Why Does Diversity Matter?
Why We Need to Rethink the Broken System
by Robert Misovic
It’s been a topic of much debate in the wake of the Oscars announcing their nominees for Best Director. Not a single woman in sight. Really? This year?
The topic of inclusion and diversity has been something that has come up for Pendance many times. We’ve had long debates over it. People have left over it. I’ve personally shed tears over it twice. It would be a good time to mention that as the festival director, I’m sharing only my own views on this subject and I’m absolutely positive that they’re not identical to anyone else’s on our team. We all think differently, and yet we all try to agree.
We have never placed a diversity mandate for our own festival, and yet so very many times over the last two years we’ve seen women, LGBTQ stories, and people of color represented and celebrated at our festival.
Two years in a row, the Jury Award for best short has gone to women of Spanish descent. 2018 winner Clara Lezama (Emma) and 2019 winner Carlota Pereda (Piggy) both had, in our opinion, the best overall short film. They didn’t win because they were women. But we do acknowledge as programmers that the path to making a film in the first place was harder for them than their male counterparts. Did it impact how we voted? No. Did it impact how proud we were when they won? Absolutely. Bonus? They’re both on our short film jury for 2020.
So is King right? Do we just try to be as unbiased as possible, cross our fingers, say our prayers, and hope that the pool will just become more diverse over the long haul?
This argument is so complex and has so many layers to unpack, it warrants a deeper dive into each issue.
1. Can we just vote for quality?
No. Art is highly subjective. Any assessment about the quality of said art is thereby not objective truth about said art, but rather an interpretation by the viewer of the art’s perceived merits. In a sense, King would be right in a perfect world. But this isn’t a perfect world. And King among others need to realize that.
Much of cinema and the enjoyment of cinema comes down to subjective viewpoints, and assuming that Stephen King is going to have the same ability to identify with a story about a black woman as Ava DuVernay is ambitious, if not ludicrous.
Does viewing a film with subtitles take away from the overall experience of viewing the film? Sure. As one focusses on the “one-inch-tall-barrier” as Parasite director Joon Ho Bong called it, it would be easy to understand that subtle performance notes may slip by on first watch. It would be hard to argue in a vacuum for instance in 2012 that ‘The Artist’ was objectively better than Asghar Farhadi’s ‘A Separation’ which took the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. I’d love to hear the argument for the merits of the former over the latter. Actually, I’d pay to hear someone explain why ‘A Separation’ didn’t get a nomination for Best Picture. It might be one of the ten best films of the decade.
And that’s when you start to agree with Ava DuVernay by default. You need a reason for people to start celebrating someone other than CIS white men. But maybe this is a symptom of a larger problem? As Randy Pausch once argued, systemic problems require systemic solutions.
2. Why is inclusion important?
This is something that is often lost on most people. Diversity has become a buzz word of sorts with very little understanding of why it’s important, and why it’s dangerous to ignore the problem any more than we already have.
It’s not just a matter of writing female roles. The history of cinema is littered with forgettable female roles, objectifying women, forcing actresses to read God-awful dialogue, settling for stereotypically secondary roles. How many times can you see a woman introduced in a screenplay who has little purpose other than to serve as an object for two competing men? How inherently uninteresting are these roles to watch, and how difficult are they to act for the women asked to play these characters?
“Just blush darling. Look down, blink, and just blush. It’s what women do when they get nervous” said an unnamed Hollywood director 500 times a year for the last 100 years. I’m sure Harvey Weinstein is out there somewhere nodding his stupid head.
How many times can Asian men be the awkward best friend or comedic relief? How many times can we see African American actors being lit using the same practices designed for white skin tones? How many times can we see a white actor play a non-white character because “you know, marketing purposes”?
And why does it matter? They’re just movies. Right?
This is popular culture. If you only ever see black people in prison on screen, or only ever make films about white protagonists, or fetishize Asian women while mocking the sexuality of Asian men, or soften LGBTQ sexuality, you’re hurting the collective psyche of people who identify with those demographics.
It builds a complex to only ever see yourself represented one way. To ignore this is to ignore the realities of human experience. Go ahead and tell me the last time you saw a Muslim man depicted as something other than a terrorist or a side character in a film? It’s hard. You have to think about it. It’s one of the biggest demographics in the world and yet we don’t really see Muslim men often depicted as leads in romantic comedies. It’s just an unspoken rule. Don’t do it.
