Blog

Report on the symposium "Seeing and Being Seen: Representation in Film"

Redaktion
Redaktion

Stereotyped roles, entrenched structures, and a lack of transparency in decision-making processes are evidence that the German film and TV industry needs to demonstrate a willingness to change. But how can change be brought about? How can established paradigms be discarded?

Report on the symposium "Seeing and Being Seen: Representation in Film"

During the symposium “Seeing and Being Seen: Representation in Film”, held March 25–27, 2022 in cooperation with the Evangelische Akademie Tutzing, deficiencies were identified and potential solutions discussed.

“The same stories are still often being told from the same perspectives by the same faces as always.” By quoting this statement from a newspaper article right at the start of the symposium, moderator and arts reporter Boussa Thiam made clear where the discussion stands now: the German media industry must achieve more inclusion and diversity in film and television. Diana Iljine, director of FILMFEST MÜNCHEN, who along with Udo Hahn, director of the Evangelische Akademie Tutzing, introduced the opening program of the three-day event “Seeing and Being Seen: Representation in Film”, also hoped for an impetus for change.

The failure of German productions to adequately represent all facets of society was confirmed by Prof. Elizabeth Prommer of the Media Studies Department at the University of Rostock, who presented the results of a study quantifying the progress of diversity in audiovisual media. This study had been launched in cooperation with the MaLisa Foundation established by actress Maria Furtwängler and her daughter, Elisabeth Furtwängler. Although progress has been made in the gender distribution of leading roles, such that 47 percent of them are now given to women, there is still a tendency to show mainly women who are young and thin and involved in heterosexual partnerships and relationships. The one-dimensional nature of female roles was particularly pronounced in works directed by men, Prommer said. Another statistic illustrated the discrepancy between lived experience and scenarios depicted in film: 26 percent of the population in Germany are of migrant heritage, versus only 15 percent of the protagonists in motion pictures. (You can view the recording of the live presentation from our symposium here.) “It does matter who writes stories and who puts them on film,” said Elizabeth Prommer. Diversity is also a relevant factor in the composition of the team behind the camera, as it influences the narrative that is presented on movie and television screens.

 

Migrant names are rarely found in the upper echelon

 

Sophisticated, multifaceted stories are in short supply, however, and not just with regard to female roles. Not only are people with disabilities or immigrant backgrounds, as well as individuals regarded as black or people of color, significantly underrepresented in the media industry; they are also often portrayed in contexts that propagate negative stereotypes. Thelma Buabeng shared how, as a black actress, she was mainly offered roles as a refugee, maid, or slave. She said that the international movement against racism, Black Lives Matter, which entered widespread consciousness in 2020, has led to change and that initiatives such as her own “Black Womxn Matter” have led to greater empowerment and more networking. But outside this community, films and TV programs that perpetuate prejudice and racism are not uncommon and are always a slap in the face, she said.

Ethnic names are rarely found in the upper echelon of the German film industry, says showrunner, producer, and TV journalist Memo Jeftic. He spoke with literature and cultural studies expert Dr. Özkan Ezli, a lecturer at the University of Konstanz, about why there is such hesitation to tell stories about people of migrant heritage. He perceives a “discourse phenomenon”. On the one hand, film is expected to be a “machine for creating fantasies” and telling imagined stories, while on the other hand it is expected to reflect societal reality. Public broadcasters in particular have a mandate to educate the public and thus the responsibility of depicting the complexity of society in as many facets as possible. In addition, films and television have the potential to change people’s way of seeing and to normalize those marginalized by society. For this to happen, he said, it is necessary to ensure more diversity in front of as well as behind the lens and to seek out new stories. “New stories do already exist,” countered actress Sheri Hagen, but entrenched discriminatory structures prevent those stories from being told and being made visible.

 

Letting the stories of minorities speak to mainstream society

 

Sheri Hagen plays the protagonist in I AM, a short film by actor-director Jerry Hoffmann that’s not about racism, but that’s simply about two women who struggle to reconcile their dreams and traumas and get along with each other. Hagen said it’s not often that she’s had the opportunity to play a role like this. Jerry Hoffmann agreed that complex roles are rarely given to BIPOC.

