Industry Experts Discuss Curatorial Justice in Film at Cannes Docs

Moving towards a more equitable and accountable curation in film programming and selection processes, ethical representation in storytelling and the challenges posed by the lack of awareness and accountability was at the heart of a panel discussion at Cannes Docs, the Cannes Film Market event dedicated to documentary film, on May 20.

Panelists included Egyptian director and producer Nada Riyadh, British-Chinese writer and director Paul Sng, Brazilian producer Yolanda Maria Barroso and Swedish producer Malin Hüber; it was moderated by the BFI’s Race Equality Lead Rico Johnson-Sinclair.

Opening on a positive note, Riyadh said that, “as an Arab woman,” she welcomed the presence in the official selection at Cannes this year of docs by Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania (“Four Daughters,” main competition) and Moroccan filmmaker Asmae El Moudir (“The Mother of All Lies,” Un Certain Regard), even though “in the real world I still get asked whether I do docs or real films,” she added with a smile.

Asked how film curation has changed in the last decade, Sng praised the work of the Tape Collective, founded in the U.K. in 2015 in response to the lack of representation on screen.

“The way they communicate is brilliant. They come from underrepresented backgrounds, and there’s a difference when you’ve got that lived experience of being othered: you know how to communicate, and you know the films you program are important. Maybe the subject of the film doesn’t have an obvious audience, but what does have an audience is the trust they have established: it’s important to work with people you recognize yourself in.”

In Sweden, said Hüber, the Index art foundation has created a Teen Advisory Board, which brings together eight young people with varying life experiences who reflect together on the role and potential of art and culture, and actively supports decision-making and programming. “It keeps you on your toes,” she said, “it’s the future of film: it’s important to create a buddy system and listen to what’s on the ground.”

Questioned about best practice in progressive filmmaking, Sng cited “The Territory,” whose U.S. director Alex Pritz collaborated closely with the indigenous people whose story the film tells. “It’s a good example of how you make a film with an indigenous community and then put the money back into [the community] so they can set up a media center [to broaden their awareness outreach].”

The company Sng works for, LS Productions, one of the U.K.’s biggest production service companies, launched a division called LS Films in 2021 to showcase unheard and under-represented voices.

“One of our first commitments from very early on was for all our productions to have a minimum of 50% of people from underrepresented backgrounds. It’s difficult anywhere in the world – it’s especially hard in Edinburgh, Scotland – but we’ve managed to do it so far. Challenges are sometimes having to crew up at short notice,” said Sng, who confided that he became a director late in life “because when I was younger, I didn’t see myself in film: seeing yourself not just in the people on screen but in the people who curate is important.”

“Personally, I don’t want to make films with white privileged guys – they have had enough opportunities in the past. I’ve opened myself up to criticism with people saying that what we’re doing is biased. It’s hard but it’s the work we must do to unpack all these years of colonialism, it’s our responsibility to create opportunities, we can’t wait for the gatekeepers,” he added.

Sng went on to mention the work of U.K. director and producer Stewart Kyasimire, managing director of Scottish indie production company Create Anything, which launched Re:frame, a diverse talent pool for TV and film, that has serviced the likes of Amazon, Channel 4 and the BBC.

On the question of authentic storytelling, there was consensus on the panel that while you don’t have to have the exact lived experience of the people you are working with, having an authentic connection with the story, and working with the right people is essential.

“In my region, where there’s very little national funding, the resources usually come from co-productions with European and other countries: I will probably rely partially on people who cannot see my world with the same perspective,” said Riyadh.

“As a producer, I need to support the director and the screenwriter in telling the story in the way they want – even if I know it makes them less eligible for certain resources – and I need to favor allies who understand, believe in it, and want to join in to disrupt a little the world we live in.”

Her background in anthropology is key to her work, said Barroso. “I cannot detach my person from my political way of looking at the world. So, I always try to be as inclusive as I can, and I always insist on training, classes, and learning with your peers.”

What is crucial, summed up Johnson-Sinclair, is supporting historically marginalized filmmakers without taking ownership of the story.  

Wrapping up the discussion, the consensus among the panelists was that the key to change is paying it forward.

“When I started making films I found allies, people who championed me, and I try to do the same, you have to encourage them to the ladder, then wait for them at the top of the ladder, then encourage them to do the same for others,” said Sng.

Cannes Docs runs as part of the Marché du Film in Cannes until May 23.

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