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Ex-IDA Director Poh Si Teng: For True Equity in Docs, We Must ‘Reform, or Dismantle and Rebuild’ Hierarchies

Poh Si Teng, the former funds and enterprise program director at the International Documentary Association, shares the keynote address she delivered at CPH:DOX.

Poh Si Teng

Poh Si Teng

Marcus Yam

This week, members of the members of the documentary field are gathered in Copenhagen for CPH:DOX, one of Europe’s largest nonfiction film festivals. March 29 marks the start of the festival’s industry conference, where Oscar-nominated filmmaker Poh Si Teng delivered a keynote titled “Shifting Power.” Teng most recently oversaw the International Documentary Association’s grants portfolio as funds and enterprise program director.

It’s the first time Teng has spoken publicly since she was among four senior staffers who left IDA three months ago amid ongoing internal conflict at the nonprofit. They took issue with what they said was the top-down, diminishing management style of Executive Director Rick Pérez and clashed with him and the board over the implementation of progressive policies around fundraising and IDA’s signature screening series.

In her speech, which IndieWire shares exclusively below, Teng details the equity-based approach she took in her work as a funding gatekeeper, reflects on the roadblocks IDA and other institutions face to fulfill their missions, and declares that reforming power structures — such as the ongoing unionization effort at IDA — is necessary for the documentary field to be accountable and to achieve meaningful change.

God eftermiddag.

And to friends and the documentary filmmaking community tuning in from other parts of Europe, in North America, Latin America, MENA and other regions in Africa, and from Asia Pacific, a warm hello to you from CPH:DOX in Copenhagen.

I’d like to thank AC Coppens from The Catalysts, CPH:DOX and Documentary Campus for this opportunity to be with you. I would be remiss if I did not thank Don Young and Natalie Bullock Brown, two fearless documentary leaders in the United States who have taught me so much in the past year.

And finally to my greatest teacher, who will continue to impart invaluable lessons of patience and compassion: my one-year-old daughter, Navin Sarika Teng.

I’m deeply honored to be here among so many outstanding documentary filmmakers and respected leaders. Many of us are here today for the love of stories. And how appropriate that we are gathered in the hometown of celebrated directors like Lone Scherfig and Susanne Bier. We are here in the heart of Nordic filmmaking, the home of the prestigious Danish Film Institute, an envy of so many filmmaking communities and organizations around the world.

We are also here today because we feel a sense of urgency.

We’re in the midst of a war in Ukraine and the ongoing eight-year war in Yemen; we’re still in a pandemic that reminds us of our broken relationship with the natural world; and there are social justice and environmental conflicts in our own countries, communities and backyards.

And so, we are here in CPH:DOX to share films and timely messages with the world through our art.

When I was first approached to speak about storytelling and accountability for this conference, I thought to myself, Where should I start? Who should I be addressing? The independent filmmakers, those who are emerging, those who are established in their careers? Or the gatekeepers — the broadcasters, platforms, studios, production-services companies, distributors, programmers, and funders?

As someone who has had the privilege to have worked in some of those worlds, I’ll try my best to share what I’ve learned and mistakes I’ve made as a filmmaker, a documentary commissioner, and a funder.

For the love of storytelling, my message is this: Meaningful inclusion and diversity are imperative. To understand the value of inclusion and diversity is to understand the harm that comes from the lack of it, and the real harm that dominant, singular perspectives can cause — not just to our film community, but to those who watch and receive our documentaries.

We cannot begin to fully understand diversity and inclusion without introspection.

And so I want to begin by talking about POSITIONALITY — our lived experience, why acknowledging it matters.

I’m going to share some of my own vulnerabilities, and where I come from.

I was born and raised in Malaysia, a former British colony. I’ve felt first-hand the harm that comes from being a minoritized voice, by virtue of my race and religion, and as a woman from a working-class family, raised on an island in a post-colonial country. It was because of this that I chose to pursue journalism and filmmaking in the United States, in search of an environment where perhaps a minority voice could be heard.

