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Power and Perspective in Storytelling: How To Support Each Other, Authentically Represent Characters, and Dismantle The White Power Structure

Armed with Faith (Photo: Asad Faruqi)

Discussing the Other, race, and privilege in documentaries is no straightforward task. Who can tell whose story to whom using whose story-telling techniques have been questions since before 1922’s Nanook of the North, and when we toss in why, and whose paying for it, it doesn’t get simpler.

At a panel on perspective and point of view in storytelling at DOC NYC PRO, filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña deftly moderated as five award-winning filmmakers who present as non-white grappled with some of the issues around representation, the white gaze, and what we as individuals can do to support each other, act authentically towards those we represent, and begin to dismantle the white power structure we often make films within.

Who Can Tell Whose Story?

Filmmaker and cinematographer Nadia Hallgren self-identifies as black and Puerto Rican, and her credits include Trouble The Water in New Orleans, War Don Don, set in Sierra Leone, and recently Motherland, filmed in a busy maternity ward in the Philippines. Hallgren began the conversation by stating she often finds herself filming people at a poverty level who seem calmed by her presence as a woman and a person of color. “Folks agree to be filmed but sometimes are hesitant and not quite sure what that means at the end of the day,” Hallgren said. “If they live in poverty there may be a level of shame and they don’t feel I am scrutinizing them. I bring a level of calm and of shared life experiences.” She felt a connection with the Filipino women in Motherland, and was reminded of the warmth she felt from girls in her high school — she didn’t feel like an outsider watching at a distance, as might be the case if the cameraperson had been white, and male.

Geeta Gandbhir, acclaimed director and editor who brought her Armed With Faith to DOC NYC PRO, added, “We can’t generalize, that people of color can go into spaces with other people of color and make a better film. But it is about dismantling a systemic white lens and this colonial attitude. It is work for men to be feminist; it is work for white folks to be anti-racist. There is a process you have to go through to understand your own sexism, racism, colorism, and class — people of color too; we have our own issues to work on. It is a necessary part to look at as we go into places as a filmmaker.”

Stephen Maing is the director of High Tech, Low Life, which follows two Chinese citizen-journalists as they report on censored news throughout mainland China. He weighed in, “At the end of the day when you see something fucked up or heartbreaking, how do you respond? People of the culture could go in and make tons of anthropologic mistakes… and a white person could go to the Philippines and make an excellent doc… Race is a very fabricated social construct, based at best on soft science and murky lines of otherness. Race and class are very complicated to talk about and overlap. But culture is something that we can understand deeply, and sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t.” 

Gandbhir shared, “I thought I would make films just about Asian people. One, that’s very limiting. Two, that same kind of empathy that you experience as a minority arms you as a great deal to give a shit: to roll in and stay not for days or weeks but years. That is everything. If you can do that you can do anywhere.”

Authenticity Between Filmmakers and Subjects

Gandbhir stressed that if a director or producer isn’t in the community they are focusing on, their team has to have people from the community involved. She will take on co-directors: “I feel there has to be an equal partner on board that can bring us to a deeper level of understanding… someone who can bring authenticity and check me.” Maing appreciates that filming within one’s own cultural often allows for a shorthand with the community.

Edwin Martinez, whose film To Be Heard previously won the Audience Award at DOC NYC, is a Bronx-born filmmaker and cinematographer. In 2016 he wrote an article, “Navigating the River: The Hidden Colonialism of Documentary Filmmaking,” based around his experiences working on City of Trees, shot in Southeast D.C. He shared, “I’m not an insider anywhere because I have left culturally in so many ways from where I am from. I have the ability to code-switch as a communicator. I present in a certain way—the way I present is disarming. I can slang up my language.”

“Speaking of going into spaces that aren’t directly connected to me culturally,” Hallgren said, “I have been shooting docs for 15 years, and the spaces I have had the opportunity to film have taught me so much about humanity and the world… People notice how we treat them and how we treat the people around us and that has a huge effect and crosses over any race or class or situation. If I am filming with a white filmmaker or a filmmaker who may not necessarily understand the space they are in, I do try to communicate how I feel about the situation… I do think I see things they don’t see often times: staring into people’s eyes for ten hours a day there are things I am going to know about that person that the director won’t see because they aren’t that close… I do feel that I am trying to protect and stick up for people that are being filmed.”

Authenticity of Representation

When going into a new space to film, Maing stressed being as compassionate as possible. “Don’t go in with pre-conceived notion of who the good and bad guys are,” he said. “Don’t over-analyze. The worst thing we could do is fit these very important stories into a propagandistic framework… The best thing would be to make complicated narratives.”

“I want to communicate complex characters who have narrative agency,” Martinez said. “They aren’t exemplifiers of any idea, like ‘I want to fix poverty.’That can be my agency and they can be vessels of my agenda.” Martinez stressed being aware of coded racism, such as starting a film with stats or showing garbage on the streets, which can reinforce a cultural otherness. “It is important to represent humans as their own complete beings going on a journey.”

