Alumni Spotlight: Alison Duke

Posted: Jul 9, 2024

Alison 1

Alison Duke is an award-winning filmmaker who has built a longstanding career telling stories across various film genres. Throughout her journey, Alison has told tales of resistance and change through countless documentaries that have impacted audiences by addressing crucial social issues.

Alison’s reputation as a documentarian began in 2000, when she got her start directing and producing the hip hop cult classic Raisin’ Kane: A Rapumentary (2000), which follows the rise of independent / underground Juno-nominated rap group Citizen Kane. The success of Raisin’ Kane: A Rapumentary, would pave the way for an extensive career of creating award-winning projects, including the two-time Canadian Screen Award-winning television documentary Mr. Jane and Finch, the 2-hour documentary special entitled Cool Black North, and the Golden Sheaf-winning short fiction, Promise Me.

Alison’s allure goes beyond her talent, she is a force to be reckoned with, and she is using her passions and influence to break barriers and create opportunities for Black creators to not only be seen but to thrive. When Alison is not behind the camera, she is immersing herself in both her entrepreneurial and philanthropic endeavours. Alongside filmmaker Ngardy Conteh George, Alison is the co-founder of award-winning production company, OYA Media Group and the non-profit organization, OYA Black Arts Coalition. Together, they are dedicated to supporting Black artists, creators, and entrepreneurs within the entertainment sector by shining a light on their unique narratives and unparalleled talents. The impact from OYA Media Group and OYA Black Arts Coalition (OBAC) has been so profound that both Alison and Ngardy Conteh, alumnae of the inaugural cohort of Fifth Wave, a four-month business bootcamp for women-owned/led businesses, and one component of the larger Fifth Wave Initiative, Canada’s first feminist business accelerator, were asked to return to the CFC for the program’s second cohort as Entrepreneurs-in-Residence. In this role, they acted as mentors to the incoming group of founders, sharing their industry expertise on a peer-to-peer level from their experiences leading a successful production company with high-growth potential in the creation of socially relevant, diverse nonfiction content.

We recently sat down with Alison to discuss her extraordinary career, and what’s ahead for the filmmaker and entrepreneur. Read more in the spotlight below.

You began your career as a filmmaker. Can you share your journey into filmmaking and what inspired you to pursue a career in the screen industry?

My journey into filmmaking was a winding road that began with a passion for storytelling.

When I was a teenager, I used to write short stories and poetry.  Throughout my formative years into young adulthood, other activities would call me, like sports and science. I accomplished many things, including earning a Master’s Degree in Kinesiology and becoming an all-star basketball player, before rooting myself back into writing.  There was this quarterly Black feminist zine called ‘At the Crossroads” that gave me an opportunity to publish some poetry and articles. Then I created a column called Sistah Says in Word, a magazine that delved into Toronto’s Black culture and entertainment in the 90s.  Nabbing a column was a creative outlet that ignited my desire to explore narratives.

I remember one night going out to a club to do some research about a band, and meeting line-producer Jeremy Hood when he was a production assistant. We became friends, and then he asked me to produce a music video he was directing for a friend, R&B crooner Sean Nurse. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I pulled it off. 

Next thing you know, I was a part of RAJE Filmhouse (pronounce rage), a pioneering Black-owned production company founded by Ricardo Diaz, Alison (myself), Jeremy Hood, and Earl White. RAJE became a go-to hub for emerging talents in the industry, fostering the careers of directors like Dawn Wilkinson, Director X, Dwayne Crichton, and many others. One of the highlights was producing Rascalz’s Northern Touch, a music video directed by Director X featuring Choclair, Checkmate, Thrust, and Kardinal Offishall, which remains a pivotal moment in Canadian music video history.

After four transformative years at RAJE, I approached producer Karen King at the National Film Board (NFB) with the idea to direct Raisin’ Kane: A Rapumentary. This documentary chronicled the rise of the Juno-nominated rap group Citizen Kane from the Scarborough projects, as they aimed to release their debut album and make their mark in the Canadian hip hop scene. I had special access because my brother was one of the band members.

Raisin’ Kane went on to receive the HBO Award for Best Documentary at the Urbanworld Film Festival 2001 and Best Canadian Documentary at the Reelworld Film Festival 2001, marking a significant milestone in my filmmaking career.

I then worked as a segment producer on a syndicated documentary series on CityTV before forming my own production company called Goldelox Productions.

How does your background shape your creative process when writing, directing, and producing a film?

My background in writing, producing music videos, and running a successful music video production company profoundly influences my creative process as a filmmaker. All these experiences instilled in me a deep appreciation for storytelling authenticity, collaborative spirit, and cultural representation. I approach filmmaking with a lens that values Black voices, women’s voices, and stories that are uplifted and celebrated. There is something new visually in the character development and thematic exploration in my films.

Can you share your experience as an alum of CFC’s Fifth Wave Initiative? How did this feminist business accelerator impact your career and entrepreneurial journey?

