Jennifer Holness and David “Sudz” Sutherland
Jennifer Holness and David “Sudz” Sutherland, directors, producers, writers, and co-founders of Hungry Eyes Media
1) What is your profession and what are the specific dimensions of your work?
We are filmmakers. We make films, television series, and media. Well, I mean, documentaries pertaining to the Black Diaspora.
We write, we produce, and we direct. We bring all the financing for our projects, we work with broadcasters, we work with distributors, we take our film products to market, both nationally and internationally. And we also in the scope of our work, mentor and develop creative talent from black and racialized communities.
2) How did you come to this type of career?
I graduated with a policy-sci degree and decided I didn’t want to go into government. And so, I was dating Sudz and he wanted to be a filmmaker, and that’s how I became a filmmaker.
I’ve always wanted to communicate and work in the world of film and television. I went to York University (Toronto) and studied film and television. Always writing plays, for example, that was kind of how I got into it. And then went to York University and met Jennifer and started making movies.
3) Tell us something about your process of study and formal and/or informal education and thenature of your degrees and/or training. When, where, and how did you become educated andqualified to do what you do?
Well, I didn’t actually have any formal education in terms of film and television, although I did go to the Canadian Film Centre in 1999-2000, in the producers lab, and I did take a writer’s course, but we were producing a short film, and I had to leave it. I think, though, that the way I work, I do a lot of independent study. And I learned by doing, that’s been my natural inclination. And so, what I feel is that when you don’t know something, then you can figure it out. And so that’s really what I’ve done my whole career. When I didn’t know how to make film and television, my process was to start small. I made music videos. So now I finished what is essentially a two minute film, and then it was like, I started production, managing small productions, and then production line producing and then producing shortly thereafter. And so, the process has always been very much figuring it out.
4) What were the greatest obstacles that you had to overcome to achieve the success that you now experience? What challenges have you experienced? And how have you overcome them? What goals do you have left to accomplish?
I think that one of the greatest challenges and the obstacles is just getting in the game. I think that it’s ultimately just being able to get hired, that was the first big challenge, being able to be hired in this industry. That took a while going into the Director’s Guild of Canada was like an impossibility because it was like basically a brick wall. This is before internet. So, there were no websites, and there were no programs for getting people of colour into the game or anything like that. So, we had to basically get a job. To get a job, it was to be an assistant. And so that was the first thing. Getting a job was the major hurdle, and then getting seen and being taken seriously as a writer. That was the next thing. So, after getting a job as a writer’s assistant, having to fight to be taken seriously, and writing and writing and writing to try to get a shot so that they would hire you and give you a script. It was very hard to network and move in these circles, because there were no black people, there were no black people giving you jobs. And then making the transition to being a director was hard because you had to show something of yourself. So, we had done a short film and that got mostly all the awards you can get in Canada, in North America. That put us on the map, but we had to basically prove ourselves that we were the best out here in order to even get a shot. You know, just being seen and being heard and being acknowledged because they ignored us for years, I think those are the major goals.
I think for me, the greatest obstacle I had was the systemic and structural racism that was really embedded in how Canada did business on every level on the political side, on the entertainment side, on the corporate side, on the public policy side, and, why it was a great obstacle was because it was, in many ways, unacknowledged. So, for example, Love, Sex and Eating the Bones, which Sudz wrote and directed, and I did the story with him and produced that one. It won the Best Feature Film at TIFF. And we were also nominated for three Canadian Academy’s awards, Best Writing, Best Directing, and Best Picture, and won a whole bunch of festival awards. But after that, there was no clamouring for us, it barely moved the needle in Canada. And in fact, the next job that Sudz got, it was with white producers, but it was a Black executive at Bell, who brought him in. So that was an obstacle, because when people don’t acknowledge that the system is flawed or problematic, then what do you do? Our series, Guns was nominated for nine awards, and won five. Projects like that were seen as anomalies. It wasn’t seen as normal for black folks to be succeeding at that level because there were almost none of us.
