There’s a lot to unpack here. Most of this is frustrating, for both the matters on which this author agrees with the Sydney Film Festival’s champions and that on which I diverge.
To bring you up to speed, Sydney Film Festival Dendy Short Film Awards entry Mukbang and Best Director winner Eliza Scanlen have come under criticism due to claims of cultural appropriation and reports of the inclusion of an image in the film of an apparently white character strangling a black teenage boy.
Reportedly at the filmmakers’ request SFF released a new version of the film online absent the image and due explanation; this action too being subject to criticism. Today, Australian creative figures defended the Festival and the film in an opinion piece in the SMH which you can read here.
You can also read commentary from Michelle Law who has prominently criticised the Festival, as well as Andrew Bolt’s widely-read perspective and some earlier coverage from the SMH. Scanlen’s statement on the issue, published to Instagram and referred to below, is not available at the time of writing.
Firstly, it seems the 27 individuals who signed today’s letter have seen Mukbang. Great; they’re right that it’s only fair to criticise a movie if you’ve actually seen it, and those who have piled on without seeing it or have not otherwise made it explicitly clear in their coverage that they have done so are doing a disservice to whichever sides of these debates they’ve claimed to champion.
To this end I and others have sought from the (non-SFF) publicist the opportunity to see Mukbang so we could cover this debate fairly and honestly; as per the authors of this letter, “people need to watch the film for themselves to make up their own minds.” No I and others haven’t made as many movies as Joel Edgerton or Warwick Thornton but those who may or may not disagree with the filmmakers’ and SFF’s approach and have with integrity covered the Festival for years deserve an opportunity to continue doing so.
Further to this point, if your point of view is that the film isn’t racist you should explain why its detractors are wrong, it’s not enough to just say that they’re wrong. Those published today have simply said we “don’t agree” in response to a series of highly articulated concerns with the material and I don’t believe for a moment these 27 people lack the perspicacity to do better.
They have however said two things in direct response. The first is that this is “for the Korean community itself to adjudicate,” without directly addressing the other major controversy of the image being pulled from the film, nor the ethics surrounding editing the short in these circumstances and indeed affirming which version of the short they’ve even seen.
To digress, and to qualify my previous coverage in which I was critical of SFF, the Festival did highlight during its run that the image had been removed at the filmmakers’ request. Their statement and subsequent releases did not address the ethical dimensions of editing a film after it had been submitted, screened and adjudged an award, nor did the statements or aforementioned actions seek to further (as today’s letter purports to do) an honest and open debate about marginalisation which could have been achieved with a content warning and/or releasing of further literature or discussion to append the unaltered film, or further publishing a new version while leaving the original intact.
If a filmmaker wishes their film to be edited they can submit a new version to subsequent Festivals or cinemas on release. SFF, to which the film had already been submitted, screened and subsequently lauded, retains discretion to ensure the integrity of their selection and judging processes are fully reflected in the work that is released to the public via their forum and should have acted accordingly. Scanlen was right in this regard; the changes should have been directly addressed if they were going to be made. SFF have not addressed the nature nor consequence of these changes and rather just effected them.
As regards the statement that members of the Korean community should be adjudicating this matter, yes; of course. I agree with this letter’s authors that it does serve the cause of diversity yet only dimensions thereof when advocates, however well-meaning, attempt to speak on marginalised communities’ behalves when they are not representative. It’s fine to promote a perspective but that’s it, that’s your perspective.
This does not however mean, as implied by the letter, that others cannot be persuasive given moreover the letter both makes reference to showing solidarity with members of marginalised communities, if this is your perspective on this controversy, or, if you take an alternate view, distinguishing, as per the perspectives and actions of these authors, racist from non-problematic material as well as undertaking efforts to highlight rather than distract from actual racism.
To this end the authors of the letter are on point regarding systematic racism in Australia which historically affected and still impacts minorities including those referred to therein as “non-Anglo whites.” I don’t agree with this terminology, nor do many others, but accept the authors are speaking to a point of furthering inclusivity. As identified, the cultural and linguistically diverse communities referenced in the letter are not adequately accounted for by stratified definitions of minority groups which many self-proclaimed activists further and whose views the letter’s scribes have sought to align with the Festival’s detractors.
