Things have to change, because the arts should never be the preserve of any one group, because BAME young people have every much of a right to an artistic education as anyone else, because BAME people have just as fascinating and engaging stories as anyone else to tell, because the whole diversity of Britain should be represented on our screens and because the barriers to BAME access to the arts mean valuable British talent goes to waste. – Chris Bryant
I’ve been fighting for a long time to contribute to a world that is more understanding of each other no matter what history they have. In high school my dad took my sisters and I to our first protest, it was around the time the war on Afghanistan began. I remember standing in the middle of town in my Eid clothes going ‘what on earth are we doing here?’ and feeling really embarrassed to be at a protest dressed like that. I think I was around 15? It didn’t take me long to go from that to a total all out activist. Flash forward to my university years and my fight to make those whose voices couldn’t be heard heard was in full force.
By the time I finished university at 21 I was still political, still an activist but more aware than ever that being a politician wasn’t my path (much to my dad’s disappointment). I came to realise that the things that opened my eyes, the reasons I could relate to people so easily, came through stories. I’d known I was a storyteller for a long time but it took a lot of courage and soul searching to come to the realisation that I was going to take on the challenge to be one of hopefully many people that would start to create content for film and TV that would show how diverse Scotland (and the UK) is and not rely on stereotype or what was expected.
For a long time I censored myself. I didn’t write Asian characters. I was afraid to. I didn’t know how to write them in a way that would be acceptable to ‘western’ audiences and not go against what was true/what I knew to be true. Then I lost my grandfather and I began to realise that if I didn’t write what I knew, if I didn’t write our stories, if I didn’t write the experiences that led to me being who I am, where I am and what I am, then nobody would. Everyone would just believe that every Asian girl is a victim of a forced marriage or has to be disowned or avoid an honour killing in order to live how she wants to live. I got angry, at myself as well as those that commissioned the same stories over and over again. I wrote the most honest and personal film I could ever write. It was my therapy but it was also the best way for me to stop censoring myself. I wrote a character that was feeling what I was feeling, that was going through what I was going through. In so many ways Amara Rahim from Meet Me By The Water is me. She mirrors my journey into film, she mirrors my choice to do something for myself, my want and need to be defined purely by myself and not my family, my marital status, my religion or my ethnicity.
I wrote Meet Me By The Water, I began to write Safar, a female asian road trip film, I began to find story after story of well known events/times in history where the story was told with a purely white cast/characters. So much of history was hidden from the world that involved people of colour. Not just that but the stories/films/tv that were being commissioned with BAME characters in them were, for the most part, inauthentic. They ignored the details and that in itself is insulting. I recently watched a film about an honour killing that had family members speaking different dialects of Urdu/Punjabi. I actually almost burst out laughing out of frustration in the cinema. I mean the British born daughter spoken better Punjabi than her supposedly traditional Pakistani father. That’s just one example but this idea that Asian women are only ever on-screen to be victims of something is so dated and insulting to the modern Asian (Muslim) woman.
I have yet to see a single British or Scottish Film or TV show where I watch it and feel that there’s been some thought or research put into the characters. That they aren’t just token ethnic characters to tick those diversity boxes. Please stop thinking that you can just tick a box, you need substance and layers and truth to your stories and characters or it’s just pointless.
The BFI recently introduced a three tick system which is supposed to have helped increase diversity both behind the camera and on-screen. I completely believe that increasing diversity behind the camera, specifically writers, directors and producers of diverse backgrounds, automatically leads to an increase in diversity on-screen. I live in Scotland. I choose to live in Scotland and not move to London like many people over the years have told me to do. However, I’m also very aware that most likely 90% of stuff commissioned in the past 10 years has no diversity. In fact it feels like the situation is getting worse. I don’t know the reason for this. I can hazard a guess at many things but regardless of the reasons it does concern me that nobody seems to be picking up on this in our public bodies that are responsible for the film and television output in Scotland. There’s a real reluctance on all levels to invest in something ‘different’ to what they know is tried and tested.
Much of this post has come out of a search for funding for my most recent project. I made a move into directing last year with Magda. I was lucky enough to get on to the Scottish Film Talent Network’s New Talent Shorts scheme and develop a short based on my first feature, Meet Me By The Water. Unfortunately the short wasn’t commissioned as is the way with all development schemes you can only commission a small number of what is developed, but by the end of the development process it’s at a good stage where it feels like it’s ready to be made. I’ve been looking around to see where we can go to for funding for the film because unfortunately I don’t have £10k sitting around waiting to be used. How do you get a film made that hasn’t been made before, that tells a new story, that requires funders to look outside of what they know and not see it as ‘just another Asian story’ and actually just as a story of a girl who just happens to be Asian? Does support exist where they truly believe in diverse stories that look at all the layers and not just stereotypes? Does anyone? Do they all just want to stick to tried and tested stereotypes and continue to put forward an outdated view of BAME people, when they choose to include BAME people that is?
There’s a reason this is all so important and it relates back to my opening paragraph. I believe that the world we live in is increasingly full of fear. People are afraid to talk to each other. People are afraid to ask questions, to look outside of what they know and try and understand other worlds, people and ways of doing things. To be accepting of other belief systems. I believe that film and television and stories in all forms are a subtle and easy way to do this. Do people even know that Scotland is as diverse as it is? I’ve been outside of Scotland and had people completely shocked when I speak because they didn’t expect a Scottish accent. It’s a crazy concept to them, an Asian Muslim hijab wearing girl speaking in a Glaswegian accent. I’m not the only one. We exist. It’s a shame that the Film & TV world in Scotland seem to think we don’t.