Equity and inclusion - an exclusive Interview with EAVE graduate Tamara Dawit
"I think there are a lot of the same barriers repeating themselves."
EAVE graduate Tamara Dawit is an Ethiopian-Canadian producer and director. She is based in Toronto and in addition to producing works part time at the Canadian Media Fund (CMF) as Lead for Equity and Inclusion.
With EAVE, Tamara talks about her work on equity and inclusion and why this could raise more awareness and food for thoughts for many players in the film industry.
At DOK.fest München earlier this month you were participating in a panel called “Kill the Documentary as We Know It”. You emphasized that to end racism and discrimination in film one has to change the way films are financed. Why is the money side so important?
I think that whether it’s a documentary or a web series or an animated film, it’s really about the financing. A lot of the work I’ve been doing for equity and inclusion, among the first things were: a) count the people - who is there and what community do they represent, and b) follow the money. I think in any industry you need to understand how it functions and money basically provides access. For communities who are underrepresented in films, for those that are equity or sovereignty seeking, it’s often the lack of money that hinders their career. Or there can be an easier access to money for other filmmaking communities that allows them to make films faster, to produce more content, and to be able to access markets more easily. So, there are always barriers, but those barriers can fall away more quickly when you have more money. So that’s the first step in accountability to understanding where we are at: who is receiving money and who is not receiving money, and are some of these funds perhaps just the barriers that are unintentionally excluding certain communities.
So if you give access to money, you allow people who are underrepresented to have access to film and to be heard?
Yes, but that’s not the only solution. I think it’s a number of things that need to occur. I think the conversation that is happening now, specifically in Canada, and more frequently also in circles in which I’m working in Africa, is around the ownership control of intellectual property. Is it enough to say: we are doing equity things, we are being inclusive because we have funded a television show with Black writers, or a movie with a Vietnamese director; is that enough? At the surface level you can then say: here are these above the line crews who come from these communities. Or there can be a disabled person, or a LGBTQ+ person, or whoever it is, but we are much more interested in the ownership control of intellectual property, and this is still sitting predominately with straight white male owned film companies. And they are actually the companies that are being empowered through making these shows. These companies are being stabilised and they are growing, they are the ones who are dealing and controlling the business relationships with broadcasters, sales agents and buyers. When we look at the benefit back to the community and the filmmaker: is that Vietnamese director any further ahead in controlling his career and stabilising his filmmaking practice, because he didn’t own the content that he meant to create? Also, by not owning it, how much control did he have in the distribution, and how has this perhaps perverted his editorial control, because maybe now the producer and the broadcaster are sitting in a seat above the author/director?
You have been developing the Canadian Media Fund’s midterm strategy for film funding, and you have working on measures to enable the diversity of voices in Canada. What are these measures?
I was part of the team that led the work on setting up a strategy for equity and inclusion at the Canadian Media Fund (CMF). The CMF is not really a film fund, it funds television content, so sometimes that could include films that are working with the broadcaster, but it’s primary television content: children’s content, documentaries, TV dramas and also digital experimental content such as AR, VR, video games, web series. In terms of the CMF’s strategy, it sits within three pillars of thoughts: It was, first of all, in community consultation, so it’s not something we thought of alone in a room or alone in our homes connected over zoom. We really wanted to start consulting with communities understanding their issues with the CMF. We wanted to hear about those issues within the industry and what are their ideas for solutions and changes, and the ways that CMF can maybe act sometimes as a bridge to bring up and connect other institutions in the screen-based sector in Canada.
And when you look at the things that we are now going to do, there’s a sort of inward-facing change. So, how can we work to improve the diversity of the members of the board at CMF? How can we work on inclusion within staff? How can we provide training and support for the staff and how can we make sure that equity and inclusion isn’t a thing that is somewhere sitting on a shelf but that it’s something that crosses the organisation, and that it’s a part of the thought process in all corporate decisions. So that means: if you are hiring a supplier for shooting a corporate video, or if you are redesigning the website, or if you are hiring an accountant, how can you think about equity and inclusion? So it’s not a boring internal thing but it also has to happen for more external things.
So you had an integrated approach.
Of course, the big bucket is looking at the funds administered by the CMF and trying to start to understand about the data. We don’t really know who has access to our funds from an analytical perspective because we don’t have this personal race-based data information. We also don’t have any information about who has been identified as deaf or disabled, we don’t know much about people’s genders or sexualities, and how does that play into who is receiving money and who isn’t.
