Who Is Telling Whose Story, To Whom, and Why?
Editor’s Note: Filmmaker Lisa Valencia-Svensson was invited to deliver a keynote address at Hot Docs this past spring. What follows is an abbreviated version of that keynote.
The "Why" of Diversity
Diversity, inclusion, representation—familiar words in public discourse. In this keynote, I explore why the question of "Who is telling whose story to whom, and why?" should be at the center of the making of every documentary film.
People often support "diversity initiatives" simply because they "know it’s good to do" or "we've been mandated to do so by those in charge." But our efforts to build a diverse documentary industry won't go very far if we don't truly understand why they are so crucial to undertake.
Who is telling whose stories to whom, and why?
I first formulated this question about 10 years ago, when public discourse and debate around hashtags like #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite was still many years off into the future. At the center of the documentary world that I was entering, I was experiencing a core disconnect. I had the knowledge from my own lived experience, and from that of family members and friends, that not all of the stories in the world were truly being told. So many crucial perspectives were still missing, because they were missing from the broader sphere of storytelling in our society as a whole. And I had been craving these perspectives my whole life. To try to explain to myself what was going on, I came up with that question.
Origin Story—Growing Up
It was in high school that I first noticed the disconnect between the stories I was taking in and the stories of my own life. We were reading work by Margaret Lawrence, George Orwell, Shakespeare. I was a teenager, a girl. I had not yet realized that I was queer, and it was not until I was figuring that out that it also landed on me like a ton of bricks that I was a person of color as well. I had never consciously admitted to myself that I was not white until then.
But in high school, I was not yet thinking about my race and my sexual orientation. I just knew I didn't feel connected to any of the stories we were studying in English class. And I thought it was normal to always feel excluded, to be on the outside looking in. Then one day, our teacher introduced us to an anthology of short stories from Latin America and Africa. I poured myself into those stories, and moved on to devour books like Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, which tells the story of pre-colonial life in Nigeria, and the arrival of Europeans at the end of the 1800s. I still did my reading separately; I was still on the outside. But now I was reading stories that also seemed to fit into that same outside space where I felt at home. I definitely didn’t realize it at the time, but for the first time in my life I was feeling the realities of myself and family being at least somewhat reflected back to me, and I could relate.
I am half-Filipino, half-Swedish American, and I was born and raised in Canada. The few Filipino family members I grew up with were not that connected to Filipino culture or community. So it was during high school in 1986 that I remember seeing media representations of Filipinos for the first time in my life, when People Power overthrew the Marcos dictatorship in The Philippines. There were news reports on television, and the TV footage showed thousands of Filipino faces protesting on the streets. I was so struck by my first visual proof that there were more Filipinos in the world than just my mother, my aunt and grandparents. And they were taking bold actions in defense of their lives and their communities.
One more memory I'd like to share is from the late '70s. We were learning in school about the European "great explorers," who made epic journeys of "discovery" across the globe. One of them, Ferdinand Magellan, had gone all the way to a group of islands which later became The Philippines, where he was killed by the local inhabitants. We did not learn anything about the people who had taken Magellan's life. But deep inside, a part of me always knew that my mother came from the same place as those people, and that Magellan hadn’t discovered them at all. They had always been there. And this was another way in which I felt separate, quietly having my own knowledge of reality that was radically different than the information I was being taught and shown.
Who I Am and How I'm Seen
These personal experiences lie at the center of why true representation in documentary, and in all storytelling arenas, is so crucial for all of us to understand the importance of and contribute to the development of. I am not the only person to never learn my own stories in school, to rarely see people like me on TV, to never be told that my history did in fact occur and was as important as everyone else’s history. I am not the only child to grow up taking in the message every day that I am not part of the group of people that count the most.
When I have seen people like me represented in stories, I have rarely seen accurate representations of ourselves—just very damaging, negative, racist and sexist depictions. The inevitable and often subconscious result is that the perspectives of marginalized people are not seen as important, and a lifetime of taking in these messages does not naturally build up anyone’s self-worth.
I must point out, however, that I have also taken in messages of worth, of relative importance, about myself. As someone who is middle class, from a Christian background, able-bodied, cis-gendered, I have also taken in the message that my perspective is the normal one, the worthy one. I am part of the groups in society that count.
How Did We Get Here? The Colonizers and the Colonized
So, how did we get to this point of intensely skewed storytelling? It is crucial to understand the global historical context.
In terms of race and culture, the global context is the process of colonization, which over the past few decades morphed into the charity model of seeing the West as savior, and the Third World as needing to be saved. Colonization set the stage for the retelling of Black, Indigenous and people of color’s stories on a global scale. In terms of class, religion, gender, sexual orientation and ability, the social and cultural forces that have prioritized certain lives over others are also complex, involving systems of patriarchy, capitalism and other manifestations of oppressive power.
Let me focus on the colonial process. As most of the world was being colonized by a number of European countries, the stories of the people being colonized were being told to European audiences, by European priests, merchants, scientists, military leaders. This storytelling did not paint a picture of the colonized people as equals worthy of dignity and respect, however; instead they were savages, heathens, less than human. These stories were crafted specifically to convince the citizens of the colonial powers that people around the world needed to be colonized because they needed to be Christianized and civilized. This was of course part of a grander scheme to control and exploit the natural resources and human labor where the "uncivilized" people happened to live, but grounding the colonial project in a moral rationale was much more palatable to the European citizenry back home.
At the same time, the colonial process led to the destruction of storytelling and cultures of colonized peoples around the world. Up to 90 percent of the pre-colonial written records in The Philippines were deliberately burned by the Spanish. There is ample historical record of the brutal repression of traditional African forms of storytelling by slave masters throughout the Americas. We know that in Canada, First Nations children were forced to speak English and were punished for speaking their own languages in residential schools for decades. This was all part of the Canadian government’s plan of assimilating Indigenous peoples through a process that has been aptly labeled as cultural genocide.
The final part of the colonial cultural process was then to replace the cultures of those groups with the colonial story. People of color around the world were brainwashed into believing that Europeans had saved them and civilized them often by Christianizing them. The most insidious form of this narrative takeover is the internalized oppression that often results. Most devastatingly, I received negative messaging about my Filipino background from my own Filipino family members. Their internalized colonization was so thorough that we ourselves thought that our own history, struggles and dreams did not matter, not even to us. All that mattered was to become as culturally white as possible, as quickly as possible.
What is the result when we have a world in which the stories being told—in our media, on our news, in our films, in our history books—leave out the stories of enormous segments of the global population? What is the result when the stories provide only extremely biased and very incorrect portrayals of entire groups of people, completely ignoring and omitting the actual experiences and points of view of the people in those groups? We end up with a society where some of us think our voices and viewpoints are the important ones, and some of us think our voices and viewpoints do not matter. Obviously, this is a situation of deep psychological and cultural imbalance, often playing out at the subconscious level. This imbalance then leads to very unequal realities in people’s lives, to entrenched political, economic, social processes that favor some of us, but create tremendous oppression and struggles for survival for the rest of us.
Documentary Storytelling: Who Is in Front of and Behind the Camera?
So how does this all connect to documentary filmmaking in particular?
As documentary filmmakers, we don't inherently have to care about any of this. But if we care about justice and equality, if we are driven to contribute to "changing the world" with our documentary filmmaking, then these are realities we will need to understand very thoroughly in order to be effective. Because to work for justice and equality, we will have to work to change who is telling whose stories to whom, and why.
For me, it is in trying to answer that multipart question that we get to the crux of the matter:
Let me frame this first from my position of privilege that I referred to earlier. If it is predominantly those of us whose stories and voices have been prioritized all our lives, who are now telling the stories without having done deep unlearning of the historical messages that we have been taking in all our lives regarding who is important and who is not, then the stories that we tell will continue to be framed from that same imbalanced perspective. We will continue to portray people like ourselves as the worthy ones. And we will continue to portray the people unlike ourselves as less important and less able to take charge of their own lives.
