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“We Need to Stop Patting Ourselves on the Back”: Speakeasy Spotlight at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival’s 20th Anniversary Edition

S. Leo Chiang, Patricia Benabe, Yance Ford and Whitney Dow at the #DocsSoWhite 2.0 panel (Photo by Colin Huth)

There was much reason for celebration at the 2017 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival (April 6-9) down in Durham, North Carolina. The state had just (kinda sorta) repealed the ridiculous bathroom bill — which had had me scrambling to cover all the queer films I could find at the 2016 fest — and this year’s 20th anniversary inspired artistic director Sadie Tillery to create “DoubleTake,” a wide-ranging retro program featuring 19 films, one from each year of the festival’s history. This diverse selection included everything from Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen’s 2001 Benjamin Smoke, to Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras’s 2003 Flag Wars, to Gary Hustwit’s 2007 Helvetica, and more.

But the one aspect of the fest that most surprised and thrilled me were the forward-thinking — and always free and open to the public — A&E IndieFilms Speakeasy panel conversations, which the festival has been hosting for the past seven years (and which provide a nice intimate break from the rock concert lines for the often sold-out films — these are some rabid doc audiences down in Durham!). Though I attended the thought-provoking #DocsSoWhite panel last year, nothing prepared me for how addictively engaging the discussions at the Durham Hotel, a new venue just a block up from the Durham Convention Center headquarters, this time around would be. (In addition to being one of the most easily navigable fests around, with eye-catching signs denoting the venues, the massive Convention Center, attached to the main Carolina Theatre, casts an all-inclusive-resort-type vibe. It’s quite easy to bump into the many doc heavyweights attending.)

Two panels in particular stood out. “Out of the Echo Chamber,” moderated by whip-smart festival director Deirdre Haj, featured Katy Chevigny (E-Team, Deadline), Marshall Curry (If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, Street Fight), Cynthia Hill (Private Violence, The Guestworker), and Field of Vision’s Farihah Zaman (Remote Area Medical). Taking the Trump election as its starting point, the group was tasked to grapple with the question, “Are nonfiction filmmakers, and the profession in general, out of touch with a huge swath of fellow Americans, and if so, where do we go from here?”

Zaman, a “queer, brown, first-generation American” as she described herself, who mostly focuses in her films on the white working class, noted that she’s in a unique position. She described shooting in rural Texas during the election, wondering how to “understand and explain without being condescending.” Chevigny, a New Yorker who now lives in Nashville and fights the impulse to bring a coastal perspective to her work, spoke of people in the south politely keeping politics to themselves — unlike back east, where post-election, liberal New Yorkers were engaged in one big group hug. (Though I would argue that coastal bubbles aren’t limited to the coasts anymore. As a New Yorker based in Santa Fe, a sanctuary city with a gay Latino mayor that went 80% for Clinton — the other 20% I assume were the mob of disgruntled Deadheads I saw at the Bernie rally wanting to give the finger to The (Wo)Man — I basically moved from hipster Brooklyn back in time to the bohemian Village.)

Hill, a native North Carolinian whose production company is based in Durham, discussed her short film about her conservative dad — a very personal attempt to bridge the red-versus-blue-state gap. She lamented the fact that rural America is viewed as a “subculture” or “exotic” to the powers that be on the coasts. After Haj brought up Curry’s Racing Dreams, and the notion that NASCAR cannot be considered a subculture when the reality is it’s a big part of the mainstream culture, Curry added that indeed racing is one of the largest sports in the country. And yet he personally doesn’t know anyone who can name even two NASCAR drivers — thus the impetus for doing his film.

Haj also wondered if doc makers have a responsibility to diversify into rural America, like they once did with race. Zaman quickly brought up the point that you don’t need to make a politically explicit film to delve into political topics — Elaine Sheldon’s Timberline (which Field of Vision produced and screened at the fest) being one current example. Chevigny insightfully noted that when we talk about “challenging” docs too often we are talking about “challenging audiences to think like us.” Zaman agreed: “I just want people to know what it feels like to live in this town” is her mission when making a film — which, unfortunately, doesn’t much work as a funding pitch.

