Ornella Salnot portrait

Ornella Salnot: “Filmmaking can also be a healing tool’’

17 minutes

As the spotlight fades, the mystery of filmmaking remains. Ornella Salnot is a young Guadeloupean woman who decided to conquer the Seventh Art almost by chance. Based in Montreal for a few years now, Ornella is an up and coming director. For Qamar, she talks about her career and her ambitions. 

“Talking is really not my thing.”

Settled in her apartment in the heart of Montreal, Ornella Salnot is all in contrast. Even from the other side of the screen, it is easy to be caught by her presence. And yet it is with a shy voice and a smile that she tells her story.

“The images, the writing – I write a lot – I prefer that. It allows you to dare and be more vulnerable and explore the depth of your emotions.”

By her own admission, Ornella has always been quiet and reserved with a deep sense of observation. People fascinate her. People inspire her. Our complexities and contradictions make the best subjects. And after all, there is nothing more human than filmmaking.

“My relatives, my relations, and then myself… human relationships are the basis of filmmaking. When you make a film it’s so that it touches others, in one way or another.”

And filmmaking arrived almost by accident in Ornella’s life. Unsure of the path to take after a scientific course in high school, she headed for a DUT in Multimedia and Internet, a trendy diploma that exists as a gateway to the content creation industry. It’s a choice made on instinct – audiovisual is a field that has aroused Ornella’s curiosity since childhood – that will undoubtedly change the course of things for the budding artist still looking for her own path.

“We made a student short film and I loved the experience. I just fell in love with the creative process. It’s just magical – having an idea, writing a story, breaking it all down and figuring out how to put it all on film. It’s exciting and that’s how I decided I wanted to go into film!”

Native of Guadeloupe, Ornella knows that building a career in filmmaking – and the arts in general – is more than atypical. Euzhan Palcy, Christian Lara, Jimmy Laporal-Trésor or Jean-Claude Barny are the few recognised filmmakers from the French-speaking Caribbean.

“I realised that we don’t naturally push our youth into the arts, filmmaking all the more so. It’s something that seems totally out of reach for us.”

But with the unconditional support of her parents, Ornella, DUT in hand, took off for Canada to pursue her dream.

“My parents, and I thank them very much, are people who just want their children to be happy. Of course they would have preferred me to become a doctor, but they followed me without even asking questions.”

Canada is a land of promise for many young Caribbean people looking for an alternative to hexagonal France. A plethora of opportunities, an extremely dynamic job market, and a large French-speaking community are all assets that make the Far North particularly attractive.

“My best friend moved there while I was doing my DUT in Guadeloupe. I went to visit her, so I could experience it for myself. I spent an exceptional two weeks!”

That’s all it took to convince Ornella to move to Montreal where studios are plentiful.

“I told myself that I had to move and the following year I told my best friend that I would come and study with her and it was probably the best decision of my life! Montreal is a multicultural city where you meet people from all over. We also shoot a lot of big American productions here, which has enabled me to grow much faster than if I were somewhere else.”

For Ornella, filmmaking is another world. It is with stars in her eyes that she describes her first visit to MELS Studios.

“The set, the atmosphere, the people working on a set – all of that is huge! I was like a kid. To visit a studio is to leave the real world behind. And until you’re part of that world, there’s no way to know what it really looks like. From my experience, people who work in filmmaking are very discreet and talk very little about their craft.”

Ornella is not idle. Since she has settled down, she has worked on multiple projects and is starting to leave her mark. Selected for several programmes, she has also set up her own company, OML Studios, specialised in content creation for the fashion industry and has tried her hand at modeling.

“Last year, I was lucky enough to be selected for the Advanced Cinematography Workshop programme hosted by Black Women Film, a Toronto-based non-profit organisation. It was amazing because I was also the very first candidate from Montreal to be selected – usually they only take candidates from Toronto. The workshop gives emerging cinematographers the opportunity to work on a film scene with Black Women Directors.”

It doesn’t end there. Ornella was also able to venture into the art of documentary in partnership with one of her classmates, Roya del Sol.

“Roya is very talented. Together we shot the last scene of Boss Lady Skate with special access to some of Netflix’ studios, one of the programme’s sponsors. It’s a documentary about the very first woman to open a skate store in North America. It should be out soon!”

But Ornella also produces her own projects. More intimate films where she becomes more vulnerable and questions her world. While suffering from homesickness and loneliness, she films Dans mes pensées. A true work of catharsis, she stages an imagined conversation with her mother where she allows herself to express a sorrow that has been kept silent.

“I am not the same person I was when I was in Guadeloupe. I felt a widening gap between my mother and I, which made me very sad. So I made a work of it. It’s a topic I never discussed in person with my mother, but it was my own way of healing that heart wound.”

A project of great sensitivity that will allow Ornella to participate in Fulture, the virtual exhibition organised by the collective Never Was Average.