The Fifth Wave feminist accelerator program couldn’t have come at a better time. We were just coming off of Mr. Jane and Finch and the Being Black in Toronto projects, which both won Canadian Screen Awards, and found ourselves in the middle of a development crisis. We had a slate of projects. We wanted to scale up and didn’t quite know how. We were then selected for the inaugural year of the Fifth Wave, which began at the start of COVID 19. All the programming was done on Zoom, but I think because there was not much else to do, it made us hyper-focused on our projects. The program not only equipped us with practical skills in business development, finance, and leadership but also instilled a deep understanding of feminist principles in entrepreneurship. During COVID, we gave a green light to all of our projects.

SisterNancy Tribeca2024 148

Alison Duke at the screening of Bam Bam: The Sister Nancy Story at Tribeca Festival

What advice would you give to women looking to succeed as entrepreneurs?

Entrepreneurs often face complex and multifaceted decisions. Having a deep understanding of how the film and television industry works, what the trends are, and who to pitch to is key to steering your business in the right direction. In addition to acquiring that knowledge, you have to build up a reputation for delivering what you say. People want to work with people they can count on, and although you can’t please everyone, you have to be able to deliver. I see a lot of people making the mistake of overpromising, overcommitting, or overtaking and not being able to deliver.

As women in this industry, you spend years building up your reputation and showing that you have what it takes to succeed. People will challenge your work ethic, your vision, and even your business acumen. And often, the more successful you are, the more challenges you will face.  I’ve found the key to circumventing that: never stop learning.

This industry is so difficult, so you don’t have to beat yourself up. One of the things that I’m known for is my originality, so don’t let anyone mess with that.

What is the story behind the conception of OYA Media Group? What inspired you to establish the organization?

When Ngardy approached me with the project, Mr. Jane and Finch, we both owned separate companies.  Ngardy’s company was Mattru Media, and I had Goldelox Productions. We knew that running the Mr. Jane and Finch project through separate companies would duplicate our efforts, so we decided to come together and form one company, OYA Media Group. 

We wanted to make sure that OYA Media Group would not just be a production company. We wanted it to be a catalyst for change in the media landscape.  A mission evolved that is rooted in the belief that representation matters—that by telling diverse stories with care, we can challenge stereotypes, inspire empathy, and foster a more inclusive society.

We are proud to say that, after five years of hard work, what we stated in our mission is a reality.  We have produced impactful documentaries, series, and films that highlight issues of social justice, celebrate Black excellence, and amplify Black stories with integrity, depth, and nuance that resonate with audiences globally. We have also founded a not-for-profit OYA Black Arts Coalition (OBAC) to support emerging and mid-career filmmakers in their pursuit of learning and development.

Can you speak to your unique connection with OYA Media Group co-founder Ngardy Conteh George, and the importance of Black creators coming together to collaborate and foster community?

Our collaboration is founded on mutual respect, a deep understanding of the importance of cultural representation, and a passion for storytelling that drives social change and artistic excellence. Fostering community among Black filmmakers and creators through OBAC not only elevates individual voices but also empowers a collective narrative. We encourage more people not to work in silos but to come together as we have to form production companies. Filmmaking is a collaborative effort, and you can accomplish way more with a team than by doing things on your own.

Can you discuss some of the key programs and initiatives that OYA offers to support Black creatives?

OYA Emerging Filmmakers: The OYA Emerging Filmmakers Program is an initiative to kickstart the careers of Black youth who are post-graduates of post-secondary film, television and digital media programs. The program’s goal is to support Black youth in these industries by providing mentoring, networking and portfolio creation opportunities as well as on-site training with production companies, broadcasters and department heads

OYA Career Leap: OYA Career Leap is an on-going program that provides work placement opportunities for Black film/TV crew to satisfy union eligibility requirements and advance their careers. The program matches successful participants with film industry mentors. The placements provide workplace training with veteran insight, helps refine participant’s soft skills, and ultimately expands their professional networks

OYA Career Bridge: Career Bridge is a program designed for young Black filmmakers looking for professional guidance with putting together a Reel or Portfolio that meets industry standards. Participants are paired with a seasoned industry expert for mentorship and guidance. Reel Stream: Ideal for directors, cinematographers, and animators Portfolio Stream: Tailored for production designers, makeup artists, and costume designers

LEI8350 1

What has the feedback been from the community on the impact OYA is having on emerging Black creators?

At OBAC, we empower Black creatives through impactful programs and initiatives. We see OBAC as a work in progress. It is not perfect, but it’s pretty damn good. We seek out feedback. At the end of every year, we conduct a 360-degree review of each of our programs and use that information to make the programming more dynamic and in line with what is going on in the industry.  The feedback has been great, and we’ve seen a lot of people who’ve come through our programs doing well, producing films, winning awards, joining unions, and becoming employed at larger production companies.

What is your vision for the future of OYA? How do you want to see the organization evolve?

