Uncomfortable Conversations

By Nailiah Jefferson

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A safe space.

That’s what participating in the Firelight Media Lab represents to me. In an industry that has historically overlooked and devalued the work of BIPOC filmmakers, Firelight has intentionally established itself as a place of community where filmmakers of color can collectively cultivate our craft, cheer one another along and celebrate our victories. During our retreats I find myself finally willing to remove the armor we BIPOC filmmakers must often wear when navigating traditional industry spaces. Recalling a poignant moment at our second retreat at the Mohonk Mountain House in upstate New York, this revelation suddenly struck one of my cohorts, forcing her to ask rhetorically, “Why doesn’t it feel competitive here?” My response, “Because there are no white men.” Perhaps, one of my most cherished memories happened at our first dinner when each of us, individually, asked for more salt. The under-seasoning of that dinner was criminal! We all laughed knowingly, cementing our family dynamic. As we entered into 2020 with our third and final retreat ahead of us, the world had changed and it would change our interaction along with it.

Our final retreat was supposed to take place in my home town of New Orleans in late March. But, the cases of COVID-19 climbing across the country and New Orleans being deemed a “hot spot” postponed our retreat and our hopes of coming together one last time over the summer. As the devastation of COVID-19 set in across America, we eventually came to terms with the reality that an in-person retreat was not an option, and that our closing session would be held virtually. Amidst the fog of uncertainty and anxiety and a plethora of other emotions that the pandemic hung over us, the cohort and the lab team prepared for our retreat to begin June 8th. We had no idea, however, what would occur just days before.

Four Minneapolis police officers murdered George Floyd on the evening of May 25th, 2020. With his face pushed in the pavement, a police officer’s knee on his neck blocking his airways and while desperately calling out for his mother, George Floyd suffocated to death. The next day, footage of his horrifying murder circulated widely. Though not the first time we’d seen footage of police officers killing Black people in cold blood, this one hit differently. Perhaps it was because of the vulnerability raw in each of us brought about by the pandemic. Perhaps it was because during our times of social distancing and city lockdowns we had less distractions to take our focus off of George Floyd’s unjust killing. Perhaps it was because we watched the police kneel on his neck for over seven minutes. Perhaps it was for all of these reasons. In the coming days, massive protests and uprisings took place across the nation and globe. For me, it loosed a slew of emotions, with extreme sadness and exhaustion being the most profound.

Going into our retreat two weeks later, I felt directionless and quite frankly questioned why we were “retreating.” As I logged into our zoom call and saw the faces of my cohorts appear on screen, it didn’t feel like the same group of filmmakers who had come to call one another family. Discomfort canvassed the faces of each of us — in our eyes, in our voices, our body language evidenced it.

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From “Commuted”, an upcoming feature documentary by Nailiah Jefferson

That first day was tough. During an exercise, we were asked to touch upon deep emotions that let unearthed buried traumas for some and caused others to disconnect. The session was followed by an email exchange among the group about not feeling safe, for the first time, during a Firelight Retreat.

Logging into another virtual meeting the next day, we sat in stretches of awkward silence. Tears, frustration and heartbreaking accounts of fear punctuated our discussions. I remember Loira describing her son’s anxiety for his father because, “My dad looks like George Floyd.” It felt like too much. It was too much. Spaces of silence loomed over the group. I desperately tried to look anywhere but the screen, at my cohorts, knowing that a flood of tears would break loose at any moment. And then Monika piped up and said one of the simplest, yet one of the most profound things I’ve heard, “I’m not afraid of tough conversations.” The thought made me bristle. As BIPOC filmmakers we are forced into tough conversations all the time. Why are you making this film? Why now? Why you? Who cares? I don’t want to do that here. Here, I can take off the armor. Here I can be comfortable.

But as I thought more, I realized, in essence, what she meant was that we are family and that’s what a family does. We don’t give up on each other. We push past the tough, uncomfortable moments. Not with armor, but fully vulnerable because we know that holding on and healing is better than the alternative. And, so we did. We talked, we listened, we heard one another and we discussed how we could assure that the revolution happening outside our windows would be reflected in our industry as well.

The focus of our final retreat was Indie Doc Distribution, Impact and the Changing Landscape. With four weeks ahead of us to interface with industry leaders in those areas, we knew it was our duty to ask them the tough, uncomfortable questions that could lead to change for BIPOC filmmakers. I’m proud of our cohort. We pushed, we questioned, we challenged, we asked the uncomfortable questions. We were met with more stretches of awkward silence and even deflection, but there were also expressions of commitments to support more work for and by BIPOC filmmakers. Only time will reveal the sincerity of those promises, but we didn’t fold and we didn’t give up on one another. As we close out our Firelight Media Lab experience, I’m proud to say that my filmmaking family is stronger and bolder. We stand together as a family of disrupters, unwilling to continue on with a system that doesn’t serve us and our fellow BIPOC filmmakers.

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Firelight Media is dedicated to supporting documentary filmmakers of color and cultivating audiences for their work. We’re #changingthestory.

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