TIFF ’19: Creating more diverse docs by reducing funding hurdles

Discussion surrounding diversity and inclusion has been at the forefront of the documentary landscape for several years now, but what progress has been made to create an industry that truly ...
September 10, 2019

Discussion surrounding diversity and inclusion has been at the forefront of the documentary landscape for several years now, but what progress has been made to create an industry that truly reflects the diverse audiences it serves?

That was a question posed during the 2019 TIFF Doc Conference on Monday (Sept. 9) at the CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto. Panelists examining funding for underrepresented filmmakers included Heidi Tao Yang (pictured, right), industry funds manager at Hot Docs; and Jesse Wente (left), Ojibwe broadcaster, producer, and executive director of the Indigenous Screen Office.

The panel, hosted and moderated by Claire Aguilar, director of programming and policy at the International Documentary Association, explored the structural and cultural barriers that currently prevent filmmakers of color from accessing the funding needed to bring their stories to life and the efforts to reduce these funding hurdles in the documentary space.

For its part, Hot Docs, which operates the largest documentary festival in North America, attempts to make financing to historically underrepresented communities as accessible as possible while also lowering the barriers of entry.

The CrossCurrents Doc Funds promotes inclusion in the documentary space by fostering storytelling from within groups whose perspectives have not been widely displayed. The CrossCurrents Doc Fund encompasses two streams: International and Canadian. Its Canadian stream, for instance, looks to support emerging and sophomore Canadian storytellers “who are Indigenous, Francophone, Deaf and/or have a disability, or persons of color.”

“For our CrossCurrents fund, our global fund, when we say we’re looking for stories from filmmakers directly from the underrepresented community, we don’t define what that means,” Yang explained. “We want you to tell us that because are not the experts.

“We do consultations with members of the key priority groups, we do a lot of engagement in consulting with individual organizations and looking at best practices and really trying to make ourselves accessible to the filmmakers. We want to be there for everyone. We want to be accessible.”

Central to the mission of the Indigenous Screen Office, which launched 18 months ago, is what Wente calls “narrative sovereignty for Indigenous people,” meaning that those within Indigenous communities should be the ones to decide what stories get told, by whom and how they’re told, as well as who gets to greenlight and approve these stories.

“The importance of narrative sovereignty for First Nations, Inuit and Metis is very self evident because we’ve had ours taken, so we very much understand what that means,” Wente said.

“The broader community has a good understanding of it too,” he continued, “especially in a nation like Canada where so much of our media is government funded. We have huge institutions that get billions of dollars to make Canadian content and that is an exercise in narrative sovereignty for Canada.”

While the nascent Indigenous Screen Office doesn’t yet quite have the funding capacity to contribute to the production of content, it has launched a handful of initiatives through a fledgling partnership with Netflix that funds mid-career professional with development opportunities on set.

The Indigenous Screen Office-Netflix Production Mentorship and Apprenticeship Program also provides second phase support for Indigenous projects that may have received prior development support through other initiatives. It includes two streams: Key Creative Apprenticeships and Cultural Mentorships for directors, producers, screenwriters and showrunners.

The ultimate goal, Wente said, is for the Indigenous presence within the industry to not be seen as extraordinary, but rather as a normal occurrence.

“I’ve had the privilege of being the first Indigenous person to do a whole bunch of stuff. It’s pretty lonely when you’re first. My interest isn’t actually in the first; my interest is in the 1,000th, the 10,000th, et cetera. That’s the real goal,” Wente said.

“There will be transformative change in this industry in Canada – the building blocks for that will be laid in the next five years.”

About The Author
Jillian Morgan is the Associate Editor at Realscreen with a background in journalism and digital marketing. She joined the publication in 2019 after serving as the assistant editor to trade publications HPAC and On-Site. With a bachelor of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax, she also works as a freelance writer and fact-checker.