DOC NYC hosted a deep-dive conversation Tuesday (July 21) about advancing social equity and inclusion in the documentary field as part of its “PRO” lineup of panels and masterclasses.
In response to COVID-19, DOC NYC PRO is rolling out a series of online educational opportunities geared to the documentary filmmaking community.
Tuesday’s session was moderated by Karen McMullen (pictured top left), the festival’s features programmer.
Panelists were Nicole Tsien (top right), co-producer at PBS strand ‘POV’ and board member of Brown Girls Doc Mafia; Denise Greene (middle row, center) of Black Public Media; Day Al-Mohamed (bottom center), independent filmmaker and founding member of FWD-Doc; Karin Chien (middle row right), independent producer and president of dGenerate Films; Caty Borum Chattoo (top center) of The Center for Media & Impact at American University; and Paulina Suarez (middle row left), executive director of Mexico’s travelling documentary film festival Ambulante.
“Representation in our industry is a struggle, it’s been a struggle and will continue to be. And I’m so empowered and proud and thankful for all the people on this call, the organizations they represent, for advocating for us and pushing against the power structure so we can tell our own stories,” McMullen said during the panel.
Here, Realscreen has outlined a few key takeaways from the session, which covered film festivals, accessibility, representation in front of and behind the camera and distribution.
“UNPACKING” AND “RE-IMAGINING” FILM FESTIVALS
Among other topics, panelists discussed how film festivals and in-person events have shifted in response to the pandemic.
Tsien of Black Girls Doc Mafia — an organization that advocates for women and non-binary people of color in the documentary industry — said it’s been challenging to replicate the in-person experience online.
“A lot of work pre-COVID was about bringing these women into those spaces where they can’t be ignored, creating also a safe space within sometimes toxic festival environments as a place for healing and for shelter… We’re really leaning into a lot of the skill-sharing and also really, I think, at the moment pivoting to amplify the power of our members,” she explained.
She said conversations around the future of film festivals require an “unpacking and re-imagining” of what those spaces could look like.
Al-Mohamed co-founded FWD-Doc this year with Jim LeBrecht (Crip Camp), Lindsey Dryden (Trans in America) and Alysa Nahmias (The New Bauhaus). The association seeks to increase the visibility of, support for and direct access to opportunities, networks, and employment for D/deaf and disabled filmmakers.
As film festivals move online, Al-Mohamed said “more folks with disabilities can participate.”
“As things slowly start re-opening, I would hope more organizations will continue to say, ‘Hey, by having this online, I can reach a larger audience,’ and you can also be more accessible.”
Suarez said moving Ambulante Film Festival’s 15th edition online proved to be a “very important learning experience for the whole organization.”
“We gained in audiences, but we really lost in diversity,” she said. “We put it together so quickly that we did not make it accessible to people with different capacities. So that was one thing that was a learning experience for us. Also, one has to consider that only 60% of the population in Mexico has Internet. So we were really reaching one of our core audiences, which is university students in urban areas. And we love university students in urban areas, but it really lost a sense of the festival when you can’t have your open air screenings, when you can’t have screenings in the institutions and places where the broadest diversity of audiences are possible.
“We’ve been in this huge reflection of how to reach audiences digitally.”
“EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE A PLACE IN MEDIA”
Despite making up 26% of the U.S. population (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), Al-Mohammed said people with disabilities aren’t visible enough in front of or behind the camera.
“Disability is great as a subject for a documentary,” she said. “But how much are you involving people from that community, people with that disability, in actually shaping it? And what does that mean to the view and the perspective? That’s why you see so many that are inspirational, uplifting, overcoming — there are so many other stories that get lost. It’s like the ‘tragedy porn’ we see related to many other communities that have been actively oppressed. What can we do to change history on that front?”
She added, out of necessity, FWD-DOCS and disabled filmmakers have to address “access and accessibility.”
