The Documentary Film Industry Must Chart A New Path Forward
“There are years that ask questions, and years that answer.” — Zora Neale Hurston
The first six months of 2020 ushered in a level of tumult that is both tragic and relentless. The sibling pandemics of racism, poverty, and misogyny, have been joined by a terrifying new addition, Covid-19, with climate change trailing not far behind. The speed at which we are called to respond to each calamity is dizzying. It’s as if every social safety net is being stress-tested, simultaneously, exposing weaknesses at every turn. Simply put, the very foundation of our society has fractured, and no superficial measure will repair this rupture.
This year is not asking, but demanding questions of us: Who do we want to be? What future are we creating? And what structures must fall in order to build a new foundation?
These questions are being asked across the art world, publishing, theater, in philanthropic boardrooms and newsrooms. Calls for accountability, calls for a shift in resources, calls for a new lens. That these calls have crescendoed as Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) are feeling the brunt of each pandemic, is no coincidence. The communities on the frontlines of the intertwined pandemics are also on the frontlines of demanding a new normal. Those who have spent decades laying band-aids over ruptures are hearing demands to change, or step aside. And those who have spent decades screaming out about the ruptures are stepping into their power, no longer appeased by superficial gestures.
The independent nonfiction film sector is not immune to these calls for change, and a reckoning is afoot. Voices from across the field have spent years diagnosing problems that plague the industry. They decry:
- A lack of transparency and accountability within funding, curation and distribution.
- An economic model that places power in the hands of gatekeepers and distributors, away from artists and the audiences they serve.
- A stubborn centering of the perspectives and perceptions of white filmmakers and audiences.
These critiques speak to three points of contention: Authorship, Accountability and Ownership.
Filmmakers of color have advocated for a seat at the table for more than five decades. They have launched production houses, distribution collectives, affinity groups and pipeline development programs to improve the recruitment and retention of people of color within nonfiction film. And while these programs have pried open doors for new artists, we see the same entrenched culture that privileges white filmmakers to tell stories about any subject, and any community. Ironically, the filmmakers who express a longing to “give voice to the voiceless”, play a role in rendering filmmakers of color voiceless about their own communities. One can point to the funders and curatorial gatekeepers who may have more in common aesthetically, ideologically or culturally with white filmmakers, or the filmmakers themselves whose privilege blinds them to the collective impact of their individual actions, but the result is the same.
And who pays the cost is not just filmmakers of color forced to compete with their white peers for the opportunity to tell stories from within their communities (while serving as poster children for film institutions), but in truth there is a larger debt to be paid. Calls for self-representation are not about shallow notions of identity politics and racial essentialism. It is the acknowledgement that nonfiction filmmaking is one of the few tools people of color have to counter an onslaught of dehumanizing narratives that literally cost us our lives. Self-representation is an act of rebellion against the ubiquitous crime dramas that manipulate viewers into siding with law enforcement over the communities of color they police. Self-representation is an act of rebellion against news coverage riddled with implicit bias. Self-representation is an act of rebellion against fictional portrayals that diminish people of color to one-dimensional characters, peripheral to their own history. Self-representation is an act of rebellion against an educational system that diminishes the experiences, contributions and history of people of color, essentially committing educational malpractice.
As filmmaker Yance Ford noted in a recent Cinetic Media panel, “The narrative of America has been written from such a narrow vantage point, that there are some ppl who are surprised at what’s happening right now.” I guarantee you that if people of color told the story of this country from the outset, there would be no surprise about the rage we see spilling out into the streets.
Self-representation is about agency, power, healing, and a cultural corrective. When filmmakers of color tell their own stories, about sweeping historical events or intimate personal dramas, they are engaging in acts of narrative justice. This work is not just about intellectual curiosity, it is about centering the humanity of those who are otherwise rendered invisible, or unhuman. It is about countering narratives that allow our communities to be over-policed, over-incarcerated, deported, underfunded, undereducated and terrorized. Telling one’s own story is understood as an urgent cultural intervention. For many BIPOC makers, accountability to those documented, and an vision of filmmaking as an tool of social justice and liberation, are embedded into the DNA of the filmmaking process. This drastic difference in approach and orientation to filmmaking accounts for much of the anger we see play out at festivals and screenings.