The bottom line is to start from there and to look at the company’s ownerships, and also to work on systems with other larger institutions in Canada such as Telefilm Canada, which administers feature films funding. We need to understand how we can set up a system whereby creators in the screen sector can self-identify, because we don’t want a situation where you are a producer and you are told to identify your director, writer, editor, DOP, along all these categories.
What did you find out about company’s ownerships?
We have a bit of a baseline of information on the participation of racialised or Indigenous owned companies in the CMF’s funding pools, because of money distributed in regard to COVID-19. As it became quite clear when the government started to roll out money to the film and television sector for COVID-19, that of course this was only going to these big white owned companies. There are other companies who are also active but were not able to access it. So, we set up a specific fund, whereby those creators could apply as company owners, which means basically producers, and self-identify as being from a racialised community. Money for Indigenous communities was administered through the Indigenous Screen Office, so that started to give us a bit of baseline information of how many companies are out there. We did a survey with these companies, which will be coming out soon, to try to understand what type of content they produce, how often they produce content and at what budget levels, how many company owners do they have, how long have they been existing, etc. So, we are starting to get an understanding of those companies and their needs, and they also told us about their needs and challenges in that survey.
Those are the things that we are using to inform programmatic changes, so the CMF this year at least will have a pilot programme for racialised communities, which means for companies who are owned and controlled by majority of racialised persons, this is Black and/or person of colour. There is a separate call for Indigenous communities. It’s called a pilot programme, because we are still learning about the needs of this community and the type of content that they are trying to create, at what budget levels and with what partners, and what issues they are facing.
What are these issues?
We know, of course, that the CMF’s funding system is set up with the requirement of triggers, because it was set up to support broadcasting Canadian content, so there are still larger barriers, external to the CMF, in regard to the appetite of the Canadian broadcasters to greenlight and to license the content from racialised and Indigenous companies. So, we will learn who is willing to come to the table to support the content from these communities, because that will of course be a part of the trigger to make those projects eligible for the financing with the CMF.
Broadcaster triggers are something that we heard a lot about through consultations and is a part of a larger consultation that the CMF is doing now; what is a way forward for our industry, for this fund in Canada, and what other types of triggers should be allowed or how they should be rethought. So, at this point, everything is on the table in terms of redesigning and rebuilding and listening. Right now, we are trying to learn specifically about racialised communities through this programme this year.
What made you as a filmmaker and a producer to concentrate on these funding strategies and measures?
Maybe a few things: before I worked full time in the film industry, I worked in the music industry. I worked specifically on funding to industry through a lot of funding of exports, capacity building and industry initiatives, so through that job I started looking at how can the music industry start to improve around equity and inclusion. This was ten years ago, and no one was thinking about those things in the music industry, and I don’t think that anyone is thinking about them that much, sadly, today. So, I had that experience in terms of fund administration and that was also a Canadian fund that was similar to the CMF. There is a mix of companies that own the broadcasters, like the big satellite telecommunication companies, and it’s the government funding.
And then also for myself. I moved to Ethiopia because I found that there were no opportunities for me to have a career in the screen sector in Canada as a Black producer/director. I felt it was too challenging. I felt that especially because the system was set up to require broadcasters to do anything, but the broadcasters didn’t want to work with me. The film I produced in Canada, I had to give all of the intellectual property to a white production company, because that was the only way that the system was willing to engage with me on that type of content. I guess I was a part of a brain drain. I didn’t find any space for me to create, and I found that there was much more opportunity for me to work in the screen sector by being in Ethiopia. Also, a lot of the content that I was working on was set there, so it made sense not to be in Canada.
So why did you return?
Because of COVID-19, it then became difficult to be in Ethiopia, because the way that I was earning money completely dried up. All film production stopped. I also had concerns about the health system and the Canadian government was constantly messaging that everyone should come back. So, I came back to Canada at the point when the Ethiopian government turned off the internet because of political insecurity. I was doing the EAVE 2020 Producers Workshop online, I was doing festivals online, and I couldn’t be offline. The last few things that I was doing and that were making me money, I couldn’t access because of the political situation, so I came back to Canada.
I’ve already been involved in Canada for about 2 years with an organisation called the Racial Equity Media Collective (REMC), which is an organisation that looks at policy and research around racial equity in the screen sector. Because of what was happening in the US following the death of George Floyd and similar deaths that happened around the same time here in Canada, there was a lot of activity and conversation happening in the screen sector. So, through the REMC I started to participate more actively in those conversations, and that’s how I started to work more closely with the CMF. First as a consultant and now as a part-time contract worker with them. It was an unexpected turn of events, maybe somewhat because of COVID-19, but it’s also something that really interests me. That’s why I was a board member and I continue to be on the board of the REMC, because I always thought it doesn’t have to be as difficult as it was for me. That’s why I volunteer with that organisation and that’s why I do all of these public speaking events when people invite me.
What do you think are the challenges you’ll have to face in the next years?
I think that the CMF has a genuine interest in making these changes. Of course, there are barriers with the government because the government is always a slow-moving machine. I think, as much as the government is open to making changes, it’s a longer process for them to be convinced and to think through how to make these changes. And sometimes that means that perhaps to community and to industry it seems that we are moving slowly, but it’s because we are trying to do things in a meaningful way. So, for me, that’s one of the things that I appreciate, and I like that approach, because I like to be quite strategic. I also come from working in international development and a lot of that work was done with the end results and all of the tactics that measure up to it. I look at things in that sort of process and I think, of course, and I understand people are frustrated, but if we did something that is rushed, it may not be in the end the best thing.
I think sometimes another challenge is to bring everyone to the table. Because we may have the mindset within the CMF that these are the things we have agreed should be done, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all the other institutions will follow, or that the broadcasters will agree to trigger these contents or agree to work with us in the same way that we want to work with them. I think there are always those challenges, but we cannot ignore the fact that there is when we talk about Indigenous people and people of colour there is a systemic racism. That’s a thing in Canada. Sometimes people think that’s only the thing in the US, but it’s exactly the same thing here. We had slavery as well for nearly as long in Canada. I think that internationally the world often forgets that and thinks that Canada is some sort of nation where everyone is singing Kumbaya, which is not the case. We still have large barriers. Is it easy for someone to get a broadcaster if all the decision makers don’t come from their community? But then suddenly a lot of institutions want to hire racialised and Indigenous staff. We have never as an industry promoted and trained and made space for these individuals to have entry levels positions, let’s say in film festivals, in film institutions, as sales agents, broadcasters, and now that you want to hire someone in a decision-making role, because you are being pressured that you don’t have a Black or Indigenous staff person, where will you find them?
At the same time, we are also trying to prop up organisations to work with these communities like the Indigenous Screen Office and the Black Screen Office, and the organisation called BIPOC TV & Film, and then at the same time the Francophone organisations. Where do we find the people with the administrative skills to run those organisations? I think, as much as sometimes we talk about a brain drain or a lack of experienced producers in Canada from these communities, because we haven’t ever let them go beyond doing a calling card film, or their first short or a web series, we haven’t given them a bigger budget because we didn’t trust those people, or we didn’t want to work with these companies that we didn’t know. Now we are having the same issue on the industry side: how do we have enough staff people to fill these positions we are suddenly feeling pressured to hire.
You participated in the EAVE Producers Workshop, so do you think the situation is similar in Europe?
I think that there are many similarities in Europe. I haven’t worked first-hand in the industry there, so these are only the things that I have noticed through being in programmes in Europe and through talking to my colleagues. When I sit in Ethiopia and look to finance an Ethiopian film, it means I’m going to work with European co-producers. One of the main reasons I went to EAVE is to help me with that. But that also means that likely all of the co-producers that will be willing, prepared and positioned to work with me, will be white. And I know there are producers who are some other racialised communities, but I don’t know where they are. I think I met only one non-white European through EAVE. I’ve done Torino, Berlinale Talents, the Rotterdam Lab, CineMart, the Producers Network in Cannes, etc. and I have found hardly any European producer who was not white.
In the last year I talked to a number of funding institutions in Europe, and it’s not often that I find someone that understands why this is even something to think about. So I think that’s because there’s a lack of civil society type of organisations. I’m not sure that there has been in Europe the same pressure applied on the industry to make change. But I don’t know if this is correct, maybe these institutions exist, and I just can’t find them. Or maybe it’s again what we talked about earlier, like access. It’s expensive to get into a lot of these programmes and it’s expensive to go to a lot of these markets. If you are not hooked in to your funder who can get you there, then you probably won’t show up and meet me when I’m flying from Ethiopia. I mean, I know when I look at the Canadians who are funded primarily through Telefilm Canada and some of the provincial funds who come to Cannes and the EFM and the Rotterdam Lab, they are predominantly white Canadians. Because those are the people who understand how to access the system and how to tap into it, and how to put their hand up and say “yes, I’d like to be considered for those programmes”. I think there are a lot of the same barriers repeating themselves, and I’d like, personally, to meet these people and to find them, because I think it would be a really interesting exchange.
Page published 31 May 2021.
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Equity and inclusion - an exclusive Interview with EAVE graduate Tamara Dawit
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