“We want to go out and we want to make films. We don’t want to get in the business of talking to people about access because there are plenty of professionals who do that. At the same time, if somebody hosts a networking event, and it isn’t accessible, I can’t access that. How many of our deals and engagements and connections with people are made over a drink at the bar? Or at a festival where they might make the screening accessible, but not the networking event? What’s been the case for some of our folks has been, the audience space is accessible but our disabled filmmaker cannot get up on the stage to accept the stinkin’ award.”
Al-Mohammed added that few in the industry want to talk openly about their disability. “Why? Because the moment someone says it, there’s a question of your capacity. If I say I’m a blind filmmaker, the next thing out of somebody’s mouth is, ‘Oh, you must have had a great DP because they were the one doing the work.’”
“Collective action is one of the few ways we can help protect each other and be able to speak up… This is what we need to do to survive in an industry that was not built for us and, like most things, doesn’t like to change… We’re trying to force change and it’s not because of a specific ideology but because everyone should have a place in media, everyone should have the opportunity to see themselves. What we’re doing is making it right.”
“WHO CONTROLS DISTRIBUTION CONTROLS THE INDUSTRY”
Chien started dGenerate Films — a distributor of indie Chinese films and movies — with the simple desire to “see films about China made by Chinese people living in China.”
She discussed “how simple that desire was, and how difficult it was to actually fulfill, because everything we have seen about Mainland China, even to this day, is very mediated by Western gaze — American, Canadian, Australian, British. And China, of course, is a fascinating place to film. Many fascinating stories happening there.
“The reality is, even more so now than when I started the company, it’s nearly impossible for Chinese filmmakers to make truly independent documentaries about China and actually distribute them in China. A saying that I have about distribution is, ‘Who controls distribution controls the industry.’ And power is concentrated in the hands of those who control distribution, and in China that’s the Chinese Communist Party, the national government. And in the U.S., it’s multinational corporations. We have a somewhat similar overall landscape in that there are these huge titans that control the major pipelines.”
Chien said the films dGenerate represents may win awards at film festivals around the globe, but have found little success with U.S. film festivals, much less theaters and streamers.
“China has so much that many people in the film business need. Whether that’s access to Chinese audiences, access to Chinese funding, access to Chinese stories, access to Chinese art. All of these reasons are given to me as reasons why somebody could not show a film that I distribute.”
Chattoo offered some key insights from the Center for Media and Social Impact’s research. In her report Oscars So White: Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Diversity and Social Issues in U.S. Documentary Films (2008–2017), Chattoo examined 10 years of documentary films shortlisted by the Academy Awards.
Of the 150 films shortlisted from 2008 to 2017, 87% were made by white filmmakers and 13% by filmmakers of color. Just 25% were made by women — 75% by men — and 70% of the docs were categorized as “social issue films.”
“These are largely stories about social justice issues, marginalized communities, etc., but they’re not made by the communities themselves,” she said.
“WE CAN’T DO IT ALL THE TIME”
Though the industry has seen more diversity in festival programming, one audience member stated, those advances are not “reflected on the distribution side.” The individual asked panelists how filmmakers can “push collectively for support from the distributors/streamers”?
Chien said film festival programming still has “a long way to go,” adding she’s “interested in alternatives” when it comes to distribution.
Greene agreed with Chien. “We actually had this conversation, we had a panel in June around distribution. Out of that conversation was the idea that we just have to keep having this conversation and figure out how to dismantle and rebuild and figure out solutions,” she said.
For Al-Mohammad, marginalized filmmakers aren’t in a position to solve that problem.
“We keep getting asked to fix it when we are not in the position to do so. I don’t want to denigrate the power of collective action because we are working on that front but this is something that is on their end to fix… Talk to your colleagues. Bring it up. When there are other panels, bring it up. This is your industry too. If you want your industry to be successful and diverse and vibrant and dynamic for years into the future, then you have to speak out at these other arenas because we can’t do it all the time.”