Working Towards an Inclusive Cinema Culture

Posted on August 6, 2021 by Lara Ratnaraja

Categories: EDI, General

Following the events of summer 2020, specifically the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests worldwide, the ICO has been developing an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion action plan. As part of this process we discussed the plan with a group of critical friends from outside the organisation, to gain feedback on our proposals and to ensure our work is collaborative, well-informed and effective in elevating the needs of people who experience racism. In this piece one of those critical friends, Lara Ratnaraja, discusses her experience of this process and her vision of a truly inclusive cinema culture.

“We want everyone to have access to cinema that nourishes the soul and changes lives.”

The Independent Cinema Office’s mission is to develop an open, challenging and thriving film exhibition sector.

Their origin story from 2003 is one of an independent film culture universe with different players throughout its history; but they continue to be led by their founder Catharine Des Forges and it continues to support the many independent film exhibitors, venues and workers which serve their local communities with independent cinema.

But in the 18 years since the ICO started, the world has changed. Black Lives Matter has exposed the myth of racial equity and equality across society, and we are now in a place where we can challenge and upend the many years of systemic injustice, discrimination and bias that has been prevalent in our society.

Within all forms of culture, the established structural frameworks that sought to promote diversity have been found wanting; interventionist at their heart and generating from a cultural model of production that emanates from the centre.

And like most culture, even that which is outside the mainstream, independent cinema has neglected to respond to and keep up with demographic shifts and the need for equity when it comes to diverse film exhibition.

“True self-reflection may be uncomfortable… but it can result in a meaningful and relevant organisation that has and can offer deeper connections, resonance, and value across diverse intersectional communities.”

Many organisations wish to be anti-racist, and to have a commitment to equality, diversity, and inclusion, but whilst the intention may be there, the motivation to look inwards at structural inequity, accountability, and the need to reflect on organisational culture and effect change is something many don’t consider. The work stops at a public stance and some unconscious bias training. True self-reflection may be uncomfortable, but if an organisation is willing to undergo that process, it can result in a meaningful and relevant organisation that has and can offer deeper connections, resonance, and value across diverse intersectional communities.

When the ICO approached me to be one of their critical friends as they explored and developed their response towards Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion, what struck me and interested me was that in a sea of black squares they came across as authentic, committed and crucially recognised the role they had to play to become an anti-racist organisation. They showed a willingness to be open and transparent and to undergo this process to really become inclusive in both thought and deed.

From the outset we framed this as a critical friend role rather than as external consultants. This was important in two specific contexts. The ICO had already started seriously undertaking work internally to examine its own organisational culture including a staff Anti-Racism working group. I use the word seriously with intent and meaning. This was a concerted effort by the ICO to recognise that systemic inequities are perpetuated by organisational structures and to collectively work on an action plan. They were open and determined to confront uncomfortable truths and to look at how to address them.

And our role as critical friends was to have a conversation framed around questions that arose out of this work, rather than coming up with hard and fast tangible solutions. This was an important distinction to ensure the staff had agency on the process and we challenged and provided constructive advice, critiques, and guidance.

Whilst the initial thinking was for the ICO to have an anti-racism plan, delving deeper with the critical friends into the organisation’s structure and services led the team to examine in more detail what that meant. It was clear that the ICO needed to interrogate what enabling greater equality, diversity and inclusion looked like, not just for the organisation itself but for those it serves.

In doing so it also had to acknowledge the lens and bias the sector operates within and their own role within that ecology.

“Othering of ethnically diverse people is perpetrated under the guise of benevolence whilst simultaneously perpetuating othering…it is about permissions and invitations-in and conflates all diversity into one homogenous whole”

This examination unfolded over a series of conversations with the critical friends. This was an important part of the process and negotiated with sensitivity and care – there is a fine line between using lived experience and expertise when consulting and critiquing to being mined for racial trauma. The team were open and transparent to work with, curious and inquiring but at the same time respectful of the critical friends’ boundaries and always ensuring that our emotional labour wasn’t exploited or disregarded.

The team started by recognising the inherent position and privilege held by the ICO and many of its staff in different ways and unpacked key areas of the organisation, its services, and its culture in an inclusive and nuanced way. The ICO team recognised that this work was important and essential and moved beyond tokenism and instrumentalism to exploring how it becomes embedded in their working culture.

How the ICO supports more inclusive and diverse programming will be an essential part of this. Beyond ‘seasons’ or special programmes, it is essential that a plurality of voices is seen on screen, and created by a diversity of voices off-screen, as standard.

Othering of ethnically diverse people is perpetrated under the guise of benevolence whilst simultaneously perpetuating othering. Borne of patriarchal and colonialist structures it is about permissions and invitations-in and conflates all diversity into one homogenous whole whereby inclusion is limited to tokenism and an offshoot of what is considered the norm.

This is the kind of unhelpful narrative that often informs diverse programming, allowing diverse audiences in and granting them permission to participate.

This only perpetuates a huge cultural divide which alienates and divorces culture from the socio-political transformations that are affecting society at large.

Becoming more inclusive isn’t just a moral and ethical principle to live by but also a reflection on and of the diversity of audiences who have engaged with film culture during lockdown. As we move back into physical spaces, it is imperative that we ensure that diverse intersectional audiences feel welcome in spaces which may hitherto have othered them.

The lockdown has shown these previously unseen and hidden audiences (from whom is another blog!) as avid consumers of relevant and resonant cultural product that reflected them and their humanity by a plurality of artistic voices to wider audiences. Diverse audiences don’t need permission to engage in their own cultural experiences, but they do need to see themselves reflected – on-screen, off-screen and in the spaces they were previously excluded from.

“As we move back into physical spaces, it is imperative that we ensure that diverse intersectional audiences feel welcome in spaces which may hitherto have othered them.”

As we hold up a mirror to the lack of equality and diversity, it is crucial to address that we need to change the culture from which this stems. Defaulting to exhibition programmes that platform exceptionalism as regards ethnicity for example, without systemically changing cinematic culture means we lose the richness of the audience experience that happened during lockdown. Challenging a programming orthodoxy that can stem from a default perspective, underpinned with unconscious bias as to audiences and their engagement with independent cinema could result in a brilliance of plurality as regards audiences, new cinematic voices, and a truly inclusive cinema culture. This presents a fantastic creative opportunity to rethink the independent cinema experience, look at programming and wrap-around activity through a lens of inclusion, equality, and equity and one that the ICO can support the sector to embrace.

The work being undertaken is by no means complete and the ICO continues to work to address diversity and what it means to become an anti-racist organisation and in doing so how they reflect the audiences and participants they want to see in the new post-pandemic film ecology. This goes beyond seasons and materially embeds diversity and equity into a new inclusive film framework.

Working with the ICO, there was a real sense of how they could help effect and support structural change, the change that the sector needs to see and how to look at diversifying the organisation itself to meet these needs. What felt very real was the sense of creative possibility and the opportunity this presents to make and present work in a new intersectional and inclusive landscape

It was a pleasure working with the ICO and the other critical friends in a collegiate and inclusive environment.

I look forward to seeing how this work unfolds as part of what turned out to be a commitment to a much longer and iterative process.

– Lara Ratnaraja

Lara Ratnaraja is well respected as a key influencer in the development of sector policy, a sought after speaker and strategic thinker on policy especially in diversity. She tweets at @lararatnaraja and you can learn more about her work on her website.

A living document, our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion action plan will evolve with the ICO, the wider sector and the world at large. Like the ICO, it is fully open to comment and critique, and we warmly welcome responses of any kind from anyone who has it. If you would like more information on any point or to feedback, please email us.

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