She knew that if she was not exposed to imageries and stories of her people, others weren’t either. As a result, she was influenced to find ways to concentrate on tales of African-Canadians.

As a young girl, she was intrigued by the visual representation of individuals and liked taking photographs. In the 1970’s, she began to work as a news reporter for private radio stations and freelancing for CBC radio. She worked in cable television, where she produced programs that focused on issues affecting women and stories in the Black community.

After about four years as a journalist, Hamilton left broadcasting to make documentary films. It was her way to share visual narratives of her people’s lives and historical journey. “I felt that for some of the things I wanted to explore, I wanted to use a different creative medium to be able to fill in the gaps creatively that I couldn’t necessarily do in a typical news story,” she said. In documentary, she discovered the importance of storytelling in revealing information or when asking questions.

Increasingly, artists are using film, poetry and plays to explore journalistic themes in ways often overlooked by traditional media. But when they do, they must declare their point of view.

In her first documentary film, Black Mother Black Daughter (1989), Hamilton examines the experiences of Black women in Nova Scotia, who she says are the backbones of their communities. She shares her story of being raised by her mother, Marie Hamilton, a teacher, and a pillar to many, including Hamilton.

In her subsequent documentaries, Hamilton digs deep to uncover narratives that help educate a wider public about her community. “I think in that way, these documentary films that I’ve made have opened windows into places that people didn’t know existed, and into stories that people have either known that existed, but ignored,” Hamilton said.

Over the years, art forms have become more a part of the explanatory process of journalism, where context is added and different angles are explored. For Hamilton, filmmaking requires more composition in its presentation of facts, because there also exists the need to draw in the audience through performance by characters in the narrative. “I always have to keep in mind: what’s the story, why do I wanna tell it, and what do I want people to come away with at the end? And that kind of guides how I structure the story,” she said.

She explained that artists have more authority to realize emotion. Mainstream journalism, on the other hand, places more emphasis in displaying facts.

Chris Waddell, associate professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University in Ottawa, sees art forms as different from journalism. “I would want to keep journalism based on facts and reporting, right alone, rather than imagining or being creative to some degree,” he said. He believes that journalism’s role is to inform and not to persuade people from right or wrong, as seen with news. However, there are exceptions with certain documentaries, editorial and opinion pieces.

Hamilton, on the other hand, reports using writing, film and poetry. “I’ve chosen to use art forms to tell the stories of African-Canadians because I think art has a very particular way of reaching people. It not only reaches our minds and our intellect, but is also touches our bodies, it touches our hearts often,” she said.

Her recent book of poetry, And I Alone Escaped to Tell You, recreates the voices of her ancestors, the Black refugees, and those of Black loyalists and enslaved African people through a collection of poems. To her, it felt like the most effective way of sharing their life stories. She says she immersed herself in the process to the point of experiencing the spirits and energies of her descendants.

The impact of art forms on transparency and social change

Former politician and journalist Wendy Lill fell in love with the arts more than 40 years ago, after seeing a play about communism in America in the 1920’s, called Red Emma, by Carol Bolt.

“I remember just feeling like this is a thrilling story and these characters are coming alive.  And I thought, that’s a great way to get at the truth or get at part of the truth that we don’t see in the news. And to just reveal you know different parts of history. And women’s history for sure,” said Lill. She worked as a freelance writer, and radio dramatist for the CBC in the late 1970’s.

She was covering a labour strike with immigrant women workers, but was unable to broadcast their voices because their dialects were hard to understand on radio. At that moment, she decided that she would develop and tell the story another way. Lill left journalism.

Her first play, On the Line, focused on the female garment employees in Manitoba, and from there on, she knew that she was on the right path. “I have sort of certain themes I seem to be attracted to. I’m attracted to stories that are about abusive power, and just the difference between what people say is happening and what in fact is happening,” she said.

For example, in her play Sisters, about a residential school in Nova Scotia, Lill looks at the viewpoints of the nun teachers who had travelled from Boston to come and teach Indigenous children. “They had no idea that they were in fact wiping out a culture.”

Both former journalists, Hamilton and Lill believe that journalism is essential for democracy. Hamilton says, “I think that the creative arts can in some ways be a partner in journalism, because artists are telling stories, poets are often on the front lines of talking about the experiences that people are having. So, I think that there could be some cross over. I think that one might inform the other.”

Waddell, on the other hand, says that the format that one uses to tell stories is not so much an issue, but rather, the intention behind the narrative being presented. “I think what’s important in that is that you identify what it is you’re doing. Is this supposed to be news, is this supposed to be opinion, is this supposed to be an impression, or impressionistic?” he said. If the work’s intent and method are presented honestly, then he strongly believes there is potential for much collaboration between art and journalism.

Sandrinette M. Maniania is an artist and freelance journalist with a bachelor’s in communication and in journalism. She recently completed her masters in journalism at the University of King’s College.