In September 2018 on a sweltering hot day in Los Angeles, over 1,000 filmmakers and industry professionals gathered for Getting Real, the International Documentary Association’s biennial conference on documentary film. Amid the popular sessions on network pitching, story editing, and master classes by directors such as Werner Herzog was a three-panel track called Decolonizing Documentary. Far from the ubiquitous diversity panels at festivals, this track sought to excavate the norms that trace back to the form’s colonial roots, and imagine a field that reflects the aesthetics, political aims, and philosophical inclinations of contemporary filmmakers of color. Specifically, it asked participants to envision the films they would make, the audiences they would serve, and the industry they would flourish in without the constraints imposed by (neo)colonial frameworks. The sessions attracted creatives of color from across the country, who filled auditoriums to articulate the dimensions of a new documentary landscape.
This conference track was the brainchild of three entities who share a vision of increasing the representation and amplification of nonfiction filmmakers of color: A-Doc, a network of Asian Americans in the documentary field; Brown Girls Doc Mafia, a collective of 3,000+ women/nonbinary people of color working in all areas of the documentary industry; and Firelight Media, a twenty-year-old production company and artist support organization for documentary filmmakers of color.
This track offered, for a few fleeting hours, a professional environment free from the burden of code-switching, self-censorship, cosplaying as the lone representative of a race, or otherwise navigating the white gaze. And unlike most festivals rooted within communities of color, this was a decidedly BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) environment, expansive enough to center traditionally marginalized communities.
It was a touchstone moment for a new wave of activism championed by BIPOC-led organizations and collectives eager to dismantle norms and recalibrate the axis of power. The Decolonize Documentary track opened space for necessary conversation, but perhaps its most important contribution was the opportunity it afforded for allied organizations to practice the work of collaboration.