Filmmakers of color talk equity and breaking expectations at Sundance panel
What: Sundance Film Festival
When: Jan. 24-Feb. 3
Where: Park City, Salt Lake City, Sundance Resort
After President Trump’s election in 2016, some filmmakers of color, like Karin Amer, felt, at first they should make films involving the experiences of American Muslims after Trump successfully ran on an anti-Muslim platform.
But ultimately, the Egyptian-American filmmaker didn’t take that path, and he instead made “The Great Hack,” an entry in the Sundance Film Festival’s Documentary Premieres program.
“I decided that I’m going to tell the story about America that has nothing to do with immigration or identity,” Amer said at a Sundance panel titled “The Road to Decolonization” on Sunday at the Kimball Art Center. “I wanted to tell an American story that has nothing to do with who I am. I wanted to tell an American story about how democracy is fundamentally falling apart and how people aren’t being held accountable.”
The film documents the 2018 Cambridge Analytica data breach, where a consulting firm employed by the Trump campaign gathered Facebook users’ personal data, without their consent.
“I didn’t care to be labeled as a cultural filmmaker or a person of color,” Amer said. “All I cared about is being a person who can tell a story.”
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David Magdael, CEO of a PR firm, moderated the panel. The other panelists joining Amer included Marya Bangee, executive director of activist nonprofit Harness,; Abigail E. Disney, chair and co-founder of production firm Level Forward, and Tilane Jones, vice president of Array, a film distribution collaborative founded by filmmaker Ava DuVernay. The panel discussed how power dynamics are being redefined throughout American culture and the challenges that independent filmmakers face going forward.
Amer said one way to move forward is refusing to be “reduced to a binary box.”
From his personal journey, Amer feels there’s undue pressure on filmmakers of color to tackle their personal identities.
“Because I’m Egyptian-American, (backers think) I don’t have any other stories to tell,” he said. “So even with (them) helping me, and saying ‘We want to help expand your lane,’ there is a disconnect, because what if I have bigger aspirations and don’t want to live in that lane all my life?”
But he’s also felt caught in an identity crisis as an American of Middle Eastern descent.
“Because of the War on Terror in the last 18 years, (people like me) feel like we have to (assimilate),” he said. “We’re losing our identity, because as my good friend Riz Ahmed says, ‘(losing my religion to tomorrow’s headlines’ for us.”
That said, Amer embraces who he is.
“I want to be respected for my heritage, but I also don’t want to be reduced artistically to one individual space,” he said. “I come from a great people, but my identity and cultural thought wasn’t born out of the Renaissance. The fact you don’t know about my history, and you see me as an ignorant person who is a jihadi, that’s on you.”
Jones, on a personal level and through her work with Array, has seen the struggle women of color go through to find their identity as filmmakers.
“Along our travels, we saw there was a need in every community that had people of color and women,” she said. “A lot of times filmmakers of color are asked about their experiences as a person of color. That’s not what they should ask you about. They should be asking you about the craft of filmmaking.”
Disney (whose great uncle was Walt Disney) is known in the film industry as an ally for filmmakers of color, and what she aims to bring to the table is an acknowledgment of her privilege.
“I didn’t ask for it, and I didn’t earn it, so it means nothing about me good or bad,” she said. “What it does say something about me, good or bad, is how aware I am with it and what I decide to do with it. It’s on us in many cases where we’ve been handed more power than what we’ve earned to give some of it away.”
With a high-profile name such as Disney, she has not only become an ally but also an educator. Her subject is “white fragility” – the concept that an obstacle to racial equity is the fact that the subject itself makes white Americans defensive.
“White fragility gets dismissed by white, privileged people, because it makes them uncomfortable,” she said. “I’m starting a project where I will try to talk about white fragility to white people, because I feel like it’s the big barrier that prevents us from having a genuine conversation.”
Disney is only starting to understand those dynamics.
“There is a difference between what I’m guilty of, which is mostly not much, versus what I’m responsible for, which is a hell of a lot,” she said. “That’s how I’ve been situated with life on this planet, with certain gifts I didn’t ask for, but also with talents I have developed. The trick is to go forward and figure that out.”
To do so, Disney has learned to become a listener.
“I try to let myself learn from people around me, because a lot of (stuff) pours out of my mouth and sometimes it’s stupid,” she said. “What I’ve learned over time is shutting the (expletive) up.”
Bangee said another way to move forward is utilize ongoing demographic and technological changes.
“We’re at an incredible place where minorities will be the majority (in the United States) in the next couple of decades, and I think that’s a powerful thing,” she said. “I also think another powerful thing is the advent of digital and social media. We don’t think how important it is in terms of being able to use it to advocate and push back.”
Bangee and Harness are seeing a disruption of the entertainment market, and are having discussions with NBC, Universal and Netflix.
“What we’re finding is that they don’t really know how to tell diverse stories, and they know they could become irrelevant,” she said. “So they’re in this vulnerable moment, and we have leverage.”
That leverage, Bangee said, needs to be used to affect structural change.
“We are working with our industry partners to think through not only the hiring process, but also casting and funding new projects,” she said. “They also need to make an investment in the incredible knowledge and expertise that diverse communities bring to the table.”
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