This author being a member of one of the minority groups explicitly referenced in the letter knows these dangerous perceptions to be all too prevalent and to whatever extent such exclusivity is demonstrably evident in SFF’s current critics they are indeed doing the struggle against systematic racism a disservice. Too sharing the national background of, as is explicitly referenced in the letter, SFF’s Director and likewise having spent formative years in Apartheid South Africa though never encountering near so extreme experiences, this author agrees it is important to accurately identify barriers and reflect on the consequence of progress that has been made, which is not often factored, as much as it is crucial to look forward.
I didn’t know about your father Nashen, I’m sorry.
The letter also relies on and speaks broadly and accurately about the Festival’s history of diverse programming and having lauded efforts from minority filmmakers. Shrewdly, it chose not to single out last year’s Sydney Film Prize Winner. The authors have fairly identified that negating this institution (I despise the word ‘cancel’ in this context) would not be reasonable absent a proper assessment of the Festival’s record on inclusivity and achievements and that this controversy should not be judged in a vacuum.
It’s very reasonable to highlight this history, it being relevant to any discussion of SFF’s bona fides, yet this does not wholly contribute to an open and honest discourse about the movie lacking by virtue of the authors’ aforementioned brevity, SFF’s treatment of the film and the simple fact that the gatekeepers won’t let anyone else see it.
Further update: July 15, 2020
An update, of sorts, and one that may come as unexpected to many.
Law has since apologised, unreservedly, for what she terms “a blackface scene in my 2013 short film, Bloomers.”
Law has further described the scene and the “jokes my collaborators and I made online discussing the scene seven years ago” as “racist” and noted that “discussions and apologies regarding this scene have been made amongst POC filmmakers and industry figures over the years. I am happy to make those existing conversations public and transparent.”
You can read her full account here.
‘Bloomers’ was directed by Corrie Chen who was one of Law’s very vocal and most prolific supporters on Twitter in her criticism of ‘Mukbang.’ At the time of writing, Chen’s tweets are unavailable.
Clarifying that she had been “educating herself on the history of blackface,” in a statement Chen described the scene as “indefensible.” Indicating that the film was removed from her personal website and Vimeo “a few weeks ago in June,” the timing of which coincides with the Sydney Film Festival and ensuing ‘Mukbang’ controversy, Chen further stated that “we didn’t draw public attention to the removal because honestly, as it’s a short film that didn’t get much of a Festival run and didn’t win any major awards, we didn’t think it was of public interest. We just did what we thought was right.”
This author has not seen ‘Bloomers’ and is neither in a position to contradict the filmmakers’ accounts nor offer any perspective on this film; alike ‘Mukbang’ as per above. Having said this, Law’s criticisms of the Sydney Film Festival’s facilitation of the editing of ‘Mukbang’ and the Festival’s subsequent statement thereof, moreover given there has been no further direct account from SFF on this matter, stand. Per above, I agree.
Law and Chen were likewise in a position to facilitate an open and honest debate about the functions race plays in cinema per continuing to facilitate the public availability of their film. That there had been conversations about this matter privately by definition does not contribute to public debate and falls fowl of the standard they and others set for SFF and the ‘Mukbang’ filmmakers when highlighting how the editing and treatment of the Festival winner undermined rather than furthered discussion.
Law has acknowledged hypocrisy in this matter, noting that “it’s entirely fair those coming after me are using with (sic) the same rhetoric I’ve been using.” Chen, who likewise has apologised unreservedly and vocally backed Law’s position as regards ‘Mukbang,’ has proffered an explanation as to why she pulled the film from her website, which, to the standards she actively promoted as reflected in Law’s musings on Scanlen et al’s treatment of ‘Mukbang,’ falls dramatically short.
Given their accounts of the film, this would be a very different discussion had the filmmakers taken any number of previous opportunities to address the issues regarding ‘Bloomers’ publicly. Doing so would have better contributed to a broader cultural discourse which they have rightly highlighted is essential. Addressing this would not have detracted from their ability to criticise SFF’s actions nor the actions of any other Festival or filmmaker; indeed they could have more vehemently done so had they followed the standard they advocated or otherwise used the opportunity to acknowledge any of their own fault.
It is not relevant in the slightest whether a film won any awards or not; what mattered was that alike ‘Mukbang’ the original artefact was a piece of cultural record until a gatekeeper decided to remove it from the conversation. Yes these filmmakers have every right to shield their film from public view but this can only detract from a more open discussion of broader issues which Law and Chen have correctly identified need to be addressed.
Such examples of so blatant and particular hypocrisy are rare; may they not set an example.