To be sure, there are critical interventions that white filmmakers can make immediately, beginning with hiring BIPOC crew when telling stories about communities of color. But frankly, the question of authorship must be addressed and reframed. To suggest that those who benefit from a system and culture that dehumanizes people of color are in the best position to tell the story of this country, to speak for those most hurt by the policies of this country, and of this country’s impact on the rest of the world, precisely because they are “objective” witnesses or because they have found a willing subject eager to speak, is intellectually dishonest. The field needs to confront outdated notions of filmmaker and audience neutrality and objectivity. Further, elevating the work of BIPOC filmmakers cannot be viewed as a benevolent gesture towards making space for “diverse voices”. Rather, it is a critical step in the march towards a representative democracy, and an acknowledgement of a century of marginalization and harm.
Questions of positionality and representation are a new battleground in nonfiction film. ‘Is this your story to tell, and to whom are you speaking’ are the questions hovering over funding panels and festival screenings. But perhaps we are asking the wrong questions. Perhaps the real question is not just about authorship, but about accountability.
In our current landscape, independent filmmakers forge out into the night, telling stories that pique their curiosity, attempt to do those stories justice, then sell that story to a broadcaster or platform that believes it will find an audience and market. In the absence of a framework for ethics and accountability, that filmmaker might take creative license with facts, parachute into a person’s life during a moment of crisis and retreat just as quickly, or use narrative shortcuts that play to audience biases and long-standing tropes. Without a code of ethics, the kind of which serves as a stopgap for journalists and anthropologists who may do their “subjects” harm, nonfiction filmmakers wade in a murky water of personal morality, market forces and unexamined bias. Not unlike issues of authorship, the people who pay the price for a lack of filmmaker accountability are frequently individuals and communities of color in distress. This kind of extractive, unethical filmmaking can have real consequences in their lives, yet there is no vehicle for accountability for the films and filmmaking processes that directly or indirectly harm those communities.
Similarly, when independent filmmakers, particularly emerging makers or those on the margins, find themselves disempowered or harmed at film festivals or through artist-service programs there are few paths for redress. Speak out and risk professional mobility. Remain quiet and risk emotional harm.
What is lacking are protocols for ethics and accountability across the industry, from filmmaking to artist-service provision. That begins with a full-throated acknowledgement that racial, gender, and class bias are baked into both the artistic form and the industry. From that acknowledgement must come the development of new norms and protocols that represent the diversity of those in the field, and a shift in power and privilege from those who historically held it. Ultimately, new protocols must be built to ensure filmmakers and film institutions do not harm the communities and artists they aim to serve.
The outsized power of commercial distribution platforms is a frequent target for criticism. While the obstacles feel immense, actionable solutions are within reach.
In “We Are Distribution Advocates,” Karen Chien and Amy Hobby laid bare the essential question at hand, “how can we reclaim power once and for all, for independent storytellers when the inequities are so entrenched?” They offered five critical interventions to address a broken distribution system: dismantle structures that inhibit access to audiences, reject deals that devalue filmmakers’ rights, demand radical transparency in reporting, democratize curation and criticism, and test new distribution pathways to audiences.
New distribution models that bring storytellers into closer proximity to the audiences they want to reach are critical. This may look like shifting our thinking about distribution hubs that organically emanate from within the communities we hope to reach and identifying ways to monetize engagement, or it may look like cultivating new investors outside of private philanthropy and corporate entities who are deeply embedded in the communities we aim to reach.
Simply put, recalibration of the economic system that undergirds the nonfiction film industry, and continues to destabilize filmmakers’ livelihoods, is an essential piece of the puzzle. One cannot address a lack of representation and a lack of accountability, without examining the lack of control filmmakers have over their own films and career sustainability. That begins with advancing new economic and distribution models.
As today’s demands in the streets have shifted from police reform to abolition, a similar cry has echoed across the film world. Calls for a paradigm shift away from models that do not, and have not served filmmakers are growing louder. Disenchantment with current norms and institutions, and their potential for reform against the pervasive forces of capitalism and white supremacy, leads some to a new conclusion — start anew. Build new models, new protocols, new gatekeepers, new centers of gravity.
This moment has laid bare historical inequities and broken systems in a way that cannot be ignored or easily fixed. One can argue that models of filmmaking, curation, funding and distribution are so fundamentally broken, so entrenched in inequity, that incremental reform is no longer adequate.
It is time for those in gatekeeping positions to take a hard look at their role in preserving inequity and broken systems, and engage new leaders to identify solutions. It is time to manifest the bold ideas that have been circulating for decades. And it is time for philanthropy to support experimentation of those bold ideas. Let this be the year where we let our radical imagination answer the foundational question - who do we want to be?
Sonya Childress has positioned nonfiction film as a tool to shift narratives and support social justice movement building for over 20 years. She currently serves as a Senior Fellow with the Perspective Fund, the impact-focused nonfiction film fund in New York City.