Mechanic stairs at “Nation” subway station, Paris, 2019 — credit Pascal Poggi

I recently spoke to a few friends who are going through depressive episodes. What they all have in common, is that one of the many factors playing a role in their situation was something we’d discussed for years – the constant competition, and the feeling of never being/doing enough, inherent to our creative industries, and to a neoliberal society run amok. I don’t think I can find a better example of this madness than the newly announced competition show “The Activist” which drew the ire of the internet and of real activists. But more on that later.

None of this is new — but I figure I’d give some perspective on the artist dilemma nowadays. Thanks to the podcast I produce interviewing filmmakers, and to my own experience working in film for the last 8 years, I have seen some truly disturbing things that I wish were talked about more. With the pandemic, it seems a lot of us have realized we want a change — see this great piece about “what radicalized you?” — but powerful forces are at play to maintain the status quo and make sure we keep quiet in the hamster wheel, no matter how much suffering the rat race brings, and how much it distracts us from what truly matters.

Chasing the breakthrough

As freelance artists, and as content creators, we are always chasing that breakthrough moment to get our work seen and for people to careYou have not “arrived” but you are on your way to getting doors open more easily. It’s about getting from the hustle and exhaustion to the flow stage where opportunities start coming because people know you and appreciate your work. Because the freelance career path is so lonely, despite the collaborations, that fragile breakthrough moment is often vital to have the courage to keep creating.

As many creatives have experienced before, during my career I have seen that saying the right things to the rich and powerful at the networking cocktail hour can mean the difference between struggling for another year and getting your project funded. The main reason for this is the systemic lack of public funding and support for the arts in America, which keeps repeating the structural inequalities of access to funding, and of who gets to tell stories and shape our media.

Our whole industry is dependent on sponsorships, and our freelance careers on elevating our profile through book publishing, social media, PR, etc. Most people would shrug and say “duh — that’s how business works.”And it has truly afforded me a lot of opportunities I don’t think I would have had back home in France, so I’m not saying to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

But neoliberalism has permeated every aspect of our culture, artists (and activists!) now having to transform themselves into social media influencers and brands to get their message out. While social media helped many of us get our work out in a way we could not have dreamt of before, creating direct lines of communication with audiences and communities, it also set up a powerful trap.

“You see artists hailed as a new generation of independents, only to be enlisted to leverage product” — Anohni

The Activist competition show helmed by CBS, featuring Usher, Priyanka Chopra, and Julianne Hough (more famous for donning blackface than for her activism) has been described by many as the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with our culture right now.

When it comes to the artistic process, I have written before about the importance of “unproductivity” and being able to take the time to be intentional in our work, but I don’t see much changing and it scares me to death. Especially when my colleagues and friends are going through depression, anxiety (I am not immune to that, let’s be clear), or just unable to talk about it at all for fear of appearing as one of the “losers” as opposed to the winners climbing the ladder of success.

Where do we draw the line?

As artist Anohni explains, on her dilemma about working with Apple Music: “So, now, say the focus of your music is social justice — social justice becomes a big part of your ‘brand’. You do some TV shows and get lots of followers on Twitter. As soon as you have enough followers, the corporations come knocking to rent out your brand, which they then turn around and use as a pheromone to sell their products. You use that money to make a music video and pay your recording costs.”

That’s a dilemma as old as time — how can one build a sustainable career, while retaining integrity and artistic freedom?

Now we’re adding the mental health paradigm too. How can artists make it while retaining their sanity, and some form of well-being, without being chewed out by the process?

Who gets to have a choice?

Not everyone can afford to pass up opportunities. Artists of color, women, and system-impacted folks in general, having to work twice as hard for half the rewards, don’t necessarily have that luxury. A lot of folks have been doing whatever they could to make it in a world where the odds are stacked against them, and where capitalism offers what may seem like a way out, or up. Now, how could we imagine a world where creators are rid of the scarcity mindset?

Even though I have momentarily stopped actively pursuing the “product-market fit” movie, I see that we are constantly forced to think through that lens. Posting on social media and maintaining our visibility is number one. And because the system is built upon such profound inequality, it’s very difficult to avoid some form of selling out in order to succeed within it.

Redefining success & building collective power

Thankfully, the very people who have been discarded and shut out of the dominant system are the ones rewriting the definition of success. Built on community, equity, solidarity — we are re-discovering the many shapes that success can take, created way before us by folks who had no other way but to act in solidarity, so that success was truly shared, outside of monetary value.

I am particularly interested in how some documentary filmmakers have been exploring partnerships with their protagonists, how some leaders in the doc industry keep pushing collaboration and ethics to the forefront, or how some film companies prioritize well-being, mental health, and intentionality rather than profits. (Read more about the doc industry’s reckoning by Sonya Childress here & listen to Firelight Media’s Beyond Resilience series.) I’m also excited about the possibilities with unions like the Documentary Producers Alliance and the newly founded Producers Union. We need more structures to create solidarity, and nothing will change if we don’t keep organizing.

Now it would be hypocritical to say I have closed the door on “the system” at large. It would be a lie to say that I’m not scared. I still need to make a living, and our entire creative industry is built on powerful mechanisms that reward those who play by the rules, and in America where public funding is almost nonexistent, we are not encouraged to create alternatives that benefit us all and to build collective power.

We’re often left isolated within our own struggles, competing for very little resources. I am constantly trying to navigate my work and my values, and figure out how to keep creating and distributing work while participating in dismantling the system (an oxymoron in and of itself). That’s why I have empathy for everyone out there trying to do the same.

Ultimately, I am left with this piece of advice by painter Kimia Ferdowsi Kline to attempt to keep creating despite the doubts and the noise: “You have to get up and make work, even when you’re not supported, even when no one is looking at you, even when no one cares.”

However, what I want most of all is for us to have more open-hearted, public conversations so we can keep organizing and knocking it all down, together.