“Change is inevitable; it’s just annoying that it takes so long,” say critics at IDFA’s Representation and Diversity in Film Criticism panel
by Marta Bałaga
- Writers opened up about representation and the realities of their profession during a panel at the Dutch festival
While, as stated by the organisers of the hybrid “Representation and Diversity in Film Criticism” panel at the recently wrapped IDFA, representation and diversity are the key topics that both society and the industry are dealing with today, it’s also important to look beyond the slogans sometimes.
“I am quite fed up with the question of diversity,” said the festival’s artistic director, Orwa Nyrabia, during his opening remarks. “I am usually called a ‘diverse’ festival director. That means I am diverse from what’s expected, and it makes me angry.” Still, the question of who gets to write about what kinds of films in which kinds of outlets is an important one, noted Cineuropa’s Vladan Petković, who initiated and coordinates the project, hoping that the conversation started at IDFA would now continue at other festivals, too.
Film Quarterly’s Girish Shambu kicked off the event – moderated by Vietnamese freelance film critic Phuong Le – by talking about film criticism’s past, present and future, inspired by Vittorio De Sica’s comedy Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. He pointed out that the lack of diversity often means that the films are not served well. “When you have a film about disability, made by disabled creators and reviewed by a non-disabled critic, that critic, even if well-intentioned, simply might not have the lived-in knowledge to do it justice. At the same time, no one wants to be confined within the parameters of their own identity and not be allowed to write with the freedom that white men have always enjoyed,” he said, suggesting that the future of film criticism should do away with championing just a few “heroic, dominant voices” and focus on a collective.
The participants also opened up about the financial challenges faced by their colleagues all over the world, forced to wear “multiple hats” in order to make ends meet or travel to festivals in order to do their job. “In the USA, it’s very rare for a critic to be compensated for attending a festival, in a way that you don’t lose money. There is this understanding that going there is a privilege, not a job,” observed Devika Girish, co-deputy editor at Film Comment, joining online and praising Sundance’s recent initiative that welcomed writers from underrepresented backgrounds, providing them with cash stipends. “It’s great that they decided to invest in this idea that they need diverse people to talk about their movies. But I don’t want editors to transfer this responsibility to festivals.”
Admitting that she also believes in the “collective mindset”, Katarina Hedrén, a freelance film critic and curator from South Africa, observed that the less diverse certain publications are, the less relevant they might become. “I don’t think they will change out of the goodness of their heart. They will have to change the same way the filmmaking landscape has – because the audience demands it. It’s inevitable; it’s just annoying that it takes so much time.” But by embracing their writers’ background or life experience, they should also allow them to venture beyond that.
“I would be asked to review Bollywood films, and contemporary Bollywood is not really an interest of mine. I want to contribute my world and cultural experience; at the same time, I want to live a full critical and journalistic life that many do get to live. I want to be seen as an authority on subjects that go beyond what is immediately visible about me,” said Girish, with Fionnuala Halligan, chief critic and reviews editor at Screen International, chiming in: “There was a point when I was the only critic with children, and I got every animated feature [to review]. I was watching cartoons, essentially, for years. I can’t watch them any more!”
“There is this idea, I don’t know why, that you do not belong in certain spaces. But there are three people writing about film in Nigeria, and one just took a job in financing, so there is one less now!” laughed Oris Aigbokhaevbolo, contributing critic for The Film Verdict. But writers, especially from marginalised backgrounds, should overcome their fear of being replaced, it was argued, and try to create a network that would serve their best interests – as well as explore the role of film criticism, which, as some noted, should serve both an aesthetic and a social function.
“It can’t be just about the film; it has to be about the ecosystem,” said Girish. “The problem is that everyone is extremely underpaid, and everything is forced to be very fast. That doesn’t leave much room for care between people, editors and writers, or care for the films and the audience. So much comes down to money.”
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