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Changing Tides: Brown Girls Doc Mafia at Variety Gotham Week 2023

Walking into SohoWorks Brooklyn, it feels as though you’ve entered someone’s sleek yet warm living room. This cozy assortment of chairs, couches and tables looking out over the East River of New York was the home of the 2023 Variety Gotham Week Expo on October 4th and 5th. The second year of their Expo initiative, these two days were overflowing with timely and cutting-edge conversations between acclaimed and budding organizations in the field. The space reflected the intention and intimacy of this year’s organizing—not always something easy to come by in the city.

With over 40 years under their belt, The Gotham has been a pillar in this industry when it comes to independent film. While not quite as old, Brown Girls Doc Mafia (BGDM)’s gravitation to that work just feels natural. We look for partnerships that align with our mission: to nurture, amplify and invest in the creative capacity and professional success of BIPOC women and nonbinary people working in the documentary industry. We don’t just want to get our members in the room where career-changing conversations and networking happen—we also make sure their voices are heard and talents are recognized. 

This wasn’t the first year we’ve presented at the expo, but this year was special. We saw the connection our community had with the programming manifesting just in the sheer number of BGDM members speaking on or facilitating panels—and not just on ours! To see so many remarkable BIPOC folks was a testament to their impact, creativity and leadership in the film industry.

Held in Care: Healing and Harm Reductionist Practice for Documentary Participants and Audience

At the start of our first session, Camaro West of Peace is Loud posed a question. “At the center of our industry are stories—sometimes our own, sometimes others. What does it mean to earn a living off of someone else’s stories if they’re not being compensated?” Her candid energy set the tone for all the conversations to follow. This panel made room for the process and practicality of integrating care-based practices in filmmaking. Alongside West were Carrie Hawks (director, Inner Wound Real), Jennifer Zelaya (LCSW, consulting therapist, Inner Wound Real) and moderator Malikkah Rollins (co-founder, DocuMentality; director of industry and education, DOC NYC). Each look to care in different ways—recognizing that consent is a conversation that must continue throughout the life of a film, and recognizing that care comes in many forms: finances, mental health resources, intellectual property, credit and pace over urgency. This isn’t just advice for directors. These learnings are for each person in the film ecosystem. From arts organizations to editors, care must be a part of every step to keep our industry thriving and well.

The Age of the Influencer: Youth Pathways in Storytelling, Creativity and Artistry

When we think of change and the future, we can’t leave out the generations who are leading the way. With this in mind, Darian Henry (co-founder and co-executive director, Youth FX), Kristen Edney (writer and fellow, Diverso), Kiyoko McCrae (program director, Chicken & Egg Pictures) and Cait Carvalho (director of curriculum, Gotham EDU) chatted about the pathways to sustainable filmmaking careers for youth. The lesson surfaced quickly: there isn’t just one pathway. “Defining success for self is so important. What works for one person doesn’t work for another person. It can be harmful and damaging to tell young people there is one pathway,” shared McCrae. As technology becomes more accessible and new platforms emerge, youth today know that traditional paths aren’t the only way to find their footing. 

Henry, who identifies as being “adjacent” to the industry, shared: “I’m not interested in convincing the industry to care. I’m not interested in your tables or making one like yours. I’m not waiting for people to validate me.” We each have the power to decide what and where this journey takes us. Gen Z and Gen Alpha are next in line, and we should be paying more attention to how they’re navigating this rapidly evolving and seemingly limitless era we’re in. The lessons also applies for all filmmakers: the journey never ends, no matter what age you are. 

Advocacy for the Independent Filmmaker Through Community

We obviously had to talk about the core of everything we do at BGDM: community. Honored to collaborate with New Orleans Film Society, Islamic Scholarship Fund and Minorities in Film, this co-curated panel centered on leaning on and utilizing community in the filmmaking process. Panelists Brit Fryer (producer), Kyra Knox (impact producer and director), Nicole Tsien (producer and BGDM board member) and Iman Zawahry (filmmaker) recognized that filmmaking isn’t an easy practice. Due to years of systemic injustices, BIPOC communities have less access to resources like funding. So, where do we turn? Community—the life force of sustainability. Community can get you through life’s hardest moments, whether that’s a group chat to “celebrate the L’s,” as Fryer shared, or a partner who’s there to go on a tearful walk with you after another grant rejection, as Knox mentioned. Beyond the personal, community is integral to the filmmaking process. Tsien reminded us how it’s impossible to create a community about a community without a community. Lastly, the power of being seen, and the impact that representation has on emerging filmmakers can’t be ignored, Zawahry reminded us. When you see yourself, you can see a future. Once again, transparency and care blended together for a space that was fearless, unapologetic and hopeful. This is the energy we need to keep us moving as we collectively work to move this field forward.

These conversations were just a taste of the remarkable wisdom and dreaming that took place. From discussions on disability inclusion in the filmmaking process curated by ReelAbilities Film Festival to navigating artificial intelligence in film curated by Black Film Space, Variety Gotham Week 2023 created deeply thoughtful and timely conversations.

Spaces like Variety Gotham Week that are so open to embracing innovation and metamorphosis aren’t something we take for granted—and they are spaces we need more of. Our organization is a bit notorious for being “industry rebels” who ignite conversations that push the industry toward a more equitable and inclusive place. At the Expo, we weren’t the only ones doing that. We were surrounded by other communities, some newer and some more renowned, who are actively uplifting marginalized voices.

For BGDM members, it can be transformative to have their voices amplified on such a highly-visible platform. Stakeholders have eyes and ears on them as they demonstrate their expertise, express their unique—often underrepresented—perspectives and ultimately influence the trajectory of our field. These opportunities are critical for our organization and our members, to push toward and actualize our vision of an intersectional documentary industry and build with others marching toward this collective future. This is where the industry needs to be tuning into. This is where the seeds of change are sewn. 

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