Most crucially, the stories told by us, the people who have been prioritized in storytelling, will therefore maintain the dominant narrative in the minds and hearts of those of us on both sides of privilege. We won’t be doing this necessarily on purpose or consciously; we will be doing it subconsciously, automatically. It will never have occurred to us that there is deep and extensive bias in how we are framing all our stories. This is very contrary to what we are taught; certainly the journalism profession prides itself on a notion of a neutral, objective voice. But does such a voice actually ever exist? Aren’t all voices inherently biased and subjective?
So although we may be telling stories about injustice and oppression, and about people resisting and fighting back, the core issues in the world still will not be properly addressed, because the stories we are telling will not have been framed from the point of view of those experiencing the injustice. Instead, our storytelling will ultimately serve to maintain the status quo, because no one’s sense of their relative worth will have been shifted by the storytelling at all.
Now let me frame this from my position as a queer woman of color. If we are members of groups that have been marginalized, and we also have an analysis of the oppression we face, and then we tell our own stories, our storytelling will be framed from very different, rarely acknowledged points of view. Our stories will portray us as always having had agency, as always having resisted our oppression in countless ways both public and private, as always having seen and understood the forces of domination imposed on our lives. We will not tell our stories in a way that makes it seem like we need "help" from the privileged. Our stories will show us as fully worthy, as complex, nuanced and complete human beings.
There are some filmmakers who are very aware of this context of their work. Barry Jenkins, the director of the Oscar-winning feature film Moonlight, described this cultural imbalance recently in a Huffington Post piece by Zeba Blay when he said, "…for decades, we [Black people] have had to sit in audiences with white people and watch their pain. And in a certain way, because of that, we have been able to empathize with their pain far longer than they’ve had to empathize with ours." It's incredible to really let those words sink in when we think of the current climate of racial terror against African-Americans here in North America, and what will have to be done to address it. The common negative portrayals of African-Americans by journalists and media makers play a central role in maintaining the status quo that allows for racial terror to continue.
In another piece on Jenkins, Angela Flournoy of The New York Times describes how "Jenkins enjoys moments when his actors make direct eye contact with the camera…For non-Black audience members, it might be the first time they've had a Black person direct such a gaze their way; Jenkins offers a glimpse at a world previously hidden to them. For a Black viewer, there’s more likely a kind of recognition: I know that face, although I have never seen this actor before."
In the documentary Merata: How Mum Decolonized the Screen, by Merata Mita’s son Heperi Mita, one line about the work of ground-breaking Maori filmmaker Merata Mita stuck in my mind, which I am paraphrasing slightly here: "She wanted to tell stories as they were felt by Maori people." Are we just telling stories of what, who, how, the facts, the information, or are we also telling stories that really go inside and show us the world as experienced by specific groups of people? By the very telling of our stories from our point of view, including our emotions in all their complexity, we are already working to shift the narrative at a deep cultural level.
Who indeed is telling whose stories to whom, and why?
I invite all of us to work together so that a much more diverse group of storytellers is supported in telling stories, to a much more diverse set of audiences, with the goal of breaking the deeply held beliefs in each of us about our relative worth in comparison to everyone else. Only then will we will have the ability to truly empathize with each other’s pain, struggles—and also triumphs. It is only once we all see each other as equally human, only once we have all looked each other in the eye in unbroken moments of connection that have been denied to us for centuries, that we will be able to truly tackle injustice and oppression. Because only then will we all be able to understand in what specific ways our cultures, and each of us individually, really need to shift in order to build societies that truly take care of everyone’s needs.
What is also fascinating to consider is how, as more and more underrepresented voices are included, it becomes easier to identify historical and current connections between movements for justice. I was really struck when I read Maori Karmael Holmes, the founder and executive director of BlackStar Film Festival in Philadelphia, state in a piece written by Taylor Allen that "When you see films from people of color around the world, you start to see…the parallels of colonization, enslavement, apartheid. We all have similar struggles. We have a social justice and intersectional lens."
Putting It into Practice
I want to share with you some specific examples from my films of how the documentary filmmaking teams that I have been blessed to be a part have tried our best to apply these principles to our craft, and how our efforts have been received.
In 2012 I produced Herman’s House, a film by Angad Singh Bhalla that told the story of Herman Wallace, who spent more than 40 years in solitary confinement, and the dream house he designed with his friend, artist Jackie Sumell. White-savior narratives are a by-product of colonial narratives, and they have littered the storytelling landscape for decades. On the surface, our story could have easily been framed the same way: here's a white middle-class activist and her efforts to "help" a poor Black man in prison. But one of the subversive things we tried to do in Herman’s House was to show how in fact the support was flowing in all directions. Who was really "helping" whom when Herman consoled Jackie after negative developments had arisen in his legal case? Was Herman really just a "passive prisoner" needing people on the outside to take care of him, or was he giving as much care as he was receiving, if not more, when he mentored young people in prison on how to survive and how to move their lives in empowering directions?
We also tried to illustrate how much Herman actually shared control of the art project that Jackie proposed to him, which was to design his dream house. Their project later turned into an art installation with a fancy opening in New York City that Jackie could attend but Herman obviously could not. On the surface, Jackie just seemed to be building her career and doing her activist work on Herman’s behalf. But Herman’s words, which we laid on top of footage of the art opening, make it very clear that he had his own full agency in the entire situation, and also that he fully understood the complexities in his friendship with Jackie. He said, "Everybody has an agenda. Jackie has an agenda. Jackie has a career. And one can very well say the same thing about me, that I am using Jackie in order to highlight my own struggle, in order to highlight it to the point where it would serve to help my freedom. But let’s not take away the relationship that Jackie and I have built during the process of this."
In Migrant Dreams, by Min Sook Lee, which world-premiered here at Hot Docs in 2016, we explored the lives of temporary foreign workers in Canada. For us it was paramount that we not just portray our subjects as at the mercy of the Canadian government’s exploitative system, and not even as people who were fighting back in various ways. We also wanted to show other sides of our subjects, as people who fall in love, who get married, who worry about their family's reactions back home. And based on people’s responses to the film, it seemed to work.
I will always remember one sentence, though, in a glowing review by television columnist James Bawden. He thankfully saw the humanity of our subjects and was horrified by their terrible treatment in Canada. So our film helped to shift that framing somewhat. But one sentence in the review clearly exposed the core situation that I am always trying to address in my films, which is the question of point of view. He wrote, "It turns out they have the same dreams as all of us—to see their kids get ahead and have that brighter future [that has thus far been] denied to them." And I realized that he still saw the migrant workers in our film as "them" and not as "us." And that contrasted fully with the fact that several of us on the filmmaking team have always seen migrant workers as "us," not as "them." For me, perhaps that's because some of my own family members have been and are migrant workers, perhaps that’s because people mistakenly assume my Filipina mother to be the domestic worker of her own, half-white daughter.
Call Her Ganda, which was released in 2018, tells the story of the brutal murder of a trans woman in The Philippines by a US Marine, and the three Filipinas who then fight for justice. Director PJ Raval was adamant that the documentary not have a typical "Third World" aesthetic of gritty footage, poor production values and a sensationalist tone. Instead, it was of the utmost importance to him to show the beauty of the country and its people, and the dignity of their lives. So PJ insisted on gorgeous cinematography, a lush color palette, a moving score and a lyrical quality and feel. Indeed, it was those very aspects of his storytelling that made me jump on board as a producer. But aesthetics alone were not enough. It was also essential to us that we frame the story in the context of the history of colonialism and US militarism in the country.
Yet this was simply not satisfactory for some people, who could not accept that the film was not told in a "true crime" kind of way. Variety critic Nick Schager stated this plainly when he wrote that the film "should function as a murder mystery, courtroom drama, and exposé." His review went on to detail his dissatisfaction with Call Her Ganda. I was baffled when I read his words, wondering immediately for whom the film should function in that way. Was it basically just for him that it should be told in that style, with the salacious crime aspects at the front, and the crucial context left out? I have since learned that many queer and trans people, and many members of the radical activist Filipino-American community, have all found so much to connect to in the film. Would they have connected more to a murder mystery, courtroom drama and exposé?
