About Face, About Frame

Struggling for a Voice Within and Without
By Kwame Dawes

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Between June 17 and 22 some twenty or so film and video makers, producers, and administrators of colour and of First Nations descent met at the Banff Centre in Alberta for dialogue and strategic planning for the future in a meeting appropriately titled About Face About Frame. The meeting, organized and spearheaded with admirable energy and skill by Alliance Board Member Premika Ratnam, sought, through intense discussion, to identify and articulate some of the central problems being faced by independent film and video artists of colour and of First Nations descent in Canada.

Funded by the Alliance of Independent Film and Video makers of Canada, this conference constituted a landmark moment in the evolution of the film and video industry in Canada, as it was the first time such artists, representing most regions of Canada, had ever gotten together to find common ground through honest interaction. The agenda of the conference was decidedly political, in that it focused more on the political dynamics of funding film and video projects than it did on the creative process itself.

What happens then, when a group like this, of highly motivated people of colour and First Nations people come together to discuss the political ramifications of their work? They rail against the impact of cultural appropriation by the main stream white society on their work. These problems tend to come up at conferences like the Banff meeting. In that instance, after political advocacy and positioning had been discussed, these artists and administrators were forced to try and find their common ground—their position of unity on several critical issues. Without this, the concept of a coalition, or that of further action would have remained unrealized.

To my mind, the question of cultural appropriation, and the response of the delegates to this issue characterized the spirit with which plans for a coalition of these artists were made. It also represented the spirit which allowed all these people of divergent and disparate races and backgrounds to forge a collective political voice that could address the mainstream echelons of funding and policy making in Canada's film, television, and video industry.

Firstly, there was the question of naming and labelling. First Nations peoples are not a homogeneous collection of people sharing the same culture and values. What they do share, however, is a history of struggle, repression, resistance, and a connection with the Canadian landscape. They share a common enemy, they share sufferring, and they share a desire to break away from the strictures imposed on them by the common enemy. Essentially, they share struggle. The same is true among people of colour, for, as was discovered at the conference, the term is deeply problematic and can only function as a metaphorical counter-statement to the term 'white'—meaning colourless. Beyond that, the histories are disparate. However, the shared enemy, the shared sense of marginalization and social alienation, have, through various accidents of history, allowed people of colour to recognize commonalities between themselves. It is the politically expedient who react to these connections and seek to unify these groups into a single voice. To do this, however, there is a lot of 'stuff' to plow through and to clear away. Part of this 'stuff' is tied to the question of cultural appropriation.

At Banff, some of the artists (I use the term loosely) met in a sub-group, to discuss the question of cultural appropriation. Typically, the discussion began with the expression of heart-felt anger at white establishments and writers for stealing and distorting the narratives and histories of marginalized people. But the discussion grew more complex. People identified in much of the funding policies being implemented by large agencies in the country, a tendency to deny the voice of indigenous peoples who wanted to speak about their own cultures; by ghettoizing them, and consequently limiting the amount of funds available to them. Simultaneously, a mainstream level of 'higher art,' continued to receive funding for projects that could easily be accused of propagating the 'sacred' tenets of cultural appropriation.

But things become even more complex. Some who spoke expressed concern that this ghettoization of the work of artists on the margin was simply a backlash aimed at advocate groups that railed against the abuses of cultural appropriation supporters. Bureaucracy had reacted by introducing apartheid policies at a certain level of funding. Nothing was changing, fundamentally. 'Higher art' still celebrated the freedom of the 'true artist' to write about anything. 'Higher art' got all the money.

Other speakers were less convinced that legislation against cultural appropriation was a particularly useful way to deal with it. Their problems with this were largely theoretical. They argued that simply fighting to ensure that all work about black issues be written by blacks was politically and artistically unsound. By extension, the argument went, blacks would be prevented from writing about whites, and then there would have to be a chart indicating where race and culture aligned themselves and defined themselves. The prospect was not just daunting, but absurd.

Then a third voice: "And what of us," it asked? "Can I, as a black person, write about a native issue? Or can a native person write about an South Asian issue? Is there such a thing as a marginalized culture that allows such arrangements to be acceptable?"

