Nothing About Us, Without Us, is For Us
by the collective voices of 2018 NeXt Doc Fellows & the NeXt Doc Staff
Imagine sitting down to watch a documentary film about your activism, on your campus, about your friends — only to realize that their faces, bodies, voices, and words were being shown to hundreds of people without their consent and depicted through a colonial gaze. This past weekend, this is exactly what UNC filmmaker, activist and 2018 NeXt Doc Fellow Courtney Symone Staton experienced...
As part of the closing convening of our fellowship, Courtney and 12 other Fellows attended the 2019 True/False Film Festival this past week. The first night of the festival Courtney went to see The Commons, a documentary made by white filmmakers that sensationalized the Black-led protests surrounding the removal of Silent Sam: a racist confederate statue on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus. In contrast, Courtney is the lead and impact producer of another film on the same topic, Silence Sam, which ACCURATELY documents this movement — in collaboration and support of the activists involved.
Courtney was shocked to see how it misrepresented and endangered her fellow activists by de-contextualizing their actions with its lazy, extractive “observational” style of filmmaking. Furthermore, NONE of the Black women leaders of the UNC movement were informed that images of them were being used in this film OR that this was the second screening of the film at a major film festival. The film had already world premiered at Big Sky Film Festival in early February 2019.
After much deliberation and conversation with her activist friends and supporters back home, Courtney decided to take action and disrupt the Q&A session after the 4pm screening of The Commons on Sunday, March 3rd with NeXt Doc Fellows. First, Courtney read a powerful statement calling out the film and its producers which was followed by a passionate call to action by the rest of her cohort of 2018 NeXt Doc Fellows.
We demanded the audience to listen.
We called to action filmmakers, funders, programmers, and audiences to question and address the recurring problem of racist, extractive and colonial filmmaking practices.
If the characters in your film are all POC, and you and your crew are not, make a different film.
Stop funding extractive films by filmmakers who are NOT from the community they are documenting. When these kinds of projects come to your table, ask the difficult questions about who is making it, and are there already people of color making this film about their own community?
Stop validating the colonial lens and perspective in these films by programming them and giving them a platform and helping to build the careers of their makers.
A film is not just a film. How it was created, and WHO creates it... matters too!”
The NeXt Doc program exists as a disruption to the racist, colonialist history of documentary and the inherent power structures that exist in our society and therefore in the world of film. We seek to build a community of compassionate young documentary filmmakers who are bold, visionary leaders, telling THEIR OWN STORIES while also engaged in critical explorations of power and representation in non-fiction storytelling at large.
Let us not allow this moment to pass. Let’s feel uncomfortable in the pursuit of transformation for this community that we love. Decolonizing documentary is central to our mission because our stories are crucial to our survival.
As Courtney’s official statement reads...
"By filming us without our consent you contribute to the violent history of state surveillance and to the continued marginalization of black people by the documentary field and people of color. You contribute to the traumatic legacy of white people “studying” us for science and their own gains. Your art, like the University of North Carolina, was built on our backs. And to this, we say: ‘Nothing about us, without us, is for us!”
PLEASE WATCH COURTNEY’S FULL STATEMENT HERE:
Courtney Symone Staton, UNC student.
Young filmmakers of color from NeXt Doc took over the Q&A session following the 4 p.m. screening of The Commons at the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, MO on Sunday, March 3. They publicly expressed their discontent with the exploitation of people of color in the film.