The Furor Over ‘Paris Is Burning’ Raises Burning Questions: thoughts on the future of documentary filmmaking

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MAY 19, 2015 | BY WENDY LEVY

Heather Dockray’s recent article on BrooklynBased.com (“Why Celebrate Brooklyn’s Paris Is Burning Screening Sparked a Fire on Facebook“) brings to light the controversy about an upcoming screening of documentary classic Paris Is Burning, by Jennie Livingston. The film, released in 1991, is about NYC Gay Ballroom culture in the 1980s and the trans/queer People of Color (TQPOC) who came of age and found their voices there amidst racism, poverty, homophobia and AIDS.

BRIC, the event producers in Brooklyn, put together a group of all-white presenters for the evening. While their intentions may have been good—to honor the lives of the members of the ballroom community, and foster important dialogue…”—it is hard to see how any programmer could think that would happen by excluding the community whose stories were courageously laid bare in the film. It was an extraordinarily bad move that breached any semblance of community trust and triggered a long and very raw conversation on Facebook, which BRIC left up, uncensored. Filmmaker Jennie Livingston replied very thoughtfully, as did the event producers—and it does seem that upshot of this hurtful and misguided curatorial misstep will be an all “TQPOC extravaganza” that will be more powerful, reflective of and responsive to the community than anything they could have imagined. Hopefully, they will not forget to honor the intentions of a filmmaker whose extraordinary work of art broke barriers for all of us, pay respects and call up the spirits of those in the film who have died, and welcome the next generation in the community with love, support, mentorship and solidarity.

But that’s not what this post is really about.

Later in the article, Heather Dockray writes reductively about the economics of documentary filmmaking (“Historically, documentary directors get paid, while documentary subjects get exposure”), and about the responsibility of documentary filmmakers to the communities they film. Dockray recounts some of the very powerful comments from Facebook, and this one from a Change.org petition to cancel the screening:

Use the platform that you’ve gained through our stories to speak out against the atrocities that are killing us daily. Violence against trans women of color specifically, like the still unsolved murder of Venus Xtravaganza, is still rampant. Share your limelight . . .”

And it is this paragraph that I think is at the heart of so much of our internal struggle as a documentary community today:

“The controversy behind Paris is Burning raises important questions about race, class, and even storytelling.  At what point does a director/storyteller’s job end? Once the movie is released in theaters, and streaming on Netflix? Or far later, after substantive change has been made? Documentary journalists almost always pick the former, but that doesn’t lessen the hurt felt by the subjects left behind. It’s difficult for a storyteller to know when to end a story when it’s plot, and its pain, feels endless.”

Dockray calls out by name, Steve James (Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters), David France (How to Survive a Plague), Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing) and Eugene Jarecki (The House I Live In). She writes, “While each of these directors has remained active in filmmaking and social justice filmmaking, they haven’t initiated large-scale foundations, and the majority have moved onto other projects, other subjects.” While Dockray’s core thesis here is that these male directors have not been held to account the way Livingston has as a queer woman, I am most struck by her framing of filmmaking as ‘not enough’ in the fight for justice, and the bold suggestion that filmmakers should initiate “large scale foundations” instead of doing the work of telling other stories that the world needs to hear.

Something I know for sure: most documentary filmmakers and film funders feel the full weight of their ethical responsibility to their subjects. We think about it all the time. We act on it every day. Very few documentary filmmakers even pay themselves a secure, living wage because they want to spend every penny of the grant money they compete for to create the most beautiful and powerful film possible. Many of us do whatever it takes to create a work of art that can stir empathy and move people to change the world, and more specifically, that we can set in motion, or deepen the impact of activities and policies that will help repair the injustices exposed in our films.

What I hope Heather Dockray understands—and anyone else who has been touched by the Paris is Burning discussion, or any other documentary—is that after the film is finished, another story begins. Some filmmakers eagerly take it on—and they become “art-ivists” in a sense. They spend time crafting story-driven engagement strategies, community screenings, interactive digital tools & apps, performances, panels, petitions, workshops—all to insure that when the lights come up after their film has screened, the story belongs to the community, connections have been made, relationships forged, and a very big space has been created for their voices and the next steps in the struggle.

Collaboration is, and must be, the new innovation—and we must take the time to cultivate partnerships where those people and organizations doing relevant work on the ground get invited into the filmmaking process early and are prepared to carry the stories into the world with a voice even more nuanced, inclusive and effective than the filmmaker’s alone.

Unless a filmmaker is lucky enough to be working off personal wealth or a trust fund of some kind—there is no money at the end of the arc of production on a documentary, as Dockray suggests, to “initiate a large-scale foundation.” Seriously, stop thinking that. If we don’t start supporting models for sustainable and collaborative creative change—the foundations currently supporting this work will no longer be able to hold up the weight of it. Collaboration is, and must be, the new innovation—and we must take the time to cultivate partnerships where those people and organizations doing relevant work on the ground get invited into the filmmaking process early and are prepared to carry the stories into the world with a voice even more nuanced, inclusive and effective than the filmmaker’s alone. We have case studies, we have data—but we must also transcend project-based models and begin to think more systemically about art and social movements.

There is already a loose alliance of international artists and activists beginning to work like this, and a diverse group of organizations supporting that work, including (but certainly not limited to) Sundance/Skoll Stories of Change Program, BRITDOC and Good Pitch, Tribeca Film Institute, Ford Foundation’s Just Films Program, the Impact Producers Group, Citizen Engagement Lab, Arts & Democracy—and a myriad of independent producers and NGOs. Can we join together to upend a Hollywood system that perpetuates primitive and outdated power structures, marginalizes the voices of women and people of color, and turns art and entertainment into cultural appropriation?

Mindful of working to evolve these theories of change, at the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NAMAC) we are developing interconnected programs to offer opportunities that break down traditional barriers: the Creative Leadership Lab challenges media and visual arts leaders to find their own voices and think both inside and outside their institutions; an Innovation Studio hosts artists, scientists and social change organizations building projects and networks together intended to change culture, and a Global Artist Residency program connects filmmakers and technologists with neighborhoods in countries around the world to make original and collaborative projects with the communities where the narratives are born.

Each and every filmmaker, like Jennie Livingston, takes a risk when they shine a light on an untold story. Now, more than ever, artists are stepping forward to fully own their point-of-view in the context of these stories, to speak with their subjects and not for them, to honor their experience each step of the way, and to expose layers of truth left unnoticed. Most artists in American culture have to fight and scrape together a living however they can find it; I was a waitress for over 25 years to support my creative work. As filmmakers, it is a privilege to be able to tell stories—and even though we might not come from the communities with whom we work, there is often a persistent and indelible connection that emerges from years of collaboration. The filmmakers I know are committed to leaving the places where they work better than when they got there. It’s ironic to me that so many large-scale foundation-supported global development projects ignore the very real contributions of artists when funding is distributed—when a vibrant creative community is often the leading indicator of urban resilience.

So, let’s create a new infrastructure for documentary filmmaking that activates renewable support networks when these powerful documentaries rock the Internet and embed in the culture. Let’s be personally accountable to those whose stories we tell by ensuring they have the ability to tell their own stories before we pack up. And let’s remember the profound commitment to collaboration it will take to make this happen—let’s not call on artists to do it alone.

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