#DocsSoWhite?: A Panel on Diversity in Documentary Filmmaking
#OscarsSoWhite is hardly a new phenomena in dramatic narrative circles and Hollywood, but determining where the doc community fits into the debate – is. Without empirical data, it would seem the doc community is doing a better job at building diverse and inclusive opportunities than Hollywood counterparts. But if that’s true, by how much? What measures are in place to ensure that the people in front and behind the camera better reflect the world in which we live and the stories we tell? How do public vs. private dollars impact this outcome? If, in the end, it is determined that the doc-world also has a race problem, who is accountable and what, if anything, can the industry-gatekeepers, creators and consumers do to change course?
The following conversation was part of a #DocsSoWhite? – Diversity & Inclusion Panel at the 2016 Independent Film Festival Boston (IFFB). An introduction to the panel was given by Julie Burros, Chief of Arts & Culture for the City of Boston. The panelists included: Lois Vossen, Independent Lens Executive Producer (ITVS), Simon Kilmurry, Executive Director, International Documentary Association (IDA), Darius Clark Monroe (Filmmaker, Evolution of a Criminal), and Sabrina Avilés, Executive Director, Boston Latino International Film Festival (BLIFF). The conversation was guided by Chico Colvard, Filmmaker, Professor & Founding Curator of the UMB Film Series.
Chico Colvard: There are, of course, any number of people — Black, White, Brown and others – people outside, as well as inside the industry, who find it difficult to talk about race. Lois you said White people need to be on this panel so that there’s an element of “accountability” – I was thinking that allies are also needed to create a robust conversation. I wonder if you each can speak to why you agreed to talk about what is a difficult conversation for many to have?
Simon Kilmurry: I understand that this is a play-on what’s happening with the OscarsSoWhite campaign, but I think it’s actually a really important question. I come from primarily a public media background and would like to say that we are better than our commercial counterparts in terms of how we create points of access for our diverse voices and diverse communities, but I think we can all agree that public media and commercial media can be doing a better job at that in the documentary field. And I think it all goes back to, not only who’s making the films and who’s telling the stories – both in commercial and public media, but who are the gatekeepers, too? Who are the funders? Who are the people on the broadcast side? Way beyond series like Independent Lens and POV, who do a good job, but across the broad spectrum of people who are getting to produce and are getting to make decisions about who is getting to produce and direct these films. I think it is a serious question that we need to step back and look at. I think there is some really good research that we can build on and broaden. So I’m glad we’re having this conversation and this certainly is part of our “Getting Real” conference. Diversity is an issue filmmakers are raising with us constantly and that needs to be a central theme. So it’s definitely a focus of our work, at the moment.
Lois Vossen: I do feel that this issue is paramount to the work that we do. It’s absolutely at the center of what ITVS is all about. It is the reason the organization was founded — to mandate to bring more diversity to public media and to set a role model so that other media can step onboard – and obviously it is the key mandate to Independent Lens. So it’s what we do all day, everyday, to the best of our ability. As Simon said, we can certainly always do more. And not only can ITVS do more, and we’re always striving to do more on Independent Lens, but I think PBS and public television, as a whole, has a mandate to do this on a level that is higher than commercial television. And so you see great things like Stanley Nelson’s Firelight Media emerging because of this issue.
The reason I think this continues to be an issue is because of the transparency issue. At ITVS we set out to gather the information in order to hold ourselves accountable. We spent years trying to get the information from other organizations – both inside public media and outside public media – and no one shared the information: How many filmmakers of color were they funding? How many filmmakers of color were they mentoring? How many stories were they telling that came out of communities of color? Who was telling those stories? So the fact that people wouldn’t even share the metrics was alarming to us and very much underscored the problem to us that the problem is still very much real.
I do think there’s a good sign in that non-fiction film is better than fiction, to some extent. Women are doing better in non-fiction – but even women are in secondary roles and are being paid less. And certain filmmakers, who come from non-white communities, are up against a huge plethora of issues. Darius and I have had great conversations about this. I know when we were working together on Evolution of a Criminal and he was out in the world… just the conversations he was having about just this issue were enough to infuriate me. So that’s why I did the panel. I think it’s a really important topic.
