Sundance Film Festival 2020:
By Bedatri D. Choudhury
“There has never been a better time to be a documentary filmmaker,” my friend and documentary producer Arielle Knight tells me at a Sundance Film Festival party organized by Brown Girls Doc Mafia, a group of documentary film professionals that advocates for women and non-binary people of color in the industry. The party was a celebration of the often invisible labor of women and non-binary people of color in documentary filmmaking. In a room full of people of color, the event was an affirmation—for this critic—that documentaries are being made by people who look like me, think like me, advocating for issues that affect me, and a reminder of the importance of going against the grain.
Advocacy is intrinsically about standing up to bias and occupying space; saying we exist in spite of the algorithms that are intent on molding our belief systems. In another party organized by the Asian American Doc Network, filmmaker Jean Tsien said to the 50 or so people gathered, “When I started coming to Sundance 20 years ago, I would look around in the Salt Lake City airport, trying to find another Asian American filmmaker. Look at this room today!” There has never been a better time to be a documentary filmmaker of color because they have never been more surrounded by supportive communities that help them dismantle the biases that confront them.
When human beings create something, it often ends up replicating the prejudice they themselves hold. As Shalini Kantayya’s Coded Bias explores, the lifeless, mechanical world of Artificial Intelligence, created mostly by white men, is rife with sexist and racist biases that systematically negate the lived experiences of people of color, at best, and actively help in perpetuating the stereotypes that persecute them, at worst. Much like the tradition of Kodak Films’ Shirley cards—the standard photo of a white woman that was used by photo studios to calibrate skin tones, shadows and light during the printing process—many AI facial recognition systems are programmed only to read the faces of white people, as Algorithm Justice League founder and MIT Media Lab doctoral candidate Joy Buolamwini, one of Coded Bias’ protagonists, found out while working on a class project. The faces of people of color are only paid attention to when there is money to be made from selling surveillance data to the government or other data-collecting agencies.
Kantayya then takes us to Brownsville, Brooklyn, a neighborhood inhabited mostly by people of color, where landlords recently wanted to install facial recognition cameras; a piece of technology that has already been proven to be less effective with non-white faces. The tenants, fearing for their privacy and the curtailing of their freedom of movement, decided to file a complaint against management. “We do not want to be tagged like animals. We should be able to freely come in and out of our development without you tracking every movement,” Icemae Downes, a Brownsville resident says in Kantayya’s film. They are not putting these cameras in White neighborhoods, she reminds the audience. Other AI algorithms, as Coded Bias elaborates, have also prioritized wealthier white patients over people of color when asked to identify primary care patients with the most serious health needs.
In a world where so many of us live with the sensation of being perpetually watched, how aware are we of algorithms that constantly allow the needs of rich people to overturn those of the less fortunate? How do we even begin to fight for justice when caught in such a system? When the face of a formerly incarcerated Black woman like LaTonya Myers gets run through a government algorithm, the AI decides that she has to attend high-risk weekly check-ins at the Probations Office, in spite of having received commendations from Philadelphia’s city council and mayor.
“Our prison system is nothing but slavery, and I am an abolitionist,” says Sibil Fox Richardson (better known as Fox Rich), the protagonist of Garrett Bradley’s Time. In 1999, after trying to rob a bank out of financial desperation, Richardson’s husband, Robert, was sentenced to a 60-year prison sentence. While Time examines the racism that defines America’s incarceration policies, it focuses on the immense emotional turmoil these policies create in the family members of the country’s many incarcerated persons treated by our government as nameless and faceless numbers.