“Let the stories of minorities speak to mainstream society,” said Cherish Oteka, producer of the 2022 BAFTA Award-winning short film THE BLACK COP. Her film, she said, is the story of everyone in search of the self. It’s time to abandon the idea that certain narratives can’t be understood by the masses, that these experiences and emotions wouldn’t resonate.

Two representatives of the British Film Institute (BFI) — the director of the British Film Fund, Oscar-winner and producer Mia Bays, and industry inclusion executive Melanie Hoyes — reported on how the British media industry specifically promotes diversity. All projects that seek funding by the BFI are required to meet the institution’s diversity standards. Not only is explicit care taken to ensure that representation is considered both among the cast in front of the lens and among the team behind it; it’s also important, they said, that films be made accessible to the widest possible audience, such as through audio description and subtitles, and that disadvantaged groups be given advantages in the form of opportunities for training or promotion.

It’s important to be mindful of who is not in the picture, who’s not being invited to tell his or her story, Mia Bays said. Replacing gatekeepers and key personnel, offering transparent access and opportunities, creating effective mechanisms to counter bullying and racism, cooperating with affected communities or just giving them “a light to shine in,” as Mia Bays put it, are impetuses and approaches that could also be applied here in Germany. An important point raised by the BFI representatives is language, which can have both an exclusionary and an integrating effect. Being aware of barriers in dealing with one other is crucial, they said. For this reason, the BFI has created guidelines for the film industry that can function as pointers for any company seeking to prevent discrimination and create an awareness of non-discriminatory language.

Which stories are told in German films? Which ones aren’t? This question was addressed in a panel discussion with Duc Ngo Ngoc, Narges Kalhor, Haley Louise Jones, Sheri Hagen, and Sara Fazilat. Time and again, both in this discussion and over the course of the symposium, it became clear that diversity is often perceived as a risk in the German film and media industry. There are so many ideas and projects that are not given access to funding, said director and screenwriter Narges Kalhor. What’s needed here is more transparency on the one hand and more courage to allow new narratives and perspectives on the other. Actress, director, and producer Sara Fazilat (who appears in the film NICO) offered a concrete suggestion: revenue from TV license fees in particular could be redistributed to facilitate productions deemed “risky” and to offer a platform for diversity. It’s imperative to move away from automatically associating inclusivity with a reduction in quality. Having more diverse teams and boards would ensure greater acceptance and open-mindedness from the outset, while also creating an opportunity to see and hear talented individuals who would otherwise have been sidelined, as director Duc Ngo Ngoc commented.

IVIE WIE IVIE by director Sarah Blasskiewitz has given visibility to just such talented individuals while at the same time debunking the narrative of risk. This film, the recipient of several awards, is about identity and family, but also about discrimination and racism. Joined by her colleague Sheri Hagen, lead actress Haley Louise Jones spoke at the podium about the hurdles she’s had to overcome as a black actress, the collaboration on set, and the film’s significance to her personally.

 

The narrative of diversity as an interest shared by society as a whole

 

A further panel discussion traced decision-making processes in production management, at television broadcasters, and in film funding. In order to bring about structural change, more diversity is needed among decision-makers, said actor-producer Tyron Ricketts, who, after decades of fruitless attempts, is now producing his film about the first black police officer in Saxony in collaboration with Disney+ (SAM – EIN SACHSE). Film schools also need to create more space for diversity among students and lecturers alike, added Jan Krüger, producer and distributor at Port au Prince Film & Kultur Produktion GmbH. Editor Fatima Abdollahyan from Bayerischer Rundfunk emphasized that broadcasters like BR are already trying to make their programs and productions more inclusive. She believes that public broadcasters clearly have a responsibility in this regard.

