Disclaimer: this title implies that the battle is over, but I am still very much in the struggle. It’s been a while since I have written a personal post. These past few months my work has resembled my journalism days – I’ve been focused on other people’s stories through the Creative Distribution podcast, because it gives me deep joy to learn from and celebrate incredible artists and especially other women.
Focusing on others
For about a year, I also have been focused on other people’s films by working as an Impact Producer, Creative Distribution specialist and consulting producer. I realized I am just as passionate about bringing other people’s visions to life as I am making my own films. I get so excited when I meet an interesting filmmaker with a vision for impact in causes that I believe in. The idea of using my skills to help them achieve that goal is exhilarating, in a way I didn’t think possible, because we are taught to think as creatives that what matters is “our” work. “Our” vision. What are you making next? Who are you if you don’t create? That’s what we are asked again and again. But helping others to create can be deeply inspiring, in a way that might not seem as glorifying or productive by society’s standards, and in a way that I had not understood up until now.
Creative breakdown number 1: Cognitive dissonance
The truth is, I also had a major creative breakdown in the past year. I had decided to make a follow-up to my feature documentary on women tech entrepreneurs called “She Started It“, in the form of a docu-series that would follow other female entrepreneurs across America and around the world. The feature doc was made alongside my co-founder Insiyah Saeed but the series was my first solo project. I specifically wanted to expand the scope of the film by focusing more deeply on women entrepreneurs of color and women from marginalized communities whose stories don’t necessarily get the spotlight.
I also had a vision for other docu-series on women in the workplace. After all, I had developed an expertise about the topic after meeting with and talking to hundreds of employees at various big companies while on the Screening Tour for She Started It.
It took a while to recognize that uneasy feeling of inauthenticity
Then suddenly, something blocked me. It took a while to recognize that uneasy feeling of inauthenticity. You can fake your way through a regular job, but you can’t fake your way through creating, if you are to make anything good. Especially when you are burnt out after spending 5 years on a project, you don’t have the energy to pretend, just for the sake of a good business idea. Or at least I didn’t. I started realizing that my sense of uneasiness came from the fact that I no longer believed in the promises I took at face value when I first moved from France to Silicon Valley. When I first came to the US, I bought the American dream 100%. And for good reason – America allowed me to make my dreams come true. I denied my french heritage, as I grew up in a more socialist background, and really believed that entrepreneurship and capitalism were the way to solve today’s biggest problems. (Warning: this post is simplified for the sake of finally getting my thoughts out on paper, but the topic is, of course, a lot more nuanced and complex).
The entrepreneurs and CEOs I once looked up to as heroes turned out to be sometimes the villains in the story
Silicon Valley hangover
But along the way, it turned out that things were a lot more complicated. Inequality was rising obscenely all around me in San Francisco. The entrepreneurs and CEOs I once looked up to as heroes of innovation and change turned out to be sometimes the villains in the story. Of course, I did not go through this alone. The entire world is on a Silicon Valley and, dare I say, capitalism hungover. The challenges of our times are so great, we are starting to realize that “never giving up” won’t be enough unless we radically transform and shift the way we think and behave as a society. So to recap, creative breakdown number 1 was a cognitive dissonance around capitalism and entrepreneurship, as the doubt kept growing in my mind: ” by celebrating this, am I going in the right direction? Or is there a way that I could focus on this topic that would mesh with my values? How can entrepreneurship and capitalism be leveraged for social good, and who are the people doing this whose stories I want to tell? But also: are social entrepreneurship, impact investing and conscious capitalism enough? Or should we try to build a society with a different system that does not put capitalism at the center?” My French heritage and family values came rushing back in a whirlwind, banging loudly on the door of my brain, demanding to be heard again.
Creative breakdown number 2: am I the right person to tell this story?
I also grappled with something else. My relationship with social justice, race and identity was deeply confusing due to my French heritage. I had been brought up in a society whose model of “integration” of various communities (in majority brought to the country because of our deep history of colonization, and various subsequent waves of migration) was the opposite of the American system. In France, we advocate for assimilation. The idea that by somewhat erasing particular identities and differences we all become equal as French citizens with a common set of values and a common national identity. So all the questions that have been rising in America are still sort of taboo in France, and especially when I left a few years ago. But I started to embrace the American melting pot and celebration of communities and particular identities. I started asking myself uncomfortable questions about my French so-called “color-blind” equality including in my friends’ groups. I recognized, like millions of others who have taken an active part in the recent debates in America, that my white privilege was embedded in systemic racism and was part of a global system of oppression. And I felt deeply unsettled and lost.
This started unraveling a lot of my creative beliefs and creative inspiration
This started unraveling a lot of my creative beliefs and creative inspiration. Without being able to name it or put a finger on it at that stage, I started feeling like a colonizer as a documentary maker. Why was I the right person to tell these women’s stories again? Wouldn’t this project benefit more from a collective creative brain, as inclusive as possible, if we were to tell stories of women of color and women from marginalized communities? And more importantly, why was I drawn to this? Wasn’t there a personal story I could tell, instead of somewhat “capitalizing” on other people’s stories?
Every time I saw a documentary or a photography exhibit, I became shocked by the number of white artists telling the stories of communities often deprived of a voice and being celebrated for it. But where were the works and stories coming directly from those communities? Why weren’t we, as westerners, trying to tell our own stories and dealing with the system of oppression we have been a part of, instead of pointing our cameras at people so we could impose our gaze on them, treat them as subjects in a kind of creative or intellectual experiment, and in the end benefit from it?
Art, identity, and shame
Of course, this topic is much more complicated than that, and plenty of artists have developed a very conscious approach of “holistic filmmaking” as Maria Judice calls it, really working with their characters as participants, and having formed a genuine connection with the community they are portraying. Also, I don’t believe that you have to be part of a specific group or ethnicity to tell stories. As artists, and especially writers, but most of all as humans, empathy is our most important trait. We can tell or write stories of “others” because our imagination, empathy (and research) allows us to expand beyond ourselves. How sad would the world be if we couldn’t think beyond our particular identity – and art especially aims to bridge that gap between humans, that’s why I became interested in filmmaking in the first place. However, this is now a much bigger question in food, books, writing, music, filmmaking, etc that a lot of creators are contending with. I wish it was more talked about so that I could have turned to others instead of feeling ashamed. I don’t have the answers yet to all those questions, but by admitting and embracing the struggle, I put myself back on a creative path. (2020 update: Sonya Childress explains what we can do to help the decolonization of storytelling here. ) There is an urgent need for a reckoning as she calls it, and a new artistic process.
I figured out (not by myself, Loira Limbal of Firelight Media pointed me in that direction talking about the “decolonization of docs” at DOC NYC) that the solution was to turn inwards. The questions many artists can ask themselves, are: Who am I ? What am I made of ? What story do I, with my own background and history and beliefs, feel drawn to that feels authentic ? Most importantly, turning inwards is how we will break the cycle of oppression and the deeply flawed power dynamics between humans. James Baldwin said it best:
“Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves,” he wrote in his 1962 essay “Letter from a Region in My Mind.”
Of course, Europe has a very different history than America. But we have our own demons to battle with, and similar questions to answer.
Another James Baldwin quote comes to mind, to explain much better than I can what I’ve been feeling: “All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up.”
As a French documentary maker and a writer living in the US, I cannot dissociate those questions from my creative spirit. I understand now that grappling with my values, my identity, my self, is an integral part of my creative journey.
I feel a renewed sense of purpose and compassion for myself, ready to untangle this mess and create again from an authentic place. I don’t know how long this will take, or what will come out of it, but I now embrace the struggle rather than feeling ashamed of it.
I hope this will help you on your journey. I would love to hear what others are dealing with – write in the comments, or on social media !