Navigating Race and A Lack of Imagination and Vision
by: Nosheen Khwaja , October 5, 2020
by: Nosheen Khwaja , October 5, 2020
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests have generated a vital shockwave through the film industry with regard to racism. Black, indigenous and people of colour (BIPoC) employees have outed their racist employers and their behind-the-scenes machinations, and called out festival staff for exploitation, to various degrees. It’s quite thrilling, but also a cause for concern. What happens when the white industry starts to forget what’s going on and reverts to ‘business as usual?’ Which staff members will be fired for ‘other reasons’ after standing up? There’s almost a gold rush-type feeling, with organisations hurrying to pronounce #BLM, and produce statements of solidarity while treating their BIPoC staff abysmally (if they even have any staff who are not white).
This, coupled with the COVID-19 lockdown and shift towards digital, is creating change in the film industry. I was asked by Dr Leanne Dawson to contribute some quotes to her article ‘Culture in Crisis: A Guide to Access, Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion in Festivals, Arts, and Culture’ (included in this issue). Her work and prompts during our conversations amidst the current socio-political climate spurred thoughts which have themselves become an article. Here I consider my contributions as a queer person of colour to film, activism, and the digital, in an industry dominated by wealthy, straight, white people.
Things need to change from the ground up, starting with school level education. Curricula through all levels of the education system need to be honest about white supremacy and colonialism. Changes also have to come, across the board, from technicians to commissioning editors, and those in charge of funding: invariably, at present, white middle-class cisgender men. People of colour need to be admitted to positions of power within existing bodies. Autonomous creative organisations and projects led by people of colour need access to good support, including funding and developmental opportunities, from our collective resources. Redress is long overdue.
I have a great deal of experience of these things as, among many other projects, I am the co-founder of GLITCH, a ten-day QTIPOC (Queer, Trans, Intersex People of Colour) film festival. For GLITCH, the subject matter of the films didn’t have to be queer, in order to reflect that we have a multitude of passions in life, not just our sexuality. GLITCH was said, by Skadi Loist at a conference as part of the International Queer Film Festival in Hamburg in 2014, to be part of the ‘fourth wave’ evolution of queer film festivals. The fourth wave of queer film festivals was developed by Ragan Rhyne in her PhD dissertation, ‘Pink Dollars: Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals and the Economy of Visibility (2007). It is not exactly true that GLITCH belongs to the fourth wave. Digital Desperados (DD), which runs GLITCH, was former from what I call the great race-fail of the London-based La-di-dah email list during 2006/7.
La-di-dah was a mostly anarchoqueer list, where events were organised and connections made. Queeruption was an annual international gathering of radical queers with DIY homocore at its essence. Queeruption started in 1998 and officially ended in 2017, though those at the centre of it say it died after Vancouver in 2007. Only two events were held after Canada: in Manchester and in Budapest. Each event would last for a week to ten days in city squats or rurally, in or close to cities including London, NYC, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Tel Aviv, and Berlin, and featured punk bands, performances, workshops, radical organising, demonstrations, networking, sex parties, lots of cooking, and meetings. It was a chance for the disenfranchised to rest, take stock, and, importantly, make connections with each other. I still have core friendships from the 2003 Berlin event. Indeed, a lot of us who attended the legendary Queeruption gatherings around the world are still in contact today, organising various events and running crucial creative projects.
There were, though, some racist incidents that became problematic in a space where we were supposed to feel comparatively safe and supported. Racist comments were made by one of the admins of the La-di-dah list, and remained unchallenged by the majority of the list. La-di-dah was the main space used for radical organising and connection. After much discussion in various cities, one person decided to address the racism by setting up an event in Bristol. As it turned out, all of the speakers were white and anyone of colour involved in it felt patronised and further marginalised. There was a large backlash after the event, much of which focused on the well-meaning, yet misguided organiser.
