Popular actor-turned-filmmaker Aissa Maiga and co-director Isabelle Simeoni discussed with Variety about their searing documentary feature examining the lack of representation of Black actors in films and series across France, Brazil and the U.S.
The documentary follows Maiga on a road-movie from Paris to Los Angeles and San Paolo to explore the historical roots of systemic racism and the impact of discrimination and stereotypes in films and series on societies and their respective popular culture. Through this journey, Maiga interviewed a wide range of inspiring figures, including Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”), Ava DuVernay (“Selma”), Brazilian actor Tais Araujo and French actors Sonia Rolland, Firmine Richard, Nadège Beausson Diagne, as well as journalists and activists such as Rokhaya Diallo and Alexandra Loras. Set to premiere this month on Canal Plus in France, “Regard Noir” was produced by Zadig Productions and Nolita TV, and co-produced by Kanopee.
What’s the genesis of “Regard Noir”?
Aissa Maiga: Before this film, I was behind the collective book “My Profession is Not Black.” I had invited 15 Black and Mixed actresses to tell me their own experience in the French film and TV industry. I wanted to pursue this exploration into a documentary.
The success of the book created an opportunity and it had become possible to make a film with an international scope about the discrimination towards women and people of color in front and behind the camera.
Why did you decide to give the film an international scope when you started adapting the book “My Profession is Not Black”?
Isabelle Simeoni: When we decided to explore the universal aspect of this issue, we realized that we couldn’t do so without looking at what was happening overseas. And our respective paths let us to embark on this journey together. During my film studies in New York, my African American friends educated me on these issues. The discriminations that they endure and the battles that they wage have forged my convictions.
How did you determine the countries that you would explore?
Aissa Maiga: France is a multi-ethnic country but in films, this diversity is not reflected. This observation also applies to other countries, like in the U.S. and Brazil, the two other countries where we shot. Hollywood is celebrated around the world for its productions, as well as for the unique movement that women and ethnic minorities have launched there to defend their rights in the industry. The film and TV business in Brazil, on the other hand, is allowing only a very small number of non-white talents to emerge, even though Black and Mixed Brazilians represent 54% of the population.
What surprised you the most through this investigation and the meetings you had?
Isabelle Simeoni: If I had to take away one thing, it would be the resilience. It’s the real tie that binds all the protagonists of this film. In particular the women we met. They are talented and determined and these are indispensable qualities in an extremely competitive industry. The energy and combativeness of Black women to overcome these obstacles is an incredible lesson of humanity, especially when we know the weight of prejudice within a society and its industry.
Do you think Black Lives Matter provoked a rise of awareness outside of the U.S.?
Aissa Maiga: In our film, we explore the historical roots of this problem of representation but also the places where it resonates today, because if we want to understand what goes on before the camera, we need to take into consideration what goes on in society.
The world in 2020 saw the protests that erupted across all the continents, and felt the raging violence that’s still endured by Black people in the U.S. Pushed by the Black Lives Matter shockwave, countries like France were confronted with their own systemic racism.
From what you observed and heard, what sets France apart from other countries with regards to discrimination and anti-Black racism?
Isabelle Simeoni: In the U.S., the issue is being addressed head-on, and it’s a debate that presents a united front to face racism, in particular in the creative industries, and it gives the movement some powerful leverage.
In Latin America, meanwhile, the situation of Afro-Brazilian is very preoccupying. They suffer from a blatant apartheid and a near total invisibility on screens, leading to tragic repercussions within society. France has a colonial past. It can’t turn a blind eye on this historical fact when it addresses the situation of people who are African descents. As we must known our past to build our future, the ideal of universalism requires solid foundations. By joining will power and pragmatism we can open up to a greater alterity.
In the absence of quotas in France, among other countries, what are the other solutions mentioned in your documentary to drive more inclusion in front and behind the camera? What is the positive message that emerges from your film?
Aissa Maiga: Opening up all castings to people of color, bring up more diversity in crews, creative pools, and among decision-makers, being able to use data and statistics to get the true picture of inequalities and fix them, inciting a greater inclusion thanks to financial bonuses on film budgets… Overall, it was a captivating journey to meet these talents and intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic. They showed us one thing: Initiatives and inspiring solutions do exist!
What are you working on next?
Aissa Maiga: I’m finishing another documentary, “Walk on Water,” about the penury of water and the global warming in Western Africa. The movie is produced by Bonne Pioche and Echo Studio, and international sales are being handled by Orange Studio.
As an actress, I will next star in the film “Le marchand de sable” directed by Steve Achiepo.
Isabelle Simeoni: I’m working on a collection of documentaries called “The Secrets Revealed” about the creative process behind works of art. It’s produced by Hervé Hubert Productions
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