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Canons Must Fall: Mapping Transitions within the Documentary Space

By Ashley Omoma

Fred Hampton, featured in Stanley Nelson's 'The Black Panthers: Vanguards of the Revolution.' Photo courtesy of Paul Sequeira.

This year’s virtual gathering of Getting Real ‘20 called for the redistribution of power within documentary practice and the removal of barriers inhibiting the expansion of possibility within the field and access to it. However, the process of actualizing such changes requires a series of transitions that move us away from the status quo to the future. 

Although many conversations held before, during and after the convening are grounded in that work, one in particular, “The Liberatory Canon,” illustrates a pattern of change taking place in the ecosystem that reflects current values within the field. These changes work to rid this practice of what no longer serves us in order to make space for what does. 

In theory, the “canon” represents a class of exemplary documentary work elevated within the field. Films with such status enjoy the privilege of engagement within public consciousness that exceeds the life cycles of most documentaries. And the makers of these works are typically supported and sought out for future films. 

However, more often than not, the works of storytellers from marginalized communities detailing the histories and contemporary realities of their communities are excluded from the canon. This exclusion is often “a work of erasure.” And as session moderator,  writer/researcher Yasmina Price, put it, it is one akin to genocide. 

This comparison is not an exaggeration, but one rooted in fact. As Native American filmmaker Heather Rae maintained, Indigenous people make up one-tenth of one percent of the representation in American film and television, despite being the world’s second-largest population. 

In her experience working with IllumiNative, a nonprofit organization that challenges stereotypical narratives of Native populations with research and data, Rae found that 78% of Americans are interested in learning about Native Americans. The news came as a shock to the filmmaker, who spent two decades being told that Native American stories had no value and were not commercially viable. “I had to sit down and realize they were lying; it's not even in the data,” she said. 

The narrative of Native populations that was circulated was one “which locked Indigenous people in the past as though they were not surviving and consistently — resisting,” Price added. This passive narrative laid the groundwork for Indigenous populations to be understood as a “vanishing minority.” This cycle of erasure via narrative is experienced not only by Indigenous people but by all marginalized groups. 

Denied the support to tell our own stories, the rhetoric that is created on our behalf is often narrated by those outside of our communities—historically, white and male, with power, platform and resources. The panelists noted that when these stories are predominantly told by and for other people, they are more easily exoticized by makers and audiences unfamiliar with the issues and communities represented. 

Race, gender, class, nationality and other identities all inform access in filmmaking. Brazilian researcher and film programmer Janaina Oliveira  maintained, “We can’t deny that if you are a white person in the world, you have more chances of making a film, period, because you have more access to funds and you have more access to the whole system.”

Filmmaker and Firelight Media Founder Stanley Nelson, urged filmmakers to question whether or not they should be telling the stories they pursue. “The problem is that once they tell that story, that story is never going to be told again,” he explained. “So that's the story that we get.” 

Nelson added that although he believes most filmmakers telling stories outside of their communities are well-meaning, empathy is not enough. “Even Flaherty was well-meaning,” he noted.

As Price highlighted during the panel, what is at stake here is knowledge production. In times like these especially, it is important we have access to our histories and our stories as we envision them so we have the ability to better map out our futures.  

Thankfully there is a new generation hungry for works created by storytellers in their communities, that reflect the diversity of their experiences and do so in non-traditional, creative and engaging ways. And according to the panelists, they are not overly concerned with the rules and confines of traditional documentary practice maintained by the canon. 

The erasure of marginalized populations from the canon perpetuates dangerous misinformation that threatens truth, organization and power-building, among other necessities. And so it must be asked, What then is the purpose of the canon and does it matter? As Oliveira asserted, let the canon be the canon; there is much work to do elsewhere. 


Ashley Omoma is a recent documentary filmmaking graduate from the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. One of her missions is to help create a world where truth is truly a tool for both justice and joy. She is also a Documentary Magazine Editorial Fellow.