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#DecolonizeDocs: A Check-in a Year after the Getting Real Sessions

By Tracie Lewis

"#DecolonizingDocs - The Filmmaker" at Getting Real ‘18. Courtesy of Susan Yin.

The team behind Getting Real ’18 made a bold statement on commitment to inclusion and representation by programming three #DecolonizeDocs panels—addressing The Industry, The Filmmaker and The Audience. Speaking to Documentary just after the conference, Claire Aguilar, IDA’s director of programming and policy, explained,  “I invited the cohort of media organizations that partner with IDA—A-Doc, Brown Girls Doc Mafia and Firelight Media—to collaborate on curating a series of panels about the audience, industry and filmmakers of color.” The intention was to hold a public discussion to share experiences, challenges and provide the groundwork for change. 

A year later, Documentary checked in with some of the panelists and moderators of the #DecolonizeDocs conversations to get a perspective on the takeaways, ideas and observations shared during those conversations and update us on developments in the community since then.

#DecolonizeDocs—The Industry

The funders, programmers, curators, broadcasters or streaming platforms are all part of the gatekeeper power structure that make up The Documentary Industry.  Receiving the backing from just one notable source can give a project the momentum it needs to continue. An invite to a prominent film festival can give a film flight to get into more. Getting the attention of one executive can propel a broadcast or streaming debut for the film to be seen by millions. A film can have a place in history by being nominated or awarded and archived by the Academy or even preserved by the National Film Registry.

The chance of any of these scenarios happening, however, is reserved for a small group of documentary filmmakers—mainly for white, male directors. There is still a gender divide with funding, curation and acquisitions. The divide is greater for female filmmakers and female filmmakers of color. 

Filmmaker Senain Kheshgi (Project Kashmir) is proactively changing the narrative for female directors with Majority, an 18-month-old production company of women working as commercial, independent and branded content directors. “I wanted to create a space for women directors to break into branded and commercial work,“ she explains. Contradicting the argument of producers not being able to find women directors, Kheshgi notes, “We did an extensive search and reviewed hundreds of reels of women from around the world. We selected directors who had a strong point of view and a distinct storytelling perspective. There is so much talent out there and so many wonderful voices; we are always looking for new directors—both up-and-coming and experienced—for varying projects. These are experienced filmmakers that are ready to work.”

With improvements in the industry from last year, Kheshgi concedes, “Yes, there is more interest in working with women and women of color. I think there is a long way to go. At least the kinds of stories they are interested in are varied—or starting to become more varied.”

Over the past 20 years, the outlets to showcase documentaries have expanded dramatically, particularly with the preeminence of streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon.  But despite this growth, the power structure remains stagnate. 

Donald Young, director of programs for the Center of Asian American Media (CAAM), has over 25 years in the industry. He has supervised the national broadcast of over 150 award-winning projects and develops CAAM’s national productions and national PBS strategies. When it comes to significant change with gatekeepers and leadership, Young says, ”I believe there has been a greater recognition of pervasive power structures and the necessity for a wider view of inclusivity in our field, and that has become a more transparent and public topic, which is a great start. Many organizations recognize they could do better and are trying to do so. I myself have not seen major industry-wide changes, but I am excited about examples like Monika Navarro joining the Tribeca Film Institute as senior director of programs as emblematic of future possibilities.

“What has changed and is very good is the ability to bring attention to the historic inequities in our field, and be heard,” Young continues. “This hasn't always been the case. But I am concerned that change must often be confronted or suggested, that it doesn't often come from within.”  

