At IDFA 2020, Dutch filmmakers Tessa Boerman and Shamira Raphaëla launched the initiative Framing of Us for a drastic change in the handling of documentary narratives, including an urgent call to action: they called upon filmmakers who have been confronted with the colonial gaze to share their stories. A year later, they have received thousands of emails from filmmakers all over the world, and brought one of them, the Jordanian-Palestinian-Canadian director Dalya Al Kury, currently based in Oslo, to share her experience.
After IDFA's Artistic Director Orwa Nyrabia's brief but impassioned speech on the need to always do more for this cause, Raphaëla started the discussion which, in addition to Al Kury, featured the EFM's Coordinator for Diversity and Inclusion, Themba Bhebhe.
"We started this initiative because the aspect of framing is a wide-spread practice that us, marginalized filmmakers, encounter when we try to make our films," she explained. "We talk about this among ourselves, but it is almost never spoken about in the public space because we don't want to jeopardize our career or ruin our network.
"There's a lot of talk about inclusion these days, and it feels as though the road is opening up to us, as if we are very aware of the need for diverse stories," Raphaëla continued. "But the thing is, diversity has to go further. It's about changing the whole ecosystem where we are creating these stories. We want to talk about the colonial gaze through which filmmakers are looking at their films and their subjects. It’s the same gaze that is experienced by filmmakers of color who have to look through the lens of a white perspective and have to look at their subjects with an ethnographic perspective that is resolved in the project of colonial history."
Raphaëla repeated the call for action and elaborated: "This is not only about race, but also about sexuality, gender identity, class, ability, and having an ecosystem where filmmakers of all identities can feel welcome and included."
Last year, Boerman and Raphaëla wanted to create a conversation between filmmakers and gatekeepers—commissioning editors and fund representatives—but they found it was hard to find people willing to talk openly about it on both sides.
"Despite all the talk of diversity and inclusion, this disconnect was too great and part of the problem was obviously the fear of being disadvantaged and side-lined," said Bhebhe. "Quite often these conversations take place behind closed doors, but these are not isolated cases. They are part of a larger trend, and that's what Framing of Us is trying to do: make this trend visible."
When asked what made her reply to the call for action, Al Kury recalled: "I had just come back from a weekend where my film Syrialism was finally screened, after a year of trying to show it in Norway. I felt there was an unconscious bias throughout that year, and when I saw the call for action I felt there was finally a safe place where I can talk and rant and not sound bitter.
"When I say anything to anyone, all I get is, 'Maybe your film is not good enough and that's why it's not going anywhere.' All my life I've tried to reject victimizing anyone, let alone victimizing myself. So of course I wasn't going to disclose these interactions to anyone. This call for action was a godsend."
A 20-minute docu-fiction film, Syrialism has a real-life Syrian refugee, Salaam, living in Oslo, as its protagonist. Ridden with survivor guilt, he is visited in his dreams by his relatives who he never got to say goodbye to because they died in shelling in Syria. Al Kury based these segments on Salaam's real nightmares, and employed non-professionals, other refugees, to play them.
"I've made lots of documentaries and at some point, I felt like I no longer want to document reality, I just wanted to demand it," she said. "There was just enough hopelessness in the region, and I started making more films on Syria, but for the first time in my life I got to a point where I made a film where my character, a Syrian refugee, actually has an imagination.
"It was a very cathartic experience for me and him, after four years of documenting his dreams and really finding a narrative structure that maybe had not been done much before for a refugee. Normally you can have complex, multi-layered, meta-stories if it's a Western person, but it's apparently too much to make a film about an Afghani woman who's also gay and likes to do parkour..."
Three festivals in Norway finally accepted to screen the film, after Al Kury pushed with all she had.
"Maybe it’s because it’s the first time you see a refugee say, 'I'm not happy here; don't make me feel grateful that I'm here,' and I don't think Europeans want to hear that," she said.
Many filmmakers from marginalized communities face gaslighting from decision makers and industry insiders on a regular basis.
"Often the way we talk about this is on the level of: is it all really in my head when I go to these festivals and receive these comments and microagragressions? Often it is about being gaslit by the outside world, by the gatekeepers," said Bhebhe.
This prompted Al Kury to relate an episode with one of the funders of Syrialism.
"He said, maybe this film is too much and too much is happening in it," she recalled. "But Arabs never thought it was too much. They understand it, because obviously any Arab would understand the humor and the tragedy... For foreign audiences, I understand maybe the film is not for everyone, and that is a good thing. It's okay to have a niche audience."
Raphaëla countered immediately: "But audiences are changing too. Who are these audiences the decision makers are talking about? Is it a white, upper class, Western, male audience? Because the audience that I make my films for is more diverse. We need to change the way we view what audiences are. An Arab audience is also an audience."
Al Kury recalled nother anecdote about a potential producer for one of her projects, which is set in 2040 and imagines a liberated Palestine. The main character is a woman with a facial tattoo.
"He said, it's interesting but I can't imagine this will happen in the future, and also I don't think Arab women will have facial tattoos in twenty years," she recalled. "And I said to him, I've been doing all this world-building as part of my PhD, and you've never even been to Palestine, and you don't know anything about face tattoos. Bedouin women have had them for thousands of years. So you are not only dictating what my past and present are with your colonial gaze, but also my future?"
Marginalized filmmakers have been conditioned for decades to filter and self-censor themselves in order to reach that elusive "relevance" that decision-makers seem to believe is necessary for Western audiences to engage with their films.
"But what is happening in Syria is also happening in Norway, so how is it not relevant?" asked Al Kury. "The point is, you work hard to be relevant, but maybe this kind of relevance puts them off."
Raphaëla recalled an episode with a filmmaker from Kurdistan who was pitching her very personal story at IDFA three years ago. A professional, who she describes as a very important person in her network, said that he had been biking for three weeks on vacation in Iran and that things are not in reality like the filmmaker showed in her story.
"She quit the film. She filtered herself so much that she didn't make the film. This is the consequence of what we're talking about: filmmakers get discouraged. Not everybody has the guts like Dalia to sit here," she said.
Al Kury replied that she barely even gets any funding and that she basically has nothing to lose. But she is still wondering what it is in her film that so repelled European festivals.
"In a way, I'm making fun of how the West is trying to understand the complexity of the depression of isolation, but in fact they will never understand it. But I've wondered, is this why? Because we make fun of the West in the film? Could that be it?" she asked.
Bhebhe ended the talk with the announcement of the next Framing of Us event which will take place at the EFM during the Berlinale in February 2022.
"This event will include both documentary and fiction filmmakers, and it will be much more solution-based. We have exposed the problem here, we'll continue to expose it and render it visible and bring it into the public space," he said. "We want to bring decision makers and filmmakers into the fold and pose these questions and see what we can practically do."