Where We See Ourselves: Diversity & Inclusivity and Long-Term Growth in Film

It’s amazing how a film can change our perspectives, our opinions, and our destinies. In a panel after a screening of the hard-hitting documentary Guilty Until Proven Guilty at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival, Councilman Jason Williams announced his plans to run for local District Attorney in 2020. Now, it’s possible he had already made up his mind before the event and before seeing the movie, but making the announcement then and there suggests, to me, being influenced and inspired by the presentation.

Cinema is considered a universal language, one that just about everyone can understand in their hearts. However, we don’t always get a fair representation of various cultures and people across the board, either in front of or behind the camera. If empathy and interest are to be generated, we’re going to need more diverse stories, from a diverse array of storytellers, all-inclusive. This is true not just for the industry as a whole, but the regional one too, from the so-called gate-keeping programmers to the crew workers.

We in New Orleans have amazing groups that provide excellent service to our moviegoing culture. From The Broad Theater to Zeitgeist and Shotgun Cinema, eclectic series of films are shown every week, sometimes incendiary, always thought-provoking. And, of course, there’s the New Orleans Film Society, who every year, bring an Academy Award affiliated festival that offers grants and programs to participating filmmakers. These are all great things but perhaps we can be more inclusive? Perhaps we can lead the charge in an industry thinking differently?

I chatted with local African-American filmmaker (the most outspoken) Jonathan Jackson, and leader of the New Orleans Video Access Center (NOVAC) Darcy McKinnon on efforts our city and the larger industry has/have/will be making towards being more open to all minds and voices in film. The more diverse stories there are, the more representation there is, the more connections occur, the more action happens. Give someone a net, you’ve fed them for a lifetime, right? Give someone a movie, and you may have created a bridge. Maybe one that’ll lead to a reforming District Attorney?

This is a conversation that must continue, so expect more on the subject in future editions and posts.

Bill Arceneaux: In this post Get Out industry, you’d think that minds and hearts would shift more thoroughly towards inclusive storytelling. With regards to festivals – the very places meant for showcasing work that may otherwise not get seen – what has your experience been in years prior to and now during so-called diversity efforts?

Jonathan Jackson: There are more resources for filmmakers of color now than before, so the quality of production is better. But, the people selecting those films aren’t as diverse. I’m seeing more diversity on screen, but I’m still seeing most stories told from a white, male perspective, which tend to consistently lead to the “white savior” trope. It is changing, but very slowly. There needs to be more diversity behind the screen and behind these festivals. On a major level, studies have shown that even though you see more black faces, and there is more talk of minorities in better positions, things statistically haven’t changed for minorities behind the camera in a decade. Those statistics mirror New Orleans. It may look like a program for filmmakers of color is going to change the game, that it’s helping a filmmaker of color in some tangible way, but as one who has participated in those programs, the money granted to those programs does not go to the filmmakers or their work. It goes to the organizations, who utilize those funds to go with what works, to them. And that isn’t minorities. People are not taking enough of chances on us. They are not willing to lose money on us. Everything with a minority filmmaker is a bet, and they aren’t willing to take that chance of losing, even though they aren’t winning with what they are putting their money in.

BA: Many years into the Louisiana film/tv tax credits, and we’re still trying to gain footing in supporting local filmmakers of all backgrounds. What programs and/or grants would you recommend expanding and how can moviegoers help?

Darcy McKinnon: Actually working on this now. NOVAC is part of a group of local filmmakers and film organizations who have loosely affiliated into the Alliance of Louisiana Filmmakers to create a landscape survey of independent filmmakers around the state and to get input on what resources and opportunities they need most. We just had an inaugural workshop/visioning session at the NOFF18 and had about 75 filmmakers show up to let us know their concerns, needs, and hopes for the field. Next, we will be at Southern Screen in Lafayette and looking to have more sessions around the state before the end of the year, producing a report by early 2019.

It’s clear that the tax credit program in itself, even with the lowered entry threshold for local productions, still remains out of reach for most independent filmmakers, who don’t have the budgets or cash flow to participate in the program’s fees and wait time. But the new version of the legislation that went into effect July 1, 2017, has an interesting opportunity that could concretely benefit the independent film community in the state if constructed with them in mind. There is a fund, created out of producer-paid fees to the state, that could equal as much as $2.6M annually, and it is legislatively allocated to four buckets of programs:  a loan guarantee fund, a deal-closing fund, workforce, and education programming and a filmmaker grant program. Part of the work of the Alliance for Louisiana Filmmakers at this point is to gather direct input from filmmakers on which of those programs could best benefit them, and how would they envision a sustainable film economy supported by these programs. We were thrilled at the turnout and response, and are working with the consulting group Trepwise to gather input and collect feedback.

Folks can learn more by liking the Alliance for Louisiana Filmmakers facebook page, and if you’re a filmmaker, completing a quick survey!

BA: Have there been any festivals with strong ideology and practice on inclusivity that you’ve participated in? What can be done to make that philosophy more attractive to other organizations?

JJ: Every festival I’ve been in says they are all about inclusivity, and it is something that they try to make happen, but it’s hard if the organization itself is not diverse. And I don’t know of one that truly is. Diversity initiatives are complicated. A few minorities are selected to pick the ones from that minority group who fit the right mold. It satisfies the public and the donors for a little while but does little to change the system as a whole. It’s funny to me that my friend Gian is starting the first black film festival in New Orleans, because of the feeling that African American filmmakers don’t have enough opportunities to be screen and in a community of people like us. Why is there a French Film Festival, but there isn’t a Black Film Festival? And I joke with him that as soon as he’s successful with his festival, someone will gentrify that too.

