Iyabo Boyd, Ana Tiwary talk diversity in doc industry

In the fall of 2015, at a New York iteration of Britdoc’s Good Pitch event – a gathering of social justice documentary filmmakers, NGOs, philanthropists, brands and media people – ...
January 5, 2018

In the fall of 2015, at a New York iteration of Britdoc’s Good Pitch event – a gathering of social justice documentary filmmakers, NGOs, philanthropists, brands and media people – New York-based filmmaker Iyabo Boyd was struck, and even stunned, by how many women of color were in attendance.

“Usually, there might be a handful who you know already,” she explains. “I was like, ‘who are you? Who are you?’ Introducing myself around.”

By the end of the event, Boyd (pictured, left) had assembled a group of ten who continued the conversation over drinks. A picture of the group was snapped, which Boyd later posted on Facebook.

“Black girls doc mafia,” she captioned the image.

Things developed quickly after that. The image and caption were seen by a friend of Boyd’s — South Asian filmmaker Senain Kheshgi — who was moved to consider the possibility of locating and connecting with her own peers. She soon created a Facebook group called “Desi Girls Doc Mafia,” for South Asian women in the doc industry, and within the first day, 50 people had joined.

Again, Boyd was stunned.

“I didn’t even know there were that many South Asian women making documentaries,” she says. “I emailed [the group] directly. And I was like, ‘hey guys. I feel like we should do a group for all of us.’”

The group name was modified to “Brown Girls Doc Mafia”, and by the end of its first month in operation, there were 150 members. Today, about two years after its inception, the group boasts over 1,300.

It’s a significant number, says Boyd.

Brown Girls Doc Mafia (BGDM) is a grassroots organizations founded to address diversity issues in the film industry. BGDM, among others, employ a horizontal, or peer-to-peer, approach to installing people of color in positions of power, aiming to supplement the top-down strategies of established film institutions.

For filmmaker Violeta Ayala, a member of BGDM, and whose most recent feature-length doc Cocaine Prison recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, conversations on diversity in the film industry disproportionately focus on subject matter or, to a lesser extent, the identity of the filmmaker.

“It’s not just about the person who’s in front of the camera, [or even] behind the camera,” she says, “but the color of the person who is making the decisions. All the commissioning editors. Even film festivals – a great majority of the people who run film festivals are white and male.”

Boyd explains that she initially conceptualized BGDM as a supportive community, but it quickly expanded into an informal job board, among other things.

“I have often been a go-to person for other people who want ideas about women of color, or people of color, to hire for certain things,” Boyd says. “Folks are trying to diversify what they’re doing. So they’ll be like, ‘hey, do you know any filmmakers of color for this or that?’ Or, ‘we’re looking for great women for this or that.’ I kept getting those kinds of questions, which I wanted to be able to field better.”

Accordingly, the BGDM Facebook group often functions as a resource for industry opportunities, connecting the group’s professionals with job openings, job candidates and potential funding sources.

In Australia, Sydney-based documentary filmmaker Ana Tiwary runs a similar group for media professionals across the country. Founded in 2009, the Diversity in Australia Media Facebook group was designed to provide many of the same resources as BGDM, for people of color working in Australian TV, radio, theatre and film: a space in which to hold conversations on diversity, share job opportunities and solicit financial and moral support for the projects of members. At present, 1,200 people are in the group.

Tiwary says there are several doc filmmakers in the group, with approximately 40% involved in documentary filmmaking in some capacity.

Like Ayala, who is also based in Australia, Tiwary (pictured, right) believes appointment practices need to be overhauled.

“The recruiting process in many media companies is not inclusive, and many recruiters are not aware of the impact of unconscious bias on the selection process,” Tiwary writes in an email to realscreen. “So you might be qualified for a job, but if your name sounds strange, or you don’t have much local experience, or you don’t know many people within the organization, you might not get called for the interview.

“Many roles are not advertised and are filled by mono-cultural inner circles of [a company's existing] staff. Those jobs that are advertised, often don’t reach minority communities.”

While both Tiwary and Boyd believe that peer-to-peer networks are imperative for addressing – and supporting those who have been targeted by – discriminatory practices, both emphasize the need for institutional cooperation as well.

“I think we need both,” says Boyd, who has held positions at the Tribeca Film Institute as well as various film festivals. “We need institutional support. We want more money, more sustainability, more opportunities, more interest in people of colour, women of colour working in different aspects. In terms of support systems for filmmakers, or filmmakers of colour, there’s so much need for more programs.”

Tiwary, for her part, can cite a list of media executives in Australia who are working to make the industry more inclusive. These include Graeme Mason and Louise Gough at Screen Australia, Grainne Brunsdon at Create NSW and Kingston Anderson at Australian Directors’ Guild.

“Change is in the air,” says Tiwary. “What the Diversity in Australian Media group is able to offer is the voice and wisdom of those that suffer discrimination, and are working hard to make minorities visible.”

Boyd agrees that visibility is key. “There are so many women of colour working in documentary,” she says. “That was an impetus to raise our hands collectively… sort of raise the flag and be like, ‘we’re here.’”

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