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Lisa Valencia-Svensson on the ‘Personal Passion’ to Push Diversity

TORONTO–Who is telling whose stories in the world of documentary filmmaking today? Why are they telling those stories, and to what audience? And why do those questions matter?

Those are some of the issues on the mind of Emmy Award-winning producer Lisa Valencia-Svensson, who delivered a keynote speech on diversity, inclusion and representation at Hot Docs Tuesday.

She appeared on the heels of the international premiere of “Always in Season,” Jacqueline Olive’s startling documentary about modern-day lynchings in the U.S., which Valencia-Svensson co-produced. The film received the Special Jury Award for Moral Urgency at Sundance this year.

The producer drew on her own celebrated career, as well as her experiences as a queer woman of color, to frame a conversation about the importance of diversity and inclusion in documentary filmmaking, at a time when a greater range of voices – and a growing number of distribution platforms – have opened the door for more diverse stories to be told.

Those opportunities, however, come with responsibilities and challenges. “How do we diversify our industry? How do we include a broader range of perspectives in our work?” she asked.

One key she suggested is rewriting the rule book on hiring practices to make sure companies and institutions in the film industry – from production houses to broadcasters to funding bodies and festivals – are inclusive across the board. “We can begin by hiring and involving more people from underrepresented groups,” she said, “and then move on to…hiring more and more members of underrepresented groups into top positions of leadership and decision-making.”

Story-tellers need to be more mindful, too, of the impact that representation has on communities who aren’t accustomed to seeing the full range of their lived experiences depicted on screen. As a half-Filipina, half-Swedish-American girl growing up, Valencia-Svensson said she grew accustomed to the fact that the movies and literature she consumed wouldn’t be centered on characters like her. “I thought it was normal never to feel any connection, always feeling excluded, always to be on the outside looking in,” she said.

Recognizing that this didn’t have to be the case was more than just a personal awakening for the producer; it formed the connective tissue that joined her with countless other underrepresented communities around the world. “I am not the only person to never learn my own stories in school, to rarely see people like me on TV growing up, to never be told that my history did, in fact, occur, and was even as important as everyone else’s history,” she said.

Valencia-Svensson described the conscious efforts she made to rewrite that script while shooting the documentary “Migrant Dreams,” a film about temporary farmworkers in Canada that screened at Hot Docs in 2016. “For us it was paramount to not just portray our subjects as at the mercy of the Canadian government’s exploitative system, and not also as people who are fighting back…who get married, who fall in love,” she said. “That is the kind of storytelling I want to support.”

The producer encouraged other documentary filmmakers to be mindful of the perspective from which they approach their subjects, and to recognize that even unconscious biases can have a harmful impact on how marginalized communities are portrayed.

“If we care about justice and equality, if we are driven to contribute to changing the world through our documentary filmmaking, then these are realities we need to understand very clearly in order to be effective,” she said.

“People often support diversity initiatives simply because they know it’s good to do….But our efforts to bring more diversity into the industry won’t go very far if we don’t each have a personal passion to make it happen.”

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