Notes from U.S. Consulate Documentary Film Festival

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L-R: Maymunah Yusuf-Kadiri, Debola Williams, and ‘Omah Areh at U.S. Consulate Documentary film festival

Vanessa Obioha

For its inaugural Documentary Film Festival, the United States Consulate spread its tentacles across issues that resonate in today’s society. From race to gender, the four-day event featured eight documentaries that plumbed these topics. Opening the festival on August 19 was the 2018 thought-provoking documentary ‘Bias’ by the award-winning documentary filmmaker Robin Hauser.

Using a personal approach, Hauser attempts to understand the provenance of implicit/unconscious bias, how it affects our interactions with others, and if it can possibly be curtailed.

“Unconscious bias affects us everyday depending on who we are. I want to look at unconscious bias and how it relates to gender and race,” she said in one of the opening scenes.

To achieve this, she interviewed professionals from diverse fields such as the police force, sports, ventures, technology and politics.

The findings were as shocking to the filmmaker as well as to the audience.

Naturally, human beings are biased. It is what we do with the unconscious bias that affects our society and professional lives. Female CEOs in ventures businesses experience unconscious bias in their profession because of their gender. It takes more determination to be considered worthy in a career dominated by men.

Aileen Lee of Cowboy Ventures lamented in the docu-film that it is very difficult to be a lady in the industry due to the mounting challenges they face almost on a daily basis.

To fully understand unconscious bias and if she is guilty of such snap judgments that affect others, Hauser visited Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, the creators of Implicit Association Test (IAT), a test that measures unconscious biases.

Unconscious bias as explained by Banaji comes from different places and can be traced to our ancestors. According to her, we inherited it from them which is why a bit of us will always be suspicious of others. This explains why a white policeman will always consider a black man a threat even if he is not armed. It is the same reason why black residents are targeted as criminals in the social networking neighborhood site Nextdoor.com, which allows neighbours to report activities in their neighbourhood.

Concerns about the site being used for racial profiling was raised in 2015 in the U.S. As highlighted in Hauser’s movie, the negative actions towards minority race is a result of our inherent bias.

The documentary shows staggering statistics that women and minority race are often victims of implicit bias. Take for instance the pay inequality in U.S soccer where Abby Wambach, a retired American female soccer champion pointed out the wide difference between the earnings of the female and the male national teams. Despite holding the world record for international goals for both male and female soccer players with 184 goals, her paycheck is a far cry from her male counterparts.

Sometimes, this toxic bias are expressed by people of the same gender. That was the case of Libby Schaaf, the Mayor of Oakland, California, who told the filmmaker that people including women told her that it was irresponsible for her to run for politics because she had children.

“But when we see rooms where there are no women, we should break into those rooms. That’s how we change it,” she argues.

Having scoured the country to generate views on implicit bias, Hauser attempts the daunting task of de-biasing our brains by engaging with innovative experiments – from corporate strategies to tech interventions and virtual reality – that are reshaping our understanding of implicit bias and attempting to mitigate it. With all the lofty promises in these experiments, using algorithms to solve human bias posed a higher risk.

Hauser would later found out that it is very challenging to break implicit bias at the end of her over one hour feature.

Bringing bias back home, a panel consisting of Adebola Williams of Red Media and Maymunah Yusuf-Kadiri, the renowned mental health physician tried to analyse the concept after the screening.

Yusuf-Kadiri argued that it is human to have bias but “it is how much it affects the person next to you that matters. That is where we have to checkmate and must be aware of our biases. We have been wired from our childhood to act on our bias. They are not necessarily negative.”

“Bias can be good sometimes because sometimes others bias can create opportunities for us that are viewed as undeserving,” says Williams. “It is good until when it is used against you. It can also be a result of inexperience. It can expose the ignorance of people sometimes because at the end of the day we are all human beings struggling for acceptance”.

‘Bias’ is just one of the riveting documentaries screened at the festival. There was also the Jenny Macquire’s documentary film, ‘Straight/Curve’ that addressed body shapes and sizes, Mary Mazzio’s documentary film ‘I am Jane Doe’ which highlighted human trafficking and child abuse, Cameron Yates’ ‘Chef Flynn’ and Laura Nix’s ‘Inventing Tomorrow’ which revolved round empowering children to be innovators and entrepreneurs.

In his opening speech, US Consulate Public Affairs Officer, Russell Brooks stressed the commitment of the Consulate to “use the power of film, music, dance, or literature to expose society’s ills or celebrate the brilliance and artistry that also form the human experience. These documentaries are intended to offer contemporary insights into American society.

“You will see exciting and inspirational stories that span entrepreneurship, technology, food, music and dance as well as some disturbing aspects of the darker sides of human nature. Whether these stories are uplifting or distressing, these are important stories that must be told. We owe it to the heroes … to the victims … we owe it to ourselves”.

The festival was produced in partnership with the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts and curated by Inya Lawal.