And well, the difference is that after George Floyd was murdered, I have been and Sudz, but myself in particular, I’ve created the Black Screen Office and have been working tirelessly so that all the other young people can just roll into jobs now. And that’s great, but I mean, that has happened because of the murder of a black man, but also the monumental efforts and unpaid work that myself and others like myself have been doing to change the system.
I think almost every goal that I set out for myself I still have to accomplish. I feel like the opportunities really weren’t there and we made a difference in a system that was very closed. And so now that the system is more open, I would really like to see where that takes us. I’m a lot more tired than I was back in the day and you know, society has changed. I still want to make both film and TV with high budgets. The stories that I am passionate to tell, whatever budget range, I want to tell stories that will be appealing to a global audience. I want to tell stories that entertain, educate and uplift, and even help to have us think about black and racialized people in a different way than we’ve historically been. I have lots of goals. I haven’t won an Emmy, I haven’t won an Oscar, I haven’t won a BAFTA. I would love to be an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony award recipient), where you win all the awards. Sounds close to ego, which my ego would love! It would be great, but seriously, it would be great to make films and TV with the budgets I want, with the people I want, and with the talent I want. And I haven’t accomplished that yet.
And I think that’s like pretty much the same for me. I want to have our projects developed and financed to a point where they can’t be ignored, where they’re on the world stage. And they are a part of shaping culture, as they are shaped by culture. A lot of times work by black creators can be ignored, because of structural racism, because of the racism of the distribution system. I think that people are now aware of work done by black creators and are taking it a little bit more seriously. So, I think that that’s something that we have to look forward to. We haven’t had our feature films at Cannes. So that is among our goals. We’re making this work for a reason. We’re trying to shine a little light in the world. And that’s really what we want to do. There’s only so many more films we’re going to make. We want our work to stand the test of time. And that’s what we’re just working to achieve because if you look at Speakers for the Dead, we did that film 20 years ago but it’s still in circulation, there are still people asking us to speak on it. So, we hope that the rest of our work, everything we aim to do for the rest of our careers, will also stand the test of time.
5) Did you have any role models or mentors, either in your domains of entrepreneurship, work, research and creation or outside of them? Who were they and how were they instrumental in shaping you as a person and as a professional?
I think one of the role models that I had was Spike Lee. And that was like, he kind of made it possible, and conceivable, that a black person could do this work of being a director. Before then, there was nobody, there was nobody that we were aware of. It was like Spike Lee was it. George Seawolf is a playwright and theatre director. He was the one before Spike Lee just because I would start off just writing plays. And so that was somebody who I could sort of see as an example, not that there was any internet or YouTube or anything like that. I just read his plays. I just read articles about him and found out that he existed. I don’t think I ever saw a photograph of him. But it was the fact that a black man was writing plays and directing plays for the Public Theater in New York. That was something that inspired me.
I really did not have mentors in the industry, per se. I think the person I feel like came closest to a mentor was Karen King, she had done Clement Virgo’s film.
There are a lot of people who just don’t feel that we should have a voice. And it goes beyond racism. It gets personal. They just don’t think any of us should have a voice. You’re seeing that in a very wide way, in terms of the backlash for the Black Screen Office.
My mentors were people from far shore, like Oprah Winfrey, just seeing her accomplish what she has done, inspired me greatly. Authors like Toni Morrison greatly inspired me. Spike Lee made it seem possible that you could make a career out of film and television. John Singleton made it seem possible that you could have a voice. But unfortunately, at the same time, it was also very clear to us that the voice that we were going to be able to have was a very narrow voice. Black content that dwelled in criminal spaces or music, or something that white folks didn’t think that they had a monopoly on. They certainly felt that they could tell you about black culture, even if they didn’t feel comfortable to say that they could own it. They definitely felt like they could tell you what it should be.
6) What does your daily work routine look like? Where is your place of business production? And how do you stay focused and productive?
There is no routine ever. There’s every single day is different. And it’s too many things. It’s just too many projects. We work at home, and we work at our office, which is a block away, which is great. That’s the one thing that is good and also bad about this type of industry. No, two days are ever the same.