Darius Clark Monroe: Evolution of a Criminal was my first experience of navigating the whole festival circuit, distribution circles, pitches – essentially meeting everyone in the documentary community. It felt a bit like the Twilight Zone. So this panel was something that intrigued me. Not just to continue to stir the pot, but I also think this is a necessary discussion – especially because when I would go to festivals, I would see in the program guide so many films about people of color, all over the globe, but when you look at the producing team, the director, the editor, everyone was pretty much white. That just annoyed me to no end because I feel it is important to be open and honest about the culture we live and that it’s not easy to just swoop in and study and observe people you did not grow up with and don’t know and have some semblance of authenticity. We are talking about documentaries, so on some base level we are talking about truth and representation — allowing people to speak truth and have a say.
To me, what’s even more powerful than the shooting of people outside of the dominant culture – it’s the editing. Who is truly controlling the voice of the people in front of the camera? I was starting to get a chip on my shoulder because I was seeing it over, and over, and over, again. And I kept wondering, why, if anything, so many filmmakers, who happen to be White were so interested in people of color? Yet, I never saw so many documentaries that explored what it meant to be white – what it meant to go to another country, let alone another continent to shoot and observe – just what does that entail? You rarely see filmmakers discussing what it means to turn the camera onto them and explore that.
So I feel like this conversation isn’t just about diversity. It is about who owns the power and how can we divvy up that power – but also how can we investigate what it means to be diverse, what it means to control the lens?
Sabrina Avilés: A lot of the documentaries that I’ve worked on — and what I find frustrating, as well — is that we’re trying to tell stories about relations of our people, if you will; about the experiences of Latino people, whether it’s a positive theme or a negative theme, and yet, it’s hard to find people with my background working in the industry. Everyone wants to be a director. Everyone wants to be a producer, but when you come to the editing – even things as a PA or researcher, I need someone who speaks Spanish. It can be very frustrating to try and find that. From my perspective, and I speak from the Latino experience, I think part of our responsibility is to make Latinos aware that they can actually make a living at this. It’s not easy, but from a creative source, it is so fulfilling.
I’m getting a bit emotional, but growing up in this industry – straight out of college I was really lucky and worked at WGBH – I didn’t have any mentors. Everybody saw me as this… “who are you?” And immediately, wanted to label me – “if you’re Latina, then this MUST be your experience.” And so that’s the other thing, the expectation of who you are, leads to people wanting to define you and what you can and cannot say.
Chico: Darius talked earlier about who is in FRONT of and BEHIND the camera. That there isn’t any shortage of White filmmakers venturing into very narrow and often harmful portrayals of the so called Black/Brown experience and then widely disseminating those films and subjects to mostly White audiences as victims or objects of study. I don’t think there are white industry types: filmmakers, distributors, broadcasters, programmers and the like sitting around plotting ways to undermine and exclude Black/Brown people from access to the industry. I do, however, think there’s a correlation between these same industry types’ lack of personal ties to Black/Brown people and the racial disparities witnessed in the industry. I wonder if anyone can speak to that?
Lois: Yeah, it’s an important question. First of all, I want to underscore what Darius said about who’s telling the story and who has the access. There’s a great story told by Stanley Nelson about a time when he was making Black Panthers. He was sitting with one of the former Panthers and it was a hard interview, but it was good… and at the end of that interview, the Panther said, “in that moment of the shoot-out, I felt like a free man.” The reason Stanley tells that story is because he knows that if a white filmmaker had been sitting there, doing the interview, he wouldn’t have gotten that out of that subject. And it underscores again and again, who is sitting there asking the subject to tell their story and then, as Darius said, who’s going to edit that and then ultimately bring that story forward? And so it’s critical that you have to have that representation throughout, because you can’t fabricate that knowledge. As Darius said, if you grow up with it, you know it. You can’t fabricate it. So I think that’s important.