The majority of queer, trans and intersex, Black and Indigenous and people of colour (QTIBIPoC) on the list left, stopped working with white queer activists, and formed our own groups and support structures. I set up Blackfist, an online group, after I decided to stop working and organising with white queers. We were scattered around Europe, with the core members in Manchester and London. The focus of the list was polyamory from our QTIPoC perspectives. After setting up the digital space and having some in-person hangouts, we ended up spending most of our time having to come up with group responses to various incidents, which wasn’t what we wanted to do at all. I think it was disbanded after about a year. It was sad to hear that a lot of white activists were gossiping about us, mostly wondering who was sleeping with whom!
It was love and rage that led me to start Digital Desperados, and then the GLITCH Film Festival. I’d been curating film in various spaces and places for the previous 15 years, including at Bildwechsel in Hamburg, a women (trans inclusive) media artists archive that also runs events via its global network of agents, ACE, The Autonomous Centre in Edinburgh, and various cabaret nights and squat parties in the UK and Europe. There was a distinct lack of films being submitted by women of colour. As an artist and filmmaker, I knew the problems facing filmmakers after graduation, including access to equipment. Film training projects, like the Glasgow Media Access Centre, existed and were relatively cheap, but still unaffordable to those in precarious work situations. I decided to address that by starting up Digital Desperados, offering free film courses for women of colour (WoC), trans inclusive. But the ‘rainbow racism’ of the predominantly white queer/LGBT ‘scene’ continues.
The course ran for two months and was totally free. We had women from all over the world applying, including China, New Zealand, the United States of America, and Canada. It created an amazing hothouse atmosphere of creativity while sharing resources, and creating friendships and collaboration. All participants said the same thing: that although they were in places where there were established communities of people of colour, they felt isolated because of their differences in politics or sexuality, and the spaces open to them where those parts—politics and/or sexuality—matched, were mostly white-centred.
The first month was full of workshops. Aside from the usual technical ones, we included women’s health, palming (an eye health technique which can improve eyesight), self-defence (how to protect yourself and your equipment), and sound improvisation. Each participant made their own short film. The women all crewed for each other’s films in the second month, and then in the final two to three weeks they entered the studio to start crafting them into shape. It culminated in a public screening at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Glasgow. A lot of the participants, many of whom were writers wanting to experiment with the visual medium, have gone on to make their own longer films. During the period of Digital Desperados, we also watched and discussed films together. As part of the course, we also had a screening programme of films made by and/or about people of colour.
Expansion into GLITCH Film Festival
It was from researching films for these screenings that we—my Digital Desperados co-curator, Cloudberry MacLean and I—started to come across a wealth of amazing films made by QTIBIPoCs. As a queer person of colour, this had special resonance and I decided to start GLITCH, a queer people of colour film festival. The tagline is ‘GLITCH IN THE SYSTEM,’ as regardless of whether or not we are politically active, people of colour in the western world will always be a glitch in the system.
GLITCH receives submissions from all over the world, but almost nothing from Scotland. Over 13% of the Scottish population are people of colour, but in all of the years I have been screening films I’ve only received two or three submissions from Scottish PoC, only one of which was from a Scottish woman of colour. On a global scale, however, there are more women of colour submitting films to us and these submissions tend to be from established artists working and/or experimenting with film in their daily practice.
When we curate, we try to balance out the genders of filmmakers and of content, and always aim for respectful representation that doesn’t negate our agency.
Furthermore, people of colour are more than our queer lives, we have a multiplicity of passions, and this should be reflected on screen. Our lives are intersectional, full and complex, and our experiences of oppression are not some sole constant in our lives. We’re neither victims, nor in some way monstrous or inherently other. Yet this is how the white mainstream media wants us to paint us, and in doing so they repress our voices and dismiss our agency. It’s a highly damaging life experience, never seeing yourself portrayed in a positive manner in the mainstream media. I don’t think the majority of white people will ever understand it, even if they live in a non-western country. You will still carry the privilege that your skin colour brings.
Independent filmmakers, artists, and festivals are where it’s at in terms of genuinely caring about pushing for better accessibility for disabled audience members, and access in even broader senses of the word. Most of us with activist backgrounds are at least aware that people require different forms of access in order to watch film in public settings, including, but not limited to, subtitles and captions, audio description, and British Sign Language (BSL).
