“Programming Representation”

By Torri Pelletier (BFF 2019; Bates Class of 2020)

            My analysis of the 2019 Bates Film Festival will highlight the successes that the festival saw, will serve to critique the shortcomings of the event, and will highlight hopes for the festival that we both were and weren’t able to achieve.  I hope this blog post will serve to help future BFF programmers to learn from our hardships as a budding festival and help it to blossom in future iterations. 

“To assert this position of representing difference and advocating for social change from the beginning of the festival’s creation is special, and as the festival grows I think it will prove to be extremely powerful that the groundings of the Bates Film Festival have been unrelentingly committed to changing the tide of representation in cinema.”

            Here I specifically want to focus on our festival board’s commitment to representing marginalized voices and using our festival as a platform to amplify narratives relevant to women, the LGBTQ+ community, people of color, and immigrants.  Basically, we attempted to make intersectionality the most important facet of the festival.  While the film industry is seeing a surge of representation of women and people of color who are filmmakers, actors, and creators of media in ways that the industry hasn’t seen before, there is still a lot of work and consideration to be done about how we can keep the momentum going, and firmly assert the Bates Film Festival as a platform that can contribute to this shift in representation (Ramos).  There is still a mountain of change that needs to happen in the film industry to see more and more representation of women and people of color in directorial positions, telling their own stories.  The Bates Film Festival is in its infancy, committing itself to the uplifting of these marginalized voices, which is quite often the opposite of what Hollywood and popular cinema has stood for.  To assert this position of representing difference and advocating for social change from the beginning of the festival’s creation is special, and as the festival grows I think it will prove to be extremely powerful that the groundings of the Bates Film Festival have been unrelentingly committed to changing the tide of representation in cinema. 

            I was a part of the documentary programming team, in which we were given some options to select from and a space to argue for which films we believed should be programmed into the festival. When deciding which films to program, we got into debates, taking in both the quality and content of the film, but also the director’s positionally in relation to their identity (race and gender specifically). 

            The importance of identity can’t be understated, especially considering the statistics regarding racial and gender representation in film direction (5050by2020.com).  The disparities in representation are also clear in the representation at major festivals, where even though there has been progress, the statistics aren’t matching the goal set by the 50/50 by 2020 initiatives (Ramos).  In class we were required to read articles that detailed how festival politics made it substantially more difficult for women and people of color to make films and have them be accepted, with women of color having the lowest representation.

            I thought that the documentary team did a good job of programming two women of color –– Jacqueline Olive (Always in Season) and Assia Boundaoui (The Feeling of Being Watched).  There were only two men represented in the feature length film selections: Hassan Fazili, an Afghan director who told his story of being a refugee in Midnight Traveler, and the only White male represented was for Changing the Game, a film about high school athletes who are transgender.  I thought the representational issues and the concepts themselves were thoughtfully put together and diverse; the content was quality without repeating themes that were already covered.

Always in Season played at the 2019 Bates Film Festival

            A complicated aspect of bringing in representation and important issues that I would like to reflect on involves our programming of Always In Season, which is about the history of the lynching of Black people in the U.S., and how it still happens today.  I adamantly fought for this film to be programmed into the festival because I thought the film did an incredible job articulating how its effects can still be felt in the present day, and that it isn’t a crime exclusive to the past.  The documentary team was divided on whether or not this film should be programmed because the photos the film shows of lynchings were “too graphic” and that the film’s content was too hard to view.  I argued that we needed to show the film for precisely those reasons so that a majority White audience could confront the demons of American history, and realize that these issues still manifest themselves today.  Additionally, Jacqueline Olive was the only Black female director represented in any of the films, narrative or documentary. I ended up being able to persuade the documentary team with the help of the members who agreed, and we programmed the film.  We also were able to invite Jacqueline Olive to Bates for the festival screening. 

            Ultimately, only about 10 people went.  I didn’t even go because I had to work that weekend.  This was a very difficult reality to confront, and was embarrassing because of Jacqueline Olive’s presence.  There were multiple contributing factors to why this film didn’t see the turnout it needed and deserved: 1) it was in a bad location in Olin which we discussed should be changed in the future; 2) at a bad time in the early afternoon on a Sunday; 3) it wasn’t as heavily advertised as other events with “fun” aspects to them; 4) The sad reality is that people (Bates students) don’t want to put forth the energy to dedicate a few hours to confronting very sad and scary aspects of American history. 

Jacqueline Olive

            I think that it is vital to look at why this event didn’t see the success it deserved, and figure out how to make it successful.  In my opinion, it is a cop out not to screen films because they address hard or graphic realities.  Additionally, it is even more of a cop out to say our festival wants to be a way for marginalized voices to get their stories heard, and simultaneously not screen the work of women of color (who already had to fight ten times as hard to have a seat in the director’s chair) just because the material is deemed “tough.” 

            So how do we prevent this kind of situation from happening again, while not compromising or nullifying BFF’s mission of amplifying marginalized voices?  I think there are a few possible solutions.  We should look to our more popular events of the festival like the Tazzeka dinner, the promotion and hype for The Last Black Man in San Francisco, or the interactivity of A Shared Space: Lewiston for guidance on what we could potentially do in future festivals.  I think that these three films and the events surrounding them were able to accomplish what our festival set out to do –– to take subjects from diverse backgrounds and get their stories out.  This allows the audience to relate to the problems by seeing representations of their own identity, or negotiate with problems they don’t confront in their everyday lives if the film is from a background different from their own.  I think that for Always In Season, the reality is that we would have to advertise it more and create some sort of interactive component that gives viewers encouragement to go to a film where the subject matter is difficult to confront.  It was a brave move to program a film like this, but I think as programmers we should be proud to not back away from things that are considered “controversial” when they are in fact realities for many Black citizens in our country, and these sad realities are part of our history that shouldn’t be considered controversial at all.

            When the BFF this year was at its full potential, I thought it accomplished our mission of a full commitment to the representation of diverse audiences very well.  I saw this the most in the events I was able to attend during the festival: The Last Black Man In San Francisco and A Shared Space: Lewiston.  These films were able to really show the perspective of more diverse backgrounds, while garnering a large audience to disseminate talk of the festival and the films themselves.  For future generations of BFF programmers, I think more attention and planning should go into intentionally uplifting women of color’s voices.  It would be incredible to see the successful events be women and women of color at the helm, and would situate Bates as a leader in choosing to represent films that don’t reflect the White male Hollywood canon. 

Works Cited

“5050 By 2020.” 5050 by 2020. Accessed December 10, 2019. https://site.5050by2020.com/.

Ramos, Dino-Ray. “Sundance Increases Representation For Women & People Of Color With Plenty Of Room For Improvement- Study.” Deadline, September 6, 2019. https://deadline.com/2019/01/sundance-usc-annenberg-inclusion-initiative-inclusion-representation-women-people-of-color-study-dr-stacey-l-smith-1202541174/.

Wiseman, Andreas. “Cannes: Record-Tying Four Films By Women Directors In Competition Signals Slow Progress.” Deadline, April 18, 2019. https://deadline.com/2019/04/cannes-festival-competition-women-directors-record-1202598180/ .