Almost 20 years ago, my father and mother, who ran a small motorcycle spare parts shop, cobbled together enough money to send me to the United States. The money was enough to last me just a few months. I ended up completing my journalism education, and I stayed in the US for a few years. It was during my time in the West that my formative understanding of the true meaning and value of diversity began.

As a journalist and filmmaker in America, I quickly realized that not all ideas and narratives were given the same play. They don’t all get equal time in the capitalist marketplace of stories.

I cannot take credit for coming to this conclusion on my own. It first came to me from my mentors in journalism and nonfiction storytelling — mostly Black women, who gave me this invaluable education: Meritocracy is but a myth built on the backs of the marginalized and the minoritized.

And so when I finally decided to cross over from journalism and embark on a career in documentary filmmaking, I was a little more prepared. I was privileged enough to direct and produce films for some of the most respected legacy journalism institutions in the world.

But what I was not prepared for was how many of my films for over a decade were going to be shaped by a strong singular perspective, by top-level executives who did not share any lived experience with me and the participants in my films.

They never questioned their own positionality, but they always questioned mine.

Many of them insisted on standardizing stories for the sake of their idea of the “general audience.” They felt the need to classify entire communities — sometimes whole countries — as “good” or “bad.” According to one high-level executive, “There are the ‘do-gooders’ and the ‘evil-doers.’” I am not making this up.

As someone from a post-colonial country, a minoritized voice in both Malaysia and the United States, I have personally experienced the harm of such standardized, simplified narratives, which only caricature and further endanger those already harmed.

In the US, you see that harm in many films about Black and Indigenous communities, and those of people of color. Here in Europe, you see that harm occurring in stories about refugees, about people from the Global South — the MENA region, post-colonial Africa and Latin America.

In Asia, and in India, where I spent several years of my filmmaking career, you see the dangers of dominant narratives erasing stories about Muslims and Dalits.

But I will admit. I did not truly understand my own lack of perspective and shallow understanding of nuance until I transitioned from being a filmmaker to a documentary commissioner for Witness, Al Jazeera English. At Witness, I worked alongside commissioners of other nationalities and backgrounds, with editors who were refugees, whose families were living in regions where there was conflict. I worked with colleagues who were still living with the trauma of war.

In a diverse newsroom, simplified narratives were regularly contested. As commissioners and journalists from several dozen nationalities, we were forced to confront our own positionality again and again. And that made for better, more relevant stories for our audience.

And this brings me to the next lesson I learned: ACCOUNTABILITY.

Through the past few years of heightened racial reckoning in the United States, people have often asked me what I mean by accountability.

To me, accountability means two things: The first is a recognition of the community that has brought me to the table, to this stage — those who look to me for leadership and those I represent. I believe I am accountable to them to not sell them short, to ensure that their lived experience is not minimized.

The other aspect of accountability is that for all of us, filmmakers and gatekeepers, if we have done wrong, whether or not we intended to do so, we are complicit. We carry the blame. We are not absolved from the consequences of our actions.

And so as a filmmaker who struggled with finding my stories diminished in the shadow of simplifying perspectives, I did not want to perpetuate the same heartache that I faced.

This is not always easy because such work requires care and takes time.

As a documentary commissioner, I devised a simple rule of thirds that I tried my very best to adhere to. Out of my portfolio of documentary commissions, one third would be granted to more experienced filmmakers. I called them the safe bets. Another third could go either way — to filmmakers with intermediate experience. And the final third — to the biggest risk in my portfolio: new and emerging filmmakers. And I have to admit, it was the latter third that often brought me the most gratification and joy. No doubt it was nerve-wracking. I couldn’t afford for any of the projects to fail.

So what I did with many emerging filmmakers was to produce their films and help them hire experienced editors and cinematographers. It was important that their films were made and were broadcastable, and they get their first credit as director and producer.

Many of these filmmakers came from minoritized communities. And I’m proud to say that many of their films weren’t just a success in terms of the number of streams and who they reached; they went on to win awards and critical acclaim.

And so, when we work with those who are meant to tell those stories, when we facilitate true and meaningful collaboration across identities and nationalities, where we do right by those we’re meant to serve, we all benefit. Society benefits.

So if you’re a gatekeeper, take those risks. Filmmakers are taking even greater risks.

