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Protecting Your Story – Tipps And Questions Before Collaborating With Documentary Filmmakers

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    This article is loosely based on part of a keynote I held at the University of Toronto at the conference of the Black German Heritage And Research Association BGHRA in May 2018.

    (Ich plane, diesen Artikel ins Deutsche zu übersetzen, brauche dafür aber noch ein wenig Zeit :-) Wer eine Benachrichtigung möchte sobald er online ist, bitte links in der Menüleiste bei "posts abonnieren" eintragen. Danke.)


    It is my belief that as individuals of minority populations we should be more deliberate about whom we share our stories with. At the end of this article you will find a questionnaire for your own considerations; questions we can and should ask ourselves in every encounter with the media, to secure that we keep some sort of control over our own stories.


    Our biographies are spectacular. They are incredibly rich parables that directly lead to a better understanding of how societies work, how diaspora works, how Europe works and how resilience works. We need to start regarding each and every one of those biographies as a treasure that is worth protecting, and in my humble opinion we should stop selling the rights to the first random Jochen who shows some interest. This is not to say we shouldn’t share our stories. Quite the opposite. I think we should share them on our own terms. And be very careful in the process.


    In the writing of history, in media and in publications, we are usually portrayed from an outside perspective. Studying or portraying a minority (or learning about oppression) is not automatically or inherently good. After all, it is possible to do it only in order to learn how to better exclude people. In order to derive resources from them, or in order to gain an advantage over them. All of which is vividly shown in the example of the so called Black Studies Bremen.


    As I said before: Being published, being studied, being well-received does not hold any intrinsic value when one’s intellectual agency is seized. Which unfortunately is all too frequently the case.


    Some of the generation of Black German adoptees/abductees after the second World War cooperated with German media productions, in order to tell their stories, which is in and of itself absolutely understandable. And it is important that their stories, that our stories are being told. But the results are too often films that carry racist titles, that centralize white perspectives and gaze, contain questionable scenes that are potentially retraumatizing and are simply not interested in the uplifting or empowerment of the group they portray (display) but carry notions of voyeurism, of sadness, as if the main aim were to make viewers feel sorry for the portrayed.


    I dare say, it is naive to be a colonised minority and at the same time trust the colonizers with our own portrayal and historiography.


    We need to take responsibility for our own stories.


    For those of you who are in the process of being approached right now: please thoroughly question anyone’s motives and make sure you reserve to withhold all rights to use any material that displays you or your intellectual property, including your biography.

    Never sign anything that grants somebody else to use it how they see fit, reserve the last word and final clearance for yourself. There’s nothing you need to justify to anyone here. It is your life story after all.

    Because: let’s face it, in documentaries we can only be misrepresented if we allow it. If we actively give control away, meaning: if we sign something without understanding what we just signed. Then, it is nobody else’s fault if the outcome is not exactly in our interest.



    When the film makers approach you, what are your main concerns at first thought?


    At second thought?


    Write them down and consider them. Even if it is just „gut feelings“, your concerns need to be recognized.


    Our societies normalize stepping over minority people’s boundaries, e.g. asking about intimate stuff, feeling entitled to „explanations“, frequently treating us as information desks. Are you ready to grant some of these wishes to the film team and to the public through the making of this film? Why?


    What is the demography of the filmmaking creative and production team? Does the majority of them share and understand your journey? How have they expressed to you that they can understand and portray your journey in a way that does it justice?


    (Did the film makers share their own biography with you?)


    How (well) did the film makers prepare? Which and whose books about the subject(s) did they read?


    How are you planning to decide on ‚trust vs. control‘ regarding the collaboration? Trusting just because we wish the others were trustworthy doesn’t work. What are your own (!) inner (!) arguments in this regard? (Not the film makers‘ arguments; your own!)


    Are you aware of the fact that there will probably be political / representational concerns that didn’t come to your mind until you already started participating in the film?


    Are you aware that filming could make it harder or easier for you to authentically express yourself?


    Are you aware of the fact that it is a common practice in documentary film to use reenactment scenes (other people replaying your life events)? How involved do you want to be in the choice of these scenes and casting of actors?


    Are you empowered and ready to withhold your approval of the final edit, no matter how much the film makers whine and beg, if you feel misrepresented or changed your mind?


    Are you ready to take the company to court if they breach the contract? Because let’s face it: a contract is no guarantee that both sides will stick to it. It only indicates what you agreed on, and agreements are frequently broken. What would happen if they broke the agreement? Would you have to sue in a different country? Could you afford this? Realistically?


    Some final(?) advice


    • Please seek consultation of an industry legal advisor before signing anything


    • Please only stay with your legal advisor if you feel they consider and advise you well, and if you feel they take into accord your specific situation and position.

    Explanation: as we are subject to racism, sexism and other -isms, which result in bias (people not taking us seriously, many people not having our best interest in mind, etc.), naturally we can’t expect from legal advisors to magically behave as outside of this global bias and hierarchy system. If you don’t feel represented or understood or taken seriously by a lawyer or agent, there is probably a very good reason for it and you shouldn’t trust them.


    • There is no reason why a film production company that is seriously interested in working with your biography shouldn’t compensate you for your participation.


    • Another tricky mechanic it’s good to be aware of is that the more commercial the production the smaller the chance that the film makers themselves have the final decision about their film! If the film is intended to air on TV or if it’s paid for by a film production company, usually, editors of the TV network and/or the distribution company have the final say, and they usually do reserve to make „creative“ decisions in terms of editing, title, voice over, and so on. This is another reason it is crucial that you reserve your clearance until the final version of the film. In case the decision makers of the TV network or distributor demand changes to the film (for example a more sensationalist title and more scenes that transport „you“ crying and broken), the film makers -caught in the middle- will negotiate more or less passionately in favour of your interests. „The protagonist is granted the right for final clearance, after all it’s *their* life’s story“ is a good argument they can use in such negotiations with the paying companies. So prepare to create a contract that allows you the final(!) decision, which is to be signed before you allow any creation or use of material with or from yourself.


    Please keep in mind it is a film about you, and to control it is the reasonable thing to do.


    But also remember it is not only about you; it is also about which messages you’d like to send to the generations to come. Some of these messages are meta messages, hidden but nevertheless effective: „It’s a shame this film uses racist language, voyeurism and pity porn as a means to show us their biography. Why the heck did they allow for this?“ shouldn’t be one of them.


    If it is very important for you to publish your story, don’t forget that you can do so autonomously and independently, by writing it down yourself or by recording your audio or video testimony and publishing the results, free or almost free of cost to you. The urge to have your story told shouldn’t override your caution, by whom, for whom, to which effect, and under which circumstances it is being told and eternalized.



    Image: "Nigel Hoar 3", University of Salford Press Office, https://www.flickr.com/photos/salforduniversity/3341235196/in/photostream/ , changes were applied.