"Decolonize" the Documentary?

We cannot allow identity politics to stifle great filmmaking

This past summer, HBO’s announcement of its upcoming documentary Tiger, directed by Matthew Heineman and Matthew Hamacheck, ignited a social-media firestorm. Despite the fact that the details of Tiger Woods’ racial heritage are complicated—as is his relationship to the concept of race itself—critics decided that the film could not be an authentic telling of the golfer’s story because neither the directors nor most of the production crew have any Asian, African-American or Native American heritage.

Likewise, The Kingmaker, a recent documentary about the former Filipina first lady Imelda Marcos faced strong opposition from those who considered the film illegitimate because its director, Lauren Greenfield, is not Filipina—an objection that overlooks Greenfield’s extensive research on Marcos and her previous body of work on the psychological impacts of wealth.

These are not the only controversies of this kind. A growing number of filmmakers, writers, musicians and journalists now argue that certain truths can only be understood by those who have experienced them. Even though I am a Mexican-Egyptian female documentarian and am sympathetic to the reasoning behind such ideas, I cannot accept this new approach, which has created an increasingly difficult professional environment for those of us who do not agree. 

First-hand experience of a subject has always been considered helpful in documentary filmmaking. But this has traditionally been a genre in which creators are free to engage with material that lies far beyond the boundaries of their own lives. Now, during the entire process—from access to financing and distribution—the filmmaker’s identity is at least as closely scrutinized as that person’s filmmaking aptitude.

This paradigm shift, which privileges what the academic and cultural commentator Glenn Loury calls “identity epistemology,” stems from the idea that experiences of the marginalized have long been misrepresented by the mainstream and that, to understand those experiences, we need to hear from the marginalized directly. Documentary filmmakers are considered complicit in the misrepresentation because the genre originated partly as a way for anthropologists to depict “primitive” cultures—depictions that arguably helped to maintain the colonial empires that commissioned them.

Contemporary filmmakers, therefore, often advocate “decolonizing” the art form. In their article, “The Documentary Future: A Call For Accountability,” the filmmakers Sonya Childress and Natalie Bullock Brown contend that documentaries should not be made by “curious observers but invested storytellers”—by which they mean exclusively people from the communities they depict. The main method of decolonizing, then, is to ensure that no one can make a film about something they have not personally lived through.

Cinematic history has harmed certain communities, and we do need a more socially inclusive cohort of storytellers. Any “truth” that a filmmaker uncovers will, to some degree, reflect the filmmaker’s own culture, language and ideas. It often matters who is documenting a story. However, there is no reason to believe that the only person who can tell the story of a marginalized group without causing harm is someone from that group or someone who shares the life experiences of those depicted. In addition, identities are multifaceted, so how do we know which commonalities between filmmaker and subject should be prioritized? For example, I personally identify far more with my sense of reason and my moral value system than with my racial makeup or my gender.

Grant applications often ask me “why are you the best person to make this film?” This is a euphemistic way of asking which of my identities allows me to construct my subject’s worldview correctly or whether any of my team members share a “lived experience” with that subject. I am conscious that my application will quickly be discarded if I fail to conform to these expectations.

But I am even more conscious that, were I making a film about a Mexican-Egyptian protagonist, I would be no more qualified to do so than my white filmmaker husband—at least not simply on the basis of my ethnic heritage. Perceptiveness, ability to collate information, the sensitivity that allows you to develop intimacy with your subject and establish their trust—all of these things are, in my opinion, more important to documentary filmmaking than your physical identity, even though they may be less immediately apparent to someone trying to assess the suitability of a director from the outside. 

Identity epistemology aims to subtly alter our understanding of truth by basing it on lived experience. Yet truth can be discovered in myriad ways that have nothing to do with identity. A filmmaker with intelligence and empathy can create an accurate representation of the experience of someone from a very different culture. Tiger filmmakers Heineman and Hamacheck accomplished exactly this in City of Ghosts, their film about Syrian citizen journalists. Though the directors had no first-hand experience of exile or civil war, the film depicts a complex reality that forces Western audiences to confront the damaging stereotypes that have long framed their understanding of the conflict. As the film’s subjects themselves have attested, this is a highly effective piece of cross-identity truth-telling.

To insist that different groups have intrinsically different experiences of reality and that mutual understanding is impossible is a new form of essentialism. Like the old segregationists, the proponents of lived experience view race, gender and sexual orientation as intractable personal characteristics. The content of one’s character is, once again, not considered as important as the subjective experience that comes of living within a particular color of skin. This ideology denies the power of empathy. Yet good storytelling can make its subject matter relatable to people who would not otherwise be able to find common ground with its protagonists—something especially vital in our polarized society. This is far more likely to happen if we believe that some experiences are universal, even when the circumstances of subject and viewer are radically different.

For years, filmmakers of color rightly argued that voices from within their communities could provide a much-needed fresh perspective in the search for truth. They understood that narratives that can only be told from one point of view cannot lead to real knowledge or social progress. But if limiting who can speak leads to oppression and obscures reality, so does merely reversing the roles of oppressed and oppressor.

Arguments over who can direct a film are ultimately arguments over whose perspective should be granted public legitimacy. Historic failures of representation and persistent power imbalances cloud this discussion. While the documentary film industry is extremely diverse, there are still sharp disparities in access to financial resources, and the distribution of high-profile films is still largely monopolized by the old guard. The new emphasis on identity may help ensure the rapid ascension of talented and formerly neglected filmmakers of color—but it often does so by requiring institutions to irrationally exclude work by the current class of power holders, who are overwhelmingly straight, male and cis-gendered.

So how can we strike a balance between equity and truth? Perhaps we can start by acknowledging that many films could be made on the same subject by different people with different backgrounds and different points of view. The world is just too complex for one filmmaker and their team to see all the facets of any subject—even when depicting something they have personally lived through. We may believe that we need exclusive access to a subject or story in order to be competitive. But the recent proliferation of content providers has created space for multiple versions of the same story, as when two films about the Fyre Festival were recently released on the same day. Many viewers opted to watch both.

If we truly prize equity and diversity, we must hold steadfastly to the belief that it is not who is making a documentary that matters most, but what they are saying. If we lose sight of this, we will, at best, miss out on good work that could help effect much needed change, and at worst, create an intellectually segregated world, whose citizens cannot understand each other at all.

Nadia Gill is the co-founder of Encompass Films, a documentary film company specializing in outdoor content. Her work has appeared on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Smithsonian Channel, NBC Universal and Outside Television.