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Durban FilmMart’s Themba Bhebhe on Diversity: ‘We Are At a Crossroads’

DURBAN–A new thematic strand at this year’s Durban FilmMart, Engage @ DFM, offers a series of think tanks and in-depth discussions concerning diversity and de-colonial approaches to and models for filmmaking. To head up the new initiative, the DFM tapped guest curator Themba Bhebhe, who has led the Diversity & Inclusion initiative at the last two editions of the European Film Market. Bhebhe and DFM industry program curator Tiny Mungwe spoke to Variety about Engage @ DFM, why it’s important to question the status quo of filmmaking financed by the global north, and what a new, pan-African model of filmmaking would mean for the future of African cinema.

You’re curating a series of panels and conversations in Durban this week under the banner “Engage.” Can you tell us what it’s all about?

Bhebhe: For Engage @ DFM, our objective has been to create a space for conversations on the trends, dynamics and challenges underpinning the African film industry today, whereby that conversation will be solution-driven and framed in terms of future perspectives for economic growth and possible alternatives to current modus operandi.

Mungwe: In line with this year’s theme for the Industry Program, “Imagine Community,” Engage @ DFM is an invitation to define what community means in volatile times where people are divided more than ever by extremism, inequality and intolerance. Story, film and television has always made it possible to move from the dark, bringing better versions of ourselves into the light. Imagining community also means interrogating the industry’s norms and status quo, and asking what new things could grow here.

Our conversations are structured around three focal points: de-colonial model for filmmaking and film; the avenues available to key African platforms to collaborate at a pan-African level to generate growth; and strategies leading to the growth of documentary filmmaking and documentary audiences in the continent.

Why does this seem like the right time to have these conversations?

Bhebhe: The DFM’s 10th anniversary and the 40th anniversary of the DIFF constitute milestones to take stock of the state of play of what is a fragmented, regionalized and localized African industry where the idea of collaborations across the continent’s various industries are more and more the order of the day. On a more “micro” level, 2019 marks South Africa’s first quarter of a century of post-apartheid democracy and is as propitious a time as ever to reflect on the country’s industry, which has, alongside its Nigerian counterpart, grown to become one of the continent’s powerhouses. Indeed, intra-African collaborations are on the rise in film and TV, and last year’s sealing of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement could open the door to increased growth in the entertainment sector in what just became the world’s largest single market.

Most of all these conversations are ripe set against the backdrop of the currently shifting landscape of the continent’s industries. A report (“Framing the Shot: Key Trends in African Film 2018”) brought to light the startling prospect of unleashing up to $2 billion in box office revenues continent-wide per annum in the event of a unified strategy by all stakeholders in the industry to reach the continent’s 1.2 billion population by way of a greater screen per capita ratio.

We are at a crossroads in which the thirst for greater global representation is giving way to a greater desire for self-determination in the production of those images and the spaces in which they are shown. This calls into question the current status quo where many films are financed by the global north, championed by its sales, distribution and festival activities, and which, many argue, come into being in conditions that induce them to be versions of local “authenticity” easily palatable for Western audiences. The de-colonial aspect of our talks necessarily interrogate this system.

When it comes to “decolonizing” the traditional model of filmmaking – and specifically how it’s applied in the African context – we have to confront the uncomfortable reality that film finance is still largely concentrated in the global north. African governments have shown little appetite to invest in culture, or to sign the necessary legislation – co-production treaties, tax incentives, etc. – that could really transform local industries. Even in the largest economies and film industries, like South Africa and Nigeria, private equity is slow to come to the table. So from a practical level, what does de-colonized filmmaking look like in the Africa of 2020 and beyond?

Bhebhe: Engage @ DFM would be incomplete without a frank discussion on alternatives to the current financing and broadcasting landscape which, for many films, are dependent on the decision-making of entities from the global north. Within this de-colonial project, if African films such as Jannous Aukema and Puleng Lange Stewart’s “Until the Silence Comes” are to be made with complete or partial financial autonomy from the global north, this indeed poses the question of local or pan-African sources of such funding, of co-productions with the African diaspora, with the rest of the global south, and with other colonized peoples in the global north.

