Our Blackness Is a Universe: Revisiting NETWORK @ LFF 2016

NETWORK @ LFF alumnus Nadia Latif reflects on her experience of the 2016 programme.

21 July 2017
By Nadia Latif
Nadia is a theatre director, filmmaker, journalist and NETWORK@LFF alumnus.
In 2016, NETWORK @ LFF aligned with the BFI London Film Festival’s agenda-setting Black Star Symposium by focusing on supporting 15 new and emerging BAME writers and directors. With applications now open for the 2017 edition of the programme, 2016 alum Nadia Latif reflects on the programme, diversity in the film industry, and initiating permanent change.
A lot of kids may grow up steeped in movies. A few of those kids may dream of one day making a movie. A tiny handful may be lucky enough to live their dream and one day make a movie. 
But those kids are white. Because, let’s face it kids, the global film industry has an epidemic problem with race. And I’m not talking about the flash in the pan of an #OscarsSoWhite scandal or two. I’m talking about the systemic whitewashing of our film industries in front of and behind the camera. So when a friend suggested I apply for the BFI’s annual NETWORK @ LFF professional development programme for new and emerging filmmakers I was intrigued. And then I read the small print. This year, it was just for filmmakers of colour. And I was sceptical. As an artist of colour one is always anxious about the dreaded “diversity initiative” - they can be awkward, there is a paranoia around being a novelty or a box-ticking exercise, and a resentment of being patronised. Moreover, having worked as a theatre director for over a decade, I was well aware how every few years the creative industries have a collective spasm of conscience, normally because of a public shaming about the white supremacy of those industries, and talk of diversity bubbles up. A few movies are made, a few prizes are given, a few careers are made, there are some successes. But no true step-change that fully and permanently puts black filmmakers in the club ever happens. We are seen as exceptional, and contingent. 
I realised that I’d spent such a long time shouting from the rooftops about the problem, and here was the BFI becoming part of the solution. Maybe this signalled a returned to the halcyon days of attention and funding for black artists that could lead to a new generation of radical filmmakers like Ove, Akomfrah and Julien, or even a new Black Audio Film Collective. Those artists had flourished in a period when funding was properly earmarked for PoC, before the slide into multicultural neoliberalism, and the subsequent re-erasure of race in creative spaces. And the more I thought about it, the more thrilled I was to take part. Frankly, my inner VHS-child was overjoyed. Maybe I could seriously make films? Plus, how bad could it be? I would get to see some awesome films, meet some filmmakers I thought were pretty cool, and I’d heard good early buzz about this little film Moonlight…
First day of school, and a few things were abundantly clear. We could not agree as a room full of people of colour, let alone as a room full of filmmakers. And that was great. I had great fun listening to people argue like their lives depended on it about whether a movie was the greatest or worst thing they had ever seen. I witnessed a couple of people throw themselves clean across the room when Chika revealed she’d walked out halfway through Moonlight because she was bored. But more pertinently, identity politics itself was the thing most up for grabs. Our blackness is a universe, not universal. Yes, there were those of us for whom blackness or otherness could never be anything less than a political fight to the death, with the battleground being onscreen and offscreen representation. But there were those of us who just wanted to be left alone to make whatever they wanted to make, and for whom the fight was simply, as it was for all of us, to get to make a film at all. 
And what an incredible lineup of people we met! From the very first day when I nearly rugby-tackled Ben Wheatley to the ground to tell him how I may be the only person who loved High Rise (at the same event where I nearly fly-kicked Andrea Arnold to signal my loathing of American Honey), it was an absolute who’s who of heroes. When I asked my fellow participants to pick their highlights, a few names recurred: Julie Dash (who showed us how to persevere), Mira Nair (who showed us how to be personal), Mohamed Diab (who showed us how to fight tooth and nail). But what came out in these sessions was more than some handy bon mots, or a natty trick or two. What we gained was a profound feeling of solidarity. Yes, as filmmakers we were told to just “keep going” because it’s very hard to make a film. But in the recurring tales of professional prejudice, the classic adage of having to work “twice as hard for half the success”, or just stories of out and out racism, what we were developing was a handbook of survival tactics. How to prepare for and defend yourself against the inevitable bullshit. How to pull yourself out of The Sunken Place. Because for every diversity initiative, there are a dozen production companies announcing raft after raft of all-white films. There are a lot of execs with some very basic bitch understanding of identity politics. And there are a lot of straight white men who want to stay on top. But for all our differences as a group of filmmakers, we are a community, and we are united against the status quo, which cannot continue. 
So where are we all now? Some of us are working on second features, some are going into production on first features, some of us have made shorts. Even little old me, the theatre newbie, now has 3 shorts and a feature idea that I’m toying with. Maybe NETWORK @ LFF just lit a fire under us and made us believe that we could do it. That we could dream big. And that might all be down to the absolute pocket rocket that is Matimba Kabalika. Would that there were a hundred of her, and maybe all the film industry’s ills would be cured. But until they perfect cloning, I’m going to go out there and fight on her behalf by being my bestest, baddest, blackest self. And I’m going to make a movie.
The 2017 edition of NETWORK @ LFF is now open for applications until August 13. Click here for more information.