BA: What recent films (short or feature length) would you strongly recommend for their diversity? Which filmmakers (if any) do you feel are doing great with demanding cast & crew inclusion?

DM: Nationally, Ava Duvernay is the gold standard, and we can attest to this as we have a great working relationship with the production of Queen Sugar in New Orleans – they have an intentionally inclusive crew and set, and they have even hired local director Garrett Bradley to direct some episodes of the show. Michael B. Jordan also recently partnered with Warner Media Group to create an inclusion policy on all their productions, launched on the set of his film Just Mercy. I feel like Lena Waithe is announcing a new project a week, and the success of Crazy Rich Asians has raised the profile of the need for and economic viability of diversity behind and in front of the camera. Diversity and inclusion are becoming the norm not the exception, so we are seeing more and more projects be greenlit with inclusion as part of their practice. I also want to mention the growing trend of labs and workshops designed to cultivate diverse filmmakers; I’ve seen great professional and personal support for local filmmakers from programs like the Firelight Media Documentary Lab and the Chicken and Egg Accelerator programs, and former NOVACian Ashley Charbonnet is now a writer on CBS’ Magnum P.I. after participating in their studio writers lab. As always, I hope this is a long-term trend, not a fad, and I hope that the movement towards diversity in film is driven by an awakening to its creative and economic viability, not tokenism.

The local production of Body Cam was a model of inclusivity and local impact – director Malik Vitthal had an inclusive local crew, even hiring Emerging Voices alum Asli Ozyngenir as his director’s assistant, and he spoke to our community of filmmakers, as well as had other members of the crew do training programs with NOVAC’s workforce training program and students at UNO, and Paramount Players funded three intern positions for locals on the show.

Next Spring, I’m looking forward to local filmmakers Angela Tucker (dir All Styles, black folk don’t) and Lauren Domino’s production of their feature Paper Chase, which is part of their “Create in Color” philosophy, so I expect to see a production crew that looks as diverse as their cast.

I’m also excited by the indie work of many of the local filmmakers who have been part of the Emerging Voices program – in addition to what they get from the program, they have been starting to work with each other to create communities of diverse filmmakers – if you look at the work of Zac Manuel, Zandashe Brown, Abe Felix, Carl Harrison, and Zuri Obi, just to name a few, you’ll see that they are cultivating crews that are young, talented and diverse, and they are getting noticed for it. Zac’s documentary Blood Thicker was funded recently by Tribeca All Access and the Southern Documentary Fund, and Zuri’s experimental Bloodpeach won the Tribeca if/then pitch at this year’s NOFF. Zuri’s collaborating with Sienna Pinderhughes as a DP, and Jasmin López’s project, Silent Beauty, which also got SDF funding, is going into production with Bron Moyi as a cinematographer, so folks building community are finding their next creative partners. NOVAC is also now hosting at our offices the FilmShop collective, which is a diverse group of filmmakers who workshop each other’s projects and provide support. So it’s nice to see these communities of local filmmakers working together and supporting each other. And we are seeing much more interest from national film funding organizations (Sundance, Tribeca, Ford JustFilms, as well as the minority programming consortia like Black Public Media and the Center for Asian American Media) in seeking diversity in all its forms, including geographic diversity, as they invest more of their funding into projects in the South, which will, I hope, have a real impact on local filmmakers.

BA: Does streaming and video on demand hold the key to true filmmaking democracy and widespread voices being heard, or is the gatekeeping still in the hands of the programmers?

JJ: Festivals still have the power to make filmmakers relevant. They have years of building a base, and the cash flows to promote the artist they choose. But filmmakers do have more options of independent distribution than they’ve ever had. We’ve always looked at festivals as a distribution and marketing resource, but have chosen to put little to no money into festival distribution, and have funneled most money into marketing. Filmmakers have a lot of different distribution options and paths, but because our minds are built on a “big break” mentality, we have a hard time putting the little money we have into online marketing and playing the long game. There is a way to get it done, but, there will always be gatekeepers.

BA: Are you confident in New Orleans becoming a long-term player in film culture or do you ever see it drying up?

DM: Look, I’m always nervous that the tax credit program will go away and take with it some of the infrastructural resources it has brought – I’m thinking of things like the sponsorship local cinematographer Natalie Kingston got from Panavision for fully kitted out camera packages for the production of LOST BAYOU. Or I think about Marcus Brown, who trained at NOVAC as a PA and now pays the bills working on shows big and little as a 2AD, but who also just got his first development funding on a doc he’s making – I want to make sure the Hollywood productions that make his livelihood possible stick around. And we should be realistic about the limits of any tax credit driven production economy – it is not the same as an indigenous film economy, and the decentralized production landscape does not mean that the locus of power has shifted from L.A. to La.

But what I think has happened over the last decade in New Orleans is that a lot of folks were inspired to work in film, many people were drawn to the city through work in film, and we have been able to harness resources to cultivate aspiring filmmakers (check out Phillip Youman’s The Glory trailer! Kid is 18!), in a way that is particular to this place and time. We definitely have more film and filmmaker support organizations than any other city our size. But when we look at secondary market cities that have a thriving film community and culture (Austin, Miami, Baltimore come to mind), they are really driven by the passions of the people who live in and love that place. So if we want to keep a vibrant filmmaking community, we have to invest in that community ourselves, through supporting local filmmakers when they have crowdfunding and fundraising campaigns, by seeing their films and going to locally-owned theaters and exhibitors (the Zeitgeist, the Broad, Shotgun Cinema) and supporting the screening of local content.  I’m cautiously optimistic that the rest of the world is starting to see the unique combination of culture, talent, and infrastructure that we have here, and that they and we will continue to invest in our diverse community of independent filmmakers.

Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations and Occupy. You can find his other film reviews and articles here.

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