By Sharon Aschaiek
Last spring, when Toronto journalist Susan Poizner came across the story of a runaway slave and freedom fighter who'd fled the U.S. to Canada, she never imagined it would become the subject of her first television production.
"Her story is just incredible," says Poizner, 37. "It was a real discovery process for me."
What Poizner discovered was the dramatic story of Eliza Ann Parker, who escaped from her life of slavery in Maryland to the free north in Christiana, Pa. What she encountered soon after was a team of bounty hunters looking to reclaim some runaway slaves. What ensued was the Christiana Riot, a violent struggle wherein Parker and others fought off the bounty hunters.
Susan Poizner, right, with crew, sound technician Mike Filippov, left, and cinematographer Carolyn Wong, prepare to shoot footage in Buxton, Ont., for a documentary on runaway slave and freedom fighter Eliza Ann Parker. (Photo, Mark Hill)
She then fled to Buxton, Ont., a small town located in the Chatham-Kent region of the province that is still home to many slave descendants.
The dramatic tale, with its elements of social and cultural tension, and a pioneering spirit of a woman who would not tolerate inequality, compelled Poizner to go to Buxton and to tell the story of Parker's struggle.
After doing some initial research, Poizner went to Buxton and met Toni Parker, the great great granddaughter of Eliza.
"Toni is a fascinating young woman, and at 16, she tells the story beautifully," Poizner says. "She's passionate about her history and she wants to share it with others."
Next month, just in time for Black History Month, that story will reach millions of Canadians in Poizner's first-ever TV production, Mother Tongue: The Other Side of History.
"I'm really proud of it," she says.
Toni Parker reflects on the journey her great great grandmother made. (Photo, Mark Hill)
But as compelling as the story was, it would not tell itself. Poizner quickly discovered the complexities of trying to arrange a TV shoot.
"I knew I would be bringing along a cinematographer, a sound person and a camera assistant," she says. "I had to arrange accommodations, make sure we had enough time to film and get permission forms signed by everyone seen on screen. But the biggest challenge was figuring out how to finance it all."
Through a fair amount of networking, Poizner was able to secure financial support from Chatham Kent Tourism and Tourism Ontario, which helped her cover the cost of accommodations for her and her crew.
She spent four days last Labour Day weekend learning more about Parker's story by interviewing members of the community and experts on local history.
Her next stop was the editing suite, where she spent two weeks with a video editor condensing several hours of footage into an informative, entertaining half-hour package.
What followed was a blitz mail-out of VHS tapes of her show to various broadcasters.
"I sent out loads of VHS tapes!" she recalls. "It was a bit of a waiting game."
The response she received was overwhelming: two spots on TVO, Feb. 1, 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 7, 12:30 p.m.; and four more that can be accessed through digital cable: Canadian Learning Television, Feb. 9, 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. ET, and Book TV, Feb. 17, 9 p.m. and Feb. 22, 6 p.m., MNT.
With a lifelong interest in people and cultures, becoming a journalist was a natural choice for Poizner. She left Toronto at 18 for Israel to study Russian language and international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her first foray into journalism was freelancing for a local paper, and eventually The Jerusalem Post.
After graduating she moved to London, England, to complete a master's degree in contemporary Soviet studies. There, her career flourished, and included jobs at The Guardian and The Times, BBC World Service Radio, London Radio Service and Associated Press Television News. Over the next 11 years she would live in Russia for eight months, and file reports from Austria, Turkey and Morocco.
In 2002, she returned to Canada to explore the cultural stories of her homeland. What she found has led to more than she imagined: the beginning of a series of cultural profiles that will cover the Italians, Japanese, Jews and more.
"I would say that I am living my dream job at this point, no question about it. I'm just going to keep going and keep challenging myself."
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