Freelance programmer and critic Abby Sun is tapped into the industry’s current climate. “I think it takes trends longer to reveal themselves, and everything is cyclical,” she notes. “The most interesting thing that's been happening in the festival circuit is that there has been a large shuffling of programmers and festival directors in the past year, from Cameron Bailey elevating a lot of young folks at TIFF to new tenures at Cannes Doc Fortnight, Locarno and Berlin, and Sheffield announcing the appointment of Cintia Gil as the new festival head the same week Sight & Sound published an incendiary Luke Moody interview about Sheffield and why he quit. Also, IDFA hiring two new female programmers, including Sarah Dawson, formerly of Sheffield. A lot of this is driven by a desire to make nonfiction festival programming—the team itself and the films programmed—more inclusive.

“I have spent most of my time going on a ‘listening tour’ to different festivals and film events,” Sun continues, “trying to talk to really talented and thoughtful folks on the state of the documentary field and what it is that we think we're trying to do, and how institutions and systems have shaped the field in unseen ways that maybe need to be excavated.”

Panelists at "#DecolonizingDocs - The Filmmaker" at Getting Real ‘18.  (Left to right):  Loira Limbal, Deborah S Esquenazi, Edwin Martinez, Lyric R Cabral, Ben-Alex Dupris, Jason DaSilva. Courtesy of Susan Yin.

#DecolonizeDocs—The Filmmaker

The filmmakers on this #DecolonizeDocs panel are architects creating a blueprint to produce work that reflects who they are and what they believe in as individuals.  They are designing authentic processes to make films on their own terms. And they are sharing the power through a collaborative filmmaking process that reflects where they are currently as artists on their journey.

Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four, Deborah Esquenazi’s  debut film from 2016, grappled with how to tell the story of four wrongly convicted lesbian Latinas. After many years spent as a journalist, Esquenazi realized that this traditional approach wasn’t the story she wanted to tell. She felt closely connected to this community and decided to tell the story from the point of view of the defendants. 

Esquenazi continues to maintain the position of agency and representation when telling a story. Recently, Esquenazi penned a story, “The Trauma of Sanctuary,” for The New York Times Op-Docs strand to accompany her short film El Vacío. The protagonist—Karla, a Harvard-educated, former undocumented immigrant journalist and advocate—uses a confessional style to discuss the trauma of being undocumented. Esquenazi explains, “My approach is always really the same—disappear, give full agency to your subjects, and if I do use my voice, don’t be afraid to use it fully and powerfully and responsibly.” Esquenazi is planning on updating El Vacio, given that one of the subjects in the film lost his appeal. Discussing her other work over the past year, Esquenazi shares, “I have a few new projects but in the journalism/doc space, the one I am most crazy excited about is a new project in the podcast space. To me, this new space is one of the most exciting worlds. I will be hosting a radio series called A Feminist History of Crime, which is about both historical and active cases. It will examine questions of agency, racial, social and gender parity, which I tackle in my work already.”

New York City native Edwin Martinez (Personal Statement) understands the relationship between representation and colonial power and the power imbalance between filmmakers and the people they film. After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, Martinez, who is of Puerto Rican ancestry, felt compelled to reconnect to the island and figure out a way to convey a narrative alternate to what mainstream media were presenting. “I wanted to find a story about people doing the thing that they needed by themselves and not dependent on an external or colonial relationship,” he explains. “I wanted to explore how agency and self-determination exist already and are not something to be imposed upon people.” 

Martinez met a cosplayer on Facebook. Cosplay, a hybrid of the words costume and play, is the act of making or wearing costumes of characters from a movie, video game or comic book. Martinez, an IDA Enterprise Documentary Fund grantee for this project, collaboratively shares information, treatments and dailies with the protagonist during development. Martinez shares the narrative power, which is customarily maintained by the director. “Cosplay is a way you reimagine and remake your identity by hand on your own terms,” Martinez explains. “If in your regular life you are seen as someone small or diminished, but you can play and perform and create, a guise where you are a powerful being, an omnipotent being, maybe that is a different path to finding your own power. In the context of Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship to the US, such an act has particular significance.” Martinez hopes this collaborative process can be replicated as an example of a different way to make films.