I’ll take you through a personal story. In 2002 it was awkward to be Serbian. Those plane rides were long and awkward back then. CNN portrayed the entire country as a band of genocidal maniacs after wars ravaged Yugoslavia throughout the 90s. Serbs were held by the Western viewpoint as aggressors, and there was no counter-movement or mass-consumed other-side-of-the-coin movie. We waited for a while and by 2012 when you told someone you were Serbian, the narrative had changed. Why?
As one British woman sitting next to me on a plane exclaimed in 2013 “Oh! Like Novak Djokovic!!” That’s right. A tennis player was able to change people’s minds by hitting a tennis ball better than his peers and being a generally affable and lovely person. He didn’t have a beard. He wasn’t holding a gun. He didn’t look mad or crazy. He smiled a lot. If I ever speak with Novak, I would ask him if he was ever aware of what he was doing. I’d also thank him for making that plane ride way less awkward than it had been eleven years prior.
Movies are important. Sports are important. In the wake of Trump, and all the complex emotions his presidency has stirred among women and minority groups, it isn’t hard to see why the Oscars lineup is pissing a lot of people off. Seeing people represented on screen should be something we champion. But there’s an elephant in the room.
A big one.
3. How do you achieve real diversity?
I’ll try to tell you how we did it. Between our jury and our team, we are 26 people. The demographics break down to: half women on the features jury, 75% women on the shorts jury, just over 75% people of color on the shorts jury, a 50/50 male to female ratio in shorts and features programming departments, and a 50/50 male to female split between the two chair positions of artistic and festival director. Among the 14 people on our core team, we pushed for as much diverse talent as we could possibly find.
The importance here is talent. We didn’t put anyone up to fail. We didn’t bring in underqualified people because of the color of their skin or what gender they identified with. And critics may cite that our team isn’t diverse enough. Our core team features 14 people under the age of 40. No Aboriginal voices among 26 people. And you know what? Time and time again, it has bit us in our asses.
Diversity isn’t a good thing just because. People have different experiences and if you’re willing to hear them, they allow for richer perspectives and better decision-making.
So what’s the problem?
The people in control aren’t changing.
I mean don’t get me wrong. They are changing slowly. And I’m happy to see the changes that are happening with pioneers like Ava DuVernay pushing for inclusion and festivals like TIFF and Sundance pushing for diversity across the board. But the real reason to have diversity mandates is to serve as a check against biases. For our shorts jury, we would never dare to tell them that they need to nominate a woman, a person of color or an LGBTQ film. And why would we? We selected a jury that’s as diverse as any jury we’ve ever seen, most of whom hold views that champion inclusion and diversity. What we didn’t do was reverse engineer diversity by selecting an all-white-male jury and telling them they had to champion diversity.
Stop seeing diversity as a buzz word to gain likes on social media and get government grants. Start seeing it as a competitive advantage to have different perspectives included at the very top of your organization. And start understanding diversity on a deeper level. It isn’t enough to just cherrypick. Selecting 6 ethnicities to a jury who all grew up in the same upper-middle-class neighborhood isn’t enough. You need to get people in the decision rooms who truly think differently and have grown up differently. And you need to allow these ideas to merge together to create the better tomorrow we’re all pushing for. We tokenize diversity when we should be striving to understand it. Five black voices on a jury out of ten doesn’t mean the jury is diverse. Not on its own anyway.
Stop selecting women to film festivals just so you can make the headline that you selected 50% women to your festival. Change your festival’s leadership. Stop asking Steven King to vote for stories he can’t identify with. Start removing the barriers to entry that stop people of color from rising to his spot.
This is a problem that is so complex it would warrant an anthology of scientific research to properly assess. You shouldn’t nominate ‘A Separation’ for best picture in 2012 because it’s a film from Iran. You shouldn’t do it because it would make a huge impact on future Iranian filmmakers seeking funding for projects. You should nominate it because it was worthy of a nomination. And if it wins, don’t pat yourself on the back and think you solved the problem. Just be proud and acknowledge that Asghar Farhadi’s road to prominence has been different than Michael Bay’s.
In 2020, we have ‘Parasite’ up for Best Picture. If it loses, there will be those citing a white-lash. If it wins, people will say it won because of a diversity mandate and the Academy doing damage control after the recent backlash. But maybe it wins because it was a masterpiece? Wouldn’t that be something beautiful.
What’s the point? Be fair. That’s the point. It’s time to stop asking the gate-keepers to think differently. It hasn’t worked. The logical move is rather obvious: change the gatekeepers.