In terms of the accountability… I think about all the time. And I’ll be honest, there have been times when I’ve actually thought, “Should I leave this job? Should there be someone else in this position?” I’ve always had a co-programmer, who’s a person of color and that person’s counsel and conversation is critical. We constantly talk about things like this and I will say, Noland Walker, who I now work with and just have the utmost respect for beyond words, will often shed light on something. And it’s not that it’s completely foreign to me, but it’s a different gateway in that I hadn’t thought of. He’ll even give conversations like… he was recently at a pitch session, where someone came up to him – and for those of you who don’t know Noland, he’s African-American, and this person said to him, “well, you know all about violence.” [audience gasps] And Noland was like, “Woo! I do? Actually, no I really don’t.” The assumption that simply because he’s an African-American male that he somehow had this insight…. When Noland tells me these stories – literally the hair on the back of my neck just stands up because I can’t imagine what that’s like to have to consistently have to face that. So for me, there’s no way I would do my job without a Noland by my side because I think it’s absolutely essential that I be in constant conversation and reminded about those things.
Simon: I think that if you did have a more diverse set of gatekeepers making decisions, you would come up with a wider range of films and filmmakers being supported. I think there is a kind of cumulative effect that power is concentrated in one place rather than spread out. One of the great experiences I had over the past years was when I was working with Michéle Stephenson and Joe Brewster on their film, American Promise, they were examining the notion of implicit bias and I think we all have to recognize that no matter how good hearted we are or where we sit on the spectrum, that we all have our own implicit biases. And it’s only by having a wider range of voices that we can help balance that out. It is where those concentrations of power are that we have a fundamental problem.
Chico: Darius and Sabrina, when Lois and Simon are talking about the need to diversify the gatekeepers, they’re talking about that taking shape in a professional context. What I’m suggesting is that evidence of diversity in our personal spaces, or lack thereof, dramatically impact the makeup of diversity and the decisions we make in our professional circles.
Darius: You know it’s interesting just being a filmmaker, a storyteller, just being a person, who is living and breathing and walking on this planet, there are so many things you can, obviously, observe. One thing, when you are Black in the documentary or just the film community, the work or recommendations you get are specifically tied to something the White culture – the dominant culture views like, “Oh, this social justice” or “criminal justice” — this is a “poverty story,” these are “black athletes.” So every time something gets tossed your way or someone sends you an email in an effort to include you, it’s always very specific about the “Black experience.”
It’s like one of those things where I complain about not getting an opportunity, but then when I do, it’s always a very small window of options that are presented. And that’s always something that’s strange to me, because – again, as a person living and breathing in this country, everyone else – if you’re not White, you know White people just as much as they know each other, because this is the world we live in. I have to interact: I’ve had to study, educate and be educated by White people my whole entire life. So if anyone can be dispatched to tell a story about White people, it’s people of color who can tell that story. We have to navigate that world so often, on so many different occasions, that it’s not something “foreign” to us. There’s no way for us to be in this business – whether it’s documentary or commercial – without having to constantly engage with White people. Whereas it’s the complete opposite for White people. They don’t have to engage. White people don’t have to engage with Black people, with Asians, Latinos – they don’t have to engage at all and yet they want to be the authority on other cultures. So I’m asking, in addition to these interpersonal relationships, some humility – because there’s some arrogance there. Because you know for a fact that you do not need to interact with people of color at home, work. You get to choose when to engage with people of color, whereas the opposite is the case for me – I don’t get to choose. I am literally inundated with White people.
I’m not complaining about these relationships, but there is this trend. And I don’t want to just let people off the hook by saying, “Oh, there’s this dissonance and implicit bias.” A lot of times, and I’m not going to name any festivals, but when I was on the festival circuit, I reached out to a few filmmakers, including Joe and Michéle, and I said, “I’m noticing a trend!” and that is there are certain filmmakers and films that did not film in certain parts of [America]. Obviously work is subjective. Some work may or may not be as strong for one festival versus another, but I noticed a consistent pattern over 3-4 years! With films that had won Grand Jury Prizes at premiere festivals – films that had shown in competition at Sundance were just completely off the radar at some festivals and these festivals tended to be in parts of the country that are 99% White. I felt like that was strange that they believed these films were somehow marginalized or pushed aside because they didn’t feel that their audience would be able to connect to the material if it were about people of color. To me, that’s not just a random happenstance. This is something that’s been going on for years and needs to be addressed – because I do feel that when we talk about these opportunities, sometimes it goes as far down as something as simple as an economic opportunity for a filmmaker, for their career, for their future. So that dissonance can turn into oppression or suppression and it can have a deleterious impact on the future and forward movement of a filmmaker. Again, Michéle and Joe had a phenomenal film that did incredibly well, but I kept noticing that the film was not on the radar at certain festivals around the country – and when I looked at those program guides, I also noticed that there was not one single film directed by a Black person or person of color. That’s a HUGE issue – that’s not just unintentional bias, that’s on purpose and people need to be called out and shamed.
