AFI Fest Casts Wide Net To Advance Diversity and Inclusion, Combat Stigmas
Blitz Bazawuleaka, aka Blitz the Ambassador
Summit sessions center on filmmakers of color, women directors, the deaf, mental health issues
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Though having to go virtual in the face of a pandemic, AFI Fest this past week (10/15-22) remained steadfast as a cornucopia of content with high-profile debuts as well as some under-the-radar films gaining exposure and prominence. Where the fest came up different this time around was in stepped-up conversations about diversity and inclusion, particularly on the AFI Summit side. These topics certainly had been discussed in recent years at the AFI confab but in 2020 they became more prevalent throughout the course of the event while extending beyond the need for increased representation for ethnic minorities and women to also encompass deaf talent and reducing the stigma attached to not only that community but also those who are dealing with mental health issues. The latter has become all the more relevant during these challenging times in the midst of COVID-19, racial strife, political unrest and divisiveness, and increased feelings of isolation, if not alienation.

Ironically at a fest that for the first time wasn’t held in-person, there seemed to be a sense of coming together that proved heartening for participants. That feeling of unity and purpose was certainly evident in a number of AFI Summit sessions starting with Elevating BIPOC Filmmakers, A Conversation With ARRAY. Founded by filmmaker Ava DuVernay in 2010, ARRAY is a film collective dedicated to amplifying the voices of people of color and women directors. ARRAY Releasing focuses on grass-roots distribution of feature narrative and documentary work by varied auteurs. The ARRAY commitment is to amplify and advocate for independent films by Black artists, filmmakers of color and women directors. Meanwhile nonprofit ARRAY Alliance expands on the organization’s deep roots in independent film with disruptive social impact and education initiatives. ARRAY Creative Campus serves as an epicenter for production and programming dedicated to marginalized voices. And ARRAY Filmworks is the production company responsible for such fare as DuVernay’s When They See Us, Queen Sugar and the Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning documentary 13th.

Summit session panelist DuVernay explained that ARRAY was formed to “create a space” for underrepresented talent. Rather than “knock on other people’s doors,” she explained, ARRAY’s orientation is to “build your own door...create  your own space.” Among those influencing DuVernay in this pursuit was stalwart Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima who created such a space years earlier in Washington, D.C. called Sankofa Video, Books and Cafe. The venue became known as “liberated territory” where Black artists could meet, forming a community. Fashioned after these sensibilities, ARRAY too has become a community, opening up opportunities for directors of color and women filmmakers.

One such artisan is Merawi Gerima, Haile’s son, who made his directorial debut this year with Residue which follows aspiring filmmaker Jay (portrayed by Obinna Nwachukwu) returning to his childhood Washington, DC, neighborhood that has been gentrified beyond recognition. Dealing with alienation from his friends, troubled by the disappearance of his best friend, and unsure of his place in this new community, Jay confronts issues of identity, gentrification and loss.  Gerima also wrote the film which ARRAY distributed theatrically while also securing it exposure on Netflix.

Merawi Gerima was also a panelist at this AFI session and thanked DuVernay for ARRAY, which he regards as an historic accomplishment, thinking out aloud that his Black filmmaker parents back in the day would have coveted the opportunity that ARRAY has given him.

DuVernay noted that ARRAY has led her to some happy discoveries including fellow panelist Blitz Bazawuleaka, aka Blitz the Ambassador, a hip hop artist who’s made a successful transition to directing. His 2018 feature film, The Burial of Kojo, blends fantasy and contemporary African culture in the story of a little girl navigating the spirit realm to locate her father after he mysteriously goes missing. DuVernay recalled seeing what she described as a “delicious” film, wanting “to lick it off the screen” and then seeking out Blitz. The Burial of Kojo was acquired by ARRAY and premiered on Netflix to critical acclaim. Most recently, Blitz has been tapped to direct Warner Bros.’ epic musical retelling of The Color Purple to be produced by the Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg and Quincy Jones.

Blitz also served as one of the lead directors on Beyoncé’s Black is King. Streaming on Disney+, the visual album was written, directed, and executive-produced by Beyoncé and celebrates Black resilience and culture. The lush visuals highlight the beauty of tradition and of Black excellence. 

Furthermore, Blitz recently joined the roster of bicoastal creative content company Chromista for his first representation spanning commercials and branded content. Director Darren Aronofsky is among the founders of Chromista.

Other fest session panelists included filmmakers Deepa Mehta and Isabel Sandoval, and ARRAY president Tilane Jones. Moderating the discussion was producer Felice Leon, an Afro-Cuban host, producer and multimedia journalist.

