A Structured Inequity

Further reflections following Hot Docs 2017 on Indigenous representation in Canada’s documentary industry

32 mins read

This year’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival opened with Bee Nation, a crowd-pleasing feel-good story about First Nations kids and their families as they fought like hell to win Canada’s Spelling Bee Competition (yes, we have one–it’s not just an American thing). The uplifting doc, which was made by a non-Indigenous filmmaker in an impressively short production cycle, has courted controversy, some of it fuelled by my review of the film for POV Magazine which you can read here.

In the essay that follows, I attempt to cast a wider net around Bee Nation, because I believe we as the documentary community need to look beyond individual films and do much more work to address and dismantle structural inequity in the colonial-settler state of Canada. Disclaimer: I use provocative terms, especially “white supremacy” in this essay. I use “white supremacy” to not only provoke thought, debate and discussion, but because here in friendly Canada, this term hasn’t entered the mainstream, in the way I deploy it below at least. While “white privilege” is in wide use, the underlying, ordering structure that helps maintain such a privilege is still mainly used (outside of activist, academic, Indigenous and people of colour circles) to describe neo-Nazis, racists and their deplorable actions. But as the unstoppable Desmond Cole reminds us, there’s more to it than that: “There is a huge pressure and temptation to never talk about [white supremacy],” … “What are we afraid of describing, by [being specific]? [….] This is how we skirt over history, this how we use white supremacists’ language and logic [….] That is dangerous and when we do not counter it, we are reinforcing white supremacy.”

The Bigger Picture: Content Should Never be Divorced from Context

Canada’s political and cultural institutions—including those in our documentary film industry—are settler structures shaped in part by a colonial legacy of white supremacy.

No, I don’t mean Nazis or skinheads run them, or that they’re “all white” in terms of employees or participants: obviously not. Describing them in this way is to make known, and visible, the fact that they are ordered and structured by an underlying, often unspoken, usually unconscious or invisible hierarchy of power that conditions both the culture of the institution and the cultural artefacts that institution produces. This hierarchy is one in which white (or European ancestry) identified individuals, often of a certain class and gender (that is middle or upper class men), are predominantly at the top of the decision-making chain and Indigenous folks are excluded almost unanimously.

This colonial legacy that privileges whiteness isn’t merely about skin colour. It is a social system or order, as explained by Chauncey DeVega for Alternet: “White supremacy is comprised of habits, actions and beliefs. It is not necessarily reliant on the specific intentions of its actors, practitioners or beneficiaries. Of course, there are ‘active’ racists whose intentions, words, and deeds are meant to advance a racist agenda. However, implicit and subconscious bias, as well as taken for granted stereotypes and “common sense,” can also serve a white supremacist order. Ultimately, intent is secondary to the unequal outcomes across the colorline that individuals benefit from and perpetuate.”

A system that privileges the settler/white perspective is not about the (good or bad) intentions of individuals; it’s about the broad pattern of power that in general empowers and privileges white people. It is what makes white perspectives seem “normal” and everyone else’s abnormal. For these reasons, even institutions and organisations that have a high number of (even senior) non-white people employed can still reproduce the order described by DeVega because it is the unspoken context that shapes the values, expectations and even aesthetics of the culture in which we live. So when I say that Canada’s film institutions are in part shaped by conditions created by and favouring settler/white positions, I am speaking about the way they, as institutions in Canada, resonate with, reflect and reproduce the settler culture of a white, middle class and gendered hierarchy even in spite of the (sometimes explicitly non-racist, egalitarian) intentions of film-makers, producers, critics and festival programmers.

As a white-identifying cis-gendered hetero man I have and continue to benefit from Canada’s white, male, hetero and upper-class privileging structures, laws, values, codes and conventions – the posts and beams that shore up and safeguard my own, and others, lived and felt privilege. It is a system so diffuse that it can be difficult for those who benefit from it the most to see it for what it is, something I have been guilty of in my own life. But when we do recognise these unjust dominating forces in our power centres—be they economic, political, educational, health, cultural, etc—we need to collectively identify (that includes naming root causes, to borrow from Harsha Walia), engage and dismantle these structuring elements if we are to be free from them.

And it will take a helluva lot more than good intentions to do that work.

From festivals to broadcasters to government ministries, this is the colonial architecture that continues to ensure the path to equality, deep diversity (as opposed to commercialised forms of multiculturalism) and justice is relegated to the slow lane. And it’s stuck there because the Canadian state (working with the corporate elite–see my mention of the Rogers juggernaut in my review as an example of corporations setting the cultural table) wants to keep control of the land and the resources therein, and that land for the most part belongs to Indigenous people. Colonialism has always been about the land. Racism against Indigenous peoples, in the shape of white supremacy, was/is the ideology that gave/gives colonizers the clear conscience to take and exploit the land, regardless of the cost to those who were creating and sustaining life there first, and who continue to defend the land for future generations.

Culture plays its part in this system. It can be and is used by the state to obfuscate or distract from material injustices like lack of clean drinking water, high suicide rates, underfunding in education and rampant poverty in Indigenous communities. It can also be used, more nefariously, to encourage us to believe that Canada is a generally harmonious, tolerant, liberal and well-meaning entity with a few kinks to work out, a myth that serves to obscure the fact that this country is and has always been a colonial-settler state based on expropriation of land and the elimination of an autonomous Indigenous presence. In this way, state-defined and settler-embraced multiculturalism is the resplendent veil draped over the unsightly structures of inequity that persistently lie beneath.

One of Canada’s stalwart cultural propaganda exports is the surface celebration of the country’s diversity, so it should come as no surprise that a well-oiled state discourse doesn’t really measure up to the lived experience of diversity and difference– and this inequity seeps in to all manners of human organisation. Black Diaspora cultural studies writer and UofT/OISE professor Rinaldo Walcott has eloquently explored the ways in which the state capitalizes on diversity, including in this passage from his newly released collection of essays Queer Returns: Essays on Multiculturalism, Diaspora and Black Studies (page 84): “…state multiculturalism borrows from the idea of multiculturalism and redirects it as a tool of the state. State multiculturalism is invested with the power to manage a range of differences that might potentially prove troubling in a hegemonic state’s bid to retain its exclusive authorizing powers.”

If reading Walcott and others’ analyses isn’t your thing, than you can easily scrutinize the composition of the Boards of Directors or top management teams of our major state-funded cultural institutions or funding agencies to see some immediately available evidence of the enduring diversity deficit in terms of ethnicity, gender, class, politics, etc. Beginning with the frontline volunteers and lower-ranked positions, moving to the top shelf positions, the more you peel the layers, the less diverse our institutions are at their core, and the more they resemble multicultural apparatuses that can be leveraged to serve the status quo Walcott describes. This is especially relevant in the colonial context, where dissenting Indigenous voices must be managed in order to maintain the veneer of multicultural equality. Inequity is no accident; it exists nearly always by design.

But, importantly, even if we were to see more non-white people in positions of leadership (a worthy goal), it doesn’t necessarily means the culture of privileging white voices, perspectives and bodies would be automatically overcome. That culture persists when filmmakers, producers and other decision-makers fail to question their underlying assumptions about what and how stories ought to be told, about how history and the present ought to be represented, and about how we can best understand and confront a conjoined culture and system of white-supremacy and settler-colonialism.

Recent films like Bee Nation and other festival leaders like Two Lovers and a Bear (opening film at FNC in Montreal in 2017), Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World (winner of this year’s Rogers Audience Award for Best Canadian Documentary at Hot Docs and the overall Audience Award), Living with Giants (winner of the Emerging Canadian Filmmaker Award at Hot Docs 2016 and many other awards) and Haida Gwa’ii: On the Edge of the World (winner of last year’s Best Canadian Feature at Hot Docs) are conceived, funded, produced, placed (sometimes in the media-spotlit opening night slot), programmed, disseminated and consumed in this context. All these films are about Indigenous people/stories (or directly implicate Indigenous culture and territory) and none were made by Indigenous filmmakers. (I am aware that Rumble was produced by Montreal’s partly Indigenous-owned Rezolution Pictures – yet another layer of complexity in considering the context of such works.) Some took important prizes, sometimes winning robust cash windfalls; others took important programming slots, sometimes winning robust media coverage and industry connections.

No, they aren’t all terrible films. No, I’m not saying non-Indigenous filmmakers can’t or shouldn’t tell Indigenous stories (a common but erroneous reading of my review). No, I’m not “picking on” these filmmakers. But let’s keep some (critical) perspective, because sometimes you need to zoom out to see what’s right in front of the lens. This is our job as cultural producers and critics.

Canada, with its formidable power imbalanced institutions, is a country founded on the genocide of Indigenous peoples. Efforts to eradicate Aboriginal populations in this country have centred on deliberate systems of dispossession, neglect and assimilation, and outright corporeal violence. The companion piece to the dispossession of land and territories is the dispossession of language and culture, and so it follows that Indigenous people have had their stories told by others—stolen as some would say—for centuries. This tradition continues in our creative industries, where some masquerade as Indigenous storytellers, some who are outsiders swoop in to tell important and urgent stories about communities with which they have little or no connection, and still others experience the moment of discovery concerning a big issue and charge ahead to tell stories they have, in my opinion, no business telling (I’m thinking of Highway of Tears here).

They’re mostly well meaning makers, but good intentions do not equate to a levelling of the playing field. Nor do good intentions lead to positions of cultural importance and leadership for Indigenous storytellers; nor to paid positions for Aboriginal artists who’ve been banging on the cultural industries door for decades. In fact, good intentions have contributed to the exclusion of Indigenous people taking the helm of storytelling about their own communities. This is why Jesse Wente’s (Ojibwe) edict is so precise and urgent: “Nothing about us without us.”

I am not saying that non-Indigenous filmmakers cannot or should not make films about Indigenous people or topics, though if they do, they should do so carefully and with an eye to revealing the deeper structures and patterns at work (this is one of the central critiques I levy at Bee Nation). I am saying we need to seriously question why these films are getting supported, funded and celebrated over and above those by Indigenous filmmakers. We need to see this disparity as part of a structure within the Canadian culture industries, and we need to see this structure as part and parcel of a system that is structured to privilege pre-existing colonial biases (including whiteness), which also drives the forms of cultural appropriation, expropriation and social violence that many sympathetic films aim to highlight.

Indigenous people and people of colour have been saying some version of what I’m saying here for a long, long time, and many are burnt out and exhausted. It’s now the responsibility of non-Indigenous folks and members of the dominant culture to educate ourselves and attend to these structures in hands-on, meaningful ways. This call-to-action for those of us awash in privilege is what Canadian filmmaker Sylvia Hamilton gestures to when she said to me, in a recent interview: “I’m done with Racism 101.”

It’s also why we should carefully consider the words of the always on-target Alethea Arnaquq-Baril (Inuit): “who gets to make the film[s] does matter. I haven’t seen this film yet Bee Nation, and it may be excellent and kind and cause great conversations. But the likelihood that it raises the most urgent issues in the most useful way for that community is unlikely. Not impossible, just very unlikely.

When you spend a significant amount of time in the indigenous film world, you see how many excellent filmmakers and films are desperately seeking space to be seen., and how often they’re told “I’ve already got a native story”. No matter how nice this film is, it displaced a film made from an indigenous perspective.

Considering how much Canadians have silenced native voices for generations, I think it’s reasonable to let us speak for ourselves for a few decades. Or at least insist that indigenous people are a key part of the creative and producing team when discussing indigenous issues.”

Arnaquq-Baril cuts to the heart of the matter: if systems and institutions are designed to privilege some voices/perspectives/experiences/ethnicities over others, and the historically Othered continue to be shut out of the process of design (and we aren’t talking consultation here: note Wente’s other edict when he says “The Age of Consultation is over”), then displacement, which is closely related to dispossession, continues with only minor adjustments. And even when minor adjustments are called for there is pushback (those in power never relinquish without a fight) – witness the recent deplorable call for cultural appropriation by some of the managers at this country’s key cultural institutions including The Walrus and CBC. This core dysfunctional quality might be why Walcott argues colonial institutions can’t be decolonized. Perhaps they must be dismantled and new ones built in their places.

For those of us working with, outside of and against these systems, I offer these final thoughts on working in—and transforming—our current documentary field.

Risk, Benefit and Harm

Much of the response to my review and other critiques of Hot Docs’s opening film has centred on Bee Nation’s subjects and the filmmaker’s own experience. No one I know has any intention of deriding the inspiring and wonderful subjects of that film. The children and families whose stories Bee Nation tells deserve all the recognition this film brings to their lives, efforts and resilience (and that of the wider community as well). But this focus on the instrumental qualities—on the feel-good story, that the director struggled at first to make the film alone, that who wouldn’t applaud their kids rising to the occasion as the incredible children in this film do—misses the point.

My critique of this film is a critique of the industry. How did this film come to open a festival during this moment in Canadian history and during the year when Hot Docs’s own Doc Summit had an Indigenous perspectives focus? How did an industry focused on documentary filmmaking—with all its social justice and paradigm-shifting aspirations—not see red flags go up at the suggestion to open a major festival with yet another film by an non-Indigenous film-maker telling Indigenous stories in this country? At a certain point it’s not about how good the story is. It’s about how it’s told, who told it, and in which context.

From talking to filmmakers and having worked in the film industry, I think these questions and concerns come down to risk, benefit and harm. These are all related to values, which can distract from the more intricate, messy nature of what lies beneath when we embark on projects to document, research, depict and interpret the lives of people and communities if we haven’t spent years developing relationships with them. Our values may scream: “This is a good thing, we need this!” But an assessment of the risks, benefits and harm factors can tell us a different story. We, as filmmakers, festival managers and programmers, commissioning editors, funders, researchers (like me), etc, should pay more attention to the cautionary yellow-hued flipside to our often green-lit impulses to do good.

I think this lack of emphasis on these kinds of assessments and critical engagement with structures leads to reductive discourse: such as a focus on the trials and tribulations of the filmmaker, or a focus on my review “shitting on” as one Facebook commenter eloquently put it, the movie. In fact, we should recognise that the knee-jerk reaction of many to my article is a case in point: our power-imbalanced cultural system in colonial Canada is one that makes whiteness so normative that when it is revealed or even mildly challenged it marshals white and non-Indigenous people to its defence, usually by focussing on individuals’ good intentions. It’s a common pattern. The insistence that we sympathize with the individual (in front of or behind the camera) and not see the bigger structure serves precisely to shut down debate, discussion and questioning so that the white-privileging, colonial order I describe above can persist.

When we’re making a film, telling a story, or documenting peoples’ lives we might do well to ask ourselves, first, as so many Indigenous filmmakers and artists have advised of those telling their communities’ stories: “Am I the person to tell this story?” If the answer is an emphatic “Yes!” Then maybe the next query should be: “Why?” If that rhetorical question elicits this kind of response: “Because I care so much about this issue; or I’m really interested in XYZ,” then I’d like to suggest that’s probably not delving deep enough into the inquiry.

Perhaps a better, more ethically-situated and less self-realising set of questions would centre around: Who benefits from this, in which ways, why, and who is taking what kinds of risks and why? Who has the potential for harm here, and what kinds of harm could result (cultural appropriation, displacement, exposure, exclusion, etc). Crucially, these questions need to be asked of not just us or by ourselves, but of and by our cultural institutions. We need a critical framework to not only challenge our own practices, but the structures that perpetuate inequity.

These questions, and the larger consideration of Canada’s colonial context, are about the ways in which we world-build – how we as cultural producers, managers and creators tend to recreate the world in a manner that we are most familiar with and that makes us feel comfortable. That means if a filmmaker has no, or thin, relationships with Indigenous people, they are less likely to say: “Perhaps an Indigenous director should make this,” or “Let’s be sure to hire Indigenous people on this project from the get-go.” Or, even more transformative: “I think I’ll take time to build relationships before rushing ahead with a film.”

These quandaries are also about what I’m calling “screen ethics”: the notion of extending the ethical dimension of the filmmaker-subject dynamic to the ways in which the film exists in and impacts the world, implicating broadcasters, programmers, audiences, stakeholder communities and more in discussions of power and equity. Screen ethics is a way of approaching documentary cinema as an entire field of ethical relations that includes research, writing, production, financing, dissemination, consumption, circulation and exhibition. It reminds us that programming isn’t just about selection. It’s also about placement and rejection, or following Arnaquq-Baril’s argument, displacement. It compels us to hold our cherished cultural institutions and organizations accountable, or to remake/dismantle/rebuild as needed.

The labour to explore, to deeply consider and debate these issues and concerns must be taken up by non-Indigenous people, including those who work on, fund, screen and love documentaries. This is what criticism is for: to call us to be better, more worldly, more sensitive and more engaged artists and cultural workers. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, we’ll make mistakes. But when faced with criticism we are beholden to take time and care to think it through and to change.

After all, Indigenous people in this country have their hands full, and some would just like to make films and have them shown on opening night, like anyone else. As the fierce and irrefutable Audra Simpson (Mohawk) compellingly writes in Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States (p. 3), Indigenous people would like a break from walking the beam: “As with all Indigenous people, they [ironworking Mohawk] were supposed to have stepped off the beam that they walked on and plummeted to the ground several times through the course of their historical lives. Staying on top of the beam has involved effort and labour that extends beyond even the hard work of putting up steel. Since the time of Lewis Henry Morgan, this is the labor of living in the face of an expectant and foretold cultural and political death. As such it is the hard labor of hanging on to territory, defining and fighting for your rights, negotiating and maintaining governmental and gendered forms of power.”

As non-Indigenous and settler allies and accomplices, it’s time we took better care of the structures built with those metaphoric and material beams. It’s high time to rework and maybe even rebuild the systems defined by what Simpson calls “settler optics,” and all the supporting structures that manifest and protect colonial inequities. It’s time we collectively realise and help fight for territories material (land) and immaterial (culture) with—and for—Indigenous communities in this country.

Documentary can—and should be—so much better.


Ezra Winton is a settler writer, curator and teacher from K’ómoks territory. He is a co-founder of Cinema Politica and Assistant Professor, Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Bulgaria.

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