Diversifying Film & Media - BIPOC Film Society

By Janice Faith Heinrich
Art by Bahar Kaygusuz

BIPOC Film Society is a Berlin-based collective of filmmakers and researchers who are focusing on highlighting films by and with Black, Indigenous and People of Colour. One of its co-founders is Maissa Lihedheb. The Tunisian director and producer with a degree in media and entertainment management has directed several short films and music videos while also speaking in panels about diversity and inclusion in film. We’ve talked to Maissa about her favourite movies, filmmaking as a QTIBIPOC artist, representation and more.

When was the first time you felt represented in a movie? Do you remember which movie it was?

Maissa: The first time I felt represented was with the Netflix show “Master of None”. It was the first series that successfully represented a muslim first generation immigrant in the West. I could relate so much to the main character's storyline with his immigrant parents. The second episode “Parents” has stuck with me for a long time. It caused me to really take the topic of a lack of representation in the media to heart. Now, six years later, so many more shows like "Master Of None" have risen.  For example "Skam", "Ramy" and my current favourite "We Are Lady Parts". 

What did your path to becoming a filmmaker look like?

Maissa: When I secretly watched Hitchcock's “Psycho” for the first time at six years old and almost pissed myself, I knew I was meant to be a storyteller. Not long after, I began writing my own horror stories. It turned out that my inspiration for horror stories came from my traumatic and violent family circumstances. A lot of people pity me for my childhood and youth, but for me it is a unique and privileged experience that strengthens my creativity. Film and television were an escape to another world. A kind of immersion, as I would switch on the television to switch off from my surroundings.

My father was addicted to alcohol and gambling. He was also a TV addict. When he was in a good mood, I was allowed to watch TV with him until four in the morning. From Buster Keaton to Martin Scorsese, everything inspired me. Making movies has always been my vehicle to process and cope with my traumatic experiences. 

I started working at our local TV channel when I was around thirteen and from then on I continued to work with media. I wrote and directed my first narrative when I was seventeen. It was a psychological thriller in which I also acted. I haven’t repeated that mistake since.  In total I've directed nine projects  so far. Among them a documentary, music videos and narrative films. Currently I’m working on a feature film script.

How did BIPOC Film Society come into being, who is it for and what are your goals?

Maissa: I first started with Classic Minority Presents in 2019 where I organised film screenings and discussions. They focused on magnifying underrepresented voices and filmmakers from the Global South. I got rejected from several film schools due to structural racism so I decided to found a collective with friends who've experienced similar rejections. We wanted to tell stories because we've never seen ourselves or our people represented. As a young, working-class Tunisian woman, my experience on German television has been one of erasure and misidentification. My whole existence has been gaslit and misconstrued. My aim is to change this. I don't want future audiences to see themselves as the stereotypes that we currently see on TV.

 BIPOC Film Society developed in 2020 out of a mutual interest to diversify the film and media industries. We want to tackle the misrepresentation of marginalised identities, particularly within Germany. Our members hold an intersection of individual experiences that contribute to our unanimous interest in diversification. We aim to change the white, masculine and heteronormative narratives of film and film criticism. Our goal is to create a network for filmmakers to come together, produce content and share our skills.

Which projects are you and BIPOC Film Society working on at the moment? 

Maissa: My latest project is “Hundefreund”. It's a film written by Lamin Leroy Gibba, produced by Sailesh Naidu and presented by Bipoc Film Society. "Hundefreund" explores themes of love, race, and mental health. At the same time it subtly (and at times loudly) suggests that those are very much connected. In the resurgence of the global Black Lives Matter movement, race and systemic oppression are being discussed more than ever. Oftentimes conversations about nuanced lived experiences and interpersonal connections get forgotten. 

Our goal was to make the film a collaborative process. We worked with an almost entirely queer and trans BIPoC crew and every department added their ideas and suggestions to the table. The film will have its international premiere at the BFI Flair in London. It’s a stunning work of art and I’m very proud of it. I cannot stress enough how lucky I was to work with such a talented film crew.

We're also currently teaming up with Black Brown Berlin for talent acquisition.

Maissa2

What is the German film industry like for QTIBIPOC artists?

Maissa: Unfortunately, Germany is still missing the opportunity to create spaces for QTBIPOC filmmakers. Germany has so many talented BIPoC filmmakers with unique stories. Yet all we see on the big screen are the same movies by the same white filmmakers. What we also see are the token BIPoC filmmakers. The industry loves filmmakers of colour that are white passing, middle class and academics.

Looking at the Berlinale film selection, I noticed that many films chosen under the umbrella of diversity are trauma porn. And that the focus often lays primarily on filmmakers of colour from other countries.

Germany loves to deflect its own racism by showcasing QTBIPOCS from other Western countries. They make it seem like racism is only a problem elsewhere. But they're distracting from the fact that QTBIPOCS experience the same things here. 

What are your visions and hopes for the future of the film industry?

Maissa: I've dealt with a lot of rejections from funds, jobs and film schools. It made me insecure yet also hopeful that with every rejection I’m getting closer to an acceptance. Three months later my team from "Hundefreund" and me have received a film funding from the BKM. It's something we applied to being certain we won't receive it. Especially because I’m a director with no film school degree, which is something that most funders require.

Today I realise how many great films could be made, if funding institutions would be more open to funding underrepresented and under established artists. Our film "Hundefreund" and movies like "Futur Drei" are an example that opening up gates can lead to beautiful work. People are longing for this kind of representation and storyteller. They're tired of seeing the same films over and over again. Film Schools are inherently elitist and it’s time to change that.  Finance projects based on talent and not on exclusionary access and education.

 I’m so blessed to have all these amazing people around me that support each other's ideas. It’s time for QTBIPOC talents in Germany to become recognised outside of our little bubble. Germany will have its cinematic revolution soon. They’re recognising that they can’t sustain themselves with their repetitive bland content anymore.

What are currently some of your favourite movies or TV shows?

Maissa: Here’s a list of my favourites:

  • We Are Lady Parts (Nida Manzoor, BBC)
  • Ramy (Ramy Youssef, A24)
  • A Son (Mehdi M. Barsaoui, Film)
  • I May Destroy You (Michaela Coel, BBC)
  • Where Do We Go Now (Nadine Labaki, Film)
  • The Farewell (Lulu Wang, Film)
  • The Mirror (Jafar Panahi, Film)
  • Cure (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
  • Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, Film)
  • Black Girl (Ousamane Sembene, Film)
  • La Heine (Mathieu Kassovitz, Film)
  • Les Miserable (Ladj Ly, Film)
  • Nouras Dream (Hinde Boujeema)
  • Baqyt by Askar Uzabayev

Which directors would you like to work with?

Maissa: I would definitely like to work with Martin Scorsese because he’s been my dad since day one. He’s also the first director I encountered who talked about immigrant stories. His films are extremely authentic and cinematic at the same time and they remind me of home. Then there’s Abbas Kiarostami. He’s a master in making depression and tragedy meditative. I love his mix of documentary and fiction. I’m also a great fan of Lulu Wang. She was about to leave the industry due to gatekeeping and institutional racism but managed to get her film made against all odds. Lastly, I’d love to work with Yorgos Lanthimos because I wish I was as brilliant as him. I really just want to get into his mad brain and understand how he thinks. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Find Maissa and her work on her Website and on Instagram.

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