We can all agree about the importance of representation and inclusion in front of and behind the camera. But what about how these movies are described afterwards? In books? In an archive? Arguably, their legacy—and the language we use to describe them—is just as important in creating a truly inclusive film industry.
The Academy Film Archive’s Cultural Equity and Inclusion Project (CEIP) began in 2018 to address these questions with the mission to identify and uncover social, gender, ethnic, accessibility, and cultural gaps in more than 100 years of film preservation and collecting.
“When this project really started, we wanted to find better ways to describe films by and about underrepresented communities,” said May Hong Haduong, Senior Manager of Public Access at the Archive. “We were aware that it was a very big undertaking, but one that would really help archives, researchers, and academics uncover how these films are talked about within their own communities, scholarship and media.”
The Cultural Equity and Inclusion Project has divided this monumental task into 10 initial categories: Asian/Asian diaspora, African/African diaspora,, Indigienous Peoples, Latinx, LGBTQIA+, Middle Eastern North African (MENA)/MENA diaspora, Multiracial, Pacific Islander, People with Disabilities, and Women. Within these, more nuanced terms provide a lens of intersectionality. This is where “index terms” come into play, making it easier to uncover films and texts featuring, for example, representations of Argentinian, lesbian, and blind characters.
In May 2020, PhD student Lara Ameen joined the Archive as a researcher on this project, with a focus on People with Disabilities. To date, she has reviewed over 1,000 pages of written text identifying over 400 relevant films and filmmakers. Her work is supported by the Ruderman Family Foundation, an international disability rights group, which promotes inclusion and authentic representation in the film industry.
And her findings have been nothing short of revealing.
“I read a book from 2016 and they were still using really outdated, ableist language,” she said. “I was surprised—because it's not the ’80s or the ’90s, it's 2016.”
This is where Lara makes a point to separate the personal from the professional. “I'll make an internal note,” she said. “It bothers me as a person, but it has to be objective.”
“You will, on occasion, have either problematic language or words that are kind of antiquated. And we want to track that, so that people can find that information out. We’re trying to be aggregators, not arbiters.” –May Hong Haduong
It’s about sharing scholarship around these films so that the greater community can see a fuller picture of how these titles, characters, and portrayals are discussed—and can therefore be discovered more easily. This is a big step up from what archival descriptions often are, generally focusing on the object (“35mm print”) as opposed to the content.
“What we’re trying to do is create a mechanism to enhance discoverability of these films so that people who are researching them have a way to find them without just knowing the title,” May said. “You could be like, ‘I am looking for everything related to Star Wars,’ but if you’re looking through things related to blind characters, you may not be able to find it in our [Archive] catalog because we’re not describing it as such. What we’re trying to do [with CEIP] is bridge that gap of knowledge.”
“[But] in order [for CEIP to even exist], people have had to make the films,” Lara noted. “And you have to have people involved [on set] who know what they’re doing. ... If you're not getting screenwriters and directors and cinematographers, if you are not getting the people who are part of marginalized communities to work behind and in front of the camera, you can’t make the statement that, ‘Oh, [this character] has agency.’ … You can’t just sit in a wheelchair for a day and be like, ‘I know how to do this.’”
“Let's say you were describing a character that was paralyzed, and then in one scene, they get up and walk. The story doesn’t become about this disabled character. It becomes about the pleasure of the abled viewer going, ‘Oh, what a relief, this isn’t real anymore.’” –Lara Ameen
Since diving into her research, Lara has been covering texts from 1994 through 2019. The books are selected by an internal Archive committee based on criteria such as whether they’re peer reviewed or talk about a critical mass of films in the focus category. Then, the Archive relies on the expertise of its researchers, like Lara. “Were hiring and working with researchers who have oftentimes either the lived experience or a scholarly understanding of the field that has already built a foundation for them to be here,” May said. The idea, ultimately, is to expand the sources to things like film festival catalogues “because if a book talks about a film, that’s great, but there are also plenty of films out there that are not necessarily written about in scholarly texts...”
Ultimately, what Lara’s work and the entire Cultural Equity and Inclusion Project contributes to is the notion of fostering a more inclusive American cinema culture from multiple perspectives.
“If you're doing it right, you’re going to have to approach the project as a whole from different points of view and audiences,” May added.
Don’t miss our special virtual program, ACCESSABILITY/VISABILITY: Breaking Down the Barriers for People with Disabilities in Media, featuring conversations with filmmakers with disabilities examining the struggles and successes of the disabled community in Hollywood. Thanks to the Ruderman Foundation for their support of this program. The three-panel event will begins October 26 at 5 pm PT. Tune in here.