HFM Boat Sessions 2020: Whose Stories Are We Telling, and How?

The final HFM journey through the canals of Utrecht was under­taken by film profes­sionals deter­mined to address the processes behind 21st making, most notably in terms of fair and equal repre­sen­ta­tion both in front of and behind the camera. Mariners onboard were moder­ator Priya Sircar (director of arts, Knight Foun­da­tion), Dutch screenwriter/​director and Kleur’ (Colour) lobbyist Ashar Medina, screen­writer, film director, producer, and acad­emic Tom Kalin, Curaçaoan film­maker Kevin Osepa, and Eve Gabereau, CEO of London-based Modern Films. Before the debate commenced, Esther Duysker and Eché Janga, the writers of festival opener Buladó (directed by Eché) spoke to NFF’s Jordi Wijnalda. Buladó tells the magical-real­istic story of a small, three-gener­a­tion family on the island of Curaçao. As the different mental­i­ties of rational father Ouira and spir­i­tual grand­fa­ther Weljo start to clash, eleven-year-old Kenza is deter­mined to find her own path into adult life. My uncle wrote a short story. It was 5 pages,” said Eché. It was about an old man who wants to die like the orig­inal people of Curaçao. There was a myth that when you are old and you want to die, you have to follow a big hawk, and the hawk will bring you to the other side. I really loved that because the old man has to go on a horse and jump from a cliff into the sea and then you will get wings and you will fly. I asked my uncle where does it come from and he told me in the time of slavery, they needed hope, because Curaçao had a really violent nature, [and] this is a story that people told each other when they had to walk on the plan­ta­tion.” Added Esther Duysker of their deci­sion to focus on a central female protag­o­nist: I think it is more impor­tant to have female protag­o­nists in film or theatre. I thought it was inter­esting when it was a girl living next to two men, and maybe being more of a tomboy… because most of the girls [in Curaçao] are raised being more decent’, and I thought it could be an inter­esting perspec­tive to have a girl who was a tomboy because it could be an example…to see that there is more to being a female than being a girlish’ girl. I also felt I could put more of myself into the story and the char­acter if it was a girl, because my mother died 17 years ago already and it made a deeper connec­tion for me.” Back on boat, Tom Kalin (whose debut feature Swoon is consid­ered an inte­gral part of the New Queer Cinema) explained the back­ground to his 1992 debut. I made Swoon in 1992 at a time when it was very rare to see queer images on screen, to see images of people that we would now call gender non-confirming. So to make it to film was defi­nitely a polit­ical act.” To use the word queer’ at that time…it was meant as a revo­lu­tionary gesture, it was meant to be a word that was despised and used against the commu­nity. At the time I actu­ally crit­i­cised the use of queer’ prema­turely, because it was also meant to reflect a coali­tion that didn\‘t actu­ally yet exist. We now talk about inter­sec­tion­ality — we didn\‘t have that word then — but just a coali­tion of equal power between men and women in a same collec­tive was some­thing very rare, and then to expand those things in to race or class or gender iden­tity, there really wasn’t that kind of coali­tion.” He brought matters up to date: It is rewarding to think, now, I just completed this year one episode of a 6‑part limited series for tele­vi­sion which will be broad­cast in 2021. It’s called Pride. It’s about LGBTQ civil rights in the US, and it is thrilling to just think about the content of the show and who made it. The showrunner is a black woman. Of the two main producers, they are both female, one is black. The line producer is a man of colour. Of the six episodes, four are directed by direc­tors of colour. Both the content and means of produc­tion reflect what is happening in the world around us.” He added later in the discus­sion on the issue of pay parity: I was very influ­enced by Chris­tine Vachon who is a producer I spend most of my career working with…when I made Swoon every single depart­ment head was paid the same salary…We paid every­body the same, I mean the same horrible hundred dollars, the same nothing, but we paid the same, making the means of produc­tion more level.” Modern Films’ Eve Gabereau under­lined how while good stories are at the root of a successful industry, who the gate­keepers are in bringing that [story] to audi­ence is where we have a respon­si­bility to think differ­ently, all the way form devel­op­ment to produc­tion to sales and festi­vals and acqui­si­tions. We all play our part in what we decide is what should be shown on screen… As a company we [Modern Films] bill ourselves as female-led which is much more in the busi­ness side. My entire team is women — we don’t discrim­i­nate against men at all, it has just sort of happened that way. Obvi­ously we work very inclu­sively but we are a female-led company and social issue-driven, and then through that we try to focus on female direc­tors when and how we can, and on female-led stories if we can as well, but it’s not entirely proscrip­tive.” Ashar Medina opened up the discus­sion to talk fromh is perspec­tive as a black film­maker in The Nether­lands. My expe­ri­ence at the film academy was very posi­tive for the large part, but there were also some moments when I pitched stories or char­ac­ters which did not connect directly with my fellow students. The film academy in the Nether­lands is mostly white and the stories I tell tend to be from a black perspec­tive — not always, but when they are personal they are, obvi­ously.” I remember one instance when I wrote a story about two good friends,” Ashar continued One of them passed away and the other tried to keep the memory alive by living in the other’s bedroom, hooking up with his love, using his earring, stuff like that, and when I suggested that we might have two main actors from different back­grounds it was diffi­cult because they (some of my fellow students) believed that if we would delib­er­ately cast a black man or Moroccan man instead of two white leads then the audi­ence would believe we were making a state­ment by that.” He added: It’s not the same rules for different people. Hetero­sex­uals can be hetero­sex­uals and just be. In our country most stories and char­ac­ters are white. So when it’s not a white lead then there has to be an issue with not being white, so that opened my eyes.” He further picked up on Eve’s remark on gate­keepers, pointing out how the Dutch film and TV indus­tries are largely subsidised by public money. 25% of popu­la­tion, he further pointed out, has a migra­tion or bi-cultural back­ground. When you try to connect that to the images that we see, the stories that we are being told in the theatres or on tele­vi­sion, that balance is way off,” he under­lines. What we try to do with the mani­festo Kleur (Colour) is to put the respon­si­bility with these insti­tu­tions, and by that I mean the Film Fund, the Dutch broad­casting network and we have the acad­e­mies, the schools.” He continued: If the schools provide the talent, and the Film Fund and the broad­casters pick the talent and the same people teaching at these schools are also being hired by the broad­casting networks to pick these talents, you have this circle of the same people picking the same people, making the same things, picking the same people, so I think what we need to do is not only look at what kinds of stories we want to tell, but as Eve said, [look at] who are the gate­keepers?” I believe very firmly in quota, I believe that when society or we as a whole don\‘t seem to be able to make these changes, even though people have been speaking about diver­sity and inclu­sivity for decades, I believe some­times that policy is the only way to change. In that perspec­tive at Kleur, we really promote, we really try to campaign for these quotas. When we do so, when we speak to the Film Fund, when we speak with the broad­casters, they all have great intentions…but this last step in the Nether­lands, for some reason we find this very diffi­cult.” A lot of people will give the argu­ment that people should not be picked because of their colour. I am of the opinion that right now that people arenot being picked because of their colour or their gender or their sexu­ality,” Ashar added. The conver­sa­tion moved on to the subject of colour-blind casting. Eve noted the recent example of David Copper­field that cast Dev Patel in the lead role. It was, she said, an endearing film and a new take on the story, but every­body wanted to talk about whether you could make David Copper­field with [ethnic actor] Dev Patel, and you can and it did very well, but it became a very different period drama of British history. And of course it opens up doors, but is it worth talking about in terms of its casting or in terms of it just being a good film?” Ashar responded: “[Colour-blind casting] is a double-edged sword. It solely depends on the story you want to tell. Let\‘s say a film like Get Out which is about a black man having a white girl­friend meeting her white parents, then obvi­ously you can’t colour blind cast in that sense. I think we have to look at the story we are telling. If the story is about two people loving one another, they can be gay, they can be male/​female what­ever because it is about love.” He added: I don’t believe colour blind casting should be a rule of thumb. I believe every rule in art is bull­shit. Rules are there to be broken. Use them to your advan­tage to more strongly get the message or feeling across. Casting is a tool like cine­matog­raphy or like sound, and use it in the sense that it strengthens your story”. Eve further told of the expe­ri­ence on Sacha Polak’s Dirty God, which cast a black actor as the boyfriend, a deci­sion which reviewers crit­i­cised. Why not a white boyfriend? Was he black because he lived in a council flat in London? It became a real polit­ical thing. You couldn’t win in the casting. Because if you didn’t make a diverse cast, the film didn\‘t make sense cultur­ally, even aside from any polit­ical agenda or diver­sity or inclu­sion. And then if you do cast [a black actor], it seems like a stereo­type of char­ac­ters who live in a more working class envi­ron­ment. So it is was tricky. At some point you have to make a deci­sion.” Curaçao an Kevin Osepa discussed the issue of repre­sen­ta­tion from a colo­nial perspec­tive. I notice that in the Nether­lands, colo­nial history and the Golden Age are very present. Curaçao being a former Dutch colony… it is a very inter­esting conver­sa­tion when you are talking about the Golden age as some­thing which is very glori­fied, but forget­ting that there is still this very heavy colo­nial trauma that you can see until this day. So a lot of makers from the Caribbean are going back, wanting to tell their own story from their own perspec­tive. It also resonated what Eché and Esther told in the video, [about] this magical thinking that lives in the Caribbean and the strength and the resilience of people that were enslaved…in spir­i­tu­ality in the ways the slave people found their way to keep their reli­gion behind closed doors. These are things also need to be part of the conver­sa­tion when we are speaking about our colo­nial history and the Golden Age and The Nether­lands being this rich and beau­tiful country.” At the NFF, Kevin screened his short film Wata­mula, set in Curaçao, where the visual artist and film­maker, for whom the iden­tity of young Afro-Caribbeans is an impor­tant subject, moulds his journey into a magical-real­istic panorama bringing together land­scape and fate, spir­i­tu­ality, sensu­ality and machismo. For me it was very impor­tant to work with a local crew…because there is also this tendency of having big produc­tions done on the island [but locals] always become the assis­tant to the assis­tant.” He further told of his expe­ri­ence seeing inter­na­tional produc­tions come to the island and his relief at Bulado opening the festival this year. Curaçao being a very small island, it feels very big when you see it on the screen. We are not used to seeing our land­scape on the big screen. When I was younger and there was a produc­tion that was done here, I would always be very much in awe seeing it in that light. But at the same time, we also had this history of inter­na­tional produc­tions coming here and telling their own stories or stories from the island — but from their own perspec­tive. “[Bulado] was very refreshing, which was written by two people who come from Curaçao. It is set in Curaçao. It is also cast in Curaçao and I find it very beau­tiful that finally there is place where we can do this, and also having it as the opening film. Some­body was saying today that this was such a huge honour, which I found a bit tricky. I don’t think it’s an honour, I think it is right­fully there.”
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