Martinez is also an assistant professor of film at SUNY Purchase College, and he observes that there is more diverse faculty on college campuses now than ever before. Future filmmakers gain a varied perspective learning about films directed by women and people of color. “The big difference is generational mentorship,” Martinez observes.  “When I was developing as an artist, there was something about my struggle that was not reflected back to me or elevated as an example I could build upon. Now I am surrounded by so many peers doing so much work to redefine and discover what our field can become, for all of us. It’s an exciting time.”

Emmy Award-winning New York-based filmmaker and activist Jason DaSilva has been making films for over 20 years. In 2006, when he was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis, he turned the camera on himself, documenting his personal struggle with the disease over a seven-year period in what would become his award-winning 2013 film When I Walk. During the making of that film, he also founded AXS Lab, Inc, whose mission it is to serve those with disabilities through the arts, media and technology, and AXS Map, which follows the Yelp model as a review-sharing platform on the accessibility of businesses, restaurants and other public places.

DaSilva continues to tell his story and the challenges of dealing with the healthcare system in his 2019 film When We Walk, an IDA Pare Lorentz Documentary Fund grantee. Examining the health care system, he learns it is different from state to state and there is so much he would have to give up, including his 24/7 caregivers and filmmaker and activist career to live in a nursing care facility.  “It will be ongoing because it is an uphill battle fighting the powers that be in the medical health industry,” DaSilva says. He recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign for When They Walk, the final film in the trilogy of his journey.  DaSilva continues to be an advocate for the disabled and tells his personal story from an authentic place. “It's just become more clear these stories are important because nobody else is making participatory stories about having disabilities and the world around them,” he maintains. When They Walk will take an outward look of DaSilva’s world.  DaSilva continues to screen When We Walk at festivals.

#DecolonizeDocs—The Audience

The Philadelphia-based BlackStar Film Festival, based in Philadelphia, received several mentions in and out of the sessions at Getting Real ’18. Founder/Artistic Director Maori Holmes, who sat on the #DecolonizeDocs—The Audience panel,  launched the eight-year-old BlackStar as a filmmaker-centric festival; she’s a filmmaker herself. “Every year we are interested in providing more resources to independent filmmakers of color,” she says. “This year is no different and we’ve introduced our first-ever Pitch, which will offer support for feature documentary filmmakers initially. We are constantly looking for the work that is most fresh and interesting, often free of genre, and pushing form, thus audiences always have something new to look forward to. “

BlackStar Pitch is open to feature documentary projects by filmmakers of color. Filmmakers pitch projects to an audience and judges to receive feedback and an opportunity to win a cash prize of $1,000.

Eseel Borlasa, co-founder of After Bruce, a boutique public relations and marketing agency, had been a “social media fan” of BlackStar Film Festival before meeting Holmes on The Audience session. The relationship blossomed into Borlasa serving as BlackStar’s publicist. “I want to continue the fest’s legacy of reaching out to their audience in Philadelphia,” she says. “I additionally want to amplify their work to media friends outside of Philadelphia—celebrating the fest as the place to find new works by black, brown and indigenous people from around the world.” 

Even though BlackStar was dubbed “The Black Sundance” by Ebony Magazine, Holmes asserts, “Our festival isn’t a ‘Black’ festival; we began as one, but over the years have expanded to include other filmmakers of color. However, even as a ‘Black’ festival, we were different in that we were super interested in experimental work and we work with a social justice lens, and often that blurs the two. We aren’t super focused on the industry, although we know artists want to work so we try to provide as much access and resources as possible. Our festival is centered on the artist and has a family reunion vibe—many of our alumni create work specifically to be in the festival and return back year after year. We focus as much as possible on independent filmmakers and have always had a global lens.”

Borlasa aims to target audiences that connect to the festival’s lineup. “I am thrilled that this year the fest is presenting the Luminary Award to Marcia Smith, president of Firelight Media,” Borlasa says. “Maori’s work at BlackStar and Marcia’s work at Firelight connect at this award—two women of color leading organizations with such vision. I am inspired. That said, I am targeting outlets that have audiences that share similar values.”

Films that have screened at BlackStar have toured outside of Philadelphia and to the West Coast. “In addition to supporting artists, one of the reasons I created the festival was to have a curatorial platform,” Holmes says. “And so I am always excited to program or collaborate on a program outside of the festival or in addition to it. It is wonderful to take some of the work that we screen and program in a specific ‘BlackStar’ way. The screening at MOCA happened because a friend who works there had been interested for some time in collaborating on a program, and we figure it out this past April. BlackStar isn’t intended to be regionally specific; although it works super well in Philadelphia, we will continue to do programming in other cities.”

Observing the change in cultivating, prioritizing and serving audiences of color over the past year, Borlasa says, “I was able to witness a change—a more intentional outreach and engagement—with a narrative film that was just released. We outreached to press and organizations from the Asian American community. The thrilling part has been that our engagement came from organizations who aren’t necessarily immersed in the entertainment/media industry. Being able to connect a film to the ethos of an organization is so fulfilling.” 

Sonya Childress, who moderated the #DecolonizeDocs—The Audience panel, has extensive experience connecting organizations with documentary films.  She is the director of partnerships and engagement at Firelight Media and has worked for the company founded by filmmaker Stanley Nelson and Marcia Smith for over 15 years. Childress primarily designs and leads the audience engagement campaigns for Nelson’s films and provides impact engagement support for the 18-month documentary lab fellows program that began two years ago.  The impact producer fellowship was started, Childress says, “to train and support impact producers of color who could diversify the field of impact and also support filmmakers as they go out and lead and run impact campaigns of their own.” 

“Impact Producer” is a relatively new term, but the role of partnering with other non-film entities working to promote a particular movement or change a behavior or attitude toward certain issues has been around for years.  The biggest change seen recently, according to Childress, is “The impact field within nonfiction has been incredibly vibrant and productive and ambitious. So many of those lessons on how to position documentaries and how to leverage documentary films to support change efforts has begun to infiltrate how fiction is being used. Some of the lessons from the nonfiction field are beginning to bleed into people who are working in scripted television and fiction films. Impact producers who began working with documentaries now have an opportunity to work on a television show because an organization like Color of Change, for example, might be working with the writing room on a scripted television shows. The writers or producers now understand how to create content that speaks to current issues in a way that is nuanced and sensitive, and then they may want to work with impact producers to insure that the series or episode gains traction. A lot of the lessons from the couple of decades of impact work on the nonfiction side are starting to broaden and reach other areas of our cultural landscape.” 

On the other hand, Childress counters, “Resourcing for impact campaigns are still precarious. There are a lot of film funders and private foundations that have been resourcing impact campaigns have redirected some of those resources.  The resources that actually do the work are highly competitive and really limited.  That has been an interesting dynamic in that there is more understanding about the potential for documentary films to support change efforts.  There are more people doing that work and at a higher level and with more support and professionalization, but the funding to do the work is dwindling.  So, there is a disconnect there.”

Having the words “industry” and “documentary” in the same sentence demonstrates advancement for the genre. Companies are generating a documentary arm to compete in commerce. There are more ways to see a documentary film than before and the appreciation for the storytelling style has increased. We have come a long way as far as technological advancement but inclusion and representation remain a struggle. “Who gets to tell the story” is still an ongoing narrative surrounding funding, festivals and audience.  Women and people of color are populating the power positions in low increments.  #DecolonizeDocs, an intentionally powerful title, has provided the opportunity to expand the conversation and identify solutions.  We will recognize change when people are not embarrassed to have a conversation about it and when we no longer need ongoing panels at conferences and festivals to discuss it.


Tracie Lewis is a member of Brown Girls Doc Mafia, a filmmaker and producer, and she teaches the history of American and World Cinemas at Chaffey College.