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RSS Lite ’22: Panel discusses diversity and authenticity in documentary

Diversity, inclusion and representation, and how issues surrounding them are being tackled in the documentary and unscripted world, were at the forefront of the “Putting Authenticity First” panel at RSS ...
February 15, 2022

Diversity, inclusion and representation, and how issues surrounding them are being tackled in the documentary and unscripted world, were at the forefront of the “Putting Authenticity First” panel at RSS Lite 2022.

Moderator Johnny Webb, CEO of HiddenLight Productions, opened the session by simply asking the panelists for their opinions on how the unscripted industry is doing on diversity.

“We’re all working on it in different ways and attacking the problem at different levels. But it is a historical issue that has been institutionalized and normalized,” said Karla Pita Loor, EVP of enterprise inclusion and social responsibility for Endemol Shine North America.

She elaborated that one of the issues that continues to stand in the way of diversity efforts behind the camera and at the executive level is the frequent lack of a pipeline for new diverse talent to get an opportunity. Combined with the oft-cited problem of relying on the same relatively few established names, this typically leads to the same results.

“Even when there is an interest in appointing showrunners of color — and I would suggest that this has to be, far and wide, our effort — there is a lack of people ready to take that opportunity who’ve done it before,” she told the panel.

“The industry goes to the same names over and over, and if you only have a handful of showrunners who have already been tested and proven for big shows, and the majority of those are white, how do you get new showrunners of color to be given that opportunity? How do you train them up? And that problem is mirrored at every stage of the pipeline.”

Nivedita Das, director of advocacy and impact for the advocacy group Brown Girls Doc Mafia, advised executives in the industry to stop treating a lot of the diverse talent they’re engaging with as new, because in many cases they have the skills and experience, just not the same visibility.

“This isn’t an up-and-coming generation of creatives,” she said. “BIPOC, women and non-binary documentary filmmakers have been around for decades. It’s not that you need to now all of a sudden give them opportunity — you need to trust that they’ve been doing it, they’ve been creating social change in their own spheres of influence, across the board and across the world.”

Jose Antonio Vargas, founder and key strategic consultant for Define American, an advocacy group that works to humanize conversations about immigrants in the media, observed that younger audiences don’t make as much of the divide between fiction and non-fiction programming as previous generations did.

“My nieces and nephews in their 20s don’t really differentiate from scripted or unscripted — it’s just content. So I think the responsibility is on us even more to make sure that we’re actually, as much as possible, [representing] people with the kind of humanity and authenticity that they really deserve.”

Vargas estimated that in the past five years Define American has consulted on about 100 projects across almost two dozen networks. Initially, their work focused on the scripted space, but they’ve since expanded into the unscripted world because of a demand for their expertise, he said.

RespectAbility is another advocacy group that consults with production companies and networks on the representation of disabled individuals. Lauren Appelbaum, RespectAbility’s VP of communications and entertainment & news media, said her organization has also seen a rapid uptick in engagement.

After several years of consulting on roughly a dozen films and TV episodes per year, Applebaum noticed “kind of an explosion” in 2020 as that number jumped to 70, and then to more than 200 in 2021. She explained that while some of this growth was caused by word of mouth, it was also largely due to a greater openness on the part of networks and production companies to diversify their content.

“When people were paying more attention to things like gender and race, it was easier for us to say, ‘Why don’t you include disability?’ Because if you say you want to be inclusive of every person of color and every woman, then you need to be inclusive of disabled people of color and disabled women.”

One of the shows RespectAbility worked on is the Lifetime reality series Leave it to Geege, about single mom Geege Taylor, a cancer survivor and advocate for autism acceptance. The show was mentioned by Amy Winter, EVP and head of programming for Lifetime Television, as a series she was particularly proud of.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg thing: I don’t think we went out saying, ‘Let’s do a show around a family that’s funny as all get out but has autism as a part of their daily routine,’” Winter said. “But out of the whole family-and-friends group, there are four members of that show that are on the spectrum, to varying degrees. We didn’t set out to make a show where people would learn, but in every episode there is a moment where [Geege is] having a conversation with somebody, about what it’s like.

“I feel like it might be a warm hug for people who have it in their world, and for people who don’t have it in their world, I think you’re going to walk away changed.”

The panel also discussed the documentary Jihad Rehab, which recently premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The film, about former Guantanamo detainees who are undergoing “rehabilitation” at a facility in Saudi Arabia intended to help them re-enter society, sparked controversy, as critics charged it with Islamophobia and perpetuating the idea of a link between Islam and terrorism. The fact that the filmmaker, Meg Smaker, is a white American woman who is not Muslim, has also drawn ire.

Das called it “a very complex situation” and explained that the current controversy “started three, four years ago” during earlier stages of the project, and classified it as less of an issue with the filmmaker and more of a problem at higher levels.

“There were so many gatekeepers of this story along the way that could have put a stop [to it], put a new lens [on it], fine-tuned the story or said, ‘This is not your story to tell’, or renamed the story,” she said.

“I think the biggest takeaway is, at least for Jihad Rehab, we need to stop having representations of Muslims on film that perpetuate the terrorist narrative. Not all Muslims, not all Arabs, not all people from the MENASA region are terrorists. They don’t all know terrorists, and just because they subscribe to a religion does not make them such. And unfortunately, somehow we always end up alluding to it, even with the best of intentions… I think the onus is on the people who are giving the greenlight to these projects.”

Das cited the documentary Sirens, which also screened at Sundance 2022 and follows Lebanon’s first all-women heavy metal band, as a fresh alternative showing other kinds of Muslim and Arab stories within the documentary world.

The bottom line — both literally and figuratively, according to RespectAbility’s Applebaum — is that diversity is a benefit to the unscripted world, and the numbers bear it out.

“Specifically when you’re talking about the disability market, according to Nielsen, the disability market is worth $1 trillion worldwide, and in the U.S. the disability market is the third-largest market,” she explained. “And so there is a money aspect — audiences are demanding [representation].”

It was a sentiment echoed by Endemol Shine North America’s Pita Loor, who cited UCLA’s recent Hollywood Diversity Report, which showed that ratings peak when the diversity represented onscreen is at minimum 31%, and that carries through to behind-the-scenes as well. Loor said this shows that diversity and authenticity sell.

She said it’s much easier to convince someone who’s skeptical about the importance of diversity when you have hard numbers — particularly with dollar signs next to them — on your side.

“I always like to bring it back to that, because this work is not charity. Showing people as they are, authentically onscreen, specifically in the unscripted business but in scripted as well, is an absolute business necessity if we’re to continue to be successful and relevant.”

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