Caught in what was a deeply problematic quagmire, the artists began to ask fundamental questions about the issues surrounding cultural appropriation, and to formulate a sense of what values they felt were important if marginalized people wanted to share their work with each other. The shift from a behaviour within the struggle was a fundamental and telling one, for it had an impact upon the rest of the conference. Further, it brought to the fore a basic reality concerning the position of marginalized artists in this society—that these artists are no longer way out in the margins. Instead, some are becoming power-brokers and bearers in the system. In many ways, it is becoming increasingly important that those marginalized people with power dialogue with those on the margins who still have no power.

The dynamics of representation and voice would have to be discussed. The internal runnings of the people trying to find voice would have to be clarified if an effective movement towards change were to be accomplished.

The caucus came to a few conclusions: when cultural appropriation is counteracted by the qualities of respect, sensitivity and equal opportunity, the result is wonderfully developed work that is filled with the richness of cultural interaction and dialogue. These qualities are liberating for they open a door for dialogue among marginalized artists, which many felt was slowly closing. This openness seeks to make a distinction between stealing and getting permission to take, borrow, or share. The cry for measures against cultural appropriation emerges out of a sense of abuse and exploitation felt by disenfranchised minorities. It is a reaction to the work of many white artists who deal with subject matter that they do not respect or understand. It also involves the question of money. Many artists have stolen from other cultures without giving acknowledgement; they have mis-represented cultures and values with complete disdain and disregard for the people that they have exploited, and have made significant amounts of money from such efforts in the process. In many instances, our understanding of ourselves as peoples of colour and First Nations peoples has been determined by the language and ideology of these exploitative artists whose sense of accountability is minimal, largely because it is they who have the funding and the power.

Armed with a sense of collective understanding, and a series of values which freed them to share their voices, the artists at Banff proceeded to formulate ways in which to actively resist the detrimental features of cultural appropriation. This was achieved through an encounter with history and the pro-active politic of correcting a much too-long pattern of exploitation. Thus, it was possible to: argue for a policy that would privilege the voice of the marginalized when it came to issues that dealt with marginalized society; demand that the funding agencies study the record of exploitation and abuse that has come with much of the material written about marginalized cultures by white people; and use that trend as a strong indication of how to allocate funding in the future. They could suggest that the principle of affirmative action is applicable even in this context, for there are wrongs to be righted. Most critically, it gave them a vehicle by which to try to determine the criteria that should be used to determine the efficacy of a work that appeared to cross cultural lines.

Underlying all of these stances was a willingness to celebrate the freedom and imagination of the artist, while giving attention to the political and social responsibility of that artist. The About Face About Frame meeting was about this very thing. The final 'Core Assumptions,' constructed through involved dialogue, soul-searching, tears and sweat, reflected this spirit completely.

From these core assumptions, mandates were made to: (1) ensure that the proceedings of the meeting be properly recorded; and (2) for a coalition to be established between these artists. (Since that time, a great deal has taken place to realize this aim). Finally, it was mandated that efforts be made to use the collective voices of these artists to require all government funding agencies involved with film, video and television to evaluate their policies and practices of cultural interaction, through a comprehensive and critical report, and to have this report made public. By taking a pro-active position in seeing this done, these artists were advocating a process whereby marginalized people would seize control of their own destinies within this society.

The work begun at the Banff meeting will undoubtedly have far-reaching repercussions in the film, television, and video industry in Canada. This is largely because the discussions affected the often difficult interaction of politics and art. In this instance, the fusion was dynamic and fruitful. Credit should go to Premika Ratnam and her team of supporters who ensured that while attending participants were highly-positioned and influential people in the industry within their own rights, they were also people who had dared to contend with the intimate reality of their personal politics of race and identity. We hope the Alliance not only seeks to embody this spirit, but further endeavors to let the spirit direct its activities in the future.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Kwame Dawes
Kwame Dawes is a poet, playwright, fiction writer, musician, actor, nuclear physicist, guru, marsian, pyrotechnicist, with a vivid imagination. He teaches English at the University of South Carolina at Sumter, where he is also recovering from New Brunswick winters.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
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