Film and TV critic and BAFTA member Ashanti Omkar talks to BAFTA’s head of programmes, Mariayah Kaderbhai, about this week’s screening and lecture from Syrian documentary filmmaker and activist Hassan Akkad as part of Refugee Week 2023, and the priorities that help shape BAFTA’s year-round film screening programme.
Ashanti: Good to meet you Mariayah. Tell me a little about your work at BAFTA.
Mariayah: As head of programmes, my role oversees BAFTA’s industry events and screenings that take place across the UK for film, games and TV. They’re produced with our members in mind, but the public can access some of them too. We want to encourage a more inclusive and representative industry that reflects the society we live in by giving our members the chance to discover and enjoy work that features themes, narratives and practitioners from underrepresented groups, as well as films that might not be available in their local cinemas.
Without giving too much away, can you tell me more about the event with Hassan Akkad on Friday?
We’re hosting Hassan as part of Refugee Week for a special screening of his short film, Matar, followed by a lecture on his experiences fleeing Syria in 2015 and working in the UK film and TV industry. As filmmaker, a storyteller and a refugee, he has the most incredible experiences to share with us. Hassan was a teacher and activist when he escaped the war and made the perilous journey to seek asylum in the UK, eventually obtaining refugee status here. He filmed his journey, and was part of the team behind the BAFTA-winning BBC documentary [Exodus: Our Journey to Europe, 2017].
It sounds like a fascinating story.
It really is. We want to highlight the powerful contribution Hassan has made in the short time he’s been in the UK. Coming here has given him a secure life, but his work is enriching the lives of so many people. He worked in the NHS as a cleaner during the pandemic, and he brought to light stories that eventually helped overturn the decision to exclude cleaners, porters and social workers from the bereavement scheme [that grants families of health workers indefinite leave to remain in the UK if they died from coronavirus].
You're working with Counterpoints Arts on this event. Tell us more.
Counterpoints Arts supports and produces work by migrants and refugees to tell their stories. They’ve also introduced us to other organisations working in this area as well, so we hope to produce a series of events this summer and into September, introducing our members to other film and TV-makers who are refugees, migrants and asylum seekers. Hopefully collaborations can come out of it, and a better understanding of these communities and the talent within them.
It’s interesting that you’ve got narratives like this coming up. Why is BAFTA keen to showcase this as part of Refugee Week?
We try to reflect many areas and demographics of underrepresentation, be that gender, be that people of colour, be that disability, within our programme of screenings and events.
But in researching Refugee Week I’ve become more aware of the misrepresentation refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in news coverage and films and TV programmes.
We know that when people are given the chance to tell their own stories, this has a positive effect on how these communities are perceived. Stories can be engaging, informative but also comedic and entertaining. You have to give agency to allow people to tell their own stories because if you don't, credibility is diminished. Reflecting on the experiences and contributions of refugees during Refugee Week is an important step in us understanding each other on a very human level and, for the industry, the value of authentic representation We’ll see that come to life in Hassan’s short film, which features people from refugee, migrant and asylum seeker backgrounds.
What can the industry do to improve authentic representation?
I think the use of cultural consultants is a really important. I’m not saying that you have to be from a particular background to tell a certain story, as that would make storytelling a little reductive. People have the right to tell all stories. But involving key decision makers with lived experience is important.
For instance, with Hassan, he was an associate producer and consultant on The Swimmers, a film about refugees coming over from Syria, and he advised specifically on the boat crossings because he has a lived experience. This enriched the story and made it realistic. It's not a pastiche or a parody of an experience. By limiting cultural input you run the risk of dehumanising someone's lived experience. It also reflects the explicit perception of those communities in society and helps normalise people's perception of immigrants.
How does BAFTA go about finding these voices?
Hassan was on our radar from the time we saw his footage of his journey to the UK in the BBC documentary. Our team looks at things seasonally, we look at industry issues and cultural points in the calendar to work around and uplift under-sung stories. We've actually been working on Refugee Week for the last six months.
How do you prioritise what to show in your film screening and event programming?
The 2020 BAFTA Review marked the beginning of a cultural shift at BAFTA, as we moved to address the lack of diversity in the Film Awards nominations and challenged the industry to tackle issues of opportunity and equality more widely. The Review changed the way that my team and I looked at our entire programme. Inclusion had always been at the heart of it, but we needed to make it more explicit.
A key change to our programme was to enable a wider range of work to be seen by more people. So we have screening priorities that we consider when curating our programme.
For example, we prioritise films that not only adhere to the BFI Diversity Standards, which have been part of Film Awards eligibility since 2019, but go beyond that. We screen films that may not be on a wide release, that may have a female director, that may cover themes and narratives that are innovative and inclusive. We want to level the awards playing field by curating the programme in this way and also by raising the profile of lesser-known talented voices. There’s so much amazing work out there, and who doesn’t want the inside scoop on the next big thing?
Does that mean certain films members won’t be screened at 195 Piccadilly?
The programme is not about being exclusionary. We just want to give our members the opportunity to see incredible films that they might not readily have access to, or perhaps even be available on wide general release. Members can also benefit from the nationwide cinema tickets offer, which is a great way to see the latest films on the big screen for free. Our screenings programme is all about levelling the playing field. And of course all films in competition for awards are available to watch on BAFTA View too.
It's obvious that accessibility is also a core deliverable for BAFTA, as representation, inclusion and diversity come in many layers.
Absolutely. We aim to do captioned or subtitled screenings for our members in our repeat screenings, and every third Friday of the month we have a subtitled film. We work closely with our Disability Advisory Group to make the experience more equitable for all our members. This year we will also be focusing on screening films that feature talent on and off screen from d/Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent backgrounds, and with themes and narratives developed in consultation with these communities. Again, it’s about making the experience more equitable, but also being more representative and authentic. We have BSL interpreters at some of our key events. During our networking events, we aim to have quiet spaces for those who might need that space. If there's any other accessibility needs, we really want to know about them so we can make the necessary adjustments.
Visual mediums seem to be the most important way to tell their stories and BAFTA is not only having these onstage talks, BAFTA has also got a big presence now on TikTok.
I can't take any credit for our TikTok! That’s all down to our communications team. But it’s all about reaching new audiences, going to where they are, and sharing that inspiration. It’s a brilliant thing. And if you see yourself reflected on screen, you can only be encouraged to know that roles are available in our industry. I thought the red carpet interviews at the BAFTA TV Awards this year were phenomenal. Zainab [Jiwa], who hosted them, has this amazing energy. Talent comes from everywhere. And I think people have got to look at non-traditional methods in the recruiting process as well. It shouldn’t be about required skills but more transferable skills. BAFTA is not a one-stop-shop by any means, but we’re trying to show that there are different routes for a whole range of roles.
I hope our events and screening programmes help demonstrate in some way the breadth and diversity of talent, representation and storytelling that exists. By giving BAFTA members access to a wide variety of films we hope that storytelling is democratised, new thoughts and voices are introduced, and of course that this experience is entertaining.
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BAFTA – the British Academy of Film and Television Arts - is a world-leading independent arts charity that brings the very best work in film, games and television to public attention and supports the growth of creative talent in the UK and internationally. Through its Awards ceremonies and year-round programme of learning events and initiatives – which includes workshops, masterclasses, scholarships, lectures and mentoring schemes in the UK, USA and Asia – BAFTA identifies and celebrates excellence, discovers, inspires and nurtures new talent, and enables learning and creative collaboration. For more, visit www.bafta.org. BAFTA is a registered charity (no. 216726).