The fruits of these efforts shouldn’t just be uploaded to media libraries, though; they should also be given more space in television programming, argued Nico Hofmann, director, producer, and CEO of UFA GmbH. His company had made a commitment in late 2020 to create more diversity in front of and behind the lens. The goal: to reflect by the end of 2024 the actual diversity of society in the company’s combined portfolio of programs in a given year. The German government’s census shall serve as a guide, he said. (Initial results can be found here.)

Films are a factor in the democratic process, added Dorothee Erpenstein, managing director of FilmFernsehFonds Bayern, whose institution sponsored the symposium. The narrative of diversity must be perceived as an interest shared by society as a whole, she said.

How can diversity be financed? This was the topic of one of four workshops during the symposium. In Germany in particular, a relatively large amount of money is available for funding films. It would be best to seek a fairer distribution of these funds, said Philipp Kreuzer, producer and managing director of Maze Pictures and chairman of the supervisory board of German Films. For one thing, public broadcasters would have to be proactive in funding diversity. Decision-making processes should be made more transparent — such as in terms of the criteria used to distribute funds and select projects. But more could also be done at the federal level, for example with regard to bringing diversity standards into alignment.

In the discussion of the workshop titled “Marketing Diversity”, film producer Jan Krüger talked about targeting and engaging with groups that, for example, cannot afford to go to the movies. Cooperate with companies, create events, and look for multipliers so that you can reach even these people, he suggested. Matthijs Wouter Knol, director of the European Film Academy, also remarked on the importance of film education. By showing and discussing films in schools, he said, young audiences can be engaged. Crowdfunding is also a way to market projects that have a particularly narrow target audience; the advantage to this is that an audience exists even before the film is completed.

Investing in consultants and making use of their expertise is important when writing a screenplay, said writer-director Duc-Thi Bui, who accompanied a workshop on the topic of “Writing Diversity”. People bring a wealth of experience with them, he said; more diversity is also needed at all levels that exert influence on the script, especially in production teams.

These are areas in which Germany still has a lot of catching up to do, especially when compared directly to the UK. So what’s next? How can diversity and representation be promoted in German film and television? The three-day forum at the Academy generated numerous actionable ideas and suggestions. Change requires clear guideposts and targets, it was said. The Filmförderungsgesetz (Film Subsidies Act) could be considered in this context and made more specific in terms of diversity standards. There were also repeated calls for more transparency and more open access. Decisions should be communicated more transparently and given a clearer rationale. DCM producer Rosh Khodabakhsh also suggested offering a three-day professional internship to give interested parties some insight and lower hurdles to them, as many people could not afford longer internships. Sheri Hagen expressed a desire for closer cooperation between film funding institutions from different German states. It would be relatively easy to standardize submission procedures and requirements, according to Helge Albers, managing director of MOIN Film Fund Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein, whose diversity checklist is a trailblazing effort in Germany.

It further became clear how crucial diversity is behind the lens: in screenwriting, production, directing, and casting as well as in film funding and at universities. It’s also important to invest in consultants, to create offices for handling discrimination and racism, and to develop respectful terminology, such as in language guides or lists of preferred terms. Diversity needs to be considered from the start and communicated in a way that is natural, the speakers said. Clichés are to be discarded and diversity seen as an opportunity rather than a risk, they added; it’s time to rethink, to engage in introspection, and to identify internalized prejudices and racism.

This symposium is a first step which has been able to identify possible changes. These changes must now be brought about.

Alessia Neuner, Dorothea Grass, Alix Michell

 

 

See also

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!
Blog

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!

July 4 2022

The 39th FILMFEST MÜNCHEN came to an end this weekend with the Award Ceremony. After two years of the pandemic, we’ve managed a fresh start!

It’s been a pleasure!
Blog

It’s been a pleasure!

July 4 2022

KINDERFILMFEST MÜNCHEN has ended and we proudly take stock of the past eight days of the festival.

Just keep winning!
Blog

Just keep winning!

July 2 2022

The 39th FILMFEST MÜNCHEN is coming to an end, all prizes have been awarded. Here is an overview of all winners and the juries' statements.