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Plan of Action: BIPOC Documentary Professionals Respond to the Pandemic and Protest Movement

Marta Cunningham (photo by Laura Solanki)

As stay-at-home orders are lifted across the world and productions begin to resume, documentary filmmakers and organizations are assessing how to “reopen” their own practices amid urgent ethical and safety considerations. They do this as COVID-19’s first wave continues to make its way across the United States, and protests around Black Lives Matter, DACA and other causes fight to dismantle our society’s structural racism and inequity. Among these filmmakers are members of Brown Girls Doc Mafia, an organization formed in 2015 that advocates for women and nonbinary professionals of color in the nonfiction space. Below, directors, producers, crew members and programmers drawn from the organization’s membership discuss how they are altering production procedures, working toward systemic change and shifting—or not shifting—their businesses and creative processes for the industry’s future. 

Directors: Marta Cunningham and lyric r. cabral

As articulated by Black Artists for Freedom in their Juneteenth statement, “Culture alone can’t fix systemic racism. But culture is strongly connected to racism’s material effects, and the representation of Black people in the media has long been used to justify the violence against us.” Marta Cunningham and lyric r. cabral are directly confronting how the industry perceives them as creators. For Cunningham, that means taking to the streets, while cabral is leaning into social distancing.

Cunningham is a TV and film director and the cofounder of Sugar Sky Pictures. Her directorial debut was the 2013 documentary feature Valentine Road, about the murder of gender-fluid 14-year-old Larry King and its complicated aftermath. “I can’t just sit around and watch things happen,” Cunningham says. “I’m not built like that, I need to jump in.” The Black Lives Matter protests have imbued Cunningham with the same sense of urgency she felt while making her feature. “I’ve already been to five protests where I’ve been filming. And I thought, maybe I should make a documentary since I’m already here… I do have a tendency to creep back into advocacy and activism.” But while Cunningham feels emboldened by the fiery optimism of today’s youth activists, she feels skeptical that real institutional change will occur because racism has run rampant for generations. 

Cunningham has successfully transitioned from documentary to TV, but not without resistance. On a production, Cunningham asked for a meeting, and the showrunner stopped her mid-sentence. “Look, you’re just here as a diversity hire,” she said, and walked away. Since then, Cunningham has aligned herself with agents and advocates that understand, “I am not here to fill a diversity quota. I am here to build a career and legacy.” In response to current mainstream interest in hiring filmmakers of color, she says, “Accept the whole package. Don’t water us down because you’re uncomfortable. We are who we are because our experiences are vastly different from yours, and that is OK.” 

Indeed, true equity in the documentary field doesn’t involve just stories and creative executives. Black professionals must be hired throughout the entire pipeline, from DPs to executive producers, production managers to transportation coordinators. “I wonder if we’re ready to truly honor our African American ancestors with promised reparations from [over 122] years ago,” Cunningham asks. “I wonder if people really understand our history. It’s going to take a huge shift. Are we ready for that?” 

Cunningham had been developing a project for a major network that has now been pushed to next year. With the postponement, however, came an invitation to be part of “a very honest conversation” with the network’s leadership. They asked her how they can do better—a question Cunningham believes all executives should be continually wrestling with. “There’s a reason why, when you look at these different cultures of fascism, they kill the artists and the educated first. If you are a true artist, what are you doing with your art? What are you doing right now to change the system?”´

cabral, who is both a director and a visual artist, also believes there needs to be a significant shift within the industry, or else independent filmmakers and marginalized communities will become increasingly disenfranchised. In particular, cabral notes that, within the documentary industry, where many directors are non-DGA, many filmmakers don’t have health insurance. “Our profession is based on closely interacting with people, and many of the communities that we document as people of color are already vulnerable,” they say. “Statistics about COVID-19 show that Black and Brown people are dying in disproportionate numbers globally from the virus. What does it mean to responsibly re-enter and produce documentary work in a community that has been impacted? If filmmakers don’t have health insurance, then we are exposing these communities and ourselves to incalculable risks.” This concern has driven cabral during the pandemic to diversity their artistic practice by forgoing in-field work and making new work drawn from their existing personal archive.

The impact of COVID-19 and the protests have caused a shift in cabral’s conceptual practice as well. The director is no stranger to emotionally and physically taxing work—their 2015 directorial debut, the Emmy-award winning (T)ERROR (codirected with David Felix Sutcliffe), followed an FBI counterterrorism sting operation in real time. “I’ve deeply reflected on my motivations for creating, and I will not author work that centers Black pain but instead the lesser seen processes of healing and restoration,” states cabral. “I do think someone needs to tell these difficult narratives in service of public interest, but I hold the accumulated weight—physical, spiritual, emotional—of each story that I have documented.”

“I don’t think anyone would hire me to make a documentary about butterflies based on my previous body of work,” cabral continues, “but I am a storyteller who straddles many realities and realms. I’m most often called upon to do stories that will put me in danger, stories laden with high risk and trauma. To disrupt this pattern, in service of self and community, I am strictly focused on elevating beauty, aesthetic harmony and holistic representations within my nonfiction work.”

Producers: Sabrina S. Gordon and Ramona Emerson

From their respective homes, producers Sabrina S. Gordon and Ramona Emerson are finding ways to continue producing while recognizing the weight of racism in Black and Indigenous communities.

Gordon is a documentary filmmaker and producer of the 2017 film Quest, the critically acclaimed portrait of a North Philadelphia family. Since the start of the pandemic she hasn’t stopped working. “I’m used to working remotely, but this is different,” she says. “The pandemic is traumatic. You’re hiding from a deadly disease. You have to stay away from loved ones. Then, you have to figure out how to make a living! You’re pushing past nonstop anxiety to be productive.”

As a producer and editor, Gordon has plenty of remote tasks to complete, but for one current project the pandemic required the
re-envisioning of production tools and workflows. Physical production was the most impacted process. “We had our whole production schedule mapped out before COVID-19 changed everything for the folks we are filming. We wanted to capture this moment in their journey, so we did a few socially distanced [one-person] shoots. We also came up with a strategy for recording Zoom calls.” She describes her approach as “conservative” because of the more intimate nature of her project. “But, if you’re making a film about protests, there’s inherent risk because so much is out of your control.” While Gordon acknowledges the decision to shoot during the pandemic is dictated by the needs of the film, she urges filmmakers to act and think responsibly. “The brutality we’ve all witnessed demanded an immediate and forceful response. And I think it’s been emboldening.” For filmmakers of color, especially Black filmmakers, “there is a resolve to make demands that have measurable outcomes and to unapologetically set terms of engagement. There’s no patience or tolerance for performative actions.”

Emerson is a Diné (Navajo) veteran producer and co-owner of Reel Indian Pictures. Her work centers her community, as demonstrated in her 2015 film The Mayors of Shiprock, about a group of young leaders taking back their community in a quest to make a difference for their people. During this unprecedented time, “in Native country, it feels like it’s never going to change… When we see stories coming out of the media that are covering the Navajo Nation and COVID… [it’s] poverty porn that they’re continuing to produce… Where are the stories from [Natives]? What we want to see coming out [is different than] what they want to be coming out of Indian country. We want something to look forward to that’s revolutionary!”

As a mother living in a multigenerational home, she can’t justify putting her family at risk by filming at this moment. But she’s finding other ways to contribute. “When Al Jazeera and The Washington Post called, I made sure to connect them with other Indigenous women filmmakers that live in the community where they are trying to do stories.” 

Emerson was recently appointed to the New Mexico Governor’s Council on Film and Media Industries; she’s the only Indigenous representative. As Netflix and other networks have made New Mexico their production hubs, money has flowed into the state. (According to the New Mexico Film Office, there’s been a direct spend of $3.5 billion since 2002.) Emerson says her role on the council is “to remind them [to] not forget about our Navajo and Pueblo neighbors. They need jobs, too. [Out-of-state productions are] probably going to be filming on their Rez anyway [because] it’s super pretty! They’ll probably just bring in their L.A. crews and do nothing.” Emerson goes on to say that while Netflix opened up its production hub in this “most highly Indigenous populated state in the entire country, they haven’t built any pipelines to support Indigenous communities—despite building an Indigenous program in Canada. Historically, promised resources don’t make it to Native country. Will Indigenous people actually benefit from the large investment in New Mexico?

“Standing Rock was like the first time in 20-some years that people actually listened to the Natives,” she continues, “so I’m seeing a lot more Indigenous and people of color able to come in and tell our stories.” Even with increased visibility, some of these shifts are token gestures, imposing colonial limitations and failing to give power to these filmmakers. “We shouldn’t be punished for telling our stories using Indigenous thought processes; it’s not going to be your three-act [structure].” She’s waiting on the industry to catch up to the standards she’s had for years. 

Below the Line Crew: Nausheen Dadabhoy and Shuling Yong

From PPE to collective organizing, freelancers are adjusting now to fit the unpredictable demands COVID-19 has placed on both documentary practice and their employment culture. Filmmaker and director of photography Nausheen Dadabhoy has chosen to not take on in-field work at this moment, while filmmaker and sound mixer Shuling Yong has.

Dadabhoy is currently directing An Act of Worship, about the past 20 years of Muslim life in America. “I have been struggling with some of the creative approaches in documentary for a while, and some of those frustrations are being exacerbated by COVID,” she says. “There is a culture of jumping into filming with no preproduction phase.” In a normal environment, such haste can waste production time and increase the amount of footage in post. During a pandemic, however, it can be actually dangerous for the crew. Dadabhoy asks, “How can we start thinking creatively about how we can film things in a way that might be safer for the crew and also safer for the subject?” She recommends that producers bring their cinematographers in earlier to build both a style guide as well as a safe production plan. Often, for budgetary reasons, “I’m not part of that early creative conversation,” she says, “and it feels like I’m stepping on toes and dictating creative terms. I’d really love to be in those conversations earlier, so I can ultimately do a better job for the production.”

With very little information still about COVID-19, Dadabhoy had been declining in-field work, but she is working as a consulting DP and experimenting with different sorts of new setups. “There are ways to approach filmmaking right now aside from just filming Zoom or intimate verité,” she says. “You can film interviews outside, you can have the director monitor wirelessly, the camera can also be operated remotely.” For a current film she’s working on, participants were sent kits with a shot list to film their own material. “This is new territory, but how can we continue to expand opportunities based on the tools that we have?” Borrowing from the IT world, she started doing remote access to an iPhone for recording. “It’s looking at how other industries function. What kind of graphics-capture methods are gamers using? How can we create a visual language and capture the world on someone’s laptop? So much of our life is on our computers right now.”

Dadabhoy reflects that the current moment affords opportunities for shifting power in our industry for those in front of and behind the camera. “I’m finding this situation gives so much more agency to the subject to be able to say, ’Yes, you can film this now,’ or ’No, you can’t film this now.’ I don’t think it’s a bad thing for them to have more of a say in how their lives are portrayed—especially when people who are parachuting in are extracting stories from them.” Dadabhoy states that freelancers can exercise power by banding together with colleagues to ask for hazard pay, to demand a safety plan and PPE, to insist on a separate sound person and to be involved with preproduction. “We’re so stressed out, honestly, and worried about how we are going to work again,” Dadabhoy adds. “Everything is based on word of mouth and your reputation, so if somebody says you’re a difficult person to work with or weren’t adaptable, that has real consequences to your career. But if we are all advocating for the same thing, there is real strength in that.”

Shuling Yong is a filmmaker (Unteachable), DP, and sound mixer (Becoming, the 2020 documentary featuring Michelle Obama). She’s been working during the pandemic—“In documentary, the stories don’t wait for you,” she says. One of the COVID-19 production changes she’s been experiencing is a reduction in crew size, with producers and even the director off set. That has meant more responsibility for the crew. On one job as a sound mixer, Yong was responsible for conducting an interview with a subject. But “anytime you are doing more than one person’s job at a time, things get sacrificed,” she says. “When I first started noticing a pattern, I was concerned. Would it be appropriate for me to ask for a higher rate or more credits for these extra responsibilities?”

She found solutions in online communities, where she was inspired by a DP to insist on proper personnel for her department. Especially given all the new safety procedures, there’s only so much focus a crew member can give to something outside their immediate department. After organizing with other filmmakers and collectives, Yong says, “I feel a little more clear in my head around what I’m going to be asking production to do, like keep to a 10-hour day and to make sure there is time to do sanitizing every two hours by designated personnel. And make sure all the cleaning supplies need to be either provided or reimbursed by production.”

As compared to fiction filmmaking, “things are a lot more unpredictable” in documentary, Yong says. “We don’t have rehearsals, so to rely solely on a boom to capture good audio is actually a really risky thing to do.” Yong purchased a longer boom pole so she can record sound at a further distance from documentary participants, but she has also developed a contactless protocol for rigging lavalier mics. She sanitizes the lav, puts it in a Ziploc bag and sets it on a designated surface. “I’ll step away, and the participant will come and pick up the mic. Then, I verbally instruct them to put it on themselves. We do a sound check, and I verbally instruct them how to make adjustments. Now, on paper, this plan makes a lot of sense. But, in reality, the first time I tried it, the subject was a really busy politician about to make a (virtual) public appearance and did not have time to stop.”

Programmers: Abby Sun and Leslie Fields-Cruz

From different generational perspectives, Abby Sun and Leslie Fields-Cruz question large, self-serving cultural institutions that don’t address the unique needs of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) and suggest they shouldn’t have access to diversity funding. Instead, Sun and Fields-Cruz offer alternatives.