Commercially speaking, these films could open up a huge alternative market if they are crafted in such a way as to rely on shared references common to all. It’s a challenge that is tied to the notion of the production of content capable of traveling across Africa’s regions, potentially relying on a pan-African star system. De-colonial film, then, necessarily poses the question of the formation of alternative circuits of distribution in Africa and among the peoples of the global south.

Themba, you’ve been in charge of Diversity & Inclusion at the last two editions of the European Film Market, with an eye toward raising more awareness about improving representation on both sides of the camera. How do you see that conversation unfolding right now in the global north, in terms of how industries, festivals, markets, etc., are responding to these issues? 

Bhebhe: Despite the series of accolades of firsts which ritually cross our social media screens during each awards season, most recently with the Emmy nominations, the global industry’s seminal shift involves it casting its gaze away from onscreen representation downstream towards the organizations, corporations, institutions and individuals who form the industry. The most effective and sustainable responses have indeed been those that address the composition of the industry below the waterline, with a view to bringing about a structural and systemic transformation of the industry into a more inclusive space. This approach is underpinned by the assertion that the industry ought to reflect the audiences it serves, which beyond its social justice argument is validated by a powerful commercial reality.

Within this context, festivals, national film agencies and commissions, in particular, are all embracing their roles as the influencers and role models of the industry which they acquire due to their decision-making in terms of selections, funding and support being amongst the most visible of the entire filmic ecosystem.

I would by way of a caveat for future hires express that the essential condition for the meaningful inclusion of such staff is that they and their perspectives are not marginalized, receive equal treatment, pay, decision-making power and financial security. Otherwise they simply become the so-called diversity hires in a tokenistic, disingenuous exercise of due diligence and “color washing” with no structural or transformational depth.

In many ways – certainly in the U.S. industry – there are more opportunities than ever before for female filmmakers, queer filmmakers, people of color. But of course, this speaks to the fundamental lack of inclusion going back to the earliest days of film and television. What has to be done to keep this trend moving in the right direction?

Bhebhe: The needle has moved forward considerably; however, we are not even half-way to achieving the ultimate goal of an industry where all its stakeholders and the sum of its parts organically and systemically factor in inclusive practices not only in their actions, but also in their overarching culture, and undergo a transformation from within that removes biases, barriers and other exclusionary or skewing phenomena. This is a future vision of an industry where D&I would cease to be construed as a corrective measure through roles like mine at EFM, and where the category of the underrepresented ceases to be just that.

I don’t see that vision as utopic. In the first instance, it’s an attainable goal on the proviso that the dominant groups show a real willingness to be self-critical and, above all, self-aware. Such willingness, if it is to be truly effective, necessarily has to translate into sharing the power: no amount of lip service will suffice if, as an organization, you aren’t actively hiring Black and Indigenous People Of Color, women, queer people, people with disabilities and so on across the board and in decision-making roles. Significantly, finding the so-called right person for the job from those categories is a question of outreach and not passively awaiting their solicitation to an organization that they might not perceive as welcoming to their presence. I believe that those are some of the attitudes and level of awareness that would need to change in order to effect real progress.

Secondly, the aforementioned future vision is neither factitious nor fictitious: it is already in operation in certain spaces of the industry (in identity-based festivals, public funders, capacity-building and talent development organizations, interest-group organizations), and embodies a blueprint of best practices that we can strive towards.

Certainly, outside of North America, U.K. and South Africa, I would say that one of the main hurdles towards the transformation of the industry is the visibility of those underrepresented groups and the differential treatment affecting them. I am always surprised by those from dominant groups, mainly white, mainly male, mainly straight and cis-gendered, complaining that they don’t want to be “put in a box.” This stance completely misses the point and is complicit in a system that marginalizes, silences and ultimately renders those already under-represented groups invisible. A shift in that perception is, as such, a perquisite for real change.

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