Brother on the Big Screen
The feature film BROTHER by Damon D’Oliveira, Clement Virgo and Hawkeye Pictures premiered at festivals across Canada this fall, bringing new life to David Chariandy’s ’90s-set novel. We sat down with the team behind the film to talk about the adaptation and the opportunity to bring the story to new audiences.
To say she was captivated by the story of brothers Francis and Michael, sons of Caribbean immigrants maturing into young men amid the booming hip-hop scene in Toronto, is an understatement.
“I read Brother and I cried. I found the experiences in the book — of moving to different places, of the relationships we have with our parents — so relevant. I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring this story to the screen,” Di Rienzo tells Indiescreen.
That’s when she brought the book to her partner and co-producer at Hawkeye Pictures, Aeschylus Poulos. Together, Poulos and Di Rienzo have worked on films Sleeping Giant, Tito and 22 Chaser.
“Brother resonated with me through the smallest details, from the music scene to the location to the feelings that it invoked. It resonated in the detail and the general themes through personal experience,” Poulos attests of his first impression of the nowadapted novel, which debuted at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) earlier this year.
“Telling a story about your community in your backyard is a special opportunity — helping bring that to screen and to be a part of it is huge,” he says.
Together, Poulos and Di Rienzo approached producer Damon D’Oliveira and director/screenwriter Clement Virgo, having wanted to work with the duo since their last team-up on the successful adaptation The Book of Negroes.
D’Oliveira and Virgo are mainstays in the Canadian film industry, first coming onto the scene with their debut film Rude in 1995. Together, they make up Conquering Lion Pictures, which has been responsible for titles such as Poor Boy’s Game, and Love Come Down, as well as The Book of Negroes.
“Producing by yourself is a lonely thing, and I really, really like Aeschylus and Sonya, and we had an experience of working together before, so it was a really organic partnership,” D’Oliveira says of working with the Hawkeye duo.
Book-to-film adaptations can be fraught with challenges, and optioning intellectual property (IP) can be a competitive process. Adaptations rely on producers making a bid for the source material, and then can either thrive or struggle, depending on the relationships between author, screenwriter and producer.
“It’s a gift to be able to take a great piece of writing and adapt it to the screen,” says D’Oliveira, who has been through the process with Virgo many times before. “It can be a complicated process, but the adaptation literally flew out of Clement.”
For all its in-depth themes of identity, family, masculinity and ambition, Chariandy’s Brother is a tightly written book at 192 pages long.
“There is a huge value in getting a piece of IP that has had success in another form and taking and adapting it into visual content — whether that’s film or TV. That’s a really nice way of taking something to the marketplace,” says D’Oliveira.
“We felt like it was such an amazing story that spoke to both Clement’s and my experience in immigrating to Canada, that we couldn’t not make a bid for it. Using our relationship with the community of people, we were able to quickly talk to David about what we envisioned.”
Virgo echoes the sentiment, noting his ambition to work with Chariandy on the screenplay.
“David is such a wonderful storyteller, and a wonderful writer of characters,” Virgo says of Chariandy’s work. “I wanted to capture that feeling on film. I wanted to duplicate the experience I had when I was reading the book — translated through my own experiences, of course — and try to make it as personal as I could.”
Brother recounts the story of first-generation Jamaican-Canadian siblings Francis (played by Lamar Johnson) and Michael (played by Aaron Pierre), raised by their single mother Ruth (played by Marsha Stephanie Blake) during hip hop’s rise in the early ’90s.
Set in Scarborough — where producer D’Oliveira grew up — Brother explores themes of Black masculinity and cultural identity, all the while nudging toward a pivotal event that changes the course of the brothers’ lives forever.
At its heart, Brother is about the bond between siblings and the survival of diaspora communities as they make their mark in new places.
“As writers, our films and our novels are, in some way, biographies. You know, David originated these characters, but I feel like I know certain aspects of them, and I changed them to reflect my own personal preoccupations,” Virgo reveals, noting that the book version of Brother spotlights a Trinidadian family, whereas Virgo’s interpretation saw them hail from Jamaica, where the screenwriter was born.
“I’ve worked with Black writers in Canada, like David Chariandy, and there’s a similarity in experiences or a way of moving through the world,” says Virgo. “When I read Brother, you know, it was familiar to me. I knew the smells and the feelings and the emotional realities of this world. I wanted to capture the feeling of these characters perceiving the world perceiving them.”
It’s no secret that film and television have struggled to accurately represent the many communities in Canada, but together, D’Oliveira and Virgo have brought several BIPOC stories to the Canadian zeitgeist.
“Telling stories that come from underrepresented voices is sort of in our DNA, because that’s been our experience,” D’Oliveira says.
“Stories from our communities, whether it’s Caribbean, Canadian, or African-Canadian communities, those stories do tend to resonate with us. We want to tell those stories in a way that they resonate with as broad of an audience as possible. Regardless of who’s in the content, if it’s speaking to something that has emotional resonance — migration stories exist around the world. We live in this universe of migration.”
Brother debuted at TIFF on September 9 to a standing ovation, with Chariandy and his family in attendance. The film also made a big splash at FIN Atlantic in Halifax a couple weeks later, then the Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF), and later the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF).
Its reception shows that its themes are relatable to audiences all across Canada. But for all its ever-so-Canadian themes, it’s the universality of the story that connects with its audiences.
“I grew up in downtown Toronto, and I grew up with a single mother who was still there making lots of sacrifices. I’m an immigrant, so a family without any support or anything like that. Experiencing that firsthand, there’s just a humanity in Brother that is relatable for everybody,” Poulos attests.
His partner at Hawkeye agrees.
“What’s interesting is that the book and the film are slightly different, while still staying so true to the story. In both, the things that are valuable are these moments of grace that you have with the people you love. However the world imposes itself upon you — with violence, with prejudice, with circumstances — those things can’t be taken away. I think the film and the novel both take you to those places,” says Di Rienzo.
The process of bringing it to all these audiences, however, is a job for the distributors. Canadian producers need a distribution guarantee to turn on some of the systems in Canada — particularly Telefilm. That’s where distributors Elevation Pictures stepped in.
“Damon and Clement are the godfathers and visionaries of everything,” says Elevation’s Noah Segal, who not only signed on as a distributor but also as a funder. “Since we began, Elevation has tried to be a company that was more qualitative than quantitative. We helped get Brother financed because we stood up when we needed to.”
“Clement has established himself as one of the senior creatives of the country. He’s one of the few and he’s done a great job,” Segal adds, noting that Conquering Lion’s reputation made Brother an easy sell.
Given the film’s phenomenal success on the festival circuit, and with multiple international and US bidders, the story will reach much farther than Canadian audiences very soon — audiences whom, the filmmakers hope, the story will resonate with, no matter where they’re from.
“I think we naturally gravitate toward stories that reflect one’s experience. I’m Black, I’m an immigrant; Damon is a person of colour and also an immigrant. There’s a kind of experience that we naturally want to see reflected on the screen,” says Virgo.
“I’ve seen that my whole life. I’ve seen stories of people who don’t look like me, but I identify with them. I recognize my own humanity in their stories,” he adds. “I believe if you’re authentic, if you’re specific, if you tell the emotional truth, then audiences will see their own humanity in these stories. That’s all we are trying to do: reflect our own collective humanity.”