While the murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement triggered months of protests in the U.S. and kicked off a roiling debate about institutional racism, much of Europe has struggled to initiate a similar reckoning about race—something European film industries have been particularly slow to grapple with.
How that might change in the months and years ahead was the subject of “Anti-Racism and White Supremacy: Will the Market Catch Up with Much-Needed Change?,” a conversation held on Tuesday as part of the Sarajevo Film Festival’s CineLink Talks discussion series.
Moderated by producer Paula Vaccaro (“On the Milky Road”), the discussion included Sarah-Tai Black, a film programmer, arts curator, writer, and co-director of The Royal Cinema in Toronto; Nada Riyadh, a director and producer from Cairo; Matthijs Wouter Knol, head of the European Film Market and incoming director of the European Film Academy; and the Moscow-based influencer and anti-racist activist Maria Magdalena Tunkara.
“Many people [in Europe] have put diversity on the agenda. You see it coming back in the schemes of national film funds,” said Knol. “People are aware and understand the need to talk about…the inclusion of minorities in society, [such as] indigenous filmmakers, Black filmmakers, people of color working in the film industry.”
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While that might include a recognition that marginalized groups “actually need support more than white film professionals,” however, he said there’s often a begrudging recognition that larger structural changes need to be made.
“In many countries…people will say that there is no racism in the film industry. That’s not true,” he added. “I think that’s a truth that needs to be explained. I think there’s a lot of work to do.”
As the programmer of Black Gold, a monthly screening series dedicated to Blackness onscreen and off, Black said she hasn’t seen a broad representation of Black European lives depicted in film, something she partly attributes to broader systemic issues in Europe. “In terms of institutional awareness, there’s really a lack there,” she said.
However, she noted that entrenched attitudes and biases at North American institutions are also partly to blame. “While I don’t see a lot of submissions coming from racialized Europeans, I also know that a lot of it is because the institutions I was working for kind of reproduced that [lack of awareness] in terms of who even feels welcome to apply, [and] who would feel there’s a safe home for them and their work there,” she said.
When she receives an invitation to attend a film festival, Riyadh said there’s often a clear indication of who is welcome in the room. “There is something that I constantly feel when a festival or a program approaches me and says, ‘We’re handling diversity, so you’re in,’” she said. “For me, there’s some sort of superiority to it. You’re finally invited to be part of the conversation. In many ways it’s good, and in others ways it’s not helpful.”
She described how in the early 2010s, as the refugee crisis was beginning to move from the margins of public discourse into the spotlight, she was frequently asked to develop films about the subject.
“I was in a way quite offended by it. I’m not a refugee, and I don’t have the right to represent that cause,” she said. “It’s not just about making a slot for the topic. It’s about actually listening to a different perspective, and that perspective is not necessarily the perspective of someone living in the Middle East. It needs to be the perspective of someone who knows that reality.”
Shifting attitudes in Europe ultimately depends on structural overhauls and institutional changes, but that begins with a greater awareness among industry gatekeepers that the problem of racism needs to be addressed in a systemic way. “First of all, it starts with understanding what we’re actually talking about and admitting that, yes, Europe has a large role to play, and has played a key role in keeping the system the way it is, and actually initiating it in many ways,” said Knol.
That understanding extends to even well-meaning efforts to spark a conversation, he added, with European policymakers often coming together and “not being aware that all in the room are white.”
“I think that’s quite symptomatic,” he continued. “I must completely admit that I’m one of those people that, up until a couple of months ago, we were trying to figure out something without actually asking or inviting people into that conversation that are seeing things from a different side.”
Black admitted skepticism about the current racial reckoning in North America, noting that “there’s an archive of this history of it reappearing and repeating itself over and over again,” and called on industry power-brokers in Europe to listen to the voices calling for change.
“It’s going to look different for every region or country. To be Black in America, to be Black in Canada, it’s not the same as being Black in Russia or anywhere else,” she said. “At the end of the day, the thing that underpins our experience is anti-Blackness and white supremacy. For folks, particularly in Europe, I think [you have to] turn your gaze and turn your ears towards the people who are talking. Even if you couldn’t originally hear them, I bet you a million dollars they’ve been speaking.”