Sheffield Doc/Fest ’20: Tackling racism in the film and TV industry

Derren Lawford, creative director of Woodcut Media and Sheffield Doc/Fest trustee, was joined by a panel of Black filmmakers, producers and executives June 26 to discuss racism in the film ...
July 3, 2020
Derren Lawford, creative director of Woodcut Media and Sheffield Doc/Fest trustee, was joined by a panel of Black filmmakers, producers and executives June 26 to discuss racism in the film and television industry.
The panel, part of Sheffield Doc/Fest’s virtual program of industry talks and sessions, included: Dionne Walker (The Hard Stop); Cherish Oteka (Too Gay For God?);  Adeyemi Michael (SodiqMurder on the StreetsEntitled); Mathieu Ajan (BFI talent executive and founder of Bounce Cinema); and Cassie Quarless (Generation Revolution).

In the wake of the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minnesota May 25, protests have erupted across the U.S. calling for an end to police brutality against Black communities.

Those protests and the Black Lives Matter movement have catalyzed demonstrations globally, with the effects rippling throughout the film and TV industry.

Panelists discussed the impact, the industry’s response and what can be done to address systemic racism.


For Oteka — an alumni of The Grierson Trust’s Doc Lab and Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Doc Next — the movement has led to an “unearthing of trauma.”

“On a day to day basis, there’s a lot that you have to endure, a lot that you have to suppress, a lot that you have to shrug off your shoulders, both in your day to day life and professionally,” she said. “Now, there is this momentum going of people saying they’re not going to take it anymore, they want change. In that, there is the unearthing of all the things I just haven’t said before and all the times I felt dis-empowered.”

The documentary filmmaker says she was offered “loads” of jobs over the past few weeks — including four in a single day, all of which she turned down.

“A lot of it’s to talk about racism, trauma, and sometimes it’s done with an insensitivity to the fact that in making these projects, we have to endure our own traumas and that comes to the surface as well,” Oteka explained. “What I would appreciate from the industry is people acknowledging that we had ideas before this happened, and our storytelling isn’t just for the sake of serving immediate needs so you can look like you’re doing something at the moment, or like you care. This needs to be something that endures.”

Ajan echoed Oteka.

“This is stuff that’s been going on for years and centuries. It’s not anything new, it’s almost like this one just has a marketing campaign,” he said. “And there’s different layers to what’s going on at the moment. For me, personally, I see it’s a war against racism and it’s a war against capitalism because at the same time organizations and individuals can use this for commercial gain as well.

So it’s about balancing, what’s authentic? What’s meaningful? You’re going to be reached out to by people who have been ignoring your emails, essentially.”

Walker — whose current project Invisible Woman 2.0 was selected for Sheffield Doc/Fest’s MeetMarket — says the movement “felt different this time around.”

“We know what we need to do and the policies are there, they’ve been drawn out, actions have been laid out in the past. What more can we do now to sustain as we go forward? How can we drill down into racism in institutions? How can we shift institutional racism and systemic racism?” she said.


The global call to action on the issue triggered responses from individuals, institutions, companies and organizations in the film and TV industry, and continues to do so.

YouTube pledged $100 million to support Black creators; Sky created a £30 million racial injustice fund; Channel 4 vowed to be an “anti-racist organization”; and the BBC committed £100 million toward diverse and inclusive content.

Still, open letters signed by thousands of people of color working in the U.S. and UK film and TV industry have called for “concrete and deliberate action” and “active engagement.”

Grierson award-winning director Adeyemi Michael says the response has been “reactionary.”

“This allyship is reactionary. Where was this before?” he said. “These types of productions this money is supposed to go towards to support sometimes cost tens of millions. So, question is, who’s going to be involved in that? Who’s going to be involved in the decision making? Which Black production companies are going to be producing this work? Which Black executives are going to be exec-ing these projects? These are all the questions I have…. This won’t change until the processes at which we exist within the system change as well.”

Oteka agreed with the assessment.

“For organizations that are coming out and saying that they’re anti-racist, I want them to actually take a closer look at their output. There’s an inextricable link between the types of content that goes out and how our community is perceived,” she said. “If you’re saying that you’re anti-racist, I want evidence of that… Anti-racism really means having a close look at your institution on every level and consulting with Black people on what equality looks like to us.”

Similarly, Quarless questioned how the industry can ensure these efforts are sustained.

“One of the things that is really important is that these organizations — Channel 4, BBC, Sky — look inside themselves really seriously and see that they’ve got talented Black and Brown people within their own ranks already and why are these people not being shaped into controllers? There are already people who have the skills to be the controllers and the commissioners,” he said.

For Ajan, organizations need to be held accountable and be transparent.

“Companies, yes, throw up your money. Ultimately, we don’t want to just see a tweet. We want to see action. At the same time, you can’t throw money at things and solve situations,” he said. “When we’re talking about systemic racism, we’re talking about being the only Black person in the office. We’re talking about going somewhere and someone asking if you’re an intern. We’re talking about people not respecting you when you reach out to them. There’s so many different layers to this.”


Lawford asked panelists whether any organizations were getting things right — and the feedback was mixed.

For Walker, Hard Stop was supported by BFI, Film London, Sundance and DocSociety.

Michael said there were few organizations he could champion, though he’s received support via the Toronto-based Hot Docs Blue Ice Fund for African filmmakers.

“Probably the only place I’ve really received sustained support has been outside of this country and that was in Toronto with Hot Docs. That says it all for me,” Michael added. “What they were doing, the approach, the set up is right. Is there some fine tuning they need to do? Yes. There’s always improvements to be made. But they’re ahead of everyone else.”

He said the outlook is less than rosy in the UK. “When it comes down to it, it’s hard for me to be waving a flag for organizations that should have been doing better… That’s just the reality. That’s the lived experience. The place that has supported me the most has not been in this country.”

Similarly, Quarless said the UK documentary landscape for feature films is “pretty poor.”

“I say that as a Black director and also just a documentary director in general,” he said. “The way we’re trying to dismantle certain things in our work is seen as too ‘risky’ and unlikely to get a big audience and so they’re unlikely to give you money.”

Ajan added that individual people have the power to bring about change — from mentoring to providing guidance and advice.

“If you’re talking to someone and you see that the budget isn’t looking right, they’re not getting paid enough, advise them, give them information,” he explained. “All these organizations, they have schemes — it’s funny they’re called schemes; the connotations of that word. We need to make it the norm. If we commission a white director, it’s not called a scheme.”

Lawford shifted the discussion to ask panelists about their respective “journeys” in the film industry.

“At the end of the day, it’s about making good work, irrespective of what challenges are put in front of you. That’s been the journey, and it’s still the journey,” Michael said.

Still, he added that accolades don’t necessarily mean there’s a stream of opportunities on the horizon. Quarless agreed.

Generation Revolution did pretty well. We got BFI support, we had a theatrical release in the UK, we toured it in the U.S., we toured it in South America, we broadcast it on TV and then we sold it,” he said. “When you go back to people with your next project, then people don’t necessarily want to take that risk.”

For Ajan, Black filmmakers and producers are not in the industry to “assimilate.”

“Against all odds, look at all the things we’re able to achieve. With or without resources, we’ll continue. We’re not here to beg. If you guys want to work with us, we’re here to work with you. It’s going to support the industry economically. Everybody wins. No one wins when racism exists.”

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