February 1, 2021

A Call for Ethical Infrastructures in the Documentary Industry

Illustration: Sawsan Chalabi (www.schalabi.com)

Since the very dawn of documentary film, BIPOC have held immense value as documentary subjects, yet meaningful commitment to BIPOC filmmaker and executive careers has been fleeting. That discrepancy, which has become more pronounced in this corporate age of documentary, is unjust and unsustainable. It robs our community, the industry and audiences of the wider promise of creative potential and cultural impact.

As the COVID-19 global pandemic rages on, the very possibility of who can be a filmmaker is further threatened. In this moment of existential uncertainty, BIPOC artists not only suffer a tenuous existence, they simultaneously shoulder the burden of imagining the possibilities of a better future. Even while pitted against one another for scarce opportunities, they challenge legacy structures, transform codes of ethics, and envision new mechanisms to strengthen and support community. All this while seeking to unearth stories that matter.

Conversely, the vast majority of the well-financed production companies, where the art of the transaction is being perfected, are white-led. This group has claimed a virtual monopoly on premium opportunity, and seems uncertain how best to respond to BIPOC communities questioning the industry’s soul. While there is nearly universal agreement on the need for diversification throughout the executive and filmmaker ranks, few viable transformative options have been successfully implemented, let alone replicated. Even with the most well-meaning of efforts, BIPOC filmmakers and films become relegated to portfolio-building exercises that predominantly benefit the holders of power, and rarely contribute to permanent progress.

The documentary industry must now have its turn at honest introspection and assessment, and widely commit to a more equitable future. We as an entire community must challenge ourselves to evolve beyond a practice that consistently values culture mainly as a transactional commodity, and commit to ethical practices aligned with society’s demands that culture be seated in centers of power. There must be deliberate, strategic investments in a just documentary infrastructure that reflects the changing world around us. Resources must be directed towards a pipeline of BIPOC careers and content. And finally, efforts must be made towards community building and direct communication.

These are hardly new ideas. In the early decades of PBS and community media, there were many successful programs and professional fellowships for seeding talent, producing numerous shining leaders in documentary film. In recent years, even corporate America has awoken to the reality that diversifying simply makes for better business. Why has our documentary community trailed so woefully behind? Our industry must check its power in the most elemental sense. If not, it will stagnate and decline. So what must be done?

  • Invest in BIPOC careers. For too long, individual BIPOC films have been worthy of support, but without any commitment to field-wide BIPOC career-building. Set annual objectives, with a percentage of annual budgets invested in BIPOC filmmakers.

  • Invest in BIPOC content. An oft-cited rationale for not supporting BIPOC artists is that the financial stakes in commercial documentary are simply too high. Filmmaking inherently poses significant risk, but BIPOC pipelines could be more deliberately and widely supported, from research and development stages through production. Move from too scared to try to too great to fail.

  • Join the conversations. Build communications and engage directly with BIPOC communities. There are many organizations and networks ready and eager to strategize around today’s pressing social conversations. Demonstrate a proactive commitment, and actively initiate. Allocate appropriate resources to compensate for expertise.

In this moment of immense peril and promise, we must advance a complete reconsideration of ethics and values and create new industry principles. For much too long, documentary has lagged far behind changing demographics and failed to adopt acceptable power dynamics and a shared responsibility to a wider community. Such glacial progress cannot be tolerated anymore. BIPOC voices will not be denied.


Donald Young is Director of Programs for the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM). He was recently executive producer on Asian Americans, a five-hour history series for PBS, co-produced with WETA and Series Producer Renee Tajima-Peña.

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