ARRAY distributed writer/director Sandoval’s Lingua Franca which follows an undocumented Filipina trans woman Olivia (portrayed by Sandoval) after she has secured a job as a live-in caregiver for Olga (Lynn Cohen), an elderly Russian woman in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood. Olivia’s main priority is to secure a green card to stay in America. But when she unexpectedly becomes romantically involved with Olga’s adult grandson Alex (Eamon Farren), issues around identity, civil rights and immigration threaten her very existence.

Meanwhile ARRAY recently acquired critically acclaimed director Mehta’s feature, Funny Boy, which is slated for a December 10th debut on Netflix as well as a theatrical release. DuVernay said to Mehta during the AFI session, “We treasure you at ARRAY,” adding “I look up to you...Your work is so formidable, gorgeous and fierce.” 

Mehta noted that as an artist she’s rooted in the circumstance of being a self-described “free slave.” Born in Amristar, Punjam, Mehta moved to New Delhi as a child. Later in life, she relocated to Canada. While Canada is a progressive country, she observed that even there she is “a slave of perceptions” based on attributes such as skin color and a foreign accent. Filmmaking, she observed, gives her a voice to break out of those preconceived perceptions.

While Mehta is a longstanding accomplished artist, ARRAY remains on the lookout for emerging talent. In that pursuit, Jones related that the lower profile film festival circuit is among the places she and her ARRAY colleagues explore.

As an aside, DuVernay shared that her primetime series Queen Sugar on Oprah Winfrey’s network OWN has a season five in the offing which will explore the Black American protagonists’ experiences from March 2020 to Election Day 2020--delving into such areas as the heavy, disproportionate toll that the pandemic has had on people of color, the murder of George Floyd and it serving as a catalyst spurring on the quest for racial and social justice.

Breaking the silence
The deaf community is largely overlooked, unrepresented or at best underrepresented in movies and TV. Hopefully helping to change that will be Sound of Metal which gained stellar reviews at AFI Fest 2020. Directed and co-written by Darius Marder, Sound of Metal features a tour de force performance by Riz Ahmed as a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing. Rather than focus solely on the character’s isolation as a result, Marder also shows the support and belonging that can be found in the deaf community. During the course of the film, Ahmed’s character loses his identity, then finds a new one only to struggle with trying to retain his original lifestyle before experiencing a defining self-realization.

The AFI Summit discussion--called Finding Your Voice: Sound of Metal Strikes A Chord With The Deaf Community--featured Marder, Ahmed, actors Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Chelsea Lee and Shaheem Sanchez (the latter two being deaf performers), along with Nanci Linke-Ellis, a media consultant specializing in issues of accessibility who was an early advocate successfully helping to bring about more open-caption entertainment for deaf audiences. The session was moderated by deaf actor CJ Jones.

Though Marder tells this story from his perspective as a member of the hearing world, he has family experience in deafness. His grandmother was late-deafened, meaning she grew up hearing, then became deaf as an adult. She was a cinephile who lost film as a result but fought for open captioning. Marder dedicated Sound of Metal to his grandmother, Dorothy Marder, a Jewish gay woman who was accustomed to breaking through barriers. Darius and his brother wrote Sound of Metal which the director described as “a film about identity” and “what that means on many levels,” particularly “what it means when those identities are challenged” and how one responds--specifically the character of Ruben (portrayed by Ahmed) who loses his hearing and along with it music, his lover and lifestyle.

Ruben, a former drug addict who’s been sober for several years, goes to a community house for the deaf, learns sign language and over time becomes part of the deaf community. Marder views Sound of Metal as not necessarily “a representation of deaf culture” but rather for the hearing world “an invitation to deaf culture,” which if accepted helps viewers to better see our shared humanity while dispelling misnomers about--and removing stigmas from--being deaf.

Raci portrays Joe, who runs the deaf community house. Raci in real life is a hearing child of deaf adults, and an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. He noted that this film helps to open up eyes and ears to what the deaf community is, as well as further showcases the talent and viability of deaf actors (including Lee and Sanchez) and artisans. Hollywood for too long, he said, has thumbed its nose at the deaf, blind and wheelchair bound with limiting depictions, if any portrayals at all, in film and TV. 

Sound of Metal marks Sanchez’s first feature film. She had done some television work in Canada. Sanchez, who lost her hearing at the age of four, affirmed that she doesn’t regard being deaf as being handicapped.  Meanwhile Lee, who was born deaf, said she has other heightened senses as a result.

