DOC NYC ’15: Diversity takes center stage

On the final day of DOC NYC's industry conference, discussions about diversity, equity and representation in the doc world were front and center. (Pictured: American Promise co-director Michele Stephenson)
November 20, 2015

The final day of DOC NYC’s industry conference ceded the stage almost entirely to filmmakers of color who shared tips and advice for first-time docmakers hoping to break into the industry. The issues of diversity, equity and representation were a constant throughout the day’s panels as filmmakers offered advice to first-time filmmakers on financing, networking, mentorship and distribution. Director Michele Stephenson framed the day with a talk about diversity in documentaries, outlining five points for filmmakers to keep in mind. “I would not be sitting here if it were not for funders of color who were able to understand our story enough to advocate for it,” she told DOC NYC artistic director Thom Powers during the opening session on Thursday (November 19). “It’s about changing the face of those who are letting the stories in.” Michele Stephenson DOC NYC Stephenson (pictured with Powers) drew upon her experiences financing the 2013 doc American Promise, which she co-directed with her husband Joe Brewster. Over a 13-year-period the couple followed their son and his best friend as they studied at an elite and mostly white private school in New York City’s Upper East Side. She stressed that diversity and equity needs be reflected not just behind the camera, but in the offices of funding bodies and gave the example of a foundation that turned down American Promise because it focused on the plight of middle class African-American boys rather than inner city youth. Asked by Powers how the documentary industry was doing in terms of diversity, Stephenson said it was a “work in progress” and stressed the need for filmmakers of color to find mentors as well as to “get out of their silos” by attending film labs. “As a documentary community we need to start questioning who is telling whose story,” she explained, noting that many docs about African-American characters are often made by white filmmakers. “One story about one community of color gets told and it’s that one perspective that gets made. “We need to question our privilege. It’s about analyzing and not being afraid to self-reflect,” she added. “It’s about shifting the perspective a little bit.” During the panel “How Did I Get Here?”, four directors shared their coming-up stories, which usually involved choosing between a financially stable career path or throwing themselves into their filmmaking passion. The New Black director Yoruba Richen related how she found herself temping at age 35 while waiting for a PBS grant (which eventually came through). “I knew I didn’t want to be in that position again and that led me to teaching, which is how I support myself,” she said, adding that she has become more strategic and knowledgeable about the funds she has applied to over the years. “As my mom always told me, you go to the places that want you.” In New York City, that can mean seeking mentorship from the all-female collective Film Fatales, director Stanley Nelson’s Firelight Media, which runs a Producers Lab for diverse documentary filmmakers, and ITVS’ diversity fund. A later session focused on interactive projects, as well as social outreach campaigns for American Promise, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s campus sexual assault doc The Hunting Ground and Jason DaSilva’s autobiographical When I Walk, which inspired an app called AXS Map that allows users to rate the accessibility of buildings for people with disabilities. During the talk “Secrets From The Retreats,” director Maria Agui Carter described the process of workshopping and developing the film Rebel, a hybrid doc about Loreta Velazquez, a Latina woman who secretly served in the American Civil War. The film featured war scenes and 19th century period detail but because she had no experience in either, she told the audience that funders would often slam the door shut. Through filmmaker labs, she was able to meet and work with directors who had worked on period recreations. “I struggled with the fact that women and people of color have had a different layer of difficulty in the industry,” she said. “Labs were integral in helping me gain the experience I needed in the industry so I could realize that dream.”

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.