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“As filmmakers, we have to be always vigilant about what we’re lending our hand to”

Industry Report: Documentary

Fawzia Mahmood • Producer, NW Pictures

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Interview with Fawzia Mahmood, producer for British company NW Pictures and selected for the 2020 Emerging Producers programme

Fawzia Mahmood • Producer, NW Pictures

Interview with Fawzia Mahmood, producer for British company NW Pictures and selected for the 2020 Emerging Producers programme.

Why do you produce documentaries? Do you understand documentary film as an instrument of social and political change?
Fawzia Mahmood: I produce documentary because I want to help vital voices claim their space. In the UK, there’s collective amnesia about the country’s history, especially its colonial past and its very real ramifications on our present. The lived experiences, memories and histories of the least represented people in the country have been invisibilised and shunted to the periphery because of how history has been taught in schools, the way successive UK governments and the media have deployed toxic policies and rhetoric towards minority communities, and because our cultural institutions and creative industries are still largely closed-off and exclusive spaces.

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With that said, it’s very seductive to think that creating, screening and promoting documentary film is by default “radical”. But process is everything. I’m not so interested in filmmakers or projects that make a performance of being progressive and tout “diversity” without doing the actual work of enacting this at every stage, and especially when it’s hard – from research and development, to the make-up, hiring and duty of care to a team, to how contributors are treated, to locking a film, to where the project is screened and who gets dividends in the event of returns. I’ve had to make some difficult decisions to not be part of projects because they just do not stack up ethically. But I have no regrets, because as filmmakers, we have to be always vigilant about what we’re lending our hand to. Reflexivity and criticality needs to accompany all the celebration of documentary.

What qualities should a documentary producer have these days?
An ability to navigate both art and commerce is of course needed. But fundamentally, a documentary producer needs passion for the work, tenacity, honesty and an ethical compass. Patience for the non-linearity of the creative process helps too – the obstacles to making a documentary are unending and you can’t give up just because people are saying “no”. Empathy and care for the well-being of a team, and an ability to work collaboratively with protagonists, so that they’re not just instrumentalised subjects fulfilling a mapped agenda, are also key.

What do you think is the future of distribution of documentary films?
I think a lot about the gentrification of documentary and that so many documentary spaces and communities are either inaccessible to most people or feel like echo chambers just for cinephiles. To get a documentary financed and distributed you really need to become educated in the contours of the landscape, to know where to find information and connect to the right gatekeepers.

I’m not disputing the challenging economics of documentaries. But we’re living in such uncertain times that I think the only way documentary can stay relevant and non-elitist is if screenings for schools, community halls, clubs, care homes, prisons, the elderly and for the most under-served audiences accompany every single theatrical release, festival screening, deal with a streamer or commission from a broadcaster. Of course, this involves resources, but it also involves will.

What projects do you have under way (including in the area of fiction film and other projects)?
I’m drawn to working with filmmakers who have a real sense of purpose about their work, whether it’s experimental, narrative, fiction or documentary and regardless of genre.

I’m currently developing a slate of fiction features including Impermanence, a drama by writer-director Francesca Castelbuono about a young woman's awakening when she unexpectedly falls for an older woman, and Jitterbug, the first feature from artist-filmmaker Ayo Akingbade about a London schoolgirl taking a hard look at the world to decide what she really wants.

I’ve also been script editing a TV drama written by Haleema Mirza. The series follows a British police detective, who’s of South Asian origin, as he tries to solve a murder. A thriller and a police procedural, the show delves into the UK’s colonial past and explores how and why so many displaced South Asians came to live in the UK after the Partition of British India in 1947.

As for documentary, I’ve just begun working with a team of researchers on a project about the anti-fascist resistance by the Bangladeshi community in Brick Lane in East London in May 1978, following the brutal racist murder of Altab Ali, a young Bangladeshi man. The murder sparked a massive wave of protest throughout London, which was very under-reported, and further attacks by far right groups. By June 1978, Brick Lane was the most heavily policed area in the UK, outside Northern Ireland.

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Emerging Producers is a promotional and educational project, which brings together talented European documentary film producers. The programme is organised and curated by the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival.

Deadline for applications to the Emerging Producers 2021 edition is 15 March, 2020.

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