We are known for producing innovative documentaries and unscripted content, and I think that will always be part of what we do. Our vision for OYA Media Group’s future is to definitely work with more creatives and expand more into the scripted side of things. I’ve been developing a dramatic series entitled ‘Paradise’ with some very talented folks and also a feature film entitled Seven Jamaican Mothers. I really want to see this happen. In terms of OBAC, it will continue to serve as a catalyst for industry change. We are always looking for partnerships with like-minded organizations that want to walk the walk and establish sustainable pathways for Black creatives in all facets of media production.

Answer this question: Looking back on your career path, what are some unforgettable moments that changed the way you create and do business?

Looking back on my career path, several unforgettable moments have profoundly shaped how I create and conduct business. One pivotal moment was directing, Raisin’ Kane: A Rapumentary. It became a cult classic. People are still asking for it today, and that taught me the power of authentic storytelling and how much of an impact our stories can have on audiences.

The next big thing was working as a segment producer on a documentary show at City TV; it was 40 1/2-hour shows a year. There were a lot of great storytellers working on that show, and this is where I honed my skills writing for TV. I learned a lot about story structure and how to engage an audience.

My biggest achievement to date is co-founding OYA Media Group with Ngardy Conteh George. Establishing OYA allowed me to prioritize stories that matter to me and our community, providing me with a new level of creative freedom and purpose in my work. Our output over the past five years has been unprecedented.  The projects we have produced under the OYA banner, such as Mr. Jane and Finch, What’s in a Name, Black Community Mixtapes, A Mother Apart, Answering the Call, and Bam Bam: The Sister Nancy Story, have been so fulfilling. Working as a freelance director, EP, or story consultant on other shows such as Evil By Design: Surviving Peter Nygård with BlueAnt, Cool Black North with Maple Rock Pictures, and Any Other Way: The Jackie Shane Story with Banger Films adds to my journey as an artist.

With so many aspiring creators looking up to you as a role model, what advice do you have for them that you wish you knew when embarking on your journey?

This is the list that I share when giving talks.

You don’t need to do things the way they have always been done; in order to make new terrain for yourself, you have to know how it’s done. Learn how things work. Don’t assume.

  • Build a Strong Network: Cultivate relationships with fellow filmmakers, industry professionals, and mentors who can provide guidance, support, and opportunities.
  • Know Your Worth: Understand the value of your skills, ideas, and perspectives. Don’t undersell yourself or settle. But don’t oversell yourself either, because that can backfire. Advocate confidently for fair compensation and recognition of your contributions.
  • Embrace Your Unique Voice: Your perspective as a woman is a valuable asset. Embrace and amplify your unique storytelling and creative vision.
  • Continuous Learning and Adaptability: The film and TV industry is constantly evolving. Be adaptable and willing to learn new skills to stay competitive. To elevate in this business, you need to know how it works. Learn everything you can about the business. People respect you when you know what you’re talking about.
  • Build Resilience: Entrepreneurship is challenging, and setbacks are inevitable. Develop resilience to obstacles, learn from failures, and bounce back stronger.
  • Stay True to Your Vision: Trust your instincts. Don’t be afraid to take risks and explore new ideas that align with your passion and values. Authenticity resonates with audiences and sets your work apart.

Why are organizations like CFC and OYA Media Group vital to the screen industry landscape?

Organizations like CFC (Canadian Film Centre) and OYA Media Group are truly indispensable to the screen industry landscape. They serve as invaluable pillars by championing diversity and inclusion, not just as checkboxes but as core values that shape the narratives we see on screen. Their commitment to nurturing talent goes beyond mere support; it’s about empowering aspiring filmmakers and creators to tell their stories authentically and with impact.

These organizations have a profound impact on individuals and on the industry as a whole. I’ve seen firsthand how CFC and OYA Media Group have transformed lives and narratives. Their sincerity in fostering a more inclusive and innovative screen industry is not just admirable but essential for shaping a future where diverse perspectives thrive.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently focused on expanding the impact of OYA Media Group and pushing boundaries in storytelling. We have exciting projects in development that continue to explore diverse narratives and amplify marginalized voices. Personally, I’m looking forward to furthering my journey as a filmmaker and entrepreneur, continuing to innovate and collaborate with like-minded creators who share our vision for a more inclusive media landscape.

Next for me in film, I’m excited about continuing to direct and produce compelling narratives that resonate with audiences globally. I aim to explore new genres, deepen my storytelling abilities, and tackle pressing social issues through the power of cinema. Collaborating with talented filmmakers and amplifying diverse voices remains a priority, as does pushing boundaries in both artistic expression and industry advocacy.

Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring creators?

My advice to aspiring creators is to embrace your unique voice and perspective from the outset. When I started my journey, I wish I had understood the power of authenticity and staying true to my vision. Trust in your abilities, and don’t be afraid to take risks or challenge conventions in storytelling. Surround yourself with supportive collaborators who share your passion and values.

Additionally, remember that every setback or challenge is an opportunity to learn and grow. Stay resilient, be open to feedback, and continuously hone your craft.

Share this post: