English as an instrument of extractive filmmaking

The field of documentary filmmaking is amazingly international. Take my husband. He is Mexican. He works at one of the largest film archives in Latin America. And for a living, he fields inquiries from film producers in the US, UK and Europe, wanting to include a piece of Mexican culture in their TV program.

But there’s a predictable – and troubling – pattern to their correspondence. It usually goes something like this.

The producer writes an initial inquiry. The tone is cordial and professional. He responds, affirming whether or not he has what they’re looking for, outlining the process, stating the cost.

He doesn’t hear back for months.

When he does finally hear back, the tone has shifted. They needed the footage yesterday. They want it for substantially less than he quoted, if not flat-out for free (“The footage is from a public university, isn’t it? Why should we have to pay? If anything, we’re doing you a favor by disseminating Mexican culture.” (Never mind that Mexican culture is plenty disseminated already inside Mexico.)

They want the rights in perpetuity (i.e. they effectively want forever ownership so they can continue to profit off of the acquisition without having to be bothered with doing due diligence on their end and renegotiating with the rightful owner every 5, 10 or 20 years).

And… it has risen to the level of an emergency! “We haven’t got time for all this back and forth haggling over terms! If you don’t make this your emergency too (undercurrent of, ‘you obviously don’t work as hard as we do!’), we’ll just go to another vendor who will!” Urgency of their own creation as a mechanism to steamroll over the rights of the colonized.

When he got an inquiry like this recently, from a producer in the UK, it followed this predictable pattern. It only slightly upset him. After all, this soft bullying to get what they want (actually, what they think they are entitled to) is all par for the course.

But what really angered him this time was the fact that she’d written to him in English, without seeming to have given it a second thought. He is used to this too. But this time her door pounding, “we need the footage now!” landed in the midst of COVID-19 quarantine and the Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd, and he and I (a white United Statesian) had been talking a lot about race and white privilege.

The fact that she’d written to him unapologetically in English, on top of the rest of her sense of entitlement, was the last straw.

“Why do I always have to accommodate them and the fact that they haven’t bothered to learn Spanish? I’ve learned English,” he said, visibly upset by the fact that he’s the one who is automatically expected to linguistically oblige.

As a Mexican, and as a brown Mexican at that, he feels like he’s required to show cultural deference to the more powerful party in a transaction that is lopsided to begin with. It’s just assumed he’ll be the one who has to expose himself to criticism and expend more energy by responding in his non-native language.

Part of white entitlement is expecting the person who is on the “wrong” side of the global North-South divide – and more than likely not of predominantly European descent – to stay entrenched in their position of weakness, even in something as seemingly benign as email communication.

This time, he said, agitated but assured, “I’m going to write back in Spanish.” Mind you, his English is fine. That’s not the point. Then he wavered, questioning his decision. I reassured him that he was doing the right thing. So he sent it.

A few days later, I asked him what had become of that correspondence with the UK producer. Had she written back?

Yes, she had. In Spanish. She’d found a translator. An act of deference. Her tone had noticeably shifted. It seems that she’d realized she’d been checked.

So the next time you reach out to an archivist, fixer, or source in another country, ask yourself – is English their first language? And if not, do you just naturally assume that English is the lingua franca of all international business correspondence?

Have you ever considered how English dominance is an instrument of white supremacy and extractive filmmaking? Do you have an unchecked sense of entitlement to their cultural assets, stories, or expertise?

The simple act of translating your correspondence can be a meaningful step in checking your own privilege. And if you can’t do that, say so. My husband says he genuinely appreciates it when someone apologizes for not being able to write in Spanish.

It’s an acknowledgment that English is not the norm for everyone, and that the power to choose the linguistic playing field doesn’t belong to the native English speaker by default. Become more conscious of language equity, and you are a part of changing the structures that uphold whiteness in documentary.

EYE Edit Lab is my new offering. It's an intensive documentary editing course – with optional coaching – designed to give independent filmmakers the technical and storytelling confidence they need to successfully edit their own films. I am developing it first in English. The Spanish version is not far behind.

About the author 

Leslie Atkins

Leslie Atkins is a documentary editor and scrappy story sage who wants to save filmmakers from unnecessary agony when they edit on their own. She is lost in translation somewhere near the intersection of visual storytelling, online entrepreneurship, and motherhood. Or geographically speaking, in her adopted home of Mexico City.

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