Raci observed that the cross-section of the deaf community is wide and should be tapped into for storytelling and talent. “There are deaf lawyers, doctors, good people, bad people. They’re all over.”

Pink Skies Ahead
While the deaf community has to fight being stigmatized, so too do those with mental health concerns. Helping to combat any stigma is Kelly Oxford’s feature writing/directing debut, Pink Skies Ahead, which was well received at AFI Fest. In fact, just prior to the start of the fest, MTV Studios acquired Pink Skies Ahead. The feature film stars Jessica Barden as Winona, a 20-year-old writer who tries to figure out what the future holds for her after dropping out of college. She is also grappling with her mental health and the onset of panic attacks. Pink Skies Ahead is based on “No Real Danger,” an essay Oxford penned years back which marked the first time she shared her personal experience with an anxiety disorder.

Oxford was featured at an AFI Summit discussion titled Centering Characters With Mental Health Conditions In Film and Television. Panelists included Oxford, Barden, Noopur Agarwal, VP of social impact for the ViacomCBS Entertainment and Youth Group, and Dr. Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Moderating the session was Dr. Stacy L. Smith of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.

Dr. Moutier praised Pink Skies Ahead for its realistic portrayal of how a person copes with mental health concerns, affirming that the film “moves the needle” in terms of promoting public awareness and understanding of what the character Winona and others deal with. Moutier said that Oxford “did everything right” in depicting that journey. In the big picture, Moutier observed, “As much as science is growing and shedding light on how the brain works and how mental health plays out for human beings, nothing will compare to how media and entertainment have a role in changing culture with regards to any complex and especially formerly stigmatized topics that there’s a lot of taboo around.”

Barden said that in portraying Winona she wanted to go counter to the stereotype that a person with anxiety is quiet, nervous, perhaps introverted. She personally has dealt with panic attacks and comes from a personality orientation that can be extroverted, gregarious and reflecting a zest for life. Barden related that even for an outgoing person, “there’s a whole other private narrative” that can happen in your head. “You can be the person who says, ‘Let’s go do karaoke after this’ but at the same time you can just be walking around thinking you have cancer all the time and don’t know why.” 

People from all walks of life can experience issues but that’s not reflected in entertainment content according to an Annenberg report which found that less than two percent of all characters across the 100 top-grossing films of 2019 were shown with a mental health condition. That’s significantly less than the reality which has nearly 20 percent of Americans experiencing some form of mental angst or anxiety during the course of a year. Besides not being conveyed in feature films, mental health conditions when they are addressed often are portrayed disparagingly or stereotypically.

Oxford noted that she’s gotten positive feedback on Pink Skies Ahead not just for its accurate depiction of Winona but realistic portrayals of doctors and family. Dr. Smith said the film underscores the power of storytelling so that people such as Winona don’t feel alone and more of the public becomes aware of what so many deal with.

ViacomCBS Entertainment’s Agarwal observed that too often film and TV focus on the “crisis moment” or the “breakdown” when it comes to mental health. Overlooked is the daily process of getting help, which is crucial and can be a life-affirming part of the narrative. She and ViacomCBS are in the process of developing a mental health media guide to help content creators better deal with all these related narratives. She hopes that will help improve the current norm where mental health conditions are rarely represented and when they are, those stereotypical narratives do more harm than good to society at large. The mental health media guide is scheduled to be released in December.

Progressive lineup
On the festival side, diversity and inclusion were reflected in the AFI lineup of films consisting of 124 titles (54 features, 3 episodic, 33 shorts, 19 Meet the Press Film Festival at AFI Fests shorts and 15 AFI Conservatory Showcase shorts). Fifty-three percent of these films are directed by women, 39 percent by BIPOC, and 17 percent by LGBTQ+ artists. 

Also in the AFI Fest mix were two filmmakers who also recently made the cut for SHOOT’s 2020 New Directors Showcase: Em Weinstein and Jing Ai Ng. Weinstein’s In France Michelle is a Man’s Name screened in AFI Fest’s Short Film Competition. In France Michelle is a Man’s Name introduces us to Michael, a young trans man, who returns home to the rural American West after years of estrangement from his parents.

And Ng’s film Fleck was in the AFI Conservatory Showcase. Fleck was one of 15 short fiction films from the most recent graduates of the AFI Conservatory. Fleck is about an Asian-American teenager at a traditional prep school longing to fit in. She is forced to choose between her morality or belonging to the school’s cool elite. 

Currently based in L.A., Ng is a woman director who was born in Kuala Lumpur and raised between Malaysia and Miami. Weinstein is a non-binary filmmaker.


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