Diversify the specialized factual production industry


As National Geographic Senior Vice President of Development and Production, Janet Han Vissering, was staffing the Network’s first female-led wildlife program, Queens, in May 2019, when she and her team faced a “cold reality”.

Finding women from diverse backgrounds to work on the show proved difficult, she says, and that’s how the idea of ​​creating a mentorship program was born. In January 2020, Nat Geo announced Field Ready, designed to equip a new generation of people to work behind the camera through science, adventure and exploration, in addition to natural history. “If there is a lack of diversity in mainstream television, for the unscripted production world, there is an increased lack of diversity in the natural history world on the production side,” Han said. Vissering.

The genre of natural history falls under the umbrella of specialized factual, which also includes science, history, the arts, and religion, as well as deeper dives into subjects such as engineering and anthropology. . For a genre group that promises to inform, it has long been commissioned and produced from a specific point of view: namely white, masculine and valid. In the UK, for example, Creative Diversity Network’s most recent Diamond report, released in January, found that people with disabilities make up just 4.8% of off-screen contributions to factual programming. People over 50 (18.7%), transgender people (0.6%) and those belonging to a black, Asian or minority ethnic group (‘BAME’) (12.7%) were also under- represented.

While progress has been made in diversifying stories and teams through specialist facts – take, for example, Fox’s Malika the lion queen or history Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre, directed by Stanley Nelson and Marco Williams – those who do the work of making the world of non-fiction more inclusive and accessible say there’s still a long way to go.

“As more and more diverse people embark on [the genre] – people who can know a different perspective, different cultural backgrounds, different experiences – we can tell and develop stories, and not just from what I would call a myopic Western perspective, ”says Han Vissering.

Day Al-Mohamed (photo, top) is a founding member of FWD-DOC, which, as the group’s website states, “seeks to increase visibility, support and direct access to opportunities, networks and employment for D / Deaf and Disabled Filmmakers Author, filmmaker and disability policy strategist, Al-Mohamed’s work is largely historical genre. The body of invalids, a 2019 short film about the contributions of disabled veterans during the Civil War, was his first documentary as a blind filmmaker.

She says filmmakers can avoid ripping or exploitation cinematic practices and find nuance in their storytelling by hiring and collaborating with the subjects of their documentaries. An example is renegades, a digital series for the “American Masters” section of PBS, of which Al-Mohamed is the creator, director and screenwriter. The pilot episode delves into the story of the late Kitty O’Neil, a deaf and stunt racing car driver known as “the fastest woman in the world.”

The production team was over 50% disabled, and women of color also made up over 50% of the team. Al-Mohamed said this was essential in changing the narrative of a disabled person “overcoming” their disability. Instead, the episode explores perceptions around sign language and the concept of Deaf Gain (a reframing of the term “hearing loss”). “The only way to do it was because people in the community told us,” she adds.

christine douglas
Christina Douglas, founder and president of New York-based Momentum Content, says a key part of her job is to shine a light on underrepresented voices.

“The faces of natural history and wildlife content have not been diverse and have included the BIPOC community behind the camera, [nor] voices of women and storytellers, ”she says.

The company’s 2020 Netflix series about small wildlife, Little creatures, recently won two Daytime Emmys. “Two elements of my personal experience really went into the creation of the show. I’m Vietnamese, I’m African American, I’m Native American, and those three things really made me aware of different perspectives, ”she says. “I grew up in a poor household… For me, my relationship with nature was in the backyard… These diverse perspectives and diverse identities help us bring creative ideas to traditional genres.

photo by stan hsue
Stan Hsue, senior vice president of development for New York-based Lion TV USA (part of All3Media), which has developed series, pilots and projects for networks such as NatGeo Wild, PBS, American Heroes Channel and others, echoed Douglas. “It affects the stories we choose to tell, the way we perceive and frame the stories… As an Asian American TV executive, I have a very different take on some topics compared to other frames. and colleagues from different backgrounds. “

Kate Beal, CEO of Woodcut Media (Channel 5′s Secret history of WWII, Discovery Channel UK Tony Robinson’s day of victory: minute by minute) recalls a few years ago at the World Congress of Science and Evidence Producers, where she came face to face with the lack of women and diverse executives in the specialized factual field.

“As a woman, I felt a bit left out in terms of ‘Oh, I’m not in this boy’s club’,” she says.

Since then, it has seen improvements, mainly on the grid side where the commissioning power and the money reside. “If they say you have to do something or we’re not going to pay you, which they can tell a production company, then it happens.”

Woodcut Media is developing two remarkable projects featuring diverse talent and diverse storytelling for two networks, one in the UK and one in the US. The third season of prodco’s Combat ships for Smithsonian Channel is a title in transformation with an emphasis on diversity.

“This is a good example of change happening,” she said. “We never, ever received money just to develop diverse ideas into specialized facts. “

Since the summer of 2020, calls for decision-makers in the entertainment industry to address issues of racism and inequality in front and behind the camera have intensified. ViacomCBS, for example, is committed to a “no diversity, no commission” policy throughout its organization. BBC Studios has instituted guidelines requiring a minimum of 20% screen
talent and production teams from all BBC and UK third party commissions must have BAME training, lived experience with disability or come from a low income background.

“Some of the programs and series whose mission is specifically to diversify and be more inclusive of the types of stories they tell and also the people they have on their teams and in writers’ rooms and all that – they all sound really good. . At the same time, I would say that it’s hard to say at this point what will actually happen, ”said Douglas of Momentum. “How many of these programs will actually create paid opportunities for these under-represented groups? “

For Al-Mohamed, the industry has not gone far enough to include disability in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DCI) goals. She says lack of visibility and reluctance to hire are the biggest issues for filmmakers with disabilities.

“We see it with color professionals, and we’ve seen it with women. Disability is no different from these insofar as it is not sufficiently represented, ”she said. “There is always this question of capacity. Can they do the job? And the short answer is, absolutely.

“If you really want to do something, make a commitment,” she adds. “When people worry about, ‘Am I getting it right? What if I say the wrong thing? ‘ … If you are not sure, ask. People will tell you. The rest is just to make the movie.

As these changes continue to reshape the specialized factual genre, albeit slowly, Lion TV USA’s Hsue says he expects a surge of black and native creatives and creatives of color in the near future, but admits it will take. time. “I think we have to challenge ourselves to dig deep to reach various talents and creatives.”

“We cannot take the accelerator pedal off,” said Han Vissering of Nat Geo. “It is really important for all leaders, all those in decision-making positions, to continue this push.”

This story first appeared in the September / October 2021 issue of Realscreen Magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.


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