Leanne and Raising Films are pushing for better access and inclusion for parents and carers at festivals and screenings, and I agree: prior to GLITCH, every feminist event I had organised in the United Kingdom and mainland Europe had childcare. So Cloudberry and I did bring that consciousness to the setting-up of GLITCH, but postponed childcare due to financial and organisational constraints. Film festivals don’t tend to offer childcare, either for financial reasons or because of the assumption that carers will be in a position to provide it themselves. Perhaps the solution to that, aside from proper funding or better societal-wide provision of childcare, is to ask if parents require childcare at the booking stage, and to do more marketing and research into audiences.
As for the provisions we did ensure, people were not always complimentary. We’d been at mainstream film conferences where the subject of subtitling English language films was laughed at by someone high up in the field of mainstream tech, because of the time and money required, as well as technical aspects. Access should be built into a budget, especially with larger festivals. Coming from activist backgrounds, we make things work and push boundaries despite limited resources. Women artists tend to create support networks and this isn’t different for queer women of colour. In 2015, we were the first non-disabled film festival to subtitle our entire programme. We undertook this ourselves while preparing for the festival. It was a feat of endurance, as subtitling is a time-consuming task. It takes an hour to subtitle five minutes of film. If the subject talks a lot (an academic, for example), then that drops to three minutes. But we have always aimed to be inclusive.
We also had funding for BSL, from the first-ever festival onwards. It was important to get LGBTI translators, as straight BSL interpreters don’t always know specific terms, and there can be censoring. Furthermore, in 2017 we had four volunteer subtitlers, whom I trained. While every film was subtitled, and all discussions and Q&As had BSL signing, our budget for accessibility wasn’t enough to cover audio description.
Access isn’t just BSL/subtitles, it is also physical and financial. In the past, I have often been unable to attend festivals due to financial restrictions. All previous events Cloudberry and I organised had been free/sliding scale, and we made sure this was also the case with GLITCH. The sliding scale model is now used by the majority of queer and smaller independent festivals, which is great to see. It’s not only the cost of a ticket, but also transport, potential childcare, and snacks/food. The timing of events was also scheduled around public transport times, especially on weekends. For the 2017 edition of GLITCH, we had a larger accessibility budget, so it was possible to pay for taxis for those in wheelchairs, or those who just needed extra help, like the LGBT Unity group, a refugee/asylum seeker support group. They run events to fundraise, so the members can have outings and get support work for their cases. It is an important space to have, as folk are doubly isolated being LGBTQI, on top of exclusion for coming to the UK. So, with GLITCH, tickets were also free for refugees, asylum seekers, and those in receipt of benefits.
At the end of the first festival, an audience member movingly said:
‘As a deaf, black woman I’ve never felt so included.’
And a young white woman came up to me and asked if she could hug me, because:
‘I’ve never been able to afford to see experimental film, so thank you so much.’
It was moments like these that helped to make running GLITCH feel so worthwhile.
None of this would have been possible without the partnership and support of the CCA. They provided venue hire under their ‘Open Source programming’ policy. GLITCH would have been impossible without this. Crucially it was also an accessible venue, which are in short supply in Glasgow, especially if you have a limited budget and don’t want to compromise on quality or comfort of space and access to things like food and ease of late-night transportation. Some view the CCA as inaccessible to people of colour or the working class. I can see why, but I’ve never felt that way. I was born in Glasgow and have experienced the CCA since its time as the Third Eye Centre, which existed from 1974 to 1990, and closed for two years to be reborn as the CCA. The Third Eye Centre was a relaxed avant-garde art space with lots of local performers and artists, as well as international ones such as Allen Ginsberg and Kathy Acker. CCA is, still, a space I feel comfortable in, and woe betide anybody who tries to make me feel otherwise. Claiming a space as one’s own and creating an event that takes it over makes a powerful statement. I see it as part of self-worth and self-love. We’re entitled to it.