When I decided to take on another gatekeeper position, as funds director at the International Documentary Association — or, IDA — I promised the field that I was going to be more accountable for my actions. It was a public promise that, I’ll be honest, I was afraid I could not live up to.

So I decided that whatever the grants team and I did, we would be as transparent as possible in our processes.

And so when we introduced authorship as a requirement in our IDA grant application, I wanted to be transparent with what we were asking — by telling the field about our intention and our position. As a gatekeeper and grantor, I cannot expect filmmakers to give what I cannot provide myself. That would be disingenuous.

So at IDA, we told the field who was reviewing the applications and we shared our demographic data of the reviewers and the grantees. It was by being transparent in our processes, that I realized more improvements were needed.

While we were faring better in terms of racial and LGBTQ representation, there was a huge gap when it came to including filmmakers living with disabilities; our applications weren’t accessible to them.

I saw this gap as a loss of stories, a loss of richness. We couldn’t even fathom the type of narratives, the different kinds of aesthetics that were lost because we didn’t know. We lacked the positionality, the lived experience.

Transparency is important. Without it, we are not giving the community the tools to hold us accountable. And I find that many documentary organizations struggle with this, especially when there is top-down management.

It’s difficult to imagine a hierarchical structure, one that lacks collaboration contributing effectively to the public good. Top-down structures create too many gaps in our knowledge, and makes it very difficult for the organization to serve our documentary field.

For all of us here, we’re in this field for a variety of reasons. But one would hope that one of the reasons we’re here is because we want to be IN SERVICE. We want to live in a better society. And our hope is that through documentary films, we can help our audience make informed choices — to be compassionate people, and to have the tools and the imagination to hold power to account.

I’ve always been a firm believer that if you want something, you have to start from within.

And that has to extend to how we treat participants, how we treat others in our teams, in our organizations, and in our institutions. How we share our collective vision.

But I learned that starting from within is not enough. We are also a reflection of the structures within which we operate. It is not enough to model ourselves as the ideal citizens in a utopia that does not exist; we cannot claim to be unmoved by class, caste or color, in a society that is defined by them. And to this end it is crucial that we also reform, or dismantle and rebuild the systems we’re a part of, to enable us to be better.

A prime example is that of my very courageous former colleagues at IDA, who are trying to establish a union in the United States — Documentary Workers United. They are fighting to get a seat at the table, to better advocate for filmmakers.

I believe that this is going to fundamentally shift the power of storytelling in our field.

I’d like to implore everyone listening to take note and support them. They are a shining beacon of leadership for our time.

I’ve had the privilege of working with some exceptional leaders in documentary, who have taught me how to balance what they owe to their jobs with what they owe to the public.

For these true documentary leaders, there is a sense of holding their positions in the public trust and drawing their power from the communities and identities they represent.

They are not aspiring to some aloof vantage point above the fray. They are not seeing our world from the high tower. These documentary leaders are experiencing it from the town square.

And so in closing, this is my message to the gatekeepers:

For production-services companies, I know that many have shifted to supporting more directors and producers of color and from communities that have been minoritized. The question is, Are you taking the lion’s share of the profits?

To those who say they are collaborating, Are you sharing space and giving fair credit for work that’s done?

For programmers, Who is in your programming team? Are there potential gaps of knowledge that you should be mindful of, so as not to make catastrophic programming blunders that further endanger a community that’s already harmed by a condescending dominant narrative.

To platforms and studios, while you are a commercial enterprise, are you supporting perspectives with big money that further minoritizes whole communities?

To government-supported, tax-payer-funded institutions, will you continue to be true to your mission of supporting a wide range of documentaries and voices in the public interest? Will you take risks, or will you just chase what the commercial platforms are doing?

And finally, to nonprofit, mission-driven documentary organizations, and specifically to executive and board leadership: Will you be true to your staff, and the promises made to filmmakers?

In the service of a better documentary field, we have to look at our organizations and identify roadblocks to accountability.

We owe it to the documentary field. We owe it to society to tell fuller, more nuanced stories. And we owe it to ourselves. We cannot wait.

Thank you.

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