Decolonising film festival research – Futurum


Film festivals are inspiring cultural events, typically involving live screenings of cinematic works alongside discussion panels, workshops and parallel activities such as live music performances. However, like many aspects of society, film festivals are commonly influenced by the impacts of colonisation. This can affect how festivals are organised and framed, what films are shown and who is invited to speak during discussions. In addition, film researchers studying film festivals may have colonial biases which impact how they conduct their research.

Addressing these issues are Professor Sheila Petty, from the University of Regina, and Dr Estrella Sendra, from King’s College London. They are leading a project that has developed a methodology to acknowledge colonial influences in film festival research and, importantly, to move away from them. “Our research is centred on African film festivals, not only due to our shared love of African cinema, but because we believe that all film festivals can learn from African film festivals,” explains Estrella.

African film festivals

It remains rare to see films from the African continent in mainstream cinema. “And yet, African films contain stories that resonate with the lives and dreams of so many people,” says Estrella. “African film festivals expose us to stories that are rare to find in other spaces.” The dearth of these stories on the global stage means that African people and communities are under- and mis-represented in cinema, and that the global community has limited opportunities to learn about and value African cultures.

“Senegalese writer and filmmaker Samba Gadjigo often says, “When I watched the films of Ousmane Sembène, I felt proud of being an African.” To me, this emotion-filled statement summarises what African films can do,” says Estrella. “African film festivals promote culture and heritage and enable people to see themselves represented onscreen.” In addition, film festivals act as an important stepping stone for independent films, providing them with the exposure needed to be shown in commercial cinemas or on streaming platforms.

In recent years, film festival organisers have started to question how festivals could be more representative of the different film cultures that exist around the world. “We noticed that some of the solutions were already present in smaller film festivals in places like Senegal,” says Estrella. “What if, instead of suggesting that Africa has to catch up with the so-called West, we did it the other way round?”

Colonisation and decolonisation in film research

“Researchers who study foreign film festivals by observing them, gathering data and then returning to their own country without ‘giving back’ or meaningfully participating in the festival are using colonial practices, even if they don’t realise it,” explains Sheila. The same is true of filmmakers who, for example, document a community’s cultural events without giving anything back to the community. 

Breaking free of this trend involves being open to learning new ways of doing things. “Decolonising film festival research involves listening to and learning from the communities we work with,” says Sheila. “It means building relationships and looking to communities to decide how they express their cultural sovereignty.” Sheila points to the twin attributes of positionality and self-reflexivity – researchers must acknowledge their privilege, account for this in the research process, and work to create inclusive environments that promote cultural diversity. “It takes time and commitment to decolonise systems that were not originally built for everyone,” she says. “The process should be based on mutual respect and accountability.”

Decolonial tests 

In collaboration with film festival organisers and researchers, Sheila and Estrella have designed two decolonial tests, one for researchers and one for festival organisers, to encourage reflection about their practices and possible unconscious biases in the context of decolonisation of film festivals. “We have been privileged to immerse ourselves in different contexts which shape how decolonisation is interpreted, discussed and put into practice,” says Estrella.

The test for festival organisers reflects on the strengths and limitations of the organisational process. “It provides the opportunity to discuss the social impact of festivals in the communities where they are located,” says Sheila. For example, what insights can festival managers, curators, journalists and community leaders provide? What justice, equity, diversity and inclusion issues exist in the festival management and curatorial process?

The test for festival researchers integrates self-reflection into the research process, helping researchers to question how their research is influenced by their own position within a colonial system. “It asks whether their practices are respectful and reciprocal, or whether they extract knowledge without giving back,” says Sheila. For example, how do researchers communicate with festival organisers and the communities where festivals are based before, during and after the research process?

The team has been trialling their decolonial tests at African film festivals around the world: StLouis’ DOCS (Senegal), the African Movie Festival in Manitoba (Canada), Vues d’Afrique (Canada), Mostra de Cinemas Africanos (Brazil), Film Africa (UK) and ‘Women Creators of the Future’, co-curated between the Festival Films Femmes Afrique (Senegal) and the Leeds International Film Festival (UK). Along the way, the questions are being refined and translated into multiple languages, providing a flexible toolkit for students, researchers and film festival organisers.

“Everyone involved in film festivals should develop respectful listening skills and be open to new ideas and experiences,” says Sheila. “This is critical for understanding the goals of artists and artworks. Creating diverse and respectful spaces is a first step in decolonising practices.” 

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