The working class shouldn’t be excluded either. Academic talk is one area I feel distances people from all sorts of art forms. If you can’t explain something in plain language too, then you don’t understand it yourself. At the same time, academics can also push you to learn more. To muse for days on what was said, letting it slowly absorb. The Arika events are like that in a positive way. Arika runs ‘episodes’ of performance, discussion, collective learning, and music. I compare them to having your mind and soul fed meals that last for months. They bring together radical international performers and thinkers in an inclusive manner, both financially and intersectionally. Nobody is turned away if they don’t have any money. The act of sharing knowledge and experience is the important part. The words and thoughts linger for months afterwards. Nourishing, creative and soulful, they are also provocative brain food.
The most pointed experience we had as a QTIBIPoC festival was the racism of the Scottish media. We are well-versed in the timing of press releases etc., but were faced with a wall of silence and comments like ‘we can’t write anything about you because it’s the first time you’ve run,’ while the same media outlet (The Skinny) ran a feature on the Scottish Queer International Film Festival (SQIFF) later in the autumn, although it was their first festival too. It was quite stark being able to compare us directly against a queer festival led by someone both white and far more privileged than us in other ways, too. Bizarrely, right-wing newspaper the Daily Mail included a positive mention of our festival, and UK Vogue also wanted to write about us, but we missed the print deadline. Our global press coverage was great. There are a variety of political forces at play when it comes to racism in Europe, but we did find quicker recognition of the significance of GLITCH in mainland Europe, in comparison to the UK. On the strength and quality of our programming, I was invited to be on various film juries, including the Teddy Jury of the Berlinale in 2016.
Most actors of colour tend to leave the UK once they reach a certain level of fame, or once they are unable to continue getting the roles that they should be in order to push their craft. Most of this talent ends up in the US, which, although not perfect, still has more representation by women of colour onscreen than the UK. And it’s important to note that those working in funding and film exhibition will also have an effect on who makes it to the big screen. Invariably these are cis, white, middle-aged, middle-class men.
When it comes to directors of film festivals, these are overwhelmingly white. In 2015, I was the only woman of colour directing a film festival in all of Europe. There were fewer than five in the US, and—I think—one in Hong Kong at that time. Add being queer to the mix, and the number dropped to two—myself and the all-women crew who ran QWOCMAP, which is the Queer Women of Color Media Artists Project (trans/non-binary inclusive), based in San Francisco. In addition to the film festival, they’ve been running their film training since 2000. It was incredibly inspiring to learn of their existence. We had thoughts about partnering up, but were all so incredibly busy!
As for men of colour, in Europe there are only three heading up festivals: Sadat Hussein of Aks (Copenhagen/Pakistan/UK), Chris Belloni of the International Queer Minority Film Festival (Copenhagen), and Yavuz Kurtumulus of the Porn Film festival Vienna & Transition (Berlin). It’s of note that, despite their incredible work and the fact they run the festival in Pakistan and Europe, Aks struggles to receive conventional funding. The figures for BIPoC running festivals haven’t changed much in 2020. There are only three women of colour in Europe directing film festivals: myself, Samar Ziadat of Dardishi in Glasgow, and Nadia Abraham of the Faroe Islands International Minority Film Festival.
Class and money factor into this. To work in the festival industry you have to be financially solvent, have a private/second/other main income, and/or access to credit cards. The funding money is never enough, and you end up putting your allocated wages into getting it perfect. Well, we at GLITCH did. Running GLITCH was a full-time job, and when we broke down the hours worked and our income from funding, our wage was around 2-5 pence an hour. We were lucky to have support from friends and family, as well as freelance work when possible, and credit cards to max out. We’re still paying the latter off five years later, and donations are welcome. It was entirely unsustainable. As it stands, you’re never given enough money to run a festival the way you would want. Some choose to cut their own small fees to achieve this aim, others compromise with, and make cutbacks to, the festival in order to pay themselves a salary etc. The longer you consistently run a successful event, the more money you will eventually be funded, which includes a decent, liveable wage.
Comments from people in leading positions in film festivals include:
‘Nobody wants to see diverse filmmakers as all they will make films about is their diverse lives. Who wants to see that? We don’t want White middle-class men to become the minority.’
‘There were no lesbian films this year.’–Director of an international A-list queer film festival, to the crowd on 2016 festival submissions and year-long research.
‘How do you screen the work of women of colour when the quality is so bad? … How do you find all these films?’–Director and programmer of a local queer film festival, who is white and often speaks publicly about the importance of inclusion for POC. This particular comment silenced the room of film festival programmers and directors. Black lesbian filmmaker, Cheryl Dunye was in the audience.
Who Controls Film Production/Questions of Profit?
Companies and buyers will only support films that will make a profit, thus exercising undue control over who gets to be portrayed onscreen. Organisations such as the British Film Institute (BFI) tend to focus on choosing films to tour and screen that they deem capable of making a profit. Film is business first and foremost. A film made by a Black person or any PoC is seen as being of no interest to the paying public. It’s immensely sad, as when you go to international festivals like the Berlinale you see what gems UK film audiences are being denied.
The same goes for film exhibitors and programmers curating as they place profit first for larger mainstream festivals. This is why smaller festivals are highly important. I’ve always felt that BIPoC audiences are more sophisticated than white ones, as we’ve grown up with two or multiple cultures, from a filmic point of view.
QTIBIPoC film, when programmed by white-led festivals, often tends to be slotted into the quiet times of the day or week, as if our experiences will not attract audiences, or our lives cannot be relatable. This also comes down to profit. The BFI Black Stars programming meeting was a great example, demonstrating the power structures of the industry. There were around 100 Black and PoC programmers from around the UK, gathered to come up with programming ideas for the BFI and their own respective festivals and cinemas, which would have received funding from the BFI. But the BFI staff involved were all white and straight, apart from one white gay man. One man had the final decision, which was dispiriting. The creative programmes, some featuring work by the Black Audio Film Collective and John Akomfrah’s installation ‘Vertigo Sea’ (which was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2015), and anything with bite, were rejected as potentially not earning enough money, or fitting the programming remit. They wanted mainstream guaranteed crowd-pleasers: Spike Lee, Danny Glover, Car Wash (Schultz 1976), Boyz ‘n’ the Hood (Singleton 1991), etc.
Times are surreal right now and will be for the foreseeable future. It’s like standing on shifting sand. I can’t imagine a return to ‘normalcy;’ at least I hope not. It would be disastrous.
A lot of festivals have switched to limited digital runs. This only works if you have internet access, and can afford to view if the films are not free. I see a wrecked industry, and don’t imagine cinemas will recoup losses made during lockdown. They may be opening up at the end of the summer, but according to online polls, the majority of audience members don’t feel safe to return. Personally, I wouldn’t. Cinema for me is about the company, the snacks, and communal emotions. Not the ever-present background stress of wondering ‘will this make me sick?’
You could imagine that staying at home with more digital access has been a positive thing. Streaming films can still be financially inaccessible for some. The only sliding scales I see are from queer festivals, nothing from the mainstream. The BFI player’s structure has always irked me. Despite the monthly fee, you still have to pay to watch some films. MUBI have a better selection of global cinema and artistic gems, but childcare and child-free times would still be an issue, and even more so for single parents under lockdown.
Online content still doesn’t remove the issue of the white, male, heteropatriarchal gaze, or the white middle-class queer one. Who is choosing the films? What aesthetic standards do they have? What are their politics? Do they have an understanding of the intersectional? All these factors and more weigh into choice of film and financial accessibility. Queer film festivals are also about the social aspect. Frankly, we love the pleasure, sexual frisson, drama, and gossip that being physically social brings. We love connecting with queers from all around the world. It’s not quite the same interacting with your community from behind a screen, dealing with the absence of physicality.
Oh, how I miss those after-parties, dancing into the night after Hamburg LSF and the secret Teddy parties of the Berlinale… one day we shall reunite!
Donations towards the GLITCH debt can be made to:
For bank details, please email.
Rhyne, Ragan (2007), ‘Pink Dollars: Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals and the Economy of Visibility’, PhD Dissertation, NYU.
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