Colouring the Screen (1996)

Source: 1996. In Peggy Gale & Lisa Steele (Eds). Video re/view, pp. 256—264. Toronto: Art Metropole & Vtape, Toronto.

Colouring the Screen: Four Strategies in Anti-Racist Film and Video by Richard Fung


Since the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s racial integration has been the goal in rhetoric, if not always in practice, of corporations and government bureaucracies, as well as of grassroots organizations. Racial and ethnic differences are expected within groups or institutions that claim to represent or serve the entire community. Lack of visible diversity is perceived to be an indicator of overt or systemic racism. Particularly in the United States but also in Canada, the implementation of policies of integration have to a large extent been informed by a discourse about "minorities" and "minority representation." Racism, however, is a question of power, not numbers, and policies based on figures and percentages do not necessarily redress oppression. They may, if fact, serve to mask or even reproduce unequal power dynamics, as when quotas are used to define ceilings on the participation of people of colour. Similarly, minority representation can slip easily into tokenism. In this segment, I would like to look at the politics of integration, particularly as it surfaces as a representational strategy in politically committed video documentary.

Given its roots in public access and guerrilla television, politically committed video documentary is especially reflective of trends in grassroots politics. Its mode of production often mirrors a collective process, with collaboration between producer and subject much more common than in political filmmaking. Many tapes are produced by actual participants in the movements represented. While, as in mainstream cinema, the means of production remain largely in the hands of white producers, there is a deeper recognition by these videomakers of the imperative of multiracial representation in both the production and analysis of the work. Tapes that deal with any social topic not limited to one racial group are expected to show racial diversity, and work that surveys broad issues such as abortion or labour rights will include, among a majority of white participants, a one-of-each representative selection of non-white interviewees. The configuration of "appropriate" coloured participants actually varies from region to region. In the United States, for example. Latinos are automatically seen and see themselves as people of colour. This is not always so in Canada. Similarly, "Asian" is taken variously to mean south, east or southeast Asian, depending on context. And the status of Arabs and other Middle Eastern people is presently in flux. While anti-Semitism constructs Jews as non white. they have not traditionally been included for these purposes of explicit display.

If a documentary focusing on gay youth or on women in non-traditional occupations fails to include people of colour, it risks being dismissed as not truly representative. By the same token, the inclusion of people of colour often allows a tape to position its premise of conclusion as universally representative. The nonwhite subjects interviewed may find their presence used to legitimize an overall agenda they had no role in formulating and one with which they may even disagree.

Further, if a person of colour is shown only in work that focuses on racism, there is the danger that she will be reduced to a function of her racial identity. If the experience of racism is not described. however, a crucial aspect of her experience may be ignored. Either way she is in danger of being tokenized. One of the most expedient ways of dealing with this dilemma is to foreground the constructed nature of the piece and, thereby, the issues of representation in the production process itself. Such self-reflexive moments appear in varying forms in the documentary films Word is Out (1977). in Sara Diamond's video history of working women in World War II Keeping the Home Fires Burning (1988), or Colin Campbell's pseudo-documentary film Skin (1990). However. simple acknowledgement of issues of power or of the dangers of tokenism cannot in themselves resolve the underlying problem.

In the video documentary Just Because of Who We Are (1986), produced by the feminist Heramedia collective, the involvement of women of colour in a largely white group from the earliest stage of production and decision making facilitated an informed attention to race throughout the project. The subject of the production is violence against lesbians and the tape features interviews with women who vary in age, class, religion and race. As in many other tapes and films employing strategies of integration, the variety of women is used to suggest both the diversity of lesbians and the consistency of their oppression. However, this tape also addresses the experience of racism as an integral aspect in the lives of lesbians of colour. In a lengthy interview with Barbara Smith and Cherrie Moraga, the two writer-activists describe an incident in which their home was vandalized. In their description of the graffiti left scrawled on their walls, the women talk not only about the similarities between racism, sexism and homophobia but also about the points of convergence among these oppressions.

The representation of a racially integrated world emerges as an issue primarily in the work of white producers or producer collectives in which the majority of members are white. Tapes directed by people of colour, on the other hand, generally avoid any interpretation of their interventions as universal. Bolo Bolo! (1991) by Gita Saxena and Ian Rashid, for instance, looks not simply at AIDS but at how the disease specifically affects South Asians. A Voice of Our Own (1989) by Premika Ratnam and Ali Kazimi does not examine the women's movement in general, but rather, issues particular to immigrant women and women of colour.

Unfortunately, despite the organizing efforts of non-white producers to develop independent networks and the fact that the institutions of funding, distribution and exhibition are slowly being forced to confront systemic racism in their practice—the means of production continue to elude all but a few people of colour. As a result, lobbying efforts to avoid tokenism and insure meaningful participation remain necessary, not only at a governmental level, but also within communities of independent producers and within individual productions.


In Toronto, the producers of video art form a community that is in many ways more coherent and tangible than specific ethnic and racial communities. Drawn together through common interest, the "video community:' as part of a larger grouping of art communities, is manifest in two specialized educational institutions, the city's two production cooperatives Charles Street Video and Trinity Square Video, various organizations such as artist-run galleries and through a common social network. But in Toronto, a city where approximately 30 per cent of the population in made up of people of colour, this community is almost exclusively white. This, in spite of the anti-racist sympathies of many of the artists, and the generally oppositional nature of the work produced.

In one evening of mainstream television there is more multiracial representation than can be found in the entire body of Canadian video art. This holds true at a national as well as a local level. Among the reasons behind this is the fact that video artists have traditionally used other artists as cast and crew. Drawing on the pool of professional actors, for instance, might allow for greater racial diversity. More recently, concerns about appropriation have made many artists cautious about representing experiences not "their own" (a complex issue needing much more discussion). Nevertheless, since few people of colour have had the opportunity to produce video, we are left with a strangely whitened version of the world, in which people of African, Asian and Aboriginal ancestries, when they do appear, figure on the periphery—in crowd shots or found footage. Through default, then, this work reinforces the most exaggerated extension of stereotype: the very absence of attribute—invisibility.

At V tape in Toronto (a distributor with one of the largest collections of video art in English Canada, including virtually all Toronto-based production), only a handful of local tapes feature people of colour, and of these only a few are by non-white producers. Of the tapes that do include non-white representation, only a fraction employ convention of "realist" fiction. Two works by white artists. Night Visions (1989) by Marusia Bociurkiw and A Place With No Name (1989) by Elizabeth Schroder, use naturalistic codes of acting to create empathetic characters. Both tapes seek to avoid the dangers of speaking "for" Native people by focusing instead on the relationship between white and Aboriginal women and drawing out issues that separate and unite the characters. Night Visions juxtaposes questions of
censorship and lesbian rights with the struggle of a Native woman to keep her child. A Place With No Name explores the terms on which a Native woman from northern Canada and a white "southerner" woman from Ontario relate across distances that are more than geographical. In both these pieces. issues of voice and representation (who speaks for whom) are dealt with solely within the diegesis—that is, at the level of character and plot. In most of the other tapes dealing with non-white representation, however, there is an attempt to confront and unsettle dominant systems of signification through disruptions of racial typecasting and formal devices such as distanciation, whereby the spectator is made conscious of the conventions of illusionism. The Flow of Appearances (1986) by Tess Payne, for example, is a narrative fiction about our "connotative culture" and the way in which individual perception is mediated by a language learned from popular media. In this piece, one of the anchoring tropes is that of a Korean woman who speaks only in Italian. One scene shows her dressed in "Oriental" clothes, displaying classic preparations of pasta. In another, she is "riding" a bike (keyed in front of footage shot from a car) lip syncing to Italian pop songs. In Kipling Meets the Cowboys (1985) by John Greyson, a tape about colonialism, neo-colonialism and gay sexuality in the Americas, a travel agent accidentally walks in on the filming of a cowboy porn musical. The travel agent is a Native man and the incongruous group of cowboys includes one black and one Asian actor. Both these tapes disrupt symbolic references traditionally associated with racial "types." Stereotypes are turned on their sides, the authenticity of the image is questioned and attention is called to the ways in which we have been educated into limited racial expectations.

The discomforting fact remains, however, that most Koreans do not speak Italian and that neither ranching nor the porn industry have been significant employers of Asian men. These fictional subjects, then, are not meant to tell us anything about actual people of colour in any historical or social sense; they do not assert a "real experience" by contradicting the stereotype. The strategy employed by these tapes may instead be read as a conscious avoidance of "essentialism" and stereotype. But this approach to representation raises other questions: to what extent are the nonwhite characters reduced to self-reflexive, postmodern signifiers? Are they being used, like their predecessors, solely to make a point, albeit this time about racial expectation? Both these tapes eschew a language of realism and, in a sense, render all of their characters into caricatures. Equal treatment, however, does not necessarily foster equality. Because of the universalization of whiteness in the history of representation, white characters are invested with a taken-for-granted subjectivity. This is not the case with representations of people of colour, in which subjectivity must be carefully built.

In most of The Flow of Appearances, the Korean woman is positioned as an object by the camera, most notably in a sequence where the camera follows her movement through a crowded street, visualizing a description by a young white man later in the tape. In the "pasta" scene, the woman addresses the camera, but her Italian is not translated for an anglophone audience; in this sense she is "silenced" within the tape. At the same time, she is always depicted as self-assured. And the bicycle ride sequence centres as much on her pleasure as on the fact that she is "singing" in Italian. In Kipling Meets the Cowboys, the cartoon figures of the cowboys are counterbalanced by the Native travel agent. Though he is cast "by race" and though, in a sense, he bears the burden of inserting consciousness about race in the diegesis, he is made a subject through the use of several devices. His character is developed, he is given the pleasure of revenge at the end of the tape and, clearest of all, his point of view is privileged through direct-address voice-over.

Edward Lam likewise employs transgressions in racial typecasting as an entry into analyzing the question of subjectivity itself. Both of Lam's tapes, based on performance pieces, feature black actors as the lead characters. As in the tapes by Payne and Greyson, these actors are used in ways that subvert their connotative associations in the dominant lexicon. Nelson is a Boy (1985), for instance, features a young black man delivering a stilted, anachronistically erudite dissertation about
beauty, with references to Brancusi and Gustav Mahler.

In most of his work, Lam constructs a tension between the characters within the diegesis and himself as creator. This is often accomplished through explicit references to "Mr. Lam" so that he becomes an absent character in his own piece. Whereas distanciation and reflexivity are by no means novelties, the device takes on new meaning within a context that is racially charged. Lam is Chinese. In Nelson is a Boy, the black actor introduces himself directly to the camera, and proceeds to muse on an "educated Negro's" appreciation of "Negro art.' In the confusion of subjectivity and authorship, there emerges a potent image of the struggle against internalized colonial discourse and the search for "authentic" voice by people of colour.

Through intertitles such as "this is a slave," Nelson is a Boy is infused with constant references to race. Racism, however, is never explicitly named, thereby confounding any comfortable appropriation and denying the viewer resolution and closure. Ironically, by leaving the issue thus suspended, attention is drawn toward it even more compellingly.

Finally, in Second Generation Once Removed (1990) Gina Saxena questions the "essentialism" with which racial identity is often viewed by exploring her own mixed racial heritage and how it is perceived by others. A parade of different people—in an office, on the street, in a domestic setting—look into the camera and question the artist on her racial background. These snippets are intercut with shots of the artist's face keyed against the flat plane of "colour bars" while her voice offers evasive answers to probing questions. Also intercut are shots of the artist "Orientalized" into a seated Hindu deity. The tape dismantles and parodies the assumptions that accompany the need to "know" one's own racial location or that of others, illustrating what Homi K. Bhaba describes as the "ambivalence" of the stereotype:" a form of knowledge and identification that vacillates between what is always 'in place’, already known, and something that must be anxiously repeated. Second Generation Once Removed presents an autobiographical intervention at the same time as it underlines the constructedness of subjectivity.


Given the history of race and representation that we inherit as video artists, we sometimes seem to be caught in a double bind when presenting non-white characters: a choice between their reduction to a function of race and the denial of racial difference by casting people of colour in essentially "white" roles. The apparent impasse of this sort of "catch 22" is overcome by the self-reflexive, deconstructive approach of some British films. However, as with the strategy of
"positive images,” there is no absolute representational remedy, only those which are more (or sometimes less) challenging and insightful.

It is also deficient to discuss anti-racist representational approaches without a simultaneous call for strategies to increase the number of people of colour with access to work in film and video, producing on their own terms. The two areas are intimately related: increasing the number of non-white producers does not simply add more colour to the screen, it has the potential to alter both the questions and the ways in which they are posed. In much of the new work by people of colour— many of them first-time producers—racism forms the implicit context, but the tapes themselves are concerned with questions of (autobiographical) identity and cultural validation. Artists relatively new to video such as Donna James, Zachary Longboy, Shani Mootoo and Shauna Beharry, as well as established video producers like Paul Wong and Leila Sujir, have all made recent work on family histories or on the preservation of cultural identity in a diasporic context, or in a colonial context in the case of Aboriginal producers. The tapes draw on different strategies, from the reworking of documentary codes to the development of a poetic, expressive vocabulary to the use of humour and irony. What they hold in common, however, is the refusal of generalized statements about race; rather, they deal with a close and more-often-than-not explicit relationship to the artists' own histories and social isolation.

But the systemic changes that allow the emergence of "new voices" (including those from experienced producers) depend greatly on political context. It is worth noting, as an example, that the black British workshops were funded after massive and widely publicized rioting in the early 80s. At least within the initial five-year period, guaranteed funding and an integral connection with Britain's Channel 4 and the British Film Institute meant that producers were relatively free of commercial pressures. Their license to deal with social issues while experimenting with form to make work geared to a non-white audience AND get it widely seen—is a luxury specific to that context.

In Canada, inasmuch as it is dealt with at all by the State, racism is envisioned as a set of "bad ideas." Anti-racist work is then conceived of as the displacement of an old mind-set by a new, enlightened one. A policy of Multiculturalism, for example, is based on notions about ignorance and knowledge: people have prejudices because they don't "know other cultures." Once they understand these cultures—conceived of as "ethnic" (not English or French) and manifested through songs, dances and food—their prejudices will "naturally" dissolve. Media is crucial for this Multicultural agenda because it is the conduit through which these new ideas are disseminated. Fighting racism becomes a battle of competing representations: the problems associated with the "positive images" tendency toward simplification and idealization can ensue.

A more radical and useful definition of racism is "prejudice plus power." While this concept is sometimes used to reify power (with the idea that some have it absolutely and others not) and obscure the shifting nexus of power relations in which we all live, it does begin to explain the limitations of anti-racist strategies that are purely image-based.

In order to deal with both overt and covert codes of racism in media, we must begin with—but go much deeper than—an analysis of images and a challenge to the dominant language of representation. We must look toward the transformation of the power relations in production and in society; and these must occur, not apart from, but integral to, other equity issues of gender, region, sexuality, language and physical ability. There must be a change in the racial composition of decision makers at all levels, as well as the processes by which they function. This will require an emphasis on strategies of access to education, funding, distribution, exhibition and informed critical attention. We must foster the interest of young people of colour in taking up the challenge of media. But even more than a change of faces or better funding, we must facilitate the development of non-white audiences from the position of marginalized witness to that of active participant: this is one of the primary successes of the deconstructive strategy, so long as audiences are not remarginalized by an overly coded or experimental cinematic language.

We have recently witnessed racial equity initiatives from the Canada Council and some other provincial and municipal bodies. Studio D of the National Film Board has held special workshops for women of colour and Native women. In most of these organizations, however, reports and declarations of changing attitude have amounted to little in terms of meaningful structural change. Particularly in the larger, more established organizations, such as the National Film Board and the
Canada Council where personal interests are so much at stake and practices so entrenched, it is utopian to expect significant improvement beyond the one-off conference, workshop or committee, without extensive external pressure. In times of "fiscal restraint" and general cultural conservativism, lobbying efforts must be shrewd enough to avoid racial equity being used as an excuse for defunding the arts altogether.

But while it is important that discussions of race and representation do not neglect the crucial issues of material conditions—who gets to produce and on what terms—such concerns do not displace the need to evaluate what is produced, the strategies that are employed and the meanings embedded in the vocabulary of sound and image that we draw upon in the creation of our new visions.