“If this was a scripted narrative film,” Gandbhir posed, “how complex would these characters be? Don’t just portray the agenda… you have got to elevate out of that.”

Changing the System

Gandbhir acknowledged we live in a white supremacist power structure, with a traditional colonial white lens of documentary filmmaking and journalism. “When an outsider with a different position of power and status goes into a community with a tradition that is not theirs, there is a different dynamic at play, as opposed to someone who at some point in their life was on equal footing as the people they are exploring,” she said. “We have to align ourselves with different people across race and gender to make an impact.” Tajima-Peña, whose work is deeply rooted in the Asian American film community and frequently deals with immigrant communities and social justice, reflected that documentaries don’t just document culture, but by placing people in positions of power to tell their own stories, culture is built.

Taking on an overarching white power structure may feel overwhelming, but passing up opportunities in order to give them to others or to ensure more accurate representations of underserved peoples is doable on a personal scale: Gandbhir shared, “If a film comes my way and I think someone could do it better or someone from that community could do it better I pass it on, I won’t take it… Or I find an equal partner.” She believes we should personally hold ourselves accountable for passing on projects not meant for us,and that we should demand from people already in key positions on projects.

“I’m tired of fixing white people. It’s not my role on earth,” Martinez said. “It doesn’t work, right? But I can use that as fuel to de-code and make my work better, to collaborate with white folks and other folks and build work together.”

“There are colonial choices in my career that I am wrestling with now,” Martinez shared. “I’m not in some woke place, it’s a daily struggle to understand the fabric that we are in. The tricky thing is when we have the privilege to ignore it, that’s when it is important to step out of the privileged space. I don’t have to look at that wallpaper, but I am going to. It’s going to enrich the entire fabric of my existence.”

Gandbhir doesn’t believe that putting people of color in roles of power is enough. “It’s not about replicating the same colonial system,” Gandbhir said. “It is about changing and dismantling that system. Access is one of the first steps: funding and distribution. But then once we arrive it is critical to really look at changing the dynamic and the way that films are made and questioning the structure.”

Thoughts From the [White] Writer

As a female cinematographer, I frequently find myself in dialogue—on set or at panels—related to the lack of diversity in the film industry. A main take away from these conversations is how easily actionable the issue is: whenever I — or you! — have the opportunity to hire or recommend someone, we can make sure some of the people we are suggesting are non-male, non-white, and non-straight. If we don’t personally know a good candidate that fits some of those descriptions, we can give of our time to ask for recommendations and get to know new folks. It seems so easy — and how effective it would be if everyone got onboard, including all our white straight male filmmaker colleagues.

It has struck me as surprising how they don’t all get actively onboard: how some seemingly well-intentioned white male crew and producers can say, “Oh, I don’t think about race or gender, I just hire whoever is best for the job,” without acknowledging how brimming with unconscious bias that thought process is. If we take the time consider our own internal biases — how whoever comes to our minds as “best” is likely to be the person we worked with last, or who has our shared sense of humor due to a similar cultural background, or who has been able to afford to buy gear and gain more experience at an earlier age, etc. — it may shift us towards taking a more proactive approach towards diversifying our crews. When I have broached the subject of intentional hiring practices with white men I am friends with, it has been hard to get them to engage: they politely listen but acknowledge that they are coming from a different place and for them it doesn’t really resonate. How to get more folks I respect to think about their approach to recommending and hiring crew and adapt more conscious practices? That feels like the nut to crack. In an industry where hiring often feels equally centered around both skill and how much we enjoy being in the company of the rest of the crew, my being a broken record of “non-male, non-white, non-straight” doesn’t seem to be having much of an impact. And how much of my — or your — time and emotional energy do we want to give to a reply to a Facebook post where a man is angrily responding to the inequality he perceives in a post looking for female crew? I am frequently torn between attempting to engage in a meaningful way (and trying to change hearts and minds!) and just doing what I can as an individual in my own practice.

These thoughts came up as I was listening to the panel, when Martinez stated, “Brown folks can’t fix racism. That’s a white problem. White people started it. We can help.” Some of the panelists presented that non-white filmmakers were in a better position to tell the stories of any non-white people, and my first reaction to that was to balk: I identify as white, and I don’t want to be told I can’t be a storyteller anywhere but in my immediate cultural realm. But that is my craftily shifting what is being said to suit my agenda, and my thinking of it that way feels parallel with men saying, “I just hire whoever is best for the job.” It is hard to hear that a power structure we don’t agree with continues to serve us, and it needs to be on us to shift that power. Maybe a solid takeaway all around is the importance of taking the time to put oneself in another’s perspective and to hear their comments as their truth, which may or may not seep into one’s own truth and one’s own practice.

The entire conversation has been made available online and can be viewed below.

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