Like much of Western storytelling, documentary filmmaking has colonialist roots, going back to the work of ethnographers who thrust themselves into communities they viewed as outsiders. Brown Girls Doc Mafia is looking to unwind that tradition.
Since its launch six years ago, the organizers behind the collective have committed themselves to decolonizing the documentary form. Better late than never: To date, the collective is comprised of over 5,000 BIPOC women and nonbinary documentary film professionals, led by founder Iyabo Boyd. Collectively, the group defines themselves as disruptors on a mission to create an equitable and inclusive industry.
“Brown Girls was born out of the feeling of isolation, tokenism, and hitting glass ceilings as a Black woman documentary filmmaker,” Boyd told IndieWire. “And meeting other people going through the same things that I was, made me realize that there was a community larger than just me. I connected with some South Asian filmmakers, I suggested we just do something and call it ‘Brown Girls,’ and they agreed. It was kismet.”
The collective started as a Facebook group in 2015. By the end of the first week, there were 200 members; by the end of the first month, that number had tripled, and only kept building from there. Its founders said that while the documentary community has not been devoid of Black voices — Stanley Nelson, Roger Ross Williams, and Dawn Porter among them — the sparsity was a constant source of frustration.
Porter, an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose work has appeared on HBO, PBS, Discovery, and Netflix among others, was among those who supported the effort. “Before Brown Girls Doc Mafia, the documentary space was kind of like Black people in San Francisco — when you saw one another, it was a thrill,” said Porter. “But there wasn’t necessarily a way to connect, build, and keep anything going. There was clearly such a need for someone to take the lead, which is what Iyabo did.”
Porter described Boyd as “lightning,” praising her talent, leadership skills, and unapologetic nature. “She said, ‘I’m just going to do it myself’, and that’s really the documentary way,” she said. “She embodies that spirit of energy, enthusiasm, camaraderie, and support for community. We all owe her such a collective thanks, a debt of gratitude for what she’s done.”
Sundance director Tabitha Jackson, the first Black woman to head the festival, said BGDM had impacted Sundance’s own diversification efforts. “They made their presence felt in many ways, right from the get-go,” Jackson said. “And we will be running to keep up with them, in their purpose of making sure there is a distribution of power in our industry that is equitable and fair. They aren’t waiting to be invited in or given permission to take a seat at the table, but are demanding it.”
Though BGDM was founded six years ago, it took more concrete form at Sundance in 2018, when over 60 members attended the festival for the collective’s public launch, where they made their presence felt. As Jackson put it, they immediately began channeling their collective energy “into very effectively unlocking access, power, and amplifying community.” The next year, the organization partnered with Sundance Institute’s Outreach & Inclusion program to support the more than 100 BGDM members who attended the 2019 Festival — 24 of whom went as presenting filmmakers.
Sundance has been a key player in BGDM’s advancement.
“They gave Brown Girls funding in 2020 during their push to support organizations that were at risk during the pandemic, which was wonderful,” Boyd said. “We collaborate with the Sundance Documentary Institute a lot, and they offer badges and other support for our members to get access to the festival. And they are thought partners around how to do what we do.”
BGDM has also sent members to Hot Docs, Tribeca, True/False, Camden, and Cannes. “I was going to all these events and realized, ‘Oh, there’s no access for people of color, besides the folks who were being tokenized by certain organizations,’” Boyd said. “We recognize that festivals can be intimidating places for our members, because it’s like taking a hundred people of color to an event that’s usually a majority white space. … But people are usually glad we’re there.”
One of BGDM’s key initiatives is a robust, searchable directory launched in 2020 as a destination for discovering talented women and non-binary above and below-the-line crew, and executives of color. The organization called upon the documentary industry to make a commitment to increased hiring of BGDM members across all roles. The directory launched with just over 200 members; one year later, there are over 1,000.
“It addresses that seemingly perennial issue of people saying that they want to expand the diversity and richness of their teams, but we look, and there just aren’t people out there,” Jackson said. “This incredible Member’s Directory gives light to that. Not only are they there, this is who they are, this is their phone number, this is their resume, this is their track record. There is no longer that excuse.”
Courtesy Everett Collection
Porter said she has utilized the database several times. “We have hired cinematographers, associate producers, a spectacular assistant editor who I’m trying to selfishly keep all to myself, because she’s so great,” she said. “The other piece is the community support and honest conversation. People trading tips, information, like, ‘Who should I pitch this to? Who should I talk to at that network?’ There’s a real spirit of camaraderie and openness that is just joyful to watch.”
BGDM also offers signature Grant Initiatives: the BGDM Sustainable Artist Grant and the BGDM Black Directors Grant. For the former, five grantees each receive $10,000; for the latter, five grantees each receive $10,000. Each grant comes with a year-long fellowship program that’s built around connecting grantees with different creative and industry advisors, as well as in-depth one-on-one mentorship.
These grants were financed by a 2020 GoFundMe campaign that raised close to $300,000. The funds were also applied to BGDM’s year-round work to enrich their community and advocate on behalf of their members, including those who are still in collegiate spaces. Those efforts reflect Boyd’s background as a grant writer at Chicken & Egg Pictures.
“Reinventing the wheel doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, so, I try to create things that are more attuned to what this community’s needs,” she said. “And sometimes that means asking more of people, pushing them to do more and think outside the box and to give us more. Some folks might feel like we’re asking a lot, but this industry for decades has either done nothing to support filmmakers of color or has created a lot of harm. And so, I don’t feel bad about making them uncomfortable to make room for us.”
Courtesy Everett Collection
High profile films that BGDM has supported include Jamila Wignot’s “Ailey,” which premiered at Sundance 2021 and is currently in theaters; Jessica Beshir’s “Faya Dayi,” which was also at Sundance, and “Beba,” directorial debut of Rebeca Huntt, which premiered this year at the Toronto International Film Festival.
While there is still much work to be done in the funding, acquisition, and distribution of Black films, many in the film community see BGDM as playing a key role in dismantling that divide, including Jackson. “In my role as a member of Sundance Institute, it’s incredibly valuable to know that we are being held to account by them and we are disappointed when they feel we haven’t lived up to our own standards,” she said. “So, I wish that Brown Girls Doc Mafia continues to be vibrant, unafraid, purpose-driven, and transformative, because they have all the makings of that and have proved themselves to be capable in their short existence.”
Porter noted that the group could use financiers willing to step up and support the group so that its staff, who all work part-time, can be paid full-time living wages. “We need more thriving, well-supported communities like this for the health of our community, because this really is about the health of documentary production,” she said. “If you want to have authentic stories from different voices, this is a way of bringing in those voices, and giving people opportunities, so you can’t say you can’t find anybody who’s qualified. Because if they can’t work, how are they supposed to get the experience? So, Brown Girls fulfill such a critical need.”
Boyd’s vision of utopia is vast and varied, including the possibility of a BGDM production company, a talent agency, a limitless film fund, and a more aggressive diversifying of executive suites. Given all that she’s accomplished so far with BGDM, Boyd — who described herself as “a very pushy person” — seemed confident about the group’s future prospects.
“My personal dream is to open a physical space where our members can work and there might be edit bays, where they can have meetings, and where the public can come and engage with our community,” she said. “That’s hard to do in a pandemic. And it’s hard to do in a larger financial context. But that’s part of the five-year plan.”
While the term “mafia” may have its roots in organized crime, BGDM has repurposed it in a more constructive context. Jackson offered her own interpretation: “To me it says, ‘We’re irreverent, but also, don’t fuck with us.’” —Tambay Obenson