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The Spring 2019 'Documentary' Cover: A Teachable Moment

By Simon Kilmurry

Dear IDA Community,

The theme of the Spring 2019 Documentary focused on “international” storytelling. We covered the innovate work of The Why Foundation and the impact that DocMontevideo and CCDoc are having in Latin America, as well a number of films from outside the US. In an effort to graphically illustrate that “international” theme on the cover and celebrate the global nature of this art form, we used translations of the word “documentary” in multiple languages.

To our chagrin, we screwed up on the cover. The Arabic translation was wrong—thank you, Mustafa Zeno, Talal Derki and others, for bringing that to our attention. I could easily put this down to the glitches of the design software (those were indeed problems), but in thinking about this more, that error seems symbolic—a visual metaphor that underscores a range of issues: Who gets to tell the story? Whose films get access to funding, festivals and markets across the US? Why don’t we make more room for other voices and experiences in this form? If we are telling stories of other cultures, are we genuinely engaging them in the process, or is this just another exoticized gaze? Why do we seem to elevate (fund/distribute) a few voices, from mostly western, white-dominant cultures, and by and large, relegate other voices to a second tier, regardless of the merits of the work? 

So why was the translation wrong? We relied on the internet and software to do our job. I’m the publisher and I approved the cover! It looked Arabic-y, so I assumed those sources were correct. I failed to go to many of the people I know whose first language is Arabic to check. I failed to ask those who really know the story.

We like to think of this field as curious and inclusive—after all, we are the good guys, telling stories that make the world a better place. But we need to challenge this notion and hold ourselves to account for falling short of these goals, too regularly. And we need to get more comfortable doing that—IDA included.  

In her recent essay entitled “The Space for Change” Lauren Pabst of the MacArthur Foundation explores this theme of who gets to tell what stories. She writes of the need to “create more complete, just and inclusive news and narratives…, told from multiple perspectives”, and of our need to be “willing to take criticism, to be open to ideas and insights that look and sound different from what [we] are accustomed to, to be made uncomfortable.” She concludes by writing of “working toward a culture where media made by the people from communities that are most affected by issues can be taken as the official record and can spur action, a culture where journalism, documentary and community media all have accountability leverage.”

Likewise, in his powerful keynote at Getting Real ‘18, IDFA Artistic Director Orwa Nyrabia spoke of the divide between filmmakers in the Northern and Southern hemispheres and eloquently lamented the persistent inequity in access to resources, and the lack of openness to different storytelling traditions that persists and that too often ends up “leaving the “subject” in an “objectified” state, as worthy of compassion but not as an equal with a future.”

Indeed, the whole concept of publishing an entire issue focused on “international” documentaries is in itself a form of othering, just as the Oscar’s Foreign Language category was for many years. It sets the work apart, it makes it exotic, when it is really as deserving of respect and support as any other work.

At this time when politicians across the globe are explicitly demonizing immigrants and refugees playing upon society’s basest instincts, we have to recognize that our own forms of more subtle, inadvertent othering, our implicit biases, are pernicious too and form the base of ongoing systemic disparities.

These mistakes have ended up being a gift that reminds us to check ourselves, to check our perspective, to remember that our experience is certainly not the only one, and it is no more valid or valuable than any other. It’s a lesson I’ll take to heart. I will make mistakes again I hope you’ll call me on those when they happen and I hope I’ll learn from those too.

Simon Kilmurry is the Executive Director at IDA.