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When you tell your own story, you are creating your future, argue panellists at the EWA Network's annual event

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- Gender equality and diversity were on everyone's mind during the online event organised by the European Women's Audiovisual Network

When you tell your own story, you are creating your future, argue panellists at the EWA Network's annual event
The participants in the panel: Alina Serban, Liisa Holmberg, Zita Holbourne and Helge Albers

EWA Network's annual event, celebrated in digital form on 25 February, started off by focusing on the current issues of “Gender Equality & Diversity – the Role of Creativity & Activism”. “The lack of diversity in front of and behind the camera is, from my point of view, the result of a systemic bias embedded in how the industry operates,” noted executive director Alessia Sonaglioni when greeting the audience. “Unfortunately, this observation also applies to other cultural sectors, despite their liberal, progressive aura.”

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The keynote speaker, community and human rights campaigner and artist Zita Holbourne, opened up about the gender and race discrimination faced by her mother throughout her childhood – which, ultimately, influenced her later in life as well. “Creativity and stories from my imagination is how I survived each day,” she said. “With the creative fields that I have been in, I never set out to use them as a platform to promote equality or to challenge discrimination. It's just what ended up happening, as my life as an activist and my life as an artist became one and the same.”

Despite going through various obstacles and even receiving death threats, Holbourne underlined the need to come together when it's happening to one of us. “That's why networks like this are so important: they create a lifeline, giving people a safe space to support each other.” Discussing her experience with the film Dear White People, one she was fighting to bring to UK screens when the industry would rather have seen it go straight to DVD, she added: “They said it was for a black audience. Hello? The title says Dear White People; that should be a clue! In reality, my story, my emotions and my experience are relevant for all audiences. It's how we break down barriers, how we challenge discrimination.”

During the panel moderated by Paula Vaccaro, Holbourne and other participants – including Helge Albers, managing director of the Filmförderung Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein; Liisa Holmberg, International Sámi Film Institute commissioner; and actress Alina Serban – dived deeper into the topic. “It took me and my ancestors so much effort to even get a seat at the table,” noted Serban, adding that while stories about Roma people have been told in the past, it wasn't from their perspective, which drove her to try her hand at directing with a short film called Letter of Forgiveness. “I grew up seeing the exoticisation of Roma people, and even festival programmers seem to prefer stories that reinforce and fuel these stereotypes, which is why it's so incredible when we find allies.” Such as director Hüseyin Tabak, who cast her in Gipsy Queen [+see also:
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as a struggling mother deciding to enter the boxing ring. “This film exists because people didn't choose the comfortable way. You can be an ally for anybody, even if it's just by sharing someone's work.”

Liisa Holmberg observed: “When you tell your own story, you are creating your future. We [Sámi] are different people; we have our own language and culture. But in order to make films, you need money, so we depend on national film institutes. We need our own funding, and that's an important part of our work.” In fact, Disney aroused some interest in the Sámi culture thanks to its most successful film of recent years. “After Frozen, they wanted to make it better. And how do you make a better indigenous story? You make it with indigenous people. Films are so powerful, and if our children can hear our language on screen, it's powerful. To me, it's our human right. The rest of the world doesn't seem to understand it.”

That’s the kind of thinking that led the Filmförderung Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein to ask applicants to look for diversity both in front of and behind the camera, noted Helge Albers. It’s a decision which opened up a debate, as the first mandatory step towards diversity, and sparked the ire of right-wing conservatives. “The nasty comments hurt a little, but it was to be expected, and suddenly we had a tool for dialogue with our applicants that had never been there before,” he said, adding that the initiative has been read as a “welcoming signal among the marginalised groups”. “People see a contradiction between quality and diversity, and that pushback needs to be addressed.”

Also, what needs to be looked at are the voices that are listened to, the gatekeepers, and how stories are framed when somebody else takes them over, said Holbourne. “Diversity and inclusion is being used by governments and policy makers to replace the term ‘equality’. In some ways, it has been done to appease those white, straight men who have been complaining. But if you are just talking about ‘promoting everybody’, you may not be addressing the discrimination and underrepresentation that exist in your organisations or structures,” she concluded. “We want to be in the mainstream, but we want the freedom to express our truth.”

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