Sabrina: Now that we’re getting submissions for the Latino Film Festival, I said, “If I see one more immigration film, I’m just going to shoot myself.” It’s that whole thing again: if you’re Latina, there’s that assumption that you have to talk about immigration. Well you know, I’m actually Caribbean and that’s not my story. So I agree with you, we get a lot of submissions from Latin Americans and although there is a chunk about social justice, you actually have filmmakers making films about family, and culture, and art – things that are relevant to everybody, not necessarily only people of Latino-American descent.
On the other hand, I’m working on a film about the sterilization of Puerto Rican women and I feel like because of my background and my experience – I should tell that story. So it’s an interesting quagmire because I would be “bullshit!” if I found out a White person started to tell that story.
Chico: Darius and Sabrina, you talk about the limitations on what kinds of stories we get to tell and whether those stories – despite being cloaked in the right pedigree, are still restricted in how nuanced/“race free” or rewarded and programmed as much as our White counterparts. To that point, I want to share a bit of a conversation I had with Roger Ross. In the history of cinema – White filmmakers are handed stories to make, whether it’s about a legendary musician, hall of fame baseball player or the next redux of Iron Man. With Roger’s latest film, Life Animated, it is completely race free. I asked him if he was aware of how rare that is for an African-American filmmaker and whether it takes having to win an Oscar before a person of color can make a film that is race free. His answer was, yes!
On that note, let’s bring the audience into this conversation.
Audience: I don’t know if our panelists can see the room [via Skype], but we are about 95% Caucasian… so that just goes to show who makes up the documentary community. I came here today expecting to be all pissed-off and my expectations were met. So Darius, you keep that chip on your shoulders.
Process is impossible to navigate for people who aren’t trained to do so. The more simple barriers, like fill out an application for a grant, are put in front of people, the more difficulty they have in doing it – unless they’ve had a particularly good primary school and secondary education. That’s a very difficult thing for people to do. So you almost have to eliminate the application process and shower these creative people with money, even if they can’t define what they’re doing. Those would be my comments to you, today.
Chico: I want to give everyone an opportunity to respond to that comment.
Sabrina: For me, and speaking as a Latina, yes perhaps not everyone has that private school education, but I feel that we have to raise the bar so that – we need to address why these kids don’t know how to write these grants. To just hand them money is bordering charity. I want to go in there [schools] and say, “This is how you pitch a project. This is how you write a grant.” What you’re doing is giving them a skill set that they can use in other aspects. Yes, we need to give them the opportunities, but I don’t think we need to lower the bar.
Chico: The people of color I know in this industry are extremely qualified and just as capable and skilled to fill out a grant or take on any of the other difficult tasks required to usher a film across the finish line. I don’t think a deficiency in their skill set or talent is a barrier to their access and success.
Lois: Yeah, I agree. It’s not a shortage of talent. The talent is there. I mean, ITVS, 67% of our money goes to filmmakers of color and we could be giving more – if we had more. It’s not that there aren’t great projects by talented people. Occasionally, as is true with White filmmakers, some filmmakers come to us early and they need mentoring. They have the ideas, they have the access and they certainly have the passion and the experience. So I don’t think there’s a dearth of talent. I think its quite the opposite.
Audience: I found something really interesting. I do a lot of disability advocacy work and when we talk about “diversity,” that seems to be the thing that always gets forgotten. I wonder if this is something we’re missing? I’ve been on a lot of panels and usually it’s me, a bunch of women and one Black dude. How do we include all of the people that are Black and Brown and Native American and disabled and White – and not discount their need for access and inclusion?
