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We Need Documentarians of Color to Tell Their Own Stories

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From Whose Streets? (2017), dir. Sabaah Folayan (courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

During this historic moment for civil rights in the US, documentary film urgently needs to put Black and BIPOC filmmakers at the forefront of covering the ongoing protests. This need is not new; BIPOC storytellers have been demanding visibility, equity, and access in this field for years, particularly when it comes to stories that confront their communities. Many nonfiction organizations have put out emails and social media posts claiming they stand in solidarity with Black lives. But how will they move beyond optical allyship to center and support Black professionals? 

Stanley Nelson, co-founder with Marcia Smith of Firelight Media (a nonprofit documentary production company for people of color), highlighted this need in a recent interview with Indiewire: “It’s important for documentary filmmakers at this point to understand that we are the news … We really believe this is a time when filmmakers of color can have a chance to tell their stories. It’s incumbent on white filmmakers to help them do that, to move out of the way so that they can do that. Part of the hierarchy of race in our country is how many times white filmmakers have the access to power and money, the access to equipment.”

We already know what can happen within the current documentary structure: White professionals fail to cede space, get their projects funded and distributed, and then show their blind spots. Sometimes they even win Oscars for it! Slowly, some filmmakers are being held accountable. The 2019 film The Commons, directed by white filmmakers Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, follows a Black-led student movement to remove a Confederate statue on the University of North Carolina campus. When watching the film at the True/False Festival, NeXt Doc filmmaking fellow and UNC student organizer Courtney Symone Staton was shocked to see several of her friends as major figures in it. Her fellow organizers were equally surprised when she informed them about this, particularly as they were working on a film themselves about their efforts. With the support of NeXt Doc and others, Staton was able to read a statement on behalf of the UNC organizers after a later screening of the film at the festival: “By filming us without our consent, you contribute to the violent history of state surveillance and to the continued marginalization of Black people by the documentary field and people of color.” 

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From Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story (2020), dir. Daniel H. Birman (courtesy Netflix)

Similarly, the 2020 Netflix film Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story, by white director Daniel H. Birman, did not include Brown in the filmmaking process. Brown made a statement on Twitter that has since been deleted: “While I was still incarcerated, a producer who has old footage of me made a deal with Netflix for an unauthorized documentary … My husband and I were as surprised as everyone else when we first heard the news because we did not participate in any way.” Documentaries by and for communities of color are crucial for eliminating such harmful missteps. Great recent examples on Black Lives Matter include Whose Streets?, Sabaah Folayan’s film about the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and Ashley O’Shay’s Unapologetic, about the 2015-2016 protests in Chicago.

One initiative advocating for greater BIPOC representation in documentary is Brown Girls Doc Mafia, a collective of over 3,800 women and nonbinary professionals of color. I am a member of the organization. It’s a safe haven for us to build solidarity, ask pressing questions on our needs, share resources, and speak freely about the inequities we have experienced and witnessed without fear of retaliation. BGDM founder/director Iyabo Boyd recently shared a directive on this matter on Instagram:

Similarly, Holly-Marie Cato, a member of Authority Collective, explains how conventional power dynamics can harm the BLM movement:

But while consistently hiring more BIPOC creatives would be a positive step, it isn’t a comprehensive one. Diversity and inclusion initiatives haven’t been successful in protecting BIPOC employees in predominantly white companies from discriminatory practices such as wage gaps, being confined to non-leadership positions, and having little creative control. Former Refinery29 employee Ashley C. Ford posted about her treatment at the website: 

It’s for this reason that many in the community are bypassing discussion of reform in favor of strengthening structures “for us by us.” Look at the Black Star Film Festival, Center for Asian American Media Fest, Philadelphia Latino Film Festival, Black Public Media, and Latino Public Broadcasting, among others. There are plentiful resources freely available to instruct documentary professionals on how to use their access in solidarity with BIPOC creators, such as BGDM’s “How To Be a Better Ally” or Authority Collective’s Resources on Anti-Racism Work.

Because racism is systemic, it’s necessary for everyone, but particularly white people and nonblack people of color, to identify their complicity and continually educate themselves and their own communities. As a member of the Asian American Documentary Network, I am privileged to be a part of another supportive community that has taken steps toward self-reflection and accountability. Externally, ADOC’s public statement on Black Lives Matter stands apart from those of other nonfiction organizations, as it contextualizes the Asian American community’s position within these issues and provides examples of media practices to change. Internally, there is a discussion forum where members talk about community-specific anti-blackness, like addressing racism in their own families and deconstructing the “model minority” myth. This replicable strategy equips the community with language, resources, and strategies to address racism in their personal lives, careers, and films.

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From Unapologetic (2017), dir. Ashley O’Shay (courtesy the film’s website)

Solidarity and social change require consistent engagement and, more importantly, putting marginalized people in positions of power. People occupying all levels of the documentary field need to educate themselves, listen, and give funding, resources, and access to BIPOC filmmakers. There’s no one way to do this; strategies can include compensating BIPOC fair market rates, providing them with free or discounted services, speaking up wherever there’s a lack of diversity, and in general simply refusing to accept things as they are now. As Angela Davis said in 1972: “It is not enough to be not racist, you must actively be anti-racist.”




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