We are fortunate enough to have our office very close to our home. There is no routine. I’m working minimum 12 to 20 hours a day, sometimes longer, depending on what project I’m working on. I generally work one day on the weekend too. We work on the weekend. When we had COVID, we actually worked through COVID. I have to run the company. I have to oversee how we do the financial stuff. And then I write, and more recently, I direct, and I also produce, which are all different jobs. And then I also do the market part of it; I go and pitch. It’s like the Jamaicans, which we are, doing the seven jobs, we would have to do those seven jobs, not because we wanted to, but because there was a different value realization.
7) What are your guiding principles? What informs how you do your work and how you engage with your co-workers, clients, customers, or consumers?
My guiding principle is just do it. Don’t take no for an answer. Do your absolute best for everything. Don’t treat work like there’s a hierarchy. I like writing more than I enjoy going to pitch, but I have to pitch. So, I put as much energy and effort into it as I do writing. People think that because you love the work, it should be easy, it only gets easy. It doesn’t start that way. So, I don’t look for that to be my decision making. It has to move me, and it has to have the possibility to move others. I want to entertain, and I want to educate, I want to uplift.
I think one of the guiding principles we have to talk about is representing people who haven’t been represented. That’s why we got into this business because we never saw ourselves on screen. We never saw ourselves represented accurately. So, when we have a chance to represent black folks, we want to do it right. So, whether that be Canadian Blacks who’ve never had their stories told with Speakers for the Dead, and then later, BLK: An Origin Story. You want to do that shit right. So, I think truthful, accurate depictions of black folks and diaspora. I think that’s one of our guiding principles.
8) What are you working on now and when and how will it be shared?
We’re working on too many things. We’re working on dramatic series, we’re working on interactive graphic novels for the BLK series, and working on feature films. Stay tuned to the Hungry Eyes website and social media channels to find out where to watch when they’re available.
9) What are you proudest of in your life?
Well, I think we are very proud of our daughters. We have three. If you look at them, they are amazing girls. And we were able to raise them with this career going on. And they’re all very bright girls. I think they will be achievers in life. One of the things that I’m most proud of, is our offspring.
10) What are you proudest of in your career?
Yeah, I would say so. I think I’m also proud that we’re still standing and that we’re still here. Many people started out with us and a lot of them fell to the wayside. And I’m proud that given how challenging it’s been over the decades, that we are still making work, that we are still impacting, and that we’re poised to make our best work yet. I’m very proud of that.
11) What fiction or nonfiction books should be essential reading?
The Bluest Eye (1970) by Toni Morrison was something I thought that was essential reading for me. I know that it really had an impact on me. The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) was another book that had a real impact on me.
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) for me. That’s one book I continue to go back to. I’m actually rereading it right now. The Bluest Eye was a great book. We read that as a family a couple of years ago.
12) What TV show or film should be essential viewing?
I think I May Destroy You (2020) is essential viewing. I think that is probably the best piece of work I’ve seen in the last five to 10 years. The Wire (2002-2008) is one I have to say…I’m re-watching The Wire now actually. It’s the 20th anniversary, but it’s still good.
13) How do you relax and take care of yourself?
Hmm, gardening, dancing, singing to myself just about anywhere and walking my dog (now 2 dogs). Work, I love it and it also relaxes me. It’s my peace in the storm of chaos or negative shit, it gives me focus and purpose. Keeps me from falling down rabbit holes of the troubles of our time.
14) What’s next?
We’re going to make a dramatic series. A series about hockey athletes changing the game.
Jennifer Holness bring a fresh, authentic perspective to telling powerful, thought-provoking stories. She works in documentaries and dramatic film and TV production.
On the drama side, Jen creates, writes and produces television series. This includes Shoot The Messenger (CBC, WGN/USA) and Guns (CBC). Jen received a shared Best Writing Canadian Screen Award for Guns, alongside four additional CSAs, a Rose Dor international nomination for best Drama and that year’s ACTRA Best Actor award for KC Collins. Jen’s dramatic feature film credits includes, Home Again, that she cowrote with partner Sudz Sutherland and produced. The film sold to the US and internationally and screened theatrically in the UK, Africa and the Caribbean. It won the Planet Africa Film Fest–BAFTA Festival Choice Award and along with a DGC nod for Best Direction for Sutherland. The film was also nominated for two Canadian Screen Awards, including a best supporting nod for Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk) in his feature debut role.
