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Toronto 2012: 'War Witch' Director Kim Nguyen on Racism in Global Film Distribution

Berlin War Witch Rebelle Film Festival Still - P 2012

“I had brutal answers that would tell me a Black main actor doesn’t sell, we’re not going to sell the movie in Japan," the Canadian director told a TIFF panel about his Africa-set drama.

TORONTO – Canadian director Kim Nguyen on Wednesday recalled the moment he came face-to-face with racism in the global film distribution market.

Nguyen, who is presenting his Berlin and Tribeca film festival prize-winner War Witch at the Toronto International Film Festival, said the market prospects of his unrecognizable black lead, Rachel Mwanza, early on stood in the way of foreign sales.

“I had brutal answers that would tell me a Black main actor doesn’t sell, we’re not going to sell the movie in Japan. You hear that,” he told a TIFF panel on Canadian films in the world market.

Nguyen also recalled when developing his Africa-set drama considering a recognizable star for the lead in his film, and being told by his producers, Pierre Even and Marie-Claude Poulin at Montreal-based Item 7, to go with his first instincts.

"You need to make the best film you can, we trust you, go for it. We don't need a star," he remembers being told.

Mwanza’s performance as a child dealing with emotional trauma after being forcibly inducted into a rebel army in War Witch earned her the Silver Bear for best actress in Berlin.

Nguyen's negative experience at the hands of film buyers didn’t surprise Sudz Sutherland, director of another TIFF title, Home Again, which stars Tatyana Ali and CCH Pounder.

“I hear that everyday. People say that all the time, because I ask people to be brutally honest with me, especially as we’re asking for millions of dollars,” he told the TIFF panel.

“But we’re always trying to prove the lie of common wisdom,” Sutherland added.

The Toronto International Film Festival continues to Sept. 16.