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Doc Edge 2010 in black and white

The UK’s Marc Boothe, at Doc Edge courtesy of the British Council, and local screenwriter Shuchi Kothari (Apron Strings, A Thousand Apologies) joined DOCNZ Trust’s Alex Lee for a late addition to the programme – a discussion on race, ethnicity, multi-culturalism and diversity as it relates to representation of “people of colour” on screen. Not a white face in sight at the top table, so we sent someone called Brown to cover it.

In the event, half of the challenge was nothing to do with colour or anybody’s perceptions of it, but the old chestnut: how can we make good quality shows, when we’re strapped for resources in a small market? Because there’s an argument that shows “of colour” form such a small percentage of the total quantity of product available, there is a higher amount of pressure on them to succeed.

In a market and ratings-driven environment, the argument is possibly a difficult one to claim ownership of. Other identified groups within society, blind people, people with intellectual disabilities, old people, all express concern from time to time about the ways in which they are portrayed – if at all.

Other sessions dealt with that issue so, moving swiftly along …

The two main questions discussed during the session were how to overcome institutional racism, and – with a specifically NZ bent – how can we talk about multi-culturalism in a country which enshrines bi-culturalism in its founding document?

With the session coming immediately after an excellent lunch, one suspected it might struggle to ignite and become a worthy rather than lively discussion.

In the event things got off to a good start. Marc Boothe reinforced British stereotypical views of West Indians by playing the music so loud the people in the next room complained.

Shuchi raised the issue of whether programmes made for a minority group could appeal to a mainstream audience. She suggested that the same programme could appeal to both audiences, for example BroTown.

In an abbreviated session (lunch was both excellent and long), it was difficult to explore the issues thoroughly, and there was little time for opposing positions. However, one could argue that BroTown succeeded because it was good, regardless of the ethnic make-up of its cast.

In order for minority programmes to succeed, Shuchi argued, three things are necessary: a commissioner needs to believe in the project, the team need to be able to deliver and there needs to be buy-in to support the project through its initial screenings so the public can get used to the concept and ideas.

The last of these is the most tricky, one suspects, in a wholly commercial TV environment.

Marc provided various ideas around capacity-building based on his experience in the UK because good product – whoever creates it – is most commonly the work of people who’ve honed their craft. Training and access become issues which feed or starve the future of content.

Marc suggested one way to get broadcasters to address the issues could be as has been done in the UK where ITV, the BBC and Channel 4 developed a mandate to address minority issues, leading to training and mentorship opportunities.

He also talked of an industry event where 50 or 60 projects from minority groups were sent on to producers with a view of seeing which could be developed.

Scaling to NZ-size, that might result in four or five projects – which is fewer than the number currently being submitted to commissioners here. So, perhaps, we’re not doing too bad.

Alex Lee spoke of the need for real consultation in portraying minorities, opening up the can of worms much-debated here in NZ – can (insert favourite racial or ethnic minority) characters and stories be told successfully by (insert least favourite imperialist race) writers and directors?

For Alex a commitment to diversity involves working harder to convey what people are really like, rather than making them fit the stereotype. Shuchi illustrated this by saying it was great that there was an Indian woman on Shortland Street – but did her storyline have to involve an arranged marriage?

Screen Australia has had some success in connecting the “know how to the know who” with the development of Samson and Delilah. However, as John Barnett pointed out in another session, one successful project should not be taken as an indication of public buy-in to the “genre”.

Ultimately, as Shuchi pointed out, the ability to ring-fence money for certain issues or programmes can be used to create an audience for them.

Although this is a familiar model in the UK, the obsession with the economic imperative in New Zealand, means that if a show fails to deliver in the first season, it doesn’t get a second chance.

To be fair to people lacking colour, such ratings-driven decisions are applied to all programmes by the major networks. Sometimes a show – regardless of its content, the provenance and skill of its creators – fails to connect with audiences and heads for the graveyard of good ideas, Diplomatic Immunity and The Cult being recent local examples.

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