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The film industry has a gatekeeping problem

How the KOSINIMA, Inc. fund is opening doors for Black womxn creatives

Illustration by Paola De La Cruz @happynappystudio

At shado, we’ve been following the work of US-based film producer Oluwaseun (‘Seun) Babalola since she released her film series ṢOJU (meaning ‘represent’ in Yoruba) which spotlights youth culture in African communities. She’s now going one step further to support the representation of Black stories by setting up  KOSINIMA, Inc., a non-profit organisation that provides career support and funding for Black creatives. The KOSINIMA Short Film Grant is a grant fund for Black womxn filmmakers in Africa and the African diaspora to make their first or second short film. We sat down with ‘Seun to further understand her motivations behind the grant and her hopes for the future of the film industry

Have any of your own experiences informed the need for the grant?

Yeah, all of them! A lot of my experiences talking to filmmakers and trying to get funding for my own films and my own content highlighted the many shortcomings of the entertainment industry. Working as a freelance producer and director, I pitch a lot and write a lot of applications. In order to direct my first project, I saved and paid for it myself. 

The KOSINIMA grant is for your first or second short film, and that’s because your early films are your calling card. It’s what gets you into festivals and allows you to meet industry people; it’s how people understand your vision as a filmmaker. 

The film industry is about business as much as it is about creativity and often you need a body of work to show before you can access grants or funding. But how do you build that initial body with no funding? No resources? No connections? It can be difficult to get that support for your first short. So that’s where I wanted to intervene, to help get that initial foot in the door so filmmakers can keep building on top of it. 

Would you say that gatekeeping is an issue for Black womxn creators in the US? 

Yes. And there’s not just one reason why, it’s multi-faceted. In my experience, a lot of  resources are kept private, so you’re at the whim of whoever is running the space and what their agendas are for funding. If you’re from a group that’s not always represented, they may not necessarily see your story as relevant. That’s a very big issue that comes up time and time again. 

I’ve found that when I’ve pitched work in the past that there’s a lot of emphasis on diversity and all this stuff about authenticity, but that same authenticity is based on what gatekeepers think is authentic. Usually, when it comes to Black and African stories they want things rooted in trauma – which isn’t necessarily a story you want to tell. You have to jump through hoops and make up things that are seen as marketable so that it fits into the *this is what successful Black content is* slot to be produced. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are people that believe in new and innovative ideas, but it seems like when I talk to Black creators, we’re all in agreement that the structures that exist now are not working for us. What makes it so tough is that many investors are only interested in their return. I don’t blame them, a business is a business, but it stomps out artistry and originality.

No shade to The Matrix, I love those films, but if we can make a fourth one that no one really asked for, there’s definitely money to be distributed for Black filmmakers to create original work. 

That’s why it’s important to create something that disrupts the structures that already exist, rather than try and work within inaccessible frameworks. 

Exactly. I’ve come across people where I ask, “oh, how did you get started?” and they’re just like, “my uncle, or my cousin, or [insert family connection] already worked in the industry.” The term “overnight success” has fine print.  

Connections are not a bad thing in and of themselves, but it’s not balanced if people without connections can’t even try to open that door. And when it does open, there’s only enough space for one Black womxn to slither inside. 

I felt very lonely in the beginning of my filmmaking career so one day I just thought ok, let me try and build the community I want to be a part of. I want to help create a future in which if there’s a project that is looking for Black womxn directors, writers or producers, executives won’t be able to exclaim “we couldn’t find any!” when hiring. 

Who do you look up to in the industry, and who is changing it for the better? 

Man, I feel like it’s very obvious, but right now, I’m in love with Michaela Coel and Issa Rae. I love that they’re not trying to speak for everyone, but they speak from what they know and how they feel.. I admire how they stand up for themselves in their careers. I like how they hire Black people behind the scenes. As a producer, I do sometimes have to push hard to hire Black crews, especially when hiring new artists who may not have extensive resumes, so I know it’s not an easy feat. I feel like they’re two of a number of Black women setting the tone right now

What’s the legacy of Black womxn filmmakers, and how do we stop it becoming individualistic – like everyone getting compared to Issa Rae or Michaela Coel?

I know, I know. And it’s like this whole Highlander situation, ‘there can only be one’. I’m really trying to work against that. It’s against my beliefs. I want people to understand that you should be working together, it’s a lot more beneficial.  There’s no harm in having each other’s back.

I think the legacy of Black womxn filmmakers in the US is that we’re just going to keep helping each other until everyone else catches up. There’s little action behind the talk when it comes to supporting and funding Black womxn. That’s a bleak answer, I know. When we start addressing things like colorism, texturism, featurism, and all of the misogynoir that goes along with Black womxn getting life opportunities, then we’ll be getting somewhere. In film and in society. 

However, I do feel like there’s more of a global narrative now for Blackness. That’s also another reason why I’m opening up the short film grants everywhere. We’re everywhere.

What are the similarities and differences in the industry between elsewhere and the US, in your experience?

When I’m working I want to be trusted to be powerful and I want that power to not be questioned because of my skin colour. More often, it’s questioned because I’m a woman but once I assert myself (ahem), it’s more or less fine. In the US, even after I’ve completed things successfully, it’s still not enough to be trusted with power. My skillset is enough to do the heavy lifting behind the scenes, but never to have the title or pay to match. I’m like, am I going to die proving myself? Then there’s also the added pressure of it feels like if you fail, there’s the excuse to never hire or give money to another Black person. It’s a subtext I generally try to ignore but it’s there. 

The global entertainment industry is always going to be a little bubble that’s based on networking and who you know. I don’t think that’s ever going to change. I just think that the rules of networking need to change. I’m hoping to throw away a lot of these so-called rules and let newcomers in on what is kept secret. For me, there were so many moments of hitting walls and thinking, ‘what am I doing wrong?’ I’d ask and no one would spill the beans. I would have loved it if people told me the very simple solutions for some questions I had. I’m hoping to cut that out for the next generation of filmmakers so that they actually know what they’re doing and feel more confident in pursuing goals and making decisions.

What are your hopes for the grant and the next generation of filmmakers?

I’m really excited about it. I’m hoping to read amazing applications and help four artists reach their filmmaking goals. Of course, every year, I’d love for it to grow in a number of ways, to eventually provide additional funding for a wider pool of people, as well as mentorships, screenings, panels, training and more. I’m trying to make it an environment where people will feel comfortable sharing with each other, connecting, and creating work that presents different versions of Black identity and self-expression. That’s the goal.

Illustration by Paola De La Cruz @happynappystudio

‘Seun Babalola brings Black voices into the film industry. For this image, Paola seeks to portray the power and beauty of uplifting Black creatives. The figure stands in a monochrome environment, however the perspective they bring finds a hidden story. This is very literally depicted through the light extruding from the film camera, which is capturing different colours and butterflies through an x-ray like vision.


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