Getting Real Conference, Los Angeles September 2018.
Photo by Susan Yin courtesy of IDA.




Toward a Coalitional Identity

Sonya Childress



You need to hold hands collectively, even with people you can’t agree with. Collectively because your historical placement with them makes you have the same destiny.
– Haile Gerima1


In September 2018 on a sweltering hot day in Los Angeles, over 1,000 filmmakers and industry professionals gathered for Getting Real, the International Documentary Association’s biennial conference on documentary film. Amid the popular sessions on network pitching, story editing, and master classes by directors such as Werner Herzog was a three-panel track called Decolonizing Documentary. Far from the ubiquitous diversity panels at festivals, this track sought to excavate the norms that trace back to the form’s colonial roots, and imagine a field that reflects the aesthetics, political aims, and philosophical inclinations of contemporary filmmakers of color. Specifically, it asked participants to envision the films they would make, the audiences they would serve, and the industry they would flourish in without the constraints imposed by (neo)colonial frameworks. The sessions attracted creatives of color from across the country, who filled auditoriums to articulate the dimensions of a new documentary landscape. 


This conference track was the brainchild of three entities who share a vision of increasing the representation and amplification of nonfiction filmmakers of color: A-Doc, a network of Asian Americans in the documentary field; Brown Girls Doc Mafia, a collective of 3,000+ women/nonbinary people of color working in all areas of the documentary industry; and Firelight Media, a twenty-year-old production company and artist support organization for documentary filmmakers of color. 


This track offered, for a few fleeting hours, a professional environment free from the burden of code-switching, self-censorship, cosplaying as the lone representative of a race, or otherwise navigating the white gaze. And unlike most festivals rooted within communities of color, this was a decidedly BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) environment, expansive enough to center traditionally marginalized communities.


It was a touchstone moment for a new wave of activism championed by BIPOC-led organizations and collectives eager to dismantle norms and recalibrate the axis of power. The Decolonize Documentary track opened space for necessary conversation, but perhaps its most important contribution was the opportunity it afforded for allied organizations to practice the work of collaboration.



 

Getting Real Conference, Los Angeles September 2018.
Photos by Susan Yin courtesy of IDA. 




"Without a clear analysis of Indigenous erasure and anti-Blackness across communities of color, of the insidious ways we internalize and inadvertently weaponize our respective privileges, many attempts at collaboration just hover above the surface of deep-seated pain."



This inclination toward a collectivized work is not new, and indeed many in this new guard trace their very presence in the field to organizations that carved space for us to enter. Pipeline organizations like Visual Communications, Third World Newsreel, and Scribe Video Center emerged from the 1960s sociopolitical upheaval. Each decade brought new mission-driven organizations that advanced ideas of self-representation and self-determination. The National Multicultural Alliance, a pioneering collective of five allied organizations—The Center for Asian American Media, Latino Public Broadcasting, Black Public Media, Pacific Islanders in Communications, and Vision Maker Media—formalized a partnership over three decades ago, sharing resources, offering grants, and advocating for makers within public media. These collectives are the foundation on which this new wave of cross-ethnic alliance building sits.


Much is said about the need for solidarity. But while it might be intellectually intuitive, solidarity requires practice—and patience. Attempts at cross-ethnic allyship in the political and cultural spheres have progressed in fits and starts, for good reason. Without a clear analysis of Indigenous erasure and anti-Blackness across communities of color, of the insidious ways we internalize and inadvertently weaponize our respective privileges, many attempts at collaboration just hover above the surface of deep-seated pain. Yet in an atmosphere of divisive policies that intentionally pit our communities against one another, acknowledging and excavating those pressure points is necessary work. When funding swings toward one community and programmers pay lip service to other communities, it is not unusual for a scarcity mindset to seep in. The natural response is to shore up resources within our identity groups, effectively building power in silos. Resisting that impulse—collaborating with people whose struggle resembles yours even when their culture, national origin, and history do not—requires concerted effort.


This is where the real work begins. It is deep within the kiln of BIPOC collaboration that a new cultural ecosystem can be forged. An ecosystem built on equity, ethics, and accountability. A liberatory film landscape, where creative work can flourish free of the emotional labor required to navigate an inhospitable industry. This ecosystem requires intra-community work (to build power internally and address the very real fissures within communities), but it also requires cross-ethnic alliance building.



Getting Real Conference, Los Angeles September 2018.
Photo by Susan Yin courtesy of IDA.




"True power exists in the liminal space between individual success and collective gains."





Make no mistake: coalition building is organizing, even spiritual, work. It is labor that demands honest conversations about perspective, identity, history, and power. It entails a reckoning with the fact that our communities have been forced to compete with one another, have been alternately tokenized and marginalized. To survive in this environment many of us have cast others in the shadows in order to be seen. We must have the courage to confront this pain, to uproot the patterns of assimilation and competition that keep all of our communities on the margins. By mining these sensitive areas, coming into closer proximity to collective pain, we can then move into collective healing and joy. We can begin to envision and build a new creative landscape that sees and reflects all of us, truly.


That work is labor-intensive, but its fruit can take many forms. It might look like co-curated programming or parties. It might look like privileging film festivals rooted in communities of color for event programming, advocating for filmmakers of color when sitting in positions of power, or signal-boosting allied content on social media. It may take the shape of an articulated manifesto and action plan. It might result in experimental collaborations between affinity groups, or embedding intersectional storylines into film projects. It may look like the creation of new BIPOC production, impact, and distribution houses. Whatever the shape, it is the relationship and trust building required to materialize collective goals that holds true promise for a shift in power.


True power exists in the liminal space between individual success and collective gains. Just as singular charismatic hero motifs do not serve social movements, individual success stories do not build fields. Power shifts when the demands of the “we” are louder than the cries of the “I.” Power lies in coalitional identities that do not overshadow real differences, but foreground common goals and frameworks. The blueprint for solidarity work within cinema was handed to us from elders in the field. Permission has been granted. The question for this generation is, What new reality are we willing to conjure and manifest together?





1 “A Collective Cinema: A Conversation with Haile Gerima,” BlackStar Catalog, 2018, 19.




Watch Sonya Childress Moderate a Conversation on Coalition Building at the 2020 BlackStar Film Festival: