Documentaries

Directing a documentary about slavery in Canada was 'heartbreaking': Alicia K. Harris

For Scarborough, Ont., filmmaker Alicia K. Harris, directing the first episode of Black Life: Untold Stories was “incredibly difficult and very heartbreaking.”

‘The more that we hear about this history, the more that it ... reminds me how strong Black people are'

'This is the first time I'm learning about these people': documentary director Alicia K. Harris on slavery in Canada

7 months ago
Duration 3:15
Scarborough, Ont., filmmaker Alicia K. Harris reveals her vision for "Haven, But No Heaven," the first episode of CBC's docuseries Black Life: Untold Stories.

Black Life: Untold Stories is an epic eight-part documentary series that reframes the rich and complex histories of Black people in Canada over 400 years. Watch now on CBC Gem. Each episode is directed by a different director who shares their experience in a series of video directors' essays.

For Scarborough, Ont., filmmaker Alicia K. Harris, directing the first episode of Black Life: Untold Stories was "incredibly difficult and very heartbreaking."

"Haven, But No Heaven" is an unflinching examination of slavery in Canada, which dispels the myth that the country was a safe haven for Black people. In the episode, historians and experts go into detail about how gruesome and violent slavery was here.

"What makes it even more painful," said Harris, "is just that this is the first time I'm learning about these people."

In the video essay above, Harris shares her vision for the episode and the impact it had on her. "The more that we hear about this history, the more that it just kind of reminds me how strong Black people are," Harris said. "And it's frustrating that we still, today, are having to be strong and having to keep fighting. 

"But I believe we're also healing the past generations at the same time."

About Alicia K. Harris

Best known for her short film Pick, which won best live action short drama at the 2020 Canadian Screen Awards, Harris is also a director of the upcoming show Beyond Black Beauty for Amazon Studios and directed Lido TV, which was an official selection at Toronto International Film Festival and earned her a nomination for best direction, web program or series at the 2023 Canadian Screen Awards. Her latest short film, Only Light Will Touch Us, was commissioned by Netflix and Reel Canada for National Canadian Film Day. Well-versed in many mediums, Harris directed the music video for Pressure by Grammy-winning artist Koffee, and a musical film for singer-songwriter Jessie Reyez. She is known for her high-concept visual style and is dedicated to celebrating the Black experience in her work, with a focus on authenticity, beauty and spirituality.

"Haven, But No Heaven" is streaming now on CBC Gem. Watch it on CBC-TV on Oct. 25 at 9 p.m. (9:30 p.m. NT).


For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.
(CBC)