Simon: I think that’s a really fair point. This shouldn’t just be a binary Black/White conversation. This is about populations and representation from a whole range of communities. And it’s also geographic. A lot of resources in the field get concentrated on the coasts or the major cities and other parts of the country – the “fly-over” states don’t get included. I think it’s a much wider conversation that this is part of and that we need to be having across the board. Issues of representation about and by people with disabilities are as important as anything else.
Chico: In Oscar history, only four films directed or produced by an African American have been nominated for Best Documentary Feature and only two for Best Documentary Short Subject. In 2009, Roger Ross Williams, who we mentioned earlier, became the first African American director to win the Academy Award for directing (in any category) the short Music by Prudence.
Three years later, in 2012, T. J. Martin became the first African American to win an Oscar for the documentary feature, Undefeated.
Here are the documentary stats for Academy Award winners and nominees: African Americans (Feature Nominees = 4/Winners = 1 | Shorts = 2/Winners = 1) Asians (Feature Nominees = 10/Winners = 3 | Shorts = 19/Winners = 6) Latinos = 0 Native Americans = 0. Disabled = unknown?
I wonder if people can talk about some initiatives and action steps you’re taking to address these dismal stats?
Simon – let’s start with you. You mentioned earlier that you and your colleague, Ken Jacobson, who is in charge of IDA’s Getting Real Conference taking place in LA later this fall are focusing on three themes: career sustainability, diversity and art. Can you tell us more about that?
Simon: Well certainly from our perspective there are a couple of things we’re doing. One, we have a survey we’re wrapping up, which looks at diversity and career sustainability, so we have some data to work with. That’s going to need to be an ongoing process and effort so we can measure whether any progress is being made.
The themes of the conference, that we are producing, which is happening at the end of September , are driven by the conversations we’ve been having with filmmakers. We’ve had focus group meetings in New York and Chicago and L.A. and on the phone with probably about 100 filmmakers at this stage — producers, editors, cinematographers – and it’s out of those conversations that we came up with the three pillars: career sustainability, diversity and art, the creative approaches to documentary storytelling. They are all inextricably linked.
The group that we’re gathering in L.A. is going to be about 4-500 professionals, who are involved in the field, mostly makers, to talk about what specific solutions can we be working on as a field. We aim to come out of that with some working groups and a central task force to help us advance the conversation. We’ll see what comes out of it.
There were some concrete actions that came out of the first Getting Real conference in 2014 around conversations with funders and public media. So there is an opportunity to bring a significant number of people together to come up with some actual action steps and concrete measures. So I think there’s a chance there.
Lois: ITVS has had a Diversity Development Fund [DDF]. Originally when that fund was created from a foundation it was a termed grant – it was for 3 years. But we felt it was such a vital part of who we are and what our mandate is that when that grant ran out, we made it a core part of our programming. We lobbied to have that implemented into our ongoing funding contract so that our funder, who gives us money, allows us to spend money that way. And we will continue to have the DDF because it is the single most important way for us to identify filmmakers, who are trying to get into the system, which is closed and hard – to get them a leg-up.
What we’re looking at doing now is to add a second tier – sort of like a Diversity Development Part II. Because what we have found, not surprisingly, is that great talent comes to us with great ideas. We give them a small amount so they can go out and develop the idea and maybe put together a trailer, but they are still having a hard time competing with the predominantly White field. We’re hoping that this alternative funding will help those projects become more viable – not just for ITVS Open Call, but with all the myriad of funders out there, who are supporting documentary film.
So that’s critical to us and for me, it really is the most exciting work that we do – not just because it’s young talent, because our Diversity Development, as you can see, produces people who are at various stages in their careers, but it is about bringing in new ideas and making sure that those voices are able to continue to make the film. And a big part of what we talk about is will there be a second film and how can we keep them going?
In addition to ITVS shouting proudly that we fund 67% of diverse filmmakers, Independent Lens has 54% diversity in terms of the programming we represent. This is to go back to Darius’ point earlier: it is a sad reality that the vast majority of programming that I am able to bring to our slate is ITVS funded programming. Because when I go to festivals to look for programming, it is predominantly – heavily, by a huge majority — White filmmakers. So it is very hard, on the festival circuit, to find films that are made by diverse filmmakers because there are just less of them, as Darius pointed out.
The other thing that I think is critical, and again, I’m in a position where I have a wonderful situation, but ITVS feels very strongly about diversity on all levels. So our staff is always 60% or more diverse and we’ve never dropped below – or we’ve never certainly dropped below 50% — and that creates a huge reality. Everyone working on the marketing side, thinking about how you’re going to talk about the films, the outreach side, the funding side when you diversity throughout the organization is absolutely critical. And we do it including our vendors. Like when we’re going to hire a dubbing house, we try to find the dubbing house that has the most diverse staff, etc.
And then the last thing that I’ll just throw in there is something we’ve been working on; my colleague, Erica [Deiparine-Sugars], with other funders, is to try to create – and this grew out of the last IDA conference — is to create more consistency around the funding guidelines so that filmmakers, especially filmmakers, who are coming at it against these sort of large obstacles, don’t have to recreate the wheel every time they apply. We think that will provide more opportunities for filmmakers from diverse communities to be more competitive for larger sources of money from funders, who are typically looking for proposals that have all the “bells and whistles.” So if we can get that a little more equalized, we’re hoping that that will also increase.
So those are just a few of the things we’re working on, but we’re always open to suggestions and feel as though these kinds of conversations have to be available in order to hold us accountable and push us forward.
Sabrina: For me as a programmer with the Latino International Film Festival Boston [LIFFB] along with a ground troop of supporters, we want to create more of an educational presence throughout the year – without reinventing the wheel, but talking to other festivals and high schools about how can we start introducing filmmaking as an option for younger students. Yes, a lot of festivals have that component, but specifically targeted at communities of color.
Also as a filmmaker/producer, it is essential to me that my crew better reflect the diverse world we live in and to emphasize that we are not only minimum-wage workers, but that there are a bunch of us that area well educated – professionals with backgrounds in law and medicine… And again, I recognize that that’s just my reality and that’s what I bring to the forefront of my personal and professional life. Unfortunately, this equation isn’t always as important or part of their reality.
Darius: For me it’s difficult because I don’t run a festival, I’m just a freelance filmmaker. So all I have is the work. I feel like my role is to speak truth to power. The thing is it gets a little scary because I’ve noticed that over the last couple of years on social media I’ve almost become silent. Other than re-tweeting a few articles, I’ve just become quiet because I have been concerned about speaking too loudly about this issue and being silenced, professionally, which is a real reality. Not everyone is a Lois and a Simon. There are folks who do not want to hear this and don’t want to be bothered with it.
My focus is to continue to do work that is challenging and continue to talk about the reality. It’s not just about diversity because I don’t want people thinking this about some affirmative action thing – it’s about inclusion. That everyone has a right. Their opinion, their life experience, their talent should be at the table – not there simply because there was a need for a person of color or disabled person, but because you have a right as a human being to be present, to speak up and have your say.
Also my goal is to continue to learn. I don’t know if in 15-20 years, if I’m in a position as a gatekeeper, will I have to eat my own words and to make sure that I’m studying these issues and following through so that I’m not just talking the talk, but also walking the walk.
So yes, there is a need for this conversation to continue, but the other word that keeps coming to mind is “disruption.” There needs to be a massive disruption. TV has been dominated for so many decades by the dominant culture. This country, just living in NY, you realize that this is an incredibly diverse world we live in, but you might not know that by simply watching TV. So I agree with Lois that we need a level of diversity at every level of this operation. It can’t just be the filmmakers. We need people in the jury pools, at the festivals, broadcasters, in the edit suites – every single step we need representation of what reality looks like. The world is not 95% White.
Lois: I want to add that when Darius said he thought he was going to have to be quiet, is when I became infuriated and also quite afraid, if someone of Darius’ stature, who’s made this extraordinary film and who has proven he’s a great filmmaker and talent with a unique voice – if he has to be silent, then I thought… I must be living in a glass bubble. So the more that we don’t silence Darius — the more that we say, “Darius, louder, louder, louder,” is what we have to do.
