“Why does it have to be a transgendered character?”
“Why are you always pushing the envelope?”
Filmmakers Desireena Almoradie and A. Sayeeda Moreno have been confronted with questions like these many times throughout their careers. In their industry, it seems, “pushing the envelope” simply means writing and directing films about people who aren’t white, straight or male.
And let’s be honest, the films we watch—those made in Hollywood, with the astronomical budgets, that are played in multiplexes across North America—are overwhelmingly made by white men, starring white men, for white men. According to the 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, which analyzed 174 of the top grossing theatrical releases in 2013, minorities (defined in the 2014 Report as “all the racial/ethnic categories except for White”) directed 17.8 percent of films. Women directed just 6.3 percent. In front of the camera, minorities accounted for only 16.7 percent of lead roles, while women were cast in 25.3 percent of lead roles.
The Diverse Filmmakers Alliance is working to change this. The Alliance is a New York City-based group of filmmakers, all from diverse backgrounds, who meet weekly to present their works-in-progress and receive feedback from their peers. The goal is pretty simple: help each other make the best possible projects.
The Alliance was founded in September 2014 by Almoradie, documentary producer and director Megumi Nishikura, and filmmaker Fouzia Najar.
“We kind of started talking amongst ourselves about needing a space for people who define [themselves] as not mainstream, as ‘other,’” Almoradie says. “Whether that’s women of color, people of color, queer people, disabled people. We just realized—the three founders are all women of color—we just kind of felt like there really wasn’t a space for us.”
So they made one for themselves. They created a website and put out a call for applications. They received more than 50 applications and ultimately narrowed the membership down to 19. The group meets once a week, for 10 weeks, at the Women Make Movies office in Chelsea. The inaugural session kicked off on September 29, 2014, and they’re currently in the midst of their second session.
“The only criteria for joining is that you are aware as a filmmaker, or as a media maker, of your responsibility to the people you’re portraying, [that] you have an authentic voice, and that you just don’t come into a community and create a story about people you know nothing about,” Almoradie says.
This speaks to the very core of the Alliance’s mission. Whether making a documentary or a narrative feature, filmmakers must be accountable to the communities they’re portraying.
“So many stories about folks of color, working class marginalized folks, are not made by those in the community,” Moreno says.
And, oftentimes, that results in films that are not true to those communities, made for those communities, or even really about those communities.
Moreno and Almoradie both point to the documentary field where they say this is a particular problem. “They’re coming at it from a lens of the white person making an anthropological film, basically,” Almoradie says. “It’s always from their voice…. What comes out is a film that’s about ‘Look how unfortunate these people are compared to us and let’s pity them.’”
“That’s why we need to be making our own films about us,” she says. “It’s a very different voice.”
As a Black, Puerto Rican, QueerFemme single mom (and native New Yorker), Moreno makes films through a very different lens than, say, a white straight man would. It’s not that white straight men shouldn’t be telling stories about people who have different backgrounds and experiences than them, it’s just that they can’t be the only voices we hear from. “I am a storyteller, and the stories I tell come from that lens, but who I am is not always the focus of my films,” Moreno says. “It is vital and essential to our society to see the bounty of our humanity represented on the screen told by as many viewpoints, cultures and people as possible.”
A perfect example of why we need more films made by diverse filmmakers (and it’s not like we lack for examples) is Ava DuVernay’s Selma. In most of the films we see today, Moreno says, there’s always a white person who acts as a conduit for the audience. But that wasn’t the case in the Oscar-nominated film. “That’s one thing that’s great about Selma,” she says. “The [character of the white] journalist could have been that person, but he wasn’t, thankfully. And that’s because it was helmed by an African-American woman.”
We’re starting to see more stories like Selma, Fruitvale Station, Jane the Virgin and Fresh Off the Boat on our screens. Things are changing—slowly. (One need only look to this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, with its monochrome nominees and that Green Card “joke” to be reminded of how slowly…) But the Alliance wants to help speed things up.
The group offers its members the support they need to work on stories that traditionally aren’t given much, if any, support by the industry. But it also provides its members a pool of resources from which to draw.
“If you’re sitting in a room and you see your peers and you know that we’re all working for a common goal, hopefully that will mean that some of us are going to have more positions of power, or some of us will have more access, or some of us can just crew on each other’s shoots and features,” Moreno says.
This is especially important given that the industry gatekeepers, who, again, are overwhelmingly white and male (the Hollywood Diversity Report found that the heads of the 18 studios examined were 94 percent male and 100 percent white), aren’t known for being particularly welcoming.
“The people who control the purse strings and the people who control who gets green-lit are definitely going to gravitate towards the people that they know … whose work they’ve encountered before, whose work has a proven audience. And who do people know? People who usually are the same as them or similar to them or like them,” Almoradie says.
“It comes down to knowing that we don’t have to look outside for that validation, for that recognition … We can do it right here,” Moreno says.
Moreno, for example, was recently awarded the San Francisco Film Society’s Hearst Screenwriting Grant, along with co-writer Micah Schaffer, to develop their feature-length film, White.
“She’s going to get this film made and she’s going to come back and find people within the DFA [to work on it]. We’re all trying to uplift each other,” Almoradie says.
“That’s how it should be. That shouldn’t be seen as a threat. But that’s a different story,” adds Moreno, cutting herself off. “We’re creating that opportunity for one another.”
Ultimately though, it can’t just be up to small collectives like the Alliance to give diverse filmmakers the opportunities they deserve.
“Change isn’t going to happen within a vacuum,” says Almoradie. “People need to be invested in creating a more diversified filmmaking landscape. Not just people of color, not just queer people, but everyone—everyone who makes films with a conscience.”
You can learn more about the Diverse Filmmakers Alliance and its members here.
Regan Reid is a Toronto-based freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter.