AoBFF’s Joseph Shahadi and Clare Kent spill the Brooklyn beans

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The Art Of Brooklyn Film Festival’s award ceremony for 2015’s winners had barely finished when I was lucky enough to hustle the executive producer Joseph Shahadi and panelist/filmmaker Clare Kent into the suddenly empty and echoey cinema for a good old summarising chin-wag. Clare had compiled some diversity stats on the content this year that turned out to be massively thought-provoking and Joseph obviously had plenty to say on the subject of his fifth film festival.

The awards had been dished, the contributors thanked and the projection screen rolled up, and it was time to reflect. Here are the passionate duo’s thoughts on the borough they’ve invested so much love and care into.

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From left: Founders Jason Cusato, Anthony DeVito and Joseph Shahadi. Photo Jason Speakman for The Brooklyn Paper

So! How did it go? And how does it work, your selection process?

Joseph: Good! How it works is we get a lot of submissions, and the screening panel are our first line of defense, made up of filmmakers, producers, critics, scholars, and what I would call ‘knowledgeable audience’ members. Every film submitted gets seen.

Do you feel it is getting better as the years go on?

J: We’ve been very lucky that from the beginning the quality was very high. Because our mission statement is narrowly focused on Brooklyn we were concerned that we had priced ourselves out of being able to do this as an ongoing thing. Other people warned us of that, too. That proved to be incorrect. We get plenty of films, all of which have a connection to this borough. The thing I’ve said throughout is that we are a local scene with a global influence. Internationally Brooklyn is understood in a certain way: as an incubator for indie film. We’ve had films submitted from Japan, Australia, Canada… all of which have a connection here. Our mission statement is a way of acknowledging that this scene has a wider impact on the world. There are other scenes that don’t have the resonance that this one does.

The quality of the submissions is going up, now that we’ve been around for five years and people know about us. We got about 180 submissions this year.

Does the Brooklyn indie film scene in your opinion have a particular aesthetic compared to New York as a whole? Have the films you’ve showcased created a style?

Clare: No. One of things I enjoyed about the submissions this year was they were so different in style. The aesthetics were crazy. You would go from people who were clearly influenced by Scorsese to extraordinary animation. Totally different approaches to lighting..plots… Which is one of the advantages of having a theme of Brooklyn because then you get their global influences brought into their work. It resulted in this palette of styles, you know, red to violet. I loved that.

There is an aspect of Brooklyn that has become world famous. One of the films picked it out and mocked it, brutally, and it was great. It happens to be a style that I can’t stand. He did a wonderful mockumentary of it, ‘Hunter & Game’ – which won our best feature. It’s covering the electronic scene of Williamsburg. I think what most Brooklynites are most proud of is that there is no one style. Not the people who wash in and wash out whenever there’s the next cool neighbourhood but the ones that have been here for a while.

“It’s why we founded the festival in the first place: having a mission statement that didn’t exclude nine tenths of the borough.”

J: I’m proud to say there isn’t a Brooklyn house style. In fact the aesthetic that is marketed as Brooklyn both nationally and internationally represents a tiny sliver of the people that actually live here and make this a rich cultural incubator. It’s why we founded the festival in the first place: having a mission statement that didn’t exclude nine tenths of the borough. Manhattan, and particularly lower Manhattan, was an international cultural incubator decades ago now, even though if we’re being honest it hasn’t been for a very long time now. You can walk around neighbourhoods in manhattan which were international incubators for amazing art and now they’re filled with designer shops and…

C: I do think things are still being made in manhattan but they’re doing the mainstream, arguably the top level of the game. HBO stuff going on…

J: Because Manhattan is an international media centre, just like London is, but my point was because of the former primacy of Manhattan, Manhattan-adjacent neighbourhoods were the first ones that caught the attention of the world. Clare mentioned Williamsburg, which is famous here as being the first of those neighbourhoods to become gentrified and to be a place ‘hipsters’ lived and people who made things (NB Williamsburg was always spoken in a hushed dark tone in the same way Shorditch is here) … the “maker community”… and I think a lot of those people have been priced out of that neighbourhood now. In a way the mythology around that neighbourhood persists but i don’t know if it’s part of the current reality of it – my point is people have been forced because of rising real estate, and by people i mean artists, to move further and further south into Brooklyn, A. B, artists have always lived all over the borough, including South, always.

“It was unacceptable to me on many levels that the global image of Brooklyn did not represent me.”

…So what we decided to do very consciously when we formed was make certain that everyone in the borough knew they were invited to this festival, and we were able to keep track last in 2012 that we had guests that visited from every single neighbourhood in the borough. That’s unusual for a cultural event. So we make a conscious effort to let people know this is a film festival for them, and as a result we end up with a very diverse group of films made by a diverse group of filmmakers and that’s just the way it works when you are careful to invite everybody. It was important to us to not re-create the patterns of exclusion that we see in corporate media in miniature. This is an independent film festival, so we had an opportunity to not do that. So we’ve made conscious decisions to not do that and have been rewarded by great group of films.

It just naturally happened?

J: Yes.

Would you say you are actively trying to dispel a certain image of Brooklyn?

J: I don’t know if that would be accurate to say that we are actively trying to dispel a larger image of Brooklyn because I don’t know that we have the power to do that. Corporate media makes a lot of money off of that image, so I don’t know if our little upstart festival has the power to do that, but what we can do as Brooklyn based artists ourselves is take control of the way we represent ourselves. It was unacceptable to me on many levels that the global image of brooklyn did not represent me. As an artist, as a person living in the borough, and it didn’t represent most of the other artists that I knew. So it’s not immodest to say that we are the reason why people pay attention in the first place and it’s unacceptable that we should then be excluded from the first grade cultural renaissance of the 21st century which is happening in our borough. What we are really trying to do is model an organisation that’s artist run with different values. Obviously we want to be successful but not on the backs of other artists, so we’ve made conscious decisions to think about how we can maximise benefit for the filmmakers always…that’s always part of the conversation for us.

There are other smaller film event throughout Brooklyn who do not do that, and other filmmakers come up and complain about them to me all the time, contrasting their experience with us versus other experience around the borough. It can be pretty helpless to be an independent filmmaker and put all of your time and energy and money into creating a film and then you give it over to this organisation and they do what they like with it. So it’s important that we caretake and take that responsibility seriously.

“It was suddenly very clear that women were creating their own work and that the genders were not working together, and I think that’s profoundly interesting.”

Clare, what research did you undertake in conjunction with the festival and what were your findings? Did you have an agenda or end goal when you undertook the research?

C: My only end goal was I wanted information. I wanted to know what the snapshot of the festival was because I’m very interested in demographics largely in terms of the film world and forth. So we went through the whole screening process, everything was in and done, and I just sat there one night and thought wait, I feel like knowing what the percentages are, and I started counting. I only looked at the accepted films, so 54. There were 3 categories: black american, hispanic/latina american and asian and south-east asian, and I was looking at whether they got equal or majority screen time as other actors. So I broke that down and the end result on that was 35%, and my impression of that is that it’s better than how Hollywood feature film is doing, but probably not as good as TV. Then I broke it down for women and men, same thing, and for women it was 37%, which is getting there – it’s better than I was expecting. I sent the stats to the guys like ‘i don’t know if anybody cares’ and they did!

…Then it occured to me I would also like to know what’s happening for women behind the scenes. You can’t do demographics off of names because then you can go wrong too easily, but gender you can pretty much do. So I looked at women as writers, directors and cinematographers. Women have made really big inroads as producers in the film industry and have a long history as editors so those two categories haven’t seen such an imbalance there. I started counting, using animation as if it was cinematography, and counted up the number of jobs: 155 jobs in 54 films. That came out as 27%. This was all happening over the course of one night and I sent about 8 emails… “it’s 2 oclock in the morning, it’s 8 oclock in the morning, you guys! You didn’t have the whole story! I had to go back and look at the numbers again!” When I looked closer what I found was the vast majority of women directors had written their own piece, creating their own work, and the few films in which they hadn’t done that were where writing wasn’t involved. The only way that women and men were working together was by hiring each other as cinematographers, and almost entirely that was women hiring male cinematographers. So it was suddenly a very clear picture that women were creating their own work and the genders were not working together, and I think that’s profoundly interesting.

“People work with people who remind them of them. I don’t want women to make the same mistake; I want us to get really egalitarian and not just create things in separate camps.”

…To a certain extent you can understand that for indie filmmakers it makes sense to write and direct, but when I checked in with Joe, his off the cuff understanding from what he’d seen was that the guys aren’t doing that as much. The guy directors are working with separate people as writers. That’s a generalization and not a hard count but it’s an interesting picture because I do get worried that you get so used to fighting as a woman to break into the industry that you can end up making the same mistakes and keep only working with the people that look like you.That’s one of the underlying problems with bias results. People work with who reminds them of them. I don’t want women to make the same mistake, I want us to get really egalitarian and not just create things in separate camps.

And for me personally I don’t think demographics is a complete conversation until you can have a conversation about class as well. To me class is the larger bubble and inside that is race and gender and they are deeply informed by what is happening with money. I have no clue how to even start gathering stats on that….Filmmaker’s source of money, if it was somehow easier for some people, harder for other, that is a really difficult question to ask!

J: It’s an impossible question to ask. You’re English so culturally you are used to people talking about class at least in the abstract. In America this is a very taboo conversation. I think it’s a mistake to make a binary between race and class because I think they are braided together and they inform one another, but there is no popular language to discuss class in America, so we talked about it but there is no way to control for that. Our assumption is the people who make film are those who can afford to make it.

C: Film is a very expensive medium.

J: Even though the technology has become very democratised; even over the five years of our festival we’ve seen that. So the films look gorgeous, whether or not we end up liking them. It’s possible to make a film that looks beautiful… for the people who are able to do that.

…We went down a rabbit hole with these demographic conversations. The conversation became between us I think we should work on trying to capture this information every year. How do we do that? I admitted to Clare, I often don’t fill out demographic forms, because it reminds me a little too much of surveillance (which is a larger issue in my community). But there are people who don’t care one way or another. As long as you ask the questions after accepting the film it’s fine so that’s how we’ll do it, but we’re gonna use the interim between this year and next year to figure out a way to craft the questions se they’re not intrusive and creepy. I would like to just ask how people identify but then it’s so broad you end up with a lot of data that isn’t useable.

C: We’re caught in the middle of development. We want to be beyond numbers, be in a society that doesn’t need to track this shit because we’re cool, but we’re not cool yet and that’s the problem. The tension of wishing you were beyond it but you’re not. It’s 2015! The numbers help us to see where we are exactly.

“I’m very uncomfortable with the paternal imagery of ‘we’re up here dropping rose petals on your head’ – we are all in Brooklyn together at the same time.”

J: At the screening last night a lady called out a bunch of the filmmakers in that block for being white males, and it was the actor who spoke up and said they’d had an internal conversation about who made their film and realised it was a bunch of white guys. So maybe if we ask the filmmakers to fill out who did what in what position it will make them reflect. I wanna be clear that I don’t think it’s our role as a film festival to social engineer the way films are made. People make the films that they’re going to make and they submit them to us and if they fit we show them. So one of the things we can do is collect the information and give it back to the community. Maybe then it can inspire people to do things.

C: The community does what it will.

Because you are trying to reflect the community, not create a community.

J: But what we can do is create a conversation. Making sure people know that they’re welcome to submit. The way I see diversity – which is a sort of Neoliberal buzzword employed by cultural institutions throughout NY and the states – is that it’s a problem that needs to be solved, a top down problem, we’re reaching down to this community and lifting them up to our level and I’m very uncomfortable with that imagery…that psychological gesture. We’re up here dropping rose petals on your head – I think we are all in Brooklyn together at the same time. If we create an open space anyone can enter the space. The task is making sure that the message is understood. If we see that a certain group isn’t submitting we question why we aren’t reaching out to them. It’s about us not them.

It was interesting what that other woman said about not wanting to even separate the genders (this was another woman at the screening the previous night with a controversial opinion on diversity). Because we need these protective categories... It shouldn’t be like that, but it is.

C: Yes, for me that woman was speaking very much from the position of wishful thinking. I don’t decry wishful thinking. In order to live in an ideal society you have to be able to picture it. But you also have to accept the fact that you don’t live there yet. You need information. We need to know how short we’re falling.

Was it a generational thing? She was the mother of a male filmmaker.

J: She felt some responsibility to advocate for young men since she’s the mother of a young man. And all I could say to her was young men seem to be doing fine!

“The way you walk is you put one leg in front and the other leg catches up. We don’t suddenly achieve ideal.”

C: But there is a whole strident argument out there that boys have seen deleterious affects of gender equality and are being repressed somehow. In the area of education, once it was acknowledged that girls should be paid equal attention in the classroom everyone started realising that girls are easily taught and you are more likely to find modulated voices. So much attention started getting paid to girls that the boys were shunned to the side. That argument does have some ground… but I haven’t seen anything that shows the move towards gender equality was a bad thing. The way you walk is you put one leg in front and the other leg catches up. We don’t suddenly achieve ideal.

J: I think it’s a generational thing. Kids are more medicated than they used to be. One generalisation i would make is about competition. Sometimes I teach girls who hold themselves back from speaking in class and the majority of boys don’t. To bring it back to the festival I think it’s a similar scenario. It’s the responsibility of the teacher to let all the students know that they’re welcome. I want to hear from all of you. More than gender as a divide, kids who have disabilities struggle (such as ADD and dislyxia). 

C: There’s two things going on. We’ve seen what happens when we let the film industry roll forward: it rolls forward really unequally. We’ve seen that. Second part is: suggestions are not personal criticisms. Ideas for how to observe things don’t come with this giant critical finger of judgement, we’re not coming down on WHITE MAN.

J: We love you white men, please keep submitting films to our festival!

C: This system has supported you, and it’s nice to share the system. There is a giant portion of America that cant hear that without feeling personally attacked.

Maybe it’s about the scene, maybe this scene is more open to community and inclusivity.

J: That’s what we can do. One of the questions we ask ourselves repeatedly is is this still a valid thing, and if it is, what can a 21st century film festival do? What should a Brooklyn film festival do? Because we’re a cultural centre, and there are people all over the world living here side by side, smelling each other’s food, rubbing each others elbows on the subway, dating each other, breaking up with each other, stalking each other on Facebook for years afterwards…

(It’s all getting a bit stalkerish in here so I think it’s time to wrap it up.)

Keep checking the AoBFF website here for all the info.

Holly

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