It is no shocker that the film industry, like most cultural ventures, are heavily white-dominated. How does one carve their way into the world of movie stars, celebrated filmmakers, and fancy awards—and not just as a "diversity hire" or a token—when you don't have white privilege to rely on? A couple of Berlin creatives founded the BIPOC film society to achieve just that.
First of all, could you tell us a bit about the project? Who is behind it, and why did you start it?
Maissa: Maissa Lihedheb and Chima Okerenkwo found the collective but behind the project are now 10 beautiful members. We started this collective because for too long we struggled to believe that the creative sphere would be the right place for us, even though there is nothing in this world we wanted to do more than create stories and cinematic worlds. Yet we have always been perceived as T H E O T H E R. Excluded in a world that doesn’t seem to see us as more than just a stereotype and quota. That moment we got together we knew that there is the need for a space that could bring a whole community of people together, which is built on compassion, empowerment, self-respect, appreciation, diversity and love. As a new collective, BIPOC Film Society developed this year out of a mutual interest to diversify the film and media industries to tackle their misrepresentation of marginalised identities – particularly within the context of Germany. As members of the collective, we hold an intersection of individual experiences that contribute to forming this unanimous interest in diversification. BFS is a dynamic platform based in Berlin, which aims to promote intersectionality and representation within the industries that tokenize marginalized people quickly and destroy their narratives all the faster. BIPOC Film Society is a collective that aims to change the traditionally white, masculine and heteronormative narratives of film and film criticism. BFS started in May 2020 and had already few sold out events (including a 100-person screening in Kulture Neu Denken, Acud and in the Yorck Group’s Rollberg Kino), a music video for the Berlin artist Lie_ning for Black Lives Matter and for the Cologne artists Kaleo Sansaa. BFS is also planning a public film festival in 2021 for the BIPOC community and allies. Now, after 3 month our team has grown with 7 new amazing members; Boaz Murem, Chau Luong, Kareem Baholzer, Erkan Affan, Orhan Erdem, Kat Singleton, Momodou Lamin and Arjunaj.
Representation of BIPOC in films—not only on screen, but in the making process too—is incredibly important. Do you feel like the situation has been changing (for better or worse) lately, and if not, what can we do to ensure a cinematic world that is not ruled by old white cis men?
Maissa: While every fifth German has migrant background, German mass media remains visibly German. Symbolic annihilation includes that the way an individual sees his in and out group is based on what is seen in TV. Marginalized groups represented in repeated stereotyped and one-dimensional versions of themselves, would lead to think that these kind of inauthentic qualities is all the majority expects from them. Television has the power to transmit what is seen as the norm. Hence, if minorities are not or one-dimensionally represented in television, the feeling of exclusion and its result of psychological issues develop. Therefore, the lack of representation leads to not only exclusion in storytelling but also in real life. Individuals translate themselves through representation of people one can identify with, minorities feel that characters like themselves are written out of the narrative of humanity in TV and in their surroundings. Even though more and more production companies and people in power are aware of growing “trend” to visiblize marginalized group as for instance the BBC in the UK which is the first company that developed a long-term strategy to promote diversity and inclusion in TV and film. Regarding the global market, the industry is still imbalanced and strategies of that kind could increase a more diverse and equal casting and storytelling. “In spite of the medium’s dilation over the last decade, the majority of shows being greenlit fail to reflect the abundance of the larger, globalized world”, Parham (2017) continues “it’s not solely about the stories we tell, but who tells them and how they are told”. A report conducted by Variety (2016), reveals that 90% of showrunners are white and almost 80% are male. I’m not sure what the numbers are today but I would love that more and more companies focus on a diversity strategy to ensure inclusion. However, this can only be done if accessibility to film school or any other institutions are insured. This starts with allowing marginalized groups to be able to apply for film schools without a highschool diploma. It starts with allowing people with disability and people older than 25 to be able to study acting. Why should your age or your circumstance in highschool that possibly lead you to fail your Abitur (highschool diploma) define your ability to tell stories and perform? (Maissa)
You both are filmmakers yourselves. Do you have any tips for BIPOC film industry novices on how to get their voices heard, their work promoted, and, essentially, how to deal with the inherent racism of the field?
Maissa: We honestly still don’t know how to navigate through a space of a predominately white industry. But we realized that in order to feel included we have to start our industry and find people around us who share the same visions and dreams who want to break the white cis male dominated industry by rebelling without relying on them. We’re meeting more and more people that have been in the industry for quiet some time now and who kind of have become mentors for us. Mia Spengler, is a german director of color and through her we’re learning that we don’t have to assimilate to the white industry and that their standards of what makes a good writer or director are complete shit. And that in the end these industries need us and not the other way around. They are the ones that realise they are way too late on the diversity game and immensely searching for the few bipoc filmmakers. They need our stories, our actors, our directors. When we realise that we can change the power dynamics and get the confidence that comes with it. And another tipp is to not thrive to be accepted by them or be their friends. Build your own team of people and help eachother grow. You don’t have to do it by yourself and trust me there are more people interested in working on your project then you think. Never underestimate the power of the bipoc community.
The project is based in Berlin – do you have any intentions of reaching out beyond the German capital?
Maissa: We haven’t thought about that yet, since we are trying to focus on our current status and build the community here and work on projects locally. But it’s definitely a dream to expand and even connect with other bipoc film collectives like All Fruits Ripe run by Candice Nembhard. We are currently working on a collaboration with the Tape Collective in London, for which we are planning a series of Events in 2021 between London and Berlin.
What would you say your top 5 films are?
Watermelon Women – Cheryl Dunye
Where do we go now – Nadine Labaki
Happy Together – Wong Kar Wai
Moonlight- Berry Jenkins
3 Faces – Jafar Panahi
What is the last film that made you cry, and the last one that made you laugh?
Maissa: Carpenaum by Nadine Labaki makes me cry every damn time and the last film that made me laugh was actually the TV Series “Ramy”.
If you could collaborate with literally any filmmaker (from any time, dead or alive), who would it be?
Maissa: Martin Scorsese, Cheryl Dunye, Yorgos Laminthos, Jafar Panahi and Nadine Labaki.