WITH WONDER DIRECTOR SHARON LEWIS

This Pride Month, we spoke to DGC Ontario Members who are spotlighting marginalized voices, changing our cultural perceptions of what it means to be part of the 2SLGBTQ community, and sharing queer stories of hope and resilience. In our latest Creative Spotlight, we speak to Director, Writer, Producer and Actor Sharon Lewis about her powerful documentary film With Wonder, which screened at the recent 2022 Inside Out Film Festival in Toronto and takes the viewer on an extraordinary journey to explore the intersection of the queer, Christian community of colour.

What led you to a career in film and television?

I started out doing activist theatre for social change and gradually moved into more mainstream film and television, bringing that activist lens with me.  

In 2002 you founded the production company urbansoul inc., which spotlights the stories and talents of Black women, Black queer women, and the BIPOC community. What can you tell us about the experience of starting your own production company, and what are some upcoming urbansoul projects you’re excited about?

It’s been a dream to have a production company that focuses on stories by us, for us, and the opportunities that it gives to Black women, Caribbean women, South Asian women and 2SLGBTQ+ folks in front of and behind the camera. We have three feature films and a TV series in development on our slate: Sistahs, a drama, Black Magic, a horror film about five teens who end up on a MAGA farm in the middle of nowhere, Not Another Slave Movie, a time travel movie, and SPADE, a TV series about a butch lesbian detective who comes back home to Newfoundland.

Director Sharon Lewis with Measha Brueggergosman on the set of her film Brown Girl Begins

Prior to With Wonder, you won multiple awards for your CBC documentary Disruptor/Conductor, which profiles Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser, the first openly gay Black classical musical conductor. Did this experience inspire you to create a documentary about the intersection of race and sexual orientation and identity?

I met Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser at the premiere of my film Brown Girl Begins at the AGO, and we just started talking. I was fascinated that he was a Black gay man, who was a classical music conductor, from Trinidad and Jamaica, the same background I come from. It was really interesting to me that he was Trini, that he was gay, and that he was in front of and moving within this very white crowd. As a fellow member of the queer community and being part Trini, I felt a real affinity with him, and as I got to know him, I discovered that he was a Christian. Although I was raised a Christian, I was never really raised in the church, and it never presented a challenge for me in coming out. But I realized, as I was talking to him, that for people of colour, being Christian and queer presents its own very unique challenges. It inspired me to dig further and try to make sense of an institution that is about love but has rejected some of its most ardent believers. 

Two men walk arm in arm in Jamaica in With Wonder

Tell us about your journey to directing your documentary film about the Queer, Christian community of colour, With Wonder, which screened at the 2022 Inside Out Film Festival. 

It was a two-year journey in partnership with Iron Bay Media and Producer Byron Wong that took me to Jamaica, New York, Calgary, San Francisco, London, Los Angeles and Toronto to follow our participants and their extraordinary journeys. 

I really wanted to explore what it means to be queer, Christian, and a person of colour. We’re such a small minority in that way, but as people of colour, we’re also the global majority. Maurice Tomlinson, who is a Jamaican lawyer and gay rights activist, was going to put on the first Pride march in Montego Bay, Jamaica, where my family’s from. I went to Jamaica to follow his story, and that sort of became the spine of With Wonder, that this Jamaican gay man was going to put on the first Pride Parade, even though his parents, who are Christian, had a hard time with his sexuality. It was really hard to meet his parents, who remind me of my own family, and see how loving they were, and how Christian they were, but also really, especially his dad, grappling with Maurice’s sexuality. 

I was also trying to reconcile this idea of, can you be Christian and a person of colour, even considering the colonial history of Christianity? I really wanted to explore those questions myself as well – is there any place in the church for someone like me? I would consider myself “woke”, and I understand Christian colonialism and homophobia. My friend Winnie, who is in the documentary, is South Asian and queer, and her love for the church and the church community always confounded me, because I was like, “She’s so smart, and she’s so woke, how does she find a place there?” What she really embodies is the spirit of what Christianity and the church should be, which is a safe haven, and a place of love and acceptance. I was really moved by the way that she would preach, so I also included her story in the documentary, as an offering of what a clear, positive Christian church can look like.

We made the film with the help of the Ontario Arts Council and our own investments, as we believed these stories were filled with hope, joy, and inspiration and needed to be shared. The participants really risked their own comfort in sharing their stories with me and the team. Queer people and people of colour are constantly being asked to talk about their trauma, because most times, with marginalized people, the only stories people want to hear is how we’ve been exploited. I wanted to be mindful and make sure that I was not re-traumatizing anyone or exploiting their trauma. There were a lot of stories that I left out of the documentary that I’m sure would be of interest, but I needed to protect the participants and how their stories would be perceived and digested in the film. So, personal trauma is one thing we needed to be mindful of, but also actual physical danger, as there were more guns than there were marchers during the Pride parade in Jamaica. Having guns pointed at you is scary, but, I can leave. I have the privilege to leave. It was terrifying to see all of those police officers and their antagonism towards the Pride marchers. Those marchers knew that at any minute, their lives could be in severe danger, and they still marched with pride and joy. That was an incredible example of courage.

Why did you choose to become a filmmaker, especially one so multifaceted?  

I started in the industry as an actor and felt restricted by the limited role I could play in fashioning our stories in a complex and visual way. I’m also bossy, and I want to tell our stories the way I see them!

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