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Categories: Features

Savannah James-Bayly breaks down the steps that filmmakers and professionals can take towards improving the diversity in film today.

In the wake of the #metoo movement, the appalling absence of diversity in our industry has finally felt like it’s getting the attention that it deserves. In the past month Marvel released it’s first BAME helmed superhero film, Black Panther; the Academy nominated the first female cinematographer for an Oscar; and queer cinema has had a good year with Call Me By Your Name, God’s Own Country and A Fantastic Woman all receiving major award nods.

Yet, despite the critical attention that has been focused on the industry, there is still a long way to go, because exclusion, primarily subconscious, permeates deep into the fibre of our profession. I was shocked at a screening of BAFTA nominated short films to see only two of the eight nominated directors were women. It’s easy to understand how women are at a disadvantage when the movie budgets are in the tens and hundreds of millions, as we’re battling the stereotype that the stress and pressure of a big commercial film is too much for our frail dispositions. Yet the hurdles are clearly unequal heights from straight out the starting gates.

The discourse around diversity often makes it sound like inclusion is a charitable act, rather than a moral and legal obligation. “Diversity” is used as a buzzword, rather than being an ethos that we enact at every level. We use lazy hiring practices, namely word of mouth, and cut corners to save time and reduce risk. Producing a film or TV series can seem an impossible mountain to climb, and so it’s understandable that we try to find the easiest path forward. And yet, to hear the BBC drama recently talk about how they may look to hire BAME talent from America to solve their diversity problem depicts perfectly the methodology that many people take when it comes to diverse hiring: Instead of putting in the work to push the heavy door to the industry wide open, we look to disrupt our homogeneity by hiring those few who’ve already squeezed their way through the key hole. Whilst I may dream of someday working with Ava Duvernay, Issa Rae or Dee Rees they cannot solve the industry’s problem alone. The power rests in all of our hands.

I recently became involved in an activist group called Disabling the Screen, who seek to address a much less spoken about obstacle to a career in film: disability. In January I attended a meeting of the organisation, where a thirty strong group of industry practitioners and commissioners brainstormed about how to actively carve out routes to change. I left the meeting feeling inspired by the passion and ideas in the room, but also angry. I was angry at how far we have to go, and also about how the vast majority of us are complicit in the erasure of diverse voices from our field. We are not “good people” when we hire a team reflective of our population; we are “bad people” when our poor practice makes us exclusionary. By making committed efforts to be inclusive, we don’t deserve praise – under the 2010 Equalities Act we must take steps to eliminate disadvantages to employees, prospective employees or clients, including making reasonable adjustments to ensure it’s possible for disabled talent to work – this isn’t kindness, it’s the law. And what’s more, it’s good business. Our audiences aren’t all straight, middle-class, cis, white, able-bodied men, so in a collaborative, story-telling industry, it makes no sense for our entire team to be.

So here is a check list I implore all producers and people in positions of power to enact. And if you think that I’m not talking to you, I want you to stop and carefully consider what power you do have – if you have the capacity to influence hiring at any level, you have power; if you have enough financial security to pick what projects you take on, you have power. I’m not just talking about “gatekeepers” in senior industry roles; we all must play our part…

  • Turn down jobs if their scripts perpetrate racism, sexism, classism, ableism, transphobia or homophobia. If turning down work is a financial possibility that won’t result in hunger or eviction, then do it and explain to them why. Ultimately the best way to stop these kind of things being made, is if they can’t get the support from within the industry. I don’t care who they are, or what status they might have, if you work on it you’re enabling their viewpoint.
  • Ask and listen: In job applications, before interviews, before, during and after you shoot. State that you’re seeking diverse candidates. Ask if people have any accessibility requirements. Offer the opportunity for people to tell production about any hidden disabilities and if you are unsure about how to help ensure it’s a safe and accessible working environment, ask them what you can do to help. Offer the opportunity for people to feedback and listen to positive and negative feedback.
  • Leave your casting briefs open. Unless race/gender/sexuality/disability is essential to the story, don’t specify.
  • Make sure you casting is held in an accessible building. There are plenty of them around. Enquire about step free access, accessible toilets and interior signage. Don’t assume because it’s on the ground floor that makes it accessible. And it’s not only about physical access to the audition space. Don’t give people one day to prepare, because that might be a barrier. Offer the option to self tape if they prefer.
  • It’s on you to make sure that your job applications are reaching diverse talent. Reach out to agencies like VisABLE People or The Identity Agency as well as posting in your usual spots.
  • Insist your HODs hire diversely. If their regular team are all white straight able-bodied cis men then make sure that they at least interview other candidates.
  • Take on trainees wherever possible. Companies like Signature Pictures will help you place trainees from disadvantaged backgrounds in your production. Check out Creative Access and use their job posting board.
  • Use social media to advertise jobs. Twitter is completely public. Facebook is full of groups of filmmakers from disadvantaged backgrounds who have grouped together to try and self promote. A bit of searching is all it takes to find routes to diverse candidates.
  • “I have two words for you: inclusion rider”. This isn’t only limited to Oscar winning actors. If you’re offered a job, say you’ll only take it if there is a diverse team and accessible hiring strategy in place.

We need to turn the lens on ourselves to critically interrogate how our actions maintain the status quo. The fight to diversify our industry has to be an active one; If we all continue to work as we have done in the past, and think the problem lies elsewhere, then nothing will change and the industry we all love will become obsolete. Let’s all take a leaf out of Alan Caso’s book, who gave the following powerful speech whilst receiving the ACS’s career achievement award in February.

Savannah James-Bayly

Savannah established Fox Cub Films in 2012 and has since produced over eight short films, starring talent such as Jason Flemyng, Bill Paterson and Alice Lowe. These films have shown at a range of festivals internationally, and in 2014 Arthouse Cinema Crouch End included a feature length collection in their December programme.She's currently working as Associate Producer on A Guide to Second Date Sex, written/directed by Rachel Hirons, and developed by Starfield Productions with the support of the BFI. She’s also developing her own slate of features.She was participant in American Pavillion's Film Programme at Cannes 2015, Film London's Micromarket 2015, Bird’s Eye View’s Filmonomics 2016, Edinburgh International Film Festival's 2016 Talent Lab, is part of the recently launched Female Film Leaders, and has served on the jury of Watersprite Film Festival 2016.

Posted on Mar 13, 2018