But the project she is most proud of to date is a short film, Figures, about Black women’s relationship with the Barbies of their childhood. In this documentary, with no official release date yet, three women from different generations describe the effects of a lack of representation at an early age.

“It started from my own story. My sister and I didn’t really have dolls or else they were blonde or brown-haired. But I remember one of them had a little deeper skin tone than the others. It quickly became my favorite. And looking back, I can see why – it’s just because it looked a little more like me. I thought it would make a good topic. It’s the very first documentary I’ve made that is inspired by Ouvrir la voix by Amandine Gay whose work I really like. Maybe one day I’ll publish it but not for now.”

For Ornella, filmmaking is a second nature that gives her an inexplicable feeling of well-being. The filmmaker has found her way and to create is just an extension of herself.

“It all starts with writing. I’m a bit of a mess but I’ve come to understand and accept that so I don’t fight myself anymore, it’s no use. Anything can start from an image and I start writing before moving on to the next step. I also like painting. Sometimes ideas come to me in surprising ways – a colour, a texture. I save everything until I’m ready to finish the project.”

What Ornella may not have really expected was to take her first steps into the world of modeling. More comfortable with her androgynous look since moving to Canada, Ornella has allowed herself to play with her image. The art of staging is an undeniable common point between the two passions of the artist.

“It has always been an interest of mine, but I wasn’t comfortable with my appearance. It’s still very much frowned upon in our country for a woman to dress in a more masculine way. This comes with its share of remarks and innuendos. Here, I let myself play with my style, which earned me some compliments and encouragement. I let myself be convinced and started walking the runway last year. I think my androgynous look is my strength, but I can also be very versatile.”

She continues, “Because I do photography, I was able to learn how to stage myself, which helped me gain confidence.”

Creating her own opportunities could be the motto of Ornella who together with her two partners organised their own fashion show where she also made a place on the catwalk.

“Others won’t always be there to give you a chance. But you can show what you are capable of. With my team, we organised the Chaos Fashion Show. Not only did it prove to myself that I could do it, but it opened other doors for me. Since then, I’ve done three more fashion shows this year alone!”

Created two years ago in partnership with two of her best friends, LAX and Maëlle Bonnegrace, OML Studios is an adventure in itself. Beyond their technical skills, the three young women continue to add string after string to their bow.

“OML Studios brings us a lot – in terms of experience, encounters, etc. We wear a lot of different hats, from creating to realising projects, finding funding, contacting models or canvassing clients. These are skills we’ve acquired over time. The Chaos Fashion Show was event planning on a different scale. It was the first time we worked with so many people – designers, models, stage designers… it’s coordination down to the last minor detail. Entrepreneurship allows you to multitask and better appreciate what others are doing.”

An experience that Ornella treasures in order to share it better. Transmission has an important place in the heart of our director who wishes to democratise the profession and make others benefit from her knowledge as she could benefit from it.

“I was on the set of a film when I realised that the steadicamer was also Guadeloupean. It made us both so happy. He was happy to see a young native woman going into an industry that has few people of color and fewer women. He shared his experience with me and gave me some advice. It made me feel good having him there. We Caribbean people are really everywhere!”

The Caribbean is a bastion of creation. And like our English and Spanish speaking neighbours, the French Caribbean is brimming with talent that, unfortunately, often struggles to be discovered. The local industry is slow and it is difficult to make a place for oneself on the monochromatic scene that is France.

“I’d like to come back to share what I’m learning because if I don’t do it, what’s the point? It’s important to come back, to give the keys to make the film industry evolve at home. Since I started, I realise how invisible we are on the screen and how blind we are to the richness of our islands – with all that happens there, our stories, our culture, we deserve to be seen by the whole world.”

We deserve more movies, more series where we see ourselves put on screen, where we can say, tomorrow I’m going to the cinema to see people who look like me in different genres – a horror movie, a romantic comedy, animation, etc. we shouldn’t deny ourselves anything!

Ornella is definite. Filmmaking is a healing tool like any other and we need it more than ever.

“We have a lot of trauma in the Caribbean, there’s so much to do. There are so many things to heal. We need to restore our confidence, to give ourselves permission to dare. I really believe that we have excellent actors, we are very natural. It would be incredible if we had a local actress who ends up in big international productions. I want to create vocations and allow talent to emerge.”

And when asked what she dreams of, there is no hesitation in her voice.

“Collaborating with Jordan Peele. He’s a director I admire for his creativity and style. It’s a wish I put out into the universe! I’m confident it will happen, remember it in a few years!”

To those who would not dare, Ornella has only one advice to give.

“Go for It! Whatever the field, don’t ask questions. You’ll understand later. When I chose filmmaking, I didn’t even know what it was. Believe in yourself and don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. It’s true that filmmaking can be intimidating and it’s a closed environment, but it’s an environment of passionate people who will always be happy to help, guide, give advice. So don’t be afraid, we’ll see you out there!”