She also wrote the story for and produced the triple Genie nominated feature, Love, Sex and Eating the Bones that also won 7 festival awards including the Best First Canadian Feature at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film was also nominated for 3 Genies for Best Writing, Directing and Picture.
Her short, My Father’s Hands, won the HBO Award for Best Short film, received 5 Golden Sheaf Awards, including Best – Drama, Director, Script, Music and Actor and received a Gemini nomination for Best Short Film.
On the doc side, Jen is a co-producer of the feature doc, Stateless, with director Michele Stephenson (American Promise) for PBS’s The America Series and the National Film Board. Stateless premiered digitally at Tribeca and at Hot Docs in 2020 where it won the festival’s Special Jury Prize. She is the Executive Producer of Maya Annik Bedward feature doc, Black Zombie, that is in production with CBC’s Doc Channel. Jen is directing her first feature doc, Subjects of Desire, about Black women and beauty. The documentary is in post-production for TVO and Crave in Canada.
She has also produced numerous TV documentaries, including; Badge of Pride (CBC & PBS) Min Sook Lee’s film about gay cops that has sold internationally from Israel to Europe. Brick By Brick (Omni), Yin Yin Jade Love (TVO), and Dolores: The Art of Art Modeling (Bravo!). Speakers For The Dead (CBC/NFB), which she co-directed, reveals a hidden Black history in Ontario and she and co-director Sudz Sutherland were invited to Harvard University to present a talk about the film and Canadian Black history.
Jen has two dramatic feature film projects on her slate, including the German Canadian co-pro RipTide that she co-wrote. The film will star Malin Ackerman and Lyriq Bent and is being distributed by Mongrel Media. She is also producing 40 Acres, R.T Thorne’s debut feature film that is slated for production in 2022.
Along with her creative work, Jennifer is a dedicated advocate for diversity and mentorship. She is a founding member of the Black Screen Office. She has mentored/hired scores of African Canadians and diverse youth over the past decade and a half, both personally and through organizations like The Reel World Film Festival, Black Women Film!, Through Their Eyes, The Toronto Black Film Festival and the Montreal Black Film Festival. Her Board work includes, Canadian Media Producer’s Association, Canadian Independent Screen Fund (co-chair) Ontario Creates Industry Board (co-chair), The Regent Park Film Festival, Women In View, Innoversity Creative Summit and CMPA’s Prime Time.
David (Sudz) Sutherland started writing stories that matter on his mother’s Smith-Corona in grade one, and he continues to fill blank pages on his iPad every day. Starting with music videos and award-winning short films, Sudz and his partner Jen Holness started Hungry Eyes Media, a production company that makesfeatures, docs, drama and comedy series and the occasionalMobile Game.
Sudz’s powerful half-hour dramatic debut, My Father’s Hands screened at The Toronto International Film Festival. It won the $20,000 HBO Short Film Award at the Acapulco Black Film festival, and in Canada it went on to win prizes at the Yorkton Film Festival (four awards including best drama,script, direction and best actor). The film was also nominated for a Gemini Award for Best Short.
Sudz’ first feature was the TIFF award winning Love, Sex and Eating the Bones. His second feature was the internationally award-winning Home Again, the story of Jamaican deportees. Sudz also co-wrote and directed the dramatic miniseries Guns for CBC based on four families caught up in illegal gun trafficking. Starring Colm Feore and Elisha Cuthbert, Guns won five Gemini Awards including Best writer and Directing. Sudz also wrote and directed the triple Gemini award-winning (Best Direction, Best Supporting Actress, Best Television Movie) Doomstown, an MOW for CTV/SarrazinCouture.
Sudz has directed over 75 hours of television on shows as diverse as Netflix’s Ginny and Georgia,Superman and Lois, Batwoman, The Flash, Blindspot, Netflix’s Designated Survivor, CW’s Reign, Murdoch Mysteries, and many others. He’s won an International Emmy (The Phantoms) and 3 CSA’sfor Best Director. He also co-created the series She’s the Mayor (VisionTV) and Shoot the Messenger and Guns (CBC).