The prison system has a way of warping the concept of time: sentences speak of 60 years as if that is a viable, finite amount of time; as if 60 years is not six whole decades, a whole lifetime of a person spent within prisons that do not follow the calendars of the outside world. Time makes an attempt to reclaim this lost time by documenting the love and persistence that goes into waiting it out. For two decades, Sibil filmed herself, her children, and her environment on her cellphone as they waited with incessant hope for Robert’s return. “My passenger seat is empty,” a much younger Fox beckons to Robert as she awaits his release. These videos are acts of self-preservation as much as acts of archiving, which she handed over to Bradley only after she had finished the film’s principal photography. What emerges is a narrative of waiting sewn together by the two women; what started out as a documentary of the culmination of Sibil’s experience opened up to become an archaeological process of sifting through an archive that’s made of patience and hope. Bradley looks at the “real” time an incarcerated person’s family spends negotiating the broken criminal justice system. Throughout Time, we witness the physical passage of the years in the aging of Sibil and her sons. As they appeal and re-appeal a White judge’s arbitrary decision to keep this Black man in prison, Sibil’s hair greys, their sons graduate school, and skyscrapers in New Orleans grow taller.
After a screening of If Beale Street Could Talk at the 2018 New York Film Festival, author Darryl Pinckney had said to Barry Jenkins, “Your films tell us, over and over again, how beautiful black bodies are in color.” Time does the same, but in black and white. Our news cycles have long portrayed Black incarcerated people with an embedded racial bias, reducing human beings to criminals. In the scene where Sibil shouts in joy after hearing of Rob’s release, she looks regal under Zac Manuel and Justin Zweifach’s vérité cameras. Bradley’s filmmaking career emerges out of photography, and this is evident in the ways in which she plays with light and frames her characters against high contrast backgrounds, almost as if readying them for a portrait. Time’s camera films the boiling rage, the love, and the reckoning of Sibil and her children. It also captures the assertion with which their bodies demand what is right instead of soliciting a favor from an unforgiving and racist legal system.
“It is asymmetric warfare. You don’t want to respond to anonymous accounts or trolls, and yet the repeated, exponential attacks really do have an impact,” Filipino journalist and CEO of Rappler Media, Maria Ressa says in Ramona Diaz’s A Thousand Cuts. Ressa and Rappler have come under repeated attacks by the Philippines’ fascist President Duterte and his ever-growing online fan base, who cheer on his sexist, homophobic, and violent rants. Messages like “If you die, you deserve it” flood the Twitter timelines of Ressa and her colleagues as she fights arrests on fabricated charges of tax evasion, violating security laws, and cyber libel.
Under a dying democracy, fueled by nationalistic fake news, Ressa breaks down the algorithm of the information ecosystem. In order to harass and intimidate journalists who report on facts, the Filipino state employs trolls and bots to flood social media timelines with outright lies. Without any intervention from social media channels, these lies are then shared by more networks of trolls, retweeted and shared until there are more people sharing fabrications than facts. Online algorithms are weaponized to attack those who are actually trying to expose Duterte’s absolute unwillingness to uphold the ideals of democracy. Ressa analyzes how pieces of fake news then spring off from social media channels and assume newer lives as propaganda perpetuated through state-sponsored media. “Lies laced with anger and hate spread faster than facts. Fight for your rights,” Ressa reminds the audience on-screen, and demands that tech companies start putting checks in place that could hinder the spread of dangerously false information.
Coded Bias, Time, and A Thousand Cuts are films made by women of color about women of color who have had enough with the status quo and taken it upon themselves to demand justice on their own terms. Ressa’s political disobedience finds an extension in Diaz’s courageous filmmaking. Maria Ressa has been arrested under President Duterte’s orders several times even as her face graced a Time magazine cover as one of its 100 Persons of the Year. These days, she has taken to wearing bulletproof jackets. In a scene from Diaz’s film, she gathers her colleagues at Rappler’s holiday party, telling them, amidst cheers, “We cannot become monsters when fighting monsters.” Sibil Fox Richardson shows her own political resilience throughout Time. “Through it all is how we get there,” she says looking back at the long years she spent fighting, waiting, loving, and hoping.
In January 2020, a USC Annenberg report said that 10.6% of the directors of 2019’s top movies were women, which is the highest it has been in 13 years. Nevertheless, 10.6 is a dismally small number, and the percentage for women filmmakers of color is even lower. Filmmakers like Kantayya, Bradley, and Diaz (and the many other documentary professionals I met through BGDM and ADOC) are laboring to make these numbers change. It is easier to make films that don’t ruffle feathers, but these women are choosing not to do that. There has never been a better time to be a disobedient filmmaker.