Hill mentioned that more people are actually telling their own tales, yet the coastal moneymen only want “sensational” stories. But Haj countered with the question of whether the doc community may be complicit in the problem, specifically with “where we choose to screen our films.” Filmmakers are just not reaching the blue-collar audiences. Hill mentioned that filmmakers owe Michael Moore a bit of gratitude for de-stigmatizing the documentary form. Hill herself has her own southern-set PBS show, A Chef’s Life, which has transformed the small town of Kinston, NC.

While Chevigny called out “confirmation bias programming,” Zaman noted that she wanted to find underrepresented communities to fund. They are less interested in the “big names” at Field of Vision. (Which reminded me of what the company’s Charlotte Cook had told me — that she loves going through blind submissions — when I met her at CPH:DOX just a couple weeks before.)

During the Q&A part of the discussion, none other than legendary Kartemquin Films founder Gordon Quinn stepped up to the mic to defend the documentary community. He rightly noted that films like Steve James’s 2002 Stevie have been focusing on underrepresented communities for quite some time. Personally, Quinn doesn’t want to fund a film about Trump voters, but rather the intersection of different ideas in red communities. Curry added that white folks seem to fall over themselves to analyze and try to understand Trump supporters, but will dismiss, say, the reactionary followers of Farrakhan. In other words, the focus is always on whites! Zaman then emphasized that she tries to understand the people that she films, and that for a Trump voter, “maybe I’m the first Muslim they ever met.” As the discussion wrapped up without any one-size-fits-all solution, it struck me that even if nonfiction filmmakers in general are “out of touch” with a big chunk of America, these panelists onstage represented the game-changing power of the few.

The second speakeasy conversation that set my mind spinning was “#DocsSoWhite 2.0: Representation, Agency, and Authorship in Doc Film,” moderated by S. Leo Chiang (Out Run, Mr. Cao Goes to Washington), who was a panelist on last year’s #DocsSoWhite discussion (and who I interviewed during the 2016 fest). Sitting alongside the Taiwan-born, San Francisco-based Chiang were Patricia Benabe (They Took Them Alive, The Hand That Feeds), a Puerto Rican now based in Lima, Peru; Yance Ford (Strong Island), a black Long Islander who was one of Filmmaker’s 25 New Faces of 2011; and Whitney Dow (Two Towns of Jasper, Whiteness Project), who has been creating films focused on issues of race for nearly two decades. By his own admission, he looks “like a caricature of a white person,” to which Ford jokingly reassured, “You’re not so bad.”

Interestingly, Chiang began the discussion noting that people of color had directed four of the five docs up for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar this year (a fact that had had me awaiting an onslaught of op-eds ever since the nominees were first announced). In addition, filmmakers of color had helmed 29% of those shortlisted. Chiang wanted to know whether the panel thought things were better now, to which Ford jumped in with “better and more complicated.” He mentioned that multipart docs like Ezra Edelman’s ultimate Oscar winner O.J.: Made in America are no longer eligible for consideration due to the new Academy rules. He also astutely noted that diversity goes beyond the black community. Until the LGBTQ — and Asian, and Latino, and the list goes on  — communities achieve parity “we need to stop patting ourselves on the back,” he emphasized. All the panelists — including the only not-queer-identified person onstage, straight white male Dow — seemed to wholeheartedly agree.

