Filmmakers of Color and the Coronavirus Pandemic
By Zara Meerza
Since March, filmmaker Juhi Sharma has been grounded in Chennai, India, where she's been working remotely on the post-production of The Vinyl Records: Destroy Phallus Oppression, a feature documentary about India's only feminist punk rock band. It was on a trip home to shoot that the implications of the pandemic started to strike from all directions—loss of income, travel cancellations, and attempting to cover rent in New York while unable to return due to lockdown. "I'm trying to do some online work, but I'm a cinematographer and a director, so there's not much I can do," Sharma says.
Staring out the window early on a muggy London morning as we dance around trying to find WiFi, Sharma and I talk about how we find ourselves in a strangely similar predicament—both of us normally live a few blocks apart in Brooklyn, but are currently displaced abroad due to COVID-19, unsure when we can return. We wonder aloud what the world of documentary will look like for us if and when we get back. In her warm voice, she tells me, "This is just the beginning. It's going to be really sad if I can't continue, but I don't know if I can if it goes on any longer. I know a lot of people like that. I don't think I can go back to America now. I just can't afford it anymore…" This was a month ago. India's COVID death toll has since surpassed China's.
Like many filmmakers of color, Sharma has worked for years to earn a visa to live and work in America, and the potential loss of talent like hers and other pandemic-affected POC (people of color) filmmakers has the potential to have long-term implications on the shape of an industry that still struggles to provide adequate representation.
"This situation has highlighted something very terrifying," Denae Peters, program officer at Perspective Fund, notes. "There's an opportunity for funders like Perspective, and hopefully others, to focus on the ways that systemic economic disadvantages impact filmmakers of color. Both in this acute moment, but also how that has always made their work totally unsustainable and so much more risky than the work of others in the space." She adds, "We're going to be thinking about ways for us to learn from this moment and hopefully be able to support gaining financial skills that help filmmakers to continue to do their work."
The veil of institutional understanding and the priority of diversity has largely slipped in a series of hasty moves that have proven the structures of inequality have never been more apparent. It takes a quick glance at the big-name COVID-19 docs that have been commissioned to see this. In April a Vulture article detailed several pandemic projects underway, and not one is directed by a person of color. Turn on your TV; much of the rare onscreen representation in the news has already dissolved. In the era of the Zoom webinar, the distinct lack of diversity in leadership roles at the industry's most powerful organizations is even more plainly depressing.
I look at not just the state of our industry, but the world people of color are living in right now—in the midst of a devastating global pandemic, we are watching black bodies knelt on and murdered by the police, POC protesters tear-gassed, and considerate bird-watchers of color targeted by racist actions. This is just the work of one week, in just one country, in a time when statistics in the West have been showing that a huge number of essential workers are POC; black and brown people are two to four times more likely to die if they contract COVID; and hate crimes against Asian Americans have risen. To not empower the voices experiencing this crisis is, at its worst, a tragedy, another moment in history given to a singular gaze.
"In this country we have a history of being quite comfortable seeing egregious violence against people of color," Loira Limbal, Firelight Media's Senior Vice President for Programs, maintains. "Before COVID, we had the period where we were seeing all the footage of police brutality and police murders. We have kids in cages, for crying out loud. There are these ways in which violence against black and brown bodies is very normalized. I feel like in this moment, while we are celebrating or putting people on these paper pedestals, at the same time we're pretty comfortable with them being sacrificed and with them bearing all the risk of this moment so that we can collectively have our groceries and whatever else. I'm grappling with all of that.'
Talking to Limbal, it's impossible not to be in awe. Through the Night, her second documentary feature, speaks to the experience of essential workers from long before the pandemic. The feature presents a deeply thoughtful and intimate look at a 24-hour day care facility in New Rochelle, New York, and with every scene demonstrates vividly and quietly how caregivers shape communities, children and the economy.
When we spoke, Limbal was at her apartment in the Bronx and Through the Night had just been shortlisted for a major prize at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. But that was the last thing on her mind. "My own mother was sick with COVID and was hospitalized," she shares. "She’s okay now, but it's been a pretty rough ride. A lot of my childhood friends have lost a parent at this point, so I also feel like I am in the center of this crisis. For that reason, if I can be fully transparent, I feel like I haven't really had the luxury to grieve the loss of a film festival premiere or anything else, for that matter."
Throughout our conversation, Limbal animates with precision the fire and ache I have heard from so many in the POC community for decades, well before COVID. "I think we are either often invisible, or when we do appear we are reduced to caricatures," she asserts. "For me, this is really personal subject matter. I was raised by a single mother who worked as a home health aide. She worked the night shift. Now I am a single parent myself, and while I am not working in the caregiving industry, I do understand the experience and some of the isolation."
Sharma, Limbal and I are all members of a collective called the Brown Girls Doc Mafia, one of the few balms to today's isolation. Started by filmmaker and screenwriter Iyabo Boyd, the group has for years been a safe haven for discussion concerning the experience of being a woman of color in the documentary industry as well as an arbiter for visibility. As lockdowns swept the world, the group got to work assembling online video check-ins with its members, which at present includes 3,746 film and television professionals worldwide. Since early spring the group's Facebook page has been a trove of information and support, and while institutions embarked on a rapid-fire assembly of Zoom seminars to address broader concerns, BGDM became a forum to discuss more specific issues about visas, the changing dynamics of festivals, job loss, the inability to file for unemployment due to immigration status and the lack of access to emergency loans and grants that were running out long before they could be accessed by many.
Perspective Fund's Denae Peters, who also sits on the board of BGDM, explains, "I think it's something that Brown Girls has always been interested in, building those financial planning basics, both from a business standpoint and for personal financial stability." To this end Firelight also launched a series of money-focused webinars with IDA and ITVS, as well as a finance-focused program for marginalized communities to directly address issues of access. Limbal elaborates, "This virus is not an equal opportunity virus because it's compounded by pre-existing issues of racism and class and misogyny and patriarchy and all those other things. Our response has to take all of that into account in order to reach the people who are most directly impacted and have the greatest need…because otherwise the people that already are in a position of most privilege are the ones who will be able to weather the storm the best." Among the groups Firelight reached out to were the undocumented filmmaker collective and a disability justice organization.
There has long been a desire to restructure our industry, and as a result of the pandemic that evolution is underway. If we don't act soon to elevate diverse voices during this sea change, there is a frightening risk of digression. We have to ask ourselves, Is returning to business as usual good enough? Is it an option? Look at the injustice in all other positions of power. Do we want to perpetuate that?
Before she signs off, Juhi Sharma answers this question firmly, hopefully. "There has to be and there will be a solution that is going to come out for all of us at the end of this. I'm just reinstating that belief on a daily basis. It's what’s getting me through."
Look at your slates. Look at your boards. Look at your crew. Look at those most affected by this pandemic, the communities being decimated, and the injustice the statistics underscore. We can see this in real time, every day. This is not the time for conversation, or for diversity panels; this is the time where we must be radical.
Zara Meerza is an Indian-British writer and filmmaker. She has worked for the BBC, Warp Films, VICE, Sky Arts, and Topic Studios across documentary and narrative.