Positives & Negatives

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An interview with BFI's Ben Roberts

An interview with BFI's Ben Roberts

Welcome to our latest issue of Idea Spark. Click here to stay up to date with the best examples of marketing through film, the people behind the work, and the impact it had.

This awards season we’re celebrating those individuals and organisations that are positive voices for change.

As the distributor of Lottery and public funds, the British Film Institute seeks to reflect the public in the programs they support, the films they fund, the audiences who watch them, and the filmmakers, actors and crews who make them. To receive funding for a film or film project there are many forms that must be filled out, and there is a lot of competition. In recent years diversity standards have been built into these funds to ensure that money is going to projects in the national interest.

Our very own Richard Williams sat down with BFI Film Fund director Ben Roberts to talk about how his team is doing to address representation issues in film:

elevenfiftyfive: Diversity is a key area for the film fund. Was this a gradual progression or was there a trigger point that led to the creation of the Diversity Standards?

Ben Roberts: I’m very conscious of our public role as a funder and the responsibilities that come with that. In my time here, I’ve tried in emphasise the public benefit element of what we do. I think the lottery funding is a fantastic boon to the film industry in terms of how it’s used, but for a long time, I think it’s been seen as just another subsidy that sits alongside the tax relief. The fact is, it’s relatively hard to access because it’s not that big of a fund. So it needs to carry certain responsibilities as a public fund.

You come into a job like this and inevitably you are posed with the dilemmas of all the different people that want to access [the fund] and what they want to use it for. It struck me quite quickly that there’s a lot of built-up frustration around access issues, access for someone who might see themselves as an outlier, someone that sees themselves on the outside looking in but not sure how to get in. The notions of the closed shop industry were persisting. So my gut feeling was that we had to start using the levers of our fund to do what we could. We could make sure that everyone who was in receipt of money from us understood that it carried some responsibilities as public money and it wasn’t just a prize that you’ve won. Though our guidelines were as long as your arm, we didn’t have anything around inclusivity responsibility, which now feels like a yawning gap that we needed to correct. We are a public fund, we already impose quite a lot of requirements for the recipients of the funds so why is this not part of that transaction?

We all love film and respond to the story, storyteller, or the casting decision that’s not been seen before and surprises you. So diversity was not just about a moral obligation but something that we should all want to see creatively in the provenance of the work, the creative leadership, and all the inputs of production in terms of who’s making decisions over casting, costume, background and foreground. We’ve got a responsibility to make sure the work we are investing in is broad in approach. Within the projects that we are supporting, whatever they are, every producer needs to start thinking more about what the chain of command is, who’s in the leadership role and how are they hiring?

We put our first version out in 2014, which was the one involving the 3 ticks. It’s still something we are refining but they’ve now become a vessel through which we can have conversations about things like bullying and harassment. When the standards became more urgent towards the end 2017, it struck us quite early on that, whilst we did need to come up with some guidelines and principles, we already had a place to put them. So at some point in the very near future, we will be introducing bullying and harassment requirements into our diversity standards. The big aim is to make sure what we introduce is something that, as much as possible, the industry can be quite harmonious in its approach to. So far that’s proving to be the case. People like them, we just need to make sure they are impactful.

I know a lot of producers who have now realised how lacking they were in certain areas. The guidelines are not designed to change the world overnight, but they’ve put it firmly at the front of everyone’s mind.

eff: Absolutely. Putting something concrete out there gives the industry a framework to fall back on, one that you can discuss without any vagueness.

BR: People feedback on it and if something isn’t working then we can change it. Based on evidence that comes back to us we can see if something doesn’t work, if it’s too strong or too weak, and then we adjust them.

eff: Is that something that you look into annually?

BR: Probably more ad hoc than that really. It might be that something comes through strongly as a weakness and we can just update straight away and then carry on.

I should probably mention separately that, what we introduced during LFF last year for this coming April, was a set of targets for our funds. Whilst we’re not introducing quotas, there is an expectation that our funds will be broadly spread and will speak to certain diversity and inclusion expectations that are broadly reflective of who’s out there wanting to make films. So we introduced targets in November which will apply this April around gender, LGBT filmmakers, filmmakers with disabilities, and BAME filmmakers.

eff: Last year felt like a real turning point. So many harassment cases came to light, and ongoing debates around power and representation seemed to be everywhere. I definitely felt a shift in my perception, from identifying as a progressive to a sudden recognition of my failings. Watching the film, I Am Not Your Negro had a big part to play in this. Though I thought I was actively promoting progressive ideas around representation and diversity, I was actually just stood on the sidelines cheering on the runners as they went past. Does that strike any chords with you and with the ideas of the film fund?

BR: I have tried to make an active decision in recruitment within the team to make sure we are not one monogamous type of person, thought and taste, or background and experience. It’s been very interesting when trying to diversify, the reflection of experience and voice in the team has exactly that effect. It is the effect of watching IANYN in that we have conversations at work and you are suddenly very aware the conversations you thought you should be having with your white mates is not doing very much at all or doing the wrong thing.

I brought someone in to do some unconscious bias training with us. It was a broad audit, but it was an audit of one’s own set of assumptions that you make on a daily basis, right down to how you may pronounce someone’s name.

There was something on Radio 4 about certain presenters being accused of addressing male interviewees as Mr X and females by their first name. What that causes is terms of micro-inequities in your conversations with members of your team. So we’ve been very focused on all of that.

In answer to your question, you’ve got to be more conscious of what you are, or aren’t doing. What we’ve been doing with the film fund, with a focus on inclusion and diversity and making sure we are alert to it and accountable for it, is trying to put our money where our mouth is. If a film or programme or funded distribution has elements of advocacy or leadership – a positive, inclusive message – then I think we are much more aware of what the films we are supporting are actually saying and doing. If they’ve got no value and aren’t speaking to that agenda, then why are we doing it? It becomes quite all consuming and we don’t think about anything else.

eff: The positives are that film by its nature is such a multi-faceted art form with so many different elements to it that it’s always possible to make one part of the film tick these boxes. There are multiple characters, multiple settings, scenarios that can be explored. What you’ve done successfully is to raise awareness. Having these standards means that a hypothetical 60-year-old straight white male producer is forced to consider things that they may have just only vaguely thought about before.

BR: Yes, but also, you are what you are. If you are a 60-year-old straight white male producer, then that’s who you are. That’s not to your detriment, we all are who we are, and that’s the whole point. That’s the notion of inclusivity. I think the reason the unconscious bias training was important was that being who you are should neither be an advantage to you or a disadvantage to you. It’s how you carry that responsibility with you through your work that’s important, how you enable something in someone else and how aware of what you are and what you are not, whether that’s affording you some kind of privilege that maybe you aren’t entitled to, that’s where being conscious of those inequities becomes so important.

eff: Step one in what we are talking about should be recognition.

BR: And the truth is, it makes for a far more creative dialogue that you make with other people, it makes your day more interesting, it makes the work more culturally rich. You only have to look at the premiere pictures from the Black Panther event. I’ve got colleagues who that means everything to in terms of representation and are delighted that representation is being celebrated on such a huge level. I look at it and I see all of that objectively but I also just think it looks really interesting, I haven’t seen it before, it’s different and different is great. There’s no limit to thinking along these lines, it’s just stimulating.

We’d like to thank Ben for giving us time to talk. Our lasting impression after our conversation was one of confidence. The BFI aren’t just cheering from the sidelines anymore.



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