I have experienced this repeatedly when marginalized storytellers approach material from our own, often rarely heard point of view, in direct contradiction to the mainstream framing of our lives. The reception from mainstream reviewers is sometimes instantly dismissive. I realize that in those instances, the stereotypes of what is important and noteworthy about us, the default settings for how the stories of our lives should be structured and framed, completely override how we are insisting we be heard. Instead, our perspective is perhaps too unfamliar, too confusing, too contrary to deeply held beliefs, and rather than embraced, our perspective is simply rejected.
Most recently, I was honored to be a co-producer on Always in Season, which is playing at this year’s festival. Director Jackie Olive described the extraordinary level of commitment and motivation she had to making a film about the legacy of lynching when she accepted the Sundance Special Jury Award for Moral Urgency this past February. She said, "I'm accepting this award for the nearly 5,000 victims of lynching whose stories call to me despite being brutalized, at times out of their humanity. Their voices were still powerful enough to call me to make this film. And so I do it in honor of them, I accept this in honor of them. I accept this in honor of Lennon Lacy, his mother Claudia and Pierre who, despite incredible pain, moved forward to tell his story regardless. And I accept this in honor of us who can never again turn away from this history, who will look it squarely in the eye, who will listen to the ways in which we can be present in our communities for justice, creating equality for all of us."
And now I ask us all to consider: whose stories are you working to tell, to whom, and why? I hope this question becomes fully incorporated into your own processes, for each of your projects, every step of the way.
What Stories Are You Allowed To Tell?
Having heard all of this, some people may wonder which stories you are now "allowed" to tell, and which ones you are not, and you may be feeling annoyed or even resentful that you have to consider this question at all.
This question is a very common one these days. As underrepresented people insist on being heard, insist on centuries of misinformation about ourselves finally being corrected, it is not uncommon for those of us in positions of privilege to react perhaps with fear, defensiveness, dismissiveness. This is because these topics strike at our core sense of value in the world, our core sense of our worth in relation to the worth of others. And when I suddenly receive the message that I am not as superior a person as I have always been told I am, I may well feel a major sense of discomfort, even hurt and pain. And I may well therefore react with great resistance to the message, because the message feels like a threat to myself.
So to me, a huge goal is for all of us to realize deep down in ourselves that it is in fact beneficial to everyone that we diversify the storytelling. Why would any of us want anything else than for everyone to feel of equal value, equal worth to everyone else?
When I apply that understanding to the question of which stories I am and am not "allowed" to tell, the answers should not be about hard rules. Rather, I focus on why I am working to tell a story. If I want the resulting film or interactive piece to truly empower a community, and also to create solidarity among people who are in a position of power and privilege in relation to that community, if I want my work to truly contribute to shifting power dynamics in our societies, then I always want the key members of the storytelling team to be from that community to a certain degree. I also always want all the members of the storytelling team to have a certain degree of awareness and analysis about the dynamics of cultural oppression in our society, and an understanding of how those dynamics damage all of us at deeply personal levels. Then I will know that the storytelling team will be telling the story for their own benefit as well. Some, if not all, of my team members will have hungered, sometimes their entire lives, to hear the story they are working to tell told from their point of view. And I will know that all of my storytelling team will be committed to the importance of the project we are involved in, the perspectives it will hopefully share, and the stereotypes it will hopefully challenge. That is the storytelling I want to support.
Lisa Valencia-Svensson is an Emmy Award-winning producer, a member of the AMPAS Documentary Branch, and Head of Operations at Multitude Films. She co-produced Always in Season, which won the Special Jury Award for Moral Urgency at Sundance, and produced Call Her Ganda (Tribeca, PBS POV), Migrant Dreams (Hot Docs, Al Jazeera) and Herman's House (Full Frame, POV).