Report: All Inclusive – Diverse Documentary Festival Programming

    • Industry
    • February 25, 2019
    • By Joost Broeren-Huitenga

    During the Berlinale, IDFA co-organized a panel at the EFM's DocSalon focusing on issues of diversity and inclusion within festival programming. Five leading festival organizers from all over the world sat in for a lively conversation hosted by IDFA's Orwa Nyrabia.

    “The documentary world prides itself on being inclusive, and that may be true where conscious thought is concerned. But there are still unconscious biases everywhere,” IDFA's artistic director Orwa Nyrabia reminded the audience at the start of a talk entitled “All Inclusive” held at the Berlinale's European Film Market last week. The panel, co-organized by IDFA and held at the EFM DocSalon, gathered five leading festival programmers from all over the world and was moderated by Nyrabia. Following on from a think tank at IDFA 2018 and several other recent panels, this talk focused on possible strategies and pitfalls in finding greater diversity and inclusion in festival programming, the organizations themselves, and their activities and audiences.

    “We should address the homogeneity in our industry,” said Melanie Iredale, Interim Director of Sheffield Doc/Fest. But the panelists' opening statements, in which they introduced their festivals and related issues of diversity, already laid bare how many different approaches there are even within working towards this shared goal. Emilie Bujes, Artistic Director at Swiss documentary festival Visions du Réel, explained why the festival had done away with an annual focus on one specific country. “That forced us to choose countries that were already on the map. Now we make a conscious effort to look for promising projects from areas and countries which don't have established structures for cinema, and include them in the regular festival activity instead of putting them in some sort of ghetto.”

    DOK Leipzig's Managing and Artistic Director Leena Pasanen relayed how she implemented quotas for the number of female filmmakers in her program after taking the reigns at the festival in 2015. “I'm really happy everyone is now signing the 5050x2020 pledge, but you can also just start doing it in 2018,” she laughed. But while quotas for female filmmakers are becoming more common, Nyrabia reminded the panel that this is not intersectional: “What about LGBT filmmakers? What about filmmakers from the Global South? What about local minorities? When we talk about inclusivity, we're talking on multiple levels.”

    Lamia Guiga, General Delegate of the Carthage Film Festival, talked about her festival's position in one facet of that. “It's still very difficult to produce films in the Arab world and in Africa. There's no support system, so filmmakers need structures from outside their own countries. The real question for us has become how we can create a platform for our region, to help filmmakers from our region to prepare their projects and to be able to screen their films. After the revolution, there are now many filmmakers in Tunisia filming reality without censorship, no taboos. But for many of these, the only place to screen them was the Carthage festival.”

    Hot Docs Industry Programmer Dorota Lech pointed out another pressing issue – the diversity of the festivals’ audiences. “I'm very proud of our diverse staff, we have a team that really reflects the city we live in, but we don't necessarily also have an audience that reflects our city.” A way forward may lie in a more diverse program, she reflected, recalling screenings of a Kurdish film at the most recent edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, where she is a Programming Associate. “There were three screenings, all almost full, and almost everyone there was either from Kurdistan or had a connection to the region. And most had never been at TIFF before.”

    A diverse program leads to a diverse audience, Nyrabia suggested. But for Iredale, this issue runs deeper than that. “It's also about class and about how we can reach a less wealthy audience. Sheffield is not a privileged city by any means, and it's important for us to program films that a local audience can identify with. But it's also about practical issues, things like your ticketing structure, reducing barriers of entry like travel and cost. We can't just assume that everyone will know how to navigate a festival, especially one of this size.”

    Still, Pasanen argued: “The biggest mistake we can make is to underestimate the audience.” Guiga agreed: “Our audience is very cinephile, and the selection must be for them first. If we speak about quota, it's very important for us to program films about minorities, subjects which can be taboo in our society. Our audience is waiting for original subjects, things they cannot find on television in Tunisia.”

    For all five panelists, one of the biggest challenges lies in the way the program takes shape – who are the people screening the films? Here, too, there was a great variation in methods. Hot Docs employs a large team of viewers, Lech explained (consisting of around 75% women and around 40% people of color), with at least two “pairs of eyes” screening every film. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the 3,000+ submissions at Visions du Réel are all processed by a team of only six programmers, including Bujes. “It's hardcore, for sure,” she laughed. “I'd like to add another person, but it has to be someone who is able to look beyond themselves. That's very hard to find.”

    Pasanen agreed. “The further a film is from our own field of reference, the less we understand it. But viewing is the most expensive part of the process, and we don't necessarily have the budget to get people from all over the world involved.” The logistical challenges posed to festivals, with an ever-increasing number of films being submitted, are massive, Nyrabia agreed. “And it's not often talked about publicly. What kind of impossible machine will give all these entries fair chance?” Still, he said in concluding the panel, it is important to keep striving to do better and be more aware. “The word 'international' is right there in the name of all these festivals,” he reminded the audience. “When we say that, we have to be responsible for it.”

    Photo courtesy of EFM 2019 / Juliane Eirich.


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