Nusrat Durrani Delivers Moving Keynote at It's A Match
At It's a Match! Connecting Formats to Audiences, we broke down audience understanding through panels, conversations, and interactive sessions. Over the course of two days, we analysed new European audience data with experts, allowing participants to find their gap in the market.
Visionary media executive Nusrat Durrani delivered a poetic keynote on inclusivity, making a compelling case for addressing the crisis of imagination in the Western film industry by tapping into talent and stories from unseen places. Read the stirring speech below:
Stories of the gorgeous unseen
On Aug 23 last year, officials from Brazil’s indigenous protection agency found a 60-year old man lying dead in a hammock in the Amazon rainforest. According to the New York Times, they were witnessing the first recorded disappearance of an uncontacted tribe in the country’s
history. With his death, an entire culture vanished, answers to thousands of questions, keys to a vast mythology.
Very few of us are aware of this. Or that the largest uncontacted tribe in Brazil is at risk of annihilation because of illegal tin mining. The west’s story engine is consumed with producing and regurgitating its own legacy – a continuation of the post colonial project of cultural imperialism, where the protagonists are western heroes from film, tv, music, sports and titans of technology and business. Most of its themes are tired, it’s formats cliched and its franchises anodyne and fraying at the edges. Hollywood, in particular, is steeped in a crisis of the imagination, brought about by arrogance, ignorance, laziness, risk-aversion, and an appalling record of inclusion.
For anyone doubting the veracity of this statement, please read the UCLA-Hollywood diversity report for 2023. It will make you weep. The rest of the world – whether it be Asia, Africa, the Middle East or Latin America – has been a stage for white self-discovery or moral reckoning. Or an exotic setting for tales of violence and upheaval. Our realities, identities, beauty, and culture, the coming of age of our youth have mostly been sidelined. For decades we have existed in short-hand, cliches, and contortions – the dangerous black man, the muslim terrorist, the noble savage, the untrustworthy Chinese, the freeloading immigrant who will take your job. From black face to blatant racism to lazy and ignorant depictions, we have drifted in and out of the shadowy underground.
When I first joined MTV in 1995 I was shocked to discover the arrogance of some of its executives, who believed that western pop music was the default music of the world. And it was true at the time, wherever you grew up, in India or South Africa, you probably knew Madonna and Michael Jackson, but the west paid little attention to our music. As if it did not exist. Before social media, we were mute and invisible. I spent my career trying to change that and bring the thrill and color of the rest of the world to the west.
Even as American media companies, having saturated their own markets, look to expand internationally, entire swatches of humanity, roughly 4 billion people, or half of the world’s population is excluded, underrepresented or caricatured in storytelling. Whether it be the 400 million indigenous people on earth, the 82 million displaced, the 1.2 billion global youth, or 2 billion Muslims, entire communities are invisible or trapped in callous, one dimensional portrayals. Their joys and sorrows, mysticism, love and laughter, and their heroes and villains, are absent from our screens.
You would need to be a detective to find the beautiful Sami people of Scandinavia, the Romas Kurds, Yazidis or Hazaras, the Xiygurs of China, the dalits of India, or the Himba or Hereros of Namibia in today’s films. They have escaped the west’s attention, except in passing. Or, like every Muslim is a terrorist, they have been brutalized in our depictions. The vanishing world hasn’t been given it’s due either. 200 plant and animal species die every day, never to return. Sometimes I see Tasmanian tigers in my dreams, and ghosts of mysterious starlings flickering like green flames on a long-gone Sigillaria tree in a documentary made by nobody. Two dozen languages disappear annually – and civilizations die with them. Imagine a series in Sanskrit or Sumerian and the unique worlds it would reveal. Yet, more than 80% of the films made every year are in English – the dominant language of empire.
So what do these tragic and random facts add up to? There is an unseen, unheard, inarticulate world out there – another Earth – a rich and fascinating one, whose untold stories would add beