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Be You Festival

Posted on Dec 4, 2023 by FEED Staff

Hosted by Soho Media Club, this year’s Be You festival tackled issues of identity, diversity, ability and inclusion

Representation matters in any industry, but it’s especially relevant to production. Sharing an aspect of your identity with someone – whether on-screen or off – instils a sense of belonging. Seeing your experiences conveyed authentically – that’s even better.

The 2023 Be You festival, hosted by Soho Media Club in the heart of Soho itself, tackled these topics and more. Described as ‘a festival of media culture’, Be You aims to ‘spark honest conversation’ with industry change-makers. This year, that roster included folks from Douglas Road Productions, the BBC, Channel 4, Deaf & Disabled People in TV, Fully Focused Productions, Screenskills and more.

Agents of change 

The jam-packed day started with Agents of Change, a fireside chat with Sir Lenny Henry and Fauzia Boakye. Sir Lenny, who’s enjoyed a long and varied career in stand-up comedy, theatre, music, film and television, spoke freely about his experiences as a Black man in majority-white spaces.

“Every set should be inclusive – not just shows where there are people of colour,” Henry stated. “Let’s open the door and see who’s out there.”

A recurrent theme throughout Henry’s talk, as its title suggests, was personal agency. “If you want something to happen and you’re in charge, you can say, ‘can we have a more diverse set, please?’ and it will happen. You just need to move towards it in incremental steps. 

“If you’re constantly being buffeted by the winds of circumstance,” Henry continued, “by other people’s opinions, by other people’s ideas about the things you should be doing, you’re always going to be a slave to what they want rather than what you want.” 

The discussion also included Fauzia Boakye, an actress, creator, researcher and presenter, who detailed the challenges she’s faced in her career thus far. “I wanted to do a lot of things; I didn’t want to just stay in one lane. I don’t need to be put in one box,” she said. “Whatever you have, I’m going to take it.”

Henry and Boakye became engrossed in a conversation about refusing hustle culture, calling out injustice, building community and trusting instincts. “If you know something is wrong, the last thing you want to do is be someone who sits there and doesn’t say anything,” argued Boakye. “I’m going to say it… I better say it.”

Wonder women

Henry and Boakye set the tone for the rest of the festival and were followed by a panel on authentic, inclusive representation. Angela Ferreira (Douglas Road Productions), Emma Hindley (BBC Storyville) and Debbie Ramsay (then Channel 4) – all women from distinct production backgrounds – discussed how far the industry’s come and how far it has to go.

One of the main issues lies in asymmetry, also known as the ‘stuck middle’. “We have a lot of people who are very talented, very able and experienced, and they can’t move up,” explained Ferreira. “I think there is a place for entry-level schemes, but it is not the be-all and end-all of our industry… Once you get in, is that the end of your career? It shouldn’t be.”

Ramsay emphasised the recruitment process as an understated barrier: “All these organisations say ‘diversity’ and ‘we want somebody different’, yet you’re doing the same interview process and application you’ve always done, and then wonder why you don’t have a diverse candidate being successful.” She detailed an experience with a neurodivergent candidate and how she mentored them in the hiring process. “You’re not testing their strengths to the best of their ability,” she concluded.

Emma Hindley echoed the impact of mentoring – not just her own staff, but freelancers as well. “Most staff are freelance… It’s about keeping in touch with people, trying to recommend people.”

All three women share a background in commissioning – meaning they share the frustration when seemingly diverse projects are not backed by diverse creators. “I’m not so interested in an idea that’s diverse when the senior members of the team are not from that community,” explained Hindley.

Ramsay was a little more matter-of-fact: “If somebody is pitching a story to me, they know to come with a diverse range of contributors or else I won’t even entertain it,” she stated. “It’s not ‘diversity is a dirty word’, it’s ‘diversity: that’s your solution’.”

Ability in disability

Diversity takes many forms – including gender, race, class, sexual orientation – however the deaf, disabled and neurodivergent (DDN) community can often be overlooked.

James Rogan (Rogan Productions) captured this sentiment in Seeing Ability in Disability: “Diversity of perspective is the starting point for all storytelling. We’re very keen to work particularly with people who have been marginalised by society,” he said.

Bryony Arnold, co-director at Deaf & Disabled People in TV (DDPTV) and a long-time wheelchair user, illustrated just how large the representational gap actually is. “On-screen, the current percentage is 8.2% of individuals coming from the DDN community. Off-screen, it’s 6.5%. If you compare that with what the actual population is, which is currently about 18%, we’ve still got a heck of a long way to go.”

Arnold and filmmaker Ted Evans discussed recent projects, including Then Barbara Met Alan, a TV drama which fictionalises the lives of Barbara Lisicki and Alan Holdsworth, who co-founded Disabled People’s Direct Action Network. “It wasn’t perfect by any means, but we faced each challenge [How do we get our crew around? Where are we going to film it?] as we came across it and tried to find solutions,” explained Arnold.

Evans’ experiences, while focused more singularly on the deaf community, have been similarly challenging: “I make films with deaf actors, documentaries and TV shows in sign language, and while that’s a wonderful thing to do in my community, it’s also limiting,” he said, calling his job ‘a double-edged sword’. That said, Evans’ work has brought more sign language to the big screen – an addition that’s undoubtedly a net positive.

’Til next time

The afternoon continued in a similar fashion, with talks from Otto Baxter and Jason Osborne, stories from outside the M25, interactive Q&As and a range of breakout sessions. Ending with an after-party, Be You 2023 went out with a bang. A true celebration of individuality and intersectionality – the festival fulfilled its promise to leave its attendees ‘full of ideas and inspiration’.

Originally published in the Winter 2023 issue of FEED.

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