I would also like to just say one more small thing, but it all adds up. My challenge to all filmmakers, but especially White filmmakers, is to have people on camera, who represent. So, if you’re doing a historical documentary, people tend to, “what did the White person say about this in 1965?” You know there are a diverse group of people we can use as experts, who represent who we are, as well. It’s about who’s behind the camera, who’s in front of the camera – especially who’s in the role of “expert” or “social commentary.” So I challenge filmmakers all the time. I’ve even asked filmmakers to go out and re-shoot interviews where I’ve heard, now, like what five White people think about – can you tell me what anyone else thinks about this?
Darius, please keep talking.
Darius: I’ll try [audience laughter].
Audience: Hi everyone. Really great conversation, but I want to shift the conversation to that moment, where a filmmaker has an idea and that filmmaker may be a 12 year old White boy or 12 year old Black girl, but their idea might be stopped because of this massive brick wall they have to overcome with regards to access. For instance, if I wanted to create a documentary about disabled or Puerto Rican women sterilization, why shouldn’t I be able to do that if I’m really passionate about it and how do I overcome that stigma of, “Oh, you’re a White male” and how do I connect to my characters as well as maybe you can?
Sabrina: I just have to respond to your comment because I find it really disturbing. When in the history of the world has a White man needed permission? The job of any documentary filmmaker is to gain access and build trust with their characters – whatever subject or community you’re going into. That is your job regardless of whatever is compelling you to tell that story. If it is a community who’s experience is not yours because of region, race or ethnicity, then you have to be aware of that. As someone who works in programming or as someone like Chico, who reads proposals, you look at the team they surround themselves with. OK, maybe this person isn’t from that community, but have they built a team of crew-members and advisors that balances them? I’ve lobbied for White filmmakers making films about Black or Latino communities because they did their due diligence. They did everything to show that they are taking great care and responsibility to build trust – as is your job as a documentary filmmaker. So I take exception with your comment. I think it was a bit naive and that’s okay, but I also think it’s really important to listen and not ask for permission that stems from guilt or not wanting to be associated with the history of White men.
White allies are important, as I think some of the panelists were saying. Listen to Lois. ITVS is the model in terms of building-up a team that reflects and challenges them about their own assumptions. Of course you should make a film about what you’re passionate about, but maybe it takes an extra step to listen to that community and question, “Why do I want to tell this story?”
Darius: I don’t believe everyone should make a film just because they can. That whole, “give me a camera and I should jump into this because I’m passionate about it…” — it’s imperialistic. It’s arrogant. There are certain stories that no, you should not be telling. I’m not saying a lot of stories, but there are certain topics, where you should tell yourself, “I have no business going down this road. This is not my lane. I should not do this. I don’t know anything about this. Even with due diligence, I will be doing a disservice by going down this road – regardless of how passionate I am about it.”
We have seen this endlessly in the whole entire continent of Africa, where you have so many different groups, who are flying over there to lend a helping hand; not even understanding the politics, the culture, the language, but just feeling a passion to help. I think you need to channel that passion to looking in the mirror and ask yourself, “Why am I obsessed about this thing?” You need to sometimes turn the camera around and ask, “Why am I going to seek out the other without exploring what it means to be me?” For example, what does it mean to be a White man in America? What does all of that entail?
You will notice for the last decade in documentary film, a lot of White men don’t have any interest in even talking about that. But as a Black man, I would love to go see that film. And as passionate as I am about wanting to go see that film, I don’t want to make that film. I think a White man should make that film. There are some things I don’t want to touch.
So I don’t think we should just toss around, “Oh, you should be able to do whatever you want to do.” As an adult, you should understand that there are certain things that out of respect for different cultures and different experiences that I should understand where I stand and allow someone else to tell their particular story.
Again, this is a very subjective litmus test, but we have got to remove arrogance and add humility to these ideas in order to understand that we are not just talking about an hour and a half and subject matter – we are invading peoples’ lives and cultures and experiences and we have to respect that. We have to know when to get involved and when to step back.