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CIFF 2021 Industry Week: BIPOC representation in the film industry

By Rachneet Randhawa, November 14 2021—

This year the Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF)  saved you a seat to their first-ever Industry Week event which ran from Sept. 23–26. Industry Week invited those in the film, TV and adjacent industries to mix, mingle, celebrate and learn and included conversations with visionary filmmakers. 

The Gauntlet attended a handful of these live events including BIPOC Representation in the Film and TV Industries featuring filmmakers Nina Sudra, Sylvester Ndumbi, Roseanne Supernault, research journalist Alexa Joy and the host Colombian-Canadian and emerging writer, director and producer, Ingrid Vargas, to learn more. 

Each panellists’ foray into filmmaking and how they launched their careers were shared. Sudra loves telling stories about her life growing up and having to balance two cultures of being both South Asian and Canadian. She realized she loved giving a voice to people who don’t have one. Ndumbi has been making films for 10 years and what he loves about filmmaking is the ability to connect with other human beings on a deeper level. Supernault is a Métis-Cree woman and is also an actress and producer from Northern Alberta and launched her acting career when she was 13 years old. Joy is a grad student and researcher for racial equity in the media.

The first prompt asked was what the filmmakers would like to see most regarding the representation of people of colour both on and off-screen. Ndumbi claims that it’s a case of having a monetized solution. 

“There’s a lot of changes that need to happen,” he says. “And I think we are very lucky to live in a country like Canada. It is the most western diverse country in the world. And I believe that diversity is also the future of storytelling.” 

Ndumbi spoke about how having a trainee position for a producer would be a good idea as it would allow an inexperienced BIPOC individual to be exposed to the industry. Unfortunately, Ndumbi also mentioned that diversity in the film industry is still considered a quota to fulfill rather than a genuine strategy. 

Sudra agreed that quotes are biased because they fit people in a particular box. Later she mentioned that currently, the film industry is in a state of complete divisiveness and people are being separated based on identity-based groups. She expressed that now is the best time to bridge those gaps of differences and be ambassadors for different cultures and become an accepting community rather than coming from a place of fear. 

Supernault emphasized inclusivity — that is, the BIPOC community working together, supporting and collaborating and not restricted to their silos and individual demographics regardless if they’re background. 

Supernault gave the analogy of a crab bucket to describe the more specific community experiences in the industry. 

”Acknowledging that all of our specific groups experience this ‘crab bucket’ phenomenon and that we need to all help elevate each other into a higher vibration, a higher frequency, a higher way of doing things.” 

Joy emphasized that lack of representation is mainly due to funding accountability across the country as there is no current data being tracked on who gets funded, how they’re getting funding and self-identification. 

As for concrete actions that can be taken for the industry to be more representative of diversity, Ndumbi said that the film industry is built on licensing and that media executives hold the power over the content that gets broadcasted around the world. Most of the time, executives just do the bare minimum to meet the requirements when it comes to having global and Canadian-made content. And so by default, minorities get overlooked to be cast in roles. 

“The networks who are in charge of these big media companies, a lot of them don’t want to take a chance on someone who’s just coming up.” 

Funding too, for producers, is challenging to raise -— even with federal grants from the Canada Media Fund (CMF) you still need to raise the rest of the money yourself. Supernault said that it’s all about becoming grassroots when it comes to inclusivity and is thankful for the Indigenous Screen Office which was created  for Indigenous people, by Indigenous people. 

“It makes a difference when you’re from the community when you’re tied to the community when you have that upbringing, where you’ve really been connected to your Indigenous identity,” she says. “So I love that we have our own, as Indigenous people in positions of power, who are getting to make the decisions and who are getting to help us live.” 

She later goes on to talk about classism and its detrimental effects on minorities with a greater percentage of BIPOC artists living lower class lifestyles due to a lack of resources.

Joy also tagged on that a systematic overhaul is needed with multiple advocacy efforts and says that radical industry transformations are the way to become more accountable. There needs to be a fundamental shift that would give minorities more opportunity in terms of funding.

She also says that there is a lack of dialogue on what the word “diversity” truly means — whether that is being truly inclusive to all minorities, including non-cisgender and hetero gender identifying alike. Sudra also agreed that some amazing advocacy organizations have emerged like Creatives Empowered and Her Land which provides opportunities for women filmmakers. 

And slowly but surely things are changing. Ndumbi gave examples of the Calgary Film Center and even the government is starting to listen to these underrepresented and marginalized voices with Amazon and Netflix giving them a platform unlike traditional examples from Hollywood. 

But what role does social media play? Surprisingly Instagram, TikTok and YouTube have worked in favour of minority groups and given them an outlet, especially for social justice efforts. The only downside, as Joy mentioned, is that as creatives sometimes you are not adequately paid for the work you do, often releasing content for free. 

Some final words of wisdom the panellists imparted are that having mentorships are key. 

“I’ve been fortunate enough all along the way to attract mentors, wonderful mentors. I absolutely 100 per cent would not be where I am in my career without all my mentors,” said Supernault.  

Supernault spoke of a friend who was struggling and wanted guidance. Her friend being a Black woman herself, Supernault connected her to a Black mentor who was not only a seasoned expert that doled out valuable advice but also was able to see pitfalls that her friend may not have noticed and understood insider aspects that she was having hardships with. Supernault says that you have to have the mantra of failing forward for a career in filmmaking and suggests going for roles even if you’re not qualified for them because it doesn’t hurt to try. 

“Apply, just apply. keep applying. Don’t stop applying. Don’t be the person who says no to yourself when other people say no to you. And that’s just getting in those doors, because those are the places where you’re going to meet the mentors who are going to change your life. And then you just have to be brave. You just got to suck it up. Even if you’re shaking in your boots, talk to that person, get their email. Don’t let them leave the event without reaching out,” says Supernault. 

Ndumbi agreed that having a mentor will not only make you a better filmmaker and catapult your career, but potentially save you a lot of money because you are bound to make a lot of newbie mistakes when starting. A mentor, says Ndumbi, can save you a lot of blood, sweat and tears. 

Sudra said that when she was younger, she never really had the confidence nor found that she had the opportunity to pursue a career in film. One of the difficulties she dealt with in her career thus far, was the voices of doubt in her head. Growing up as a South Asian woman and Canadian in Calgary in the ‘80s, it was difficult fitting in. Somehow her early experience penetrated her psyche in which she had to overcome and debilitate that little voice inside her head by being okay with finding her voice and celebrating it by telling her stories and celebrating others. 

She recalls meeting a friend in Regina who was enlisted to create a documentary through the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) and was inspired to enrol in a program by the NFB called Real Diversity East in the late ’90s and early ’00s which ended up altering the trajectory of her career, as she discovered her love of specifically documentary filmmaking.

BIPOC Representation in the Film and TV Industries was part of a series of live panels for the CIFF 2021 Industry Week programming. Be sure to check out these filmmaker enthusiasts including Nina Sudra, Sylvester Ndumbi, Roseanne Supernault and research journalist Alexa Joy in their respective films and social medias.

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