But Chiang’s next question produced a range of opinions. Why exactly are docs being so white so bad? Benabe said that growing up in Puerto Rico she didn’t even see a Spanish-language film until she was around 16 or 17. Thus, she never saw herself represented onscreen. Dow’s succinct response was that a white-point-of-view-only results in “shitty filmmaking,” and that if he’s learned one thing in all his years of making docs it’s that “intentions matter for nothing.” He recounted the filming of Two Towns of Jasper, specifically that he and his co-director Marco Williams both interviewed the same black townspeople and came away with completely different answers from them. (Only Williams, a black man, even got their real names.) They had documented two totally different realities existing in the same city. Ford added that a crew of white filmmakers still gets more access than a crew of black filmmakers, regardless of who they’re shooting. He said that white folks made up his above-the-line crew, while mostly black men held the lower team positions. He emphasized that the doc community needs to deliberately hire people at all levels and support them — and also that the people holding the purse strings never consider filmmakers of color “ready.” “Train, trust and get out of the way,” Ford cited as his new motto, fed up with the fact that too many people of color are stuck forever “training.”

When the conversation came around to organizations themselves supporting people of color Chiang discussed working with (another alum of Filmmaker’s 25 New Faces) Grace Lee to organize Asian filmmakers. Dow recalled an exasperating meeting he and Williams once took with 12 white executives from Court TV. Williams spoke up right before they began, demanding that another black person be in the room. To which Ford joked, “Get the intern!” Dow wryly noted that they actually had to get a woman from promotions. His point was that black people have power in these situations so they should use it. But Ford disagreed. He had yet to meet a white filmmaker uncomfortable with their power.

Ford then went on to give a shout to Sabaah Folayan’s stellar Whose Streets?, and to all the people of color working outside the system. He was tired of hearing about filmmakers succeeding “against all odds” when the truth was “the odds have shifted.” People are sick of asking permission. It is those who “take matters into their own hands,” this “parallel community,” that the funders needed to find and support. “There are filmmakers all over the country ignoring this live-stream,” he said. “We have a blind spot towards filmmakers who just don’t give a fuck.”

On this subject Ford and Dow were certainly on the same page, with the latter noting that he hasn’t made a linear film in five years. Benabe agreed that we need a paradigm shift, in which “the other” is the norm (as opposed to white people being the mainstream and everyone else labeled “the other”). Dow spoke of “re-conceptualizing authorship” in the new distribution landscape. The digital sphere requires nothing less than the entire rethinking of the role of storyteller. Filmmakers now have a responsibility to find the pipeline, be it Facebook or other social media sites, that will connect them to certain communities. Ford admitted, “I don’t work with millennials, I usually work in my living room with my cat,” but then urged the audience to visit sites where the content creators are, like Vimeo or even WorldStarHipHop. These people “are not approaching the gatekeepers.” To which Dow added, “You don’t need an organization to be a mentor. You don’t need IFP to be a mentor.”

During the Q&A portion of the event, a black female audience member asked Ford what he saw in his future. He said he was aiming for a Netflix series (after Strong Island’s upcoming Netflix release)  so he could then go on to hire LGBTQ folks and people of color to work on it. When Dow spoke about his Whiteness Project, an older black woman was finally able to ask a question that was on many attendees’ minds. “Why?” she wondered, did white people need to be interviewed about whiteness. “Ask a black person — they can tell you everything you need to know about white people.” Dow answered that, quite simply and sadly, white people don’t hear people of color when they speak. (He also said that he’d originally wanted to call the series For Whites Only but POV balked.)

A black man in the audience (and, by the way, for my money Full Frame has some of the sharpest, most interesting audiences around) praised Dow’s work, then went on to ask how to “retrain the lens of white filmmakers” who focus on race. White directors need to let go of power, Dow theorized, to “grapple with loss.” (Which made me think that Dow needs to teach a class called “For White Male Filmmakers Only.”) Ford added that white doc-makers too often look outside their own communities for stories. “Look inside your own community!” he exclaimed. “You’ll find the same struggles and stories.” (Which also made me realize that straight white guys like the Renaud brothers, who I recently interviewed, do this quite exquisitely.) “Look in the mirror,” Ford urged in conclusion. “Look at home.”

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