Sun, a filmmaker and programmer who has curated for DocYard among other venues, has spent the pandemic questioning how filmmakers can eschew institutional control. “This is a historical moment. We do have to take advantage of it and run with it—but so many people can’t,” states Sun. “The number one question for me is, how to hold space for people who do not have the capacity?”

Creating space involves exposing gaps in the film industry. “Whenever people in the industry get together to talk about what they can do better, there’s this reliance on reforming institutions,” Sun continues. She draws parallels to topical discussions and tensions between the police reform (adjusting policing policies) and the police abolition (replacing policing with public safety) movements. “For anyone who has worked within these [documentary] institutions or [been] laid off by them, why devote so much time to trying to fix institutions [that] have shown that they can’t move in a direction that isn’t self-serving? Film festivals represent some of the most precarious economic models in the business, leading to large pay disparities and a constantly reactionary stance to stay afloat.”

This context motivated Sun to join Keisha Knight, director of Sentient.Art.Film, to curate their own series. My Sight is Lined with Visions is a showcase of 1990s Asian American film and video with accompanying film essays by Asian American writers. “We didn’t go through the model where we pitch a program to a theater and then apply for grants to pay for screening fees. We were trying to create something that would belong wholly to us.”

Sun believes that more opportunities can be generated for professionals of color to fully own their work. This could be by forgoing labs and fellowships where young hopefuls simply shadow experienced programmers at film festivals; instead, organizations should fund young programmers to craft their own series while mentored by professionals. Also required is greater accountability from exhibitors. Sun cites independent theaters in the United States who claim to champion local content but outsource booking and programming. Transparency around these practices is paramount in the fight for long-lasting change. 

Fields-Cruz, the executive director of Black Public Media (BPM), is also concerned about the longevity of structural changes. BPM has been developing, producing, funding and distributing media about the Black experience for 40 years. For Fields-Cruz, creating spaces for people of color has been a lifelong project.

Citing the tendency of institutions to program and heavily market social justice–related content only when it aligns to a cultural moment, Fields-Cruz states: “Programmers within the public media system and programmers for commercial networks need to make a conscious effort [to make sure] stories by and about people of color are always ever-present and promoted and marketed to audiences, period. Not just during a heritage month, not just during a crisis.”

“There should be absolutely no reason why my kids, our grandkids, have to dig around so deeply to find stories,” she continues. “They shouldn’t have to need someone to pull together a slate of content on a particular issue. If the programmers are doing their job, the content is already out there, and people can access it easily.”

Like Sun, Fields-Cruz advocates for investment in professional development. She suggests that funds be diverted to support existing collectives whose mission is to facilitate long-term career growth of marginalized film professionals, especially in regional areas. “They keep giving money to organizations like Sundance and Tribeca to target people of color, while organizations like mine are sitting around here like, ’We’ve been doing this work. Why are you always giving them money?’”

“There are all these smaller collectives and makers in places like Texas and North and South Carolina,” Fields-Cruz continues. “These are people who are trying to create programs for professional development and to support each other, and they have no money, they don’t have access in the way we may have access.” The key to permanently changing the infrastructure lies in empowering groups like these and working around monopolies and dominant networks. Until then, Fields-Cruz isn’t impressed by simple platitudes.

“Don’t think that just because you’re giving us money we’re going away. We’ve been doing this for a long time, and it’s not going to end. It’s not a quick fix, and we have to be prepared to hold [organizations and institutions] accountable every step of the way. I’ll know if their statements meant something—in 20 years, when I retire.”

The Black Lives Matter movement has thrust the most egregious realities of racism into the spotlight so that even majority culture cannot turn away. We BIPOC documentary makers are deeply affected even more so as cultural workers by what is happening to our communities because the political cannot be separated from the personal. While smaller technical changes can be quickly implemented, there are larger structural and cultural changes that need to shift in the documentary industry. Many documentary industry stakeholders of color have already been doing work for years to demand respect in representation, hiring and telling our own stories. How will the invigorated attention of this moment manifest as systemic change from others? While nonfiction organizations sent out letters of solidarity, it remains to be seen whether substantive racial justice will endure. With the fight for equity and accountability showing no signs of slowing down, there is a common feeling that things will never return to the way they were. So, what side of history will you be on?

This article is part of Filmmaker‘s 2020 Summer issue. To support Filmmaker and read the entire issue, please consider purchasing the digital PDF edition here.

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