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"#DocsSoWhite: The Path Forward" at Full Frame's 9th Annual A&E IndieFilms Speakeasy

By Lauren Wissot

Moderated by “The Woke Coach,” Seena Hodges (who began by acknowledging the Catawba people, onetime inhabitants of the land on which the Durham Hotel was built), the fourth edition of Full Frame Documentary Film Festival’s #DocsSoWhite discussion focused squarely on concrete solutions to the film world’s stubborn resistance to true inclusion behind the lens. Hodges then laid out a few “rules” for her panelists, which included Gina Duncan, associate vice president of film at BAM; Maori Karmael Holmes, founder/artistic director of Blackstar Film Festival;  and filmmakers Edwin Martinez (Personal Statement) and Bernardo Ruiz (Harvest Season). Hodges spoke of being in a “brave” space, as opposed to a “safe” one, and urged everyone to “challenge yourself and your right to feel comfortable.” She also called attention to the fact that it’s “laborious” to be on a panel like this, recognizing that it shouldn’t be the “job” of people of color to enlighten.

Next, Hodges turned to the bigger picture. “Has there been progress over the past four years?” she inquired. Martinez highlighted mentorship, expressing how much he himself struggled when he was coming up—and the fact that as a result he has joined lab mentorship programs. He theorized that there are a lot more people of color offering their time and guidance these days. Duncan noted that there’s also more conversation. But the change she’s most interested in seeing is "moving to action” rather than merely continuing the conversation. Ruiz added his two cents with regards to for-profit streamers versus public broadcasting. “How do we not just talk about inclusion, but also preserve independent and experimental voices?” he stressed. He said that he himself code-switches, and that filmmakers of color need to talk about craft and the work as much as they do about inclusion.

Hodges then widened the lens even more. “How do we decolonize the documentary filmmaking process?” she wondered (especially in this age of for-profit streaming services). Ruiz brought up something he found particularly and personally frustrating—that big powerful streamers are suddenly obsessed with immigration. Hence, filmmakers with no background are tackling these stories, which leads to unethical practices like pressuring undocumented folks to sign film waivers. He urged attention be paid to, “How are these stories being made?” It was valuable that the issues were being tackled. but it’s a gold-rush mentality that could potentially cause more harm than good. 

Duncan then discussed the accessibility of streaming services, and pointed out that since they don’t share data, filmmakers may or may not be reaching more audiences. Holmes disclosed hearing that non-white filmmakers are being told by the streaming services that “black material doesn’t do well,” which prompted Martinez to point out that capitalism and colonialism go hand in hand. If black work doesn’t do well financially, it is thus not considered valuable. “Domination as a way to organize our society” was what needed to be disrupted. And streaming services themselves were designed to be part of that capitalist/domination system. 

Broaching the tricky issue of who has the right to tell whose story, Holmes declared that it’s time to “revoke the pass” that outsider filmmakers have historically gotten to document marginalized communities. She emphasized that she was referring not just to communities of color, though; class issues needed to be included as well. She then gave a shout to rapper KRS-One, who spoke of "putting in time," and noted that “Eminem is a great rapper because he put in the time.” She cautioned against the focus on race “flattening” the conversation. 

Holmes also lamented that when you’re a marginalized person, it’s assumed that you’re going to tell your own story. What if you don’t want to? Which made Hodges wonder if people of color are being pigeonholed. Duncan then brought up the role of the gatekeeper, noting that she has a tightly curated program at BAM, with only four people on the selection committee of their fest. She said that it was important that she not know anything about the filmmaker before she goes to see a potential film, allowing her to assess the work on its own merits. She also “doesn’t do quotas…The equity is already in me…”—the proof being that Duncan's programs have achieved 50/50 gender parity naturally.

The idea that “only marginalized people can work towards un-marginalizing ourselves is crazy,” Martinez chimed in. Holmes agreed, adding that white people need to bring themselves to that process, as opposed to outsourcing decisions to their brown friends. Hodges then brought up the importance of asking questions such as “Who’s at the table?” To which Martinez responded that, when it comes to white filmmakers tackling POC subjects, “Should I make this film?” needed to be replaced with “How do I make this film?” Everyone, regardless of color, had to be fighting against binary thinking. 

Holmes next addressed accountability and the role of public media. Ruiz reflected on the need for dexterity, as he himself goes back and forth between public and commercial work. He brought up the most recent Oscars, and how publicly funded documentaries often end up released through for-profit streaming services. He added that genre and sports were likewise ways to talk about equity in a commercial setting.

Hodges then wanted to know, “How do we interrupt the pattern of the same people getting funding?” Holmes explained that most funders want filmmakers to approach them only after they’d already gotten some financing—thus, seed funding for people who have demonstrated potential was crucial. For his part, Martinez wanted to challenge risk-aversion. There was a possibility that “we’re leaving out important work because we’re not challenging the gatekeeping process to take chances.” People who get “into the rooms” have the means to get into those rooms in the first place. 

And the burden of mentorship often falls unfairly on people of color, he added. Duncan then stressed that people in leadership positions needed to be more collaborative with their entire team (and the team itself needed to be more diverse). Gender and racial parity as a way to get funding is not really diversity, she reminded. "I would be really excited if we’d move past the concept of diversity,” Martinez offered. “Are we being collaborative? Are we sharing power? Are we decolonizing the power structure?” He was much more concerned with elevating the decolonization conversation. 

Hodges pondered who ultimately bears the responsibility for long-term change. Ruiz noted that you create work to connect with a community—and viewers are demanding different work now. He’s hopeful that the audiences themselves can push for change, and even disrupt the way things are made. Duncan said that she built community around art, and that it’s important “to interrogate yourself as well.” As long she hits her budget targets and preserves BAM’s reputation, Duncan can pretty much do what she wants. And though she’s happy to be in the driver’s seat, she’s also acutely aware that people of color rarely have such a level of control.

In closing, Hodges spoke of discomfort—which is connected to fear—as part of the process for non-POC if they want to go out and tackle the issues that had just been addressed over the highly informative hour. In other words, they needed to put themselves in the shoes that the non-privileged wear when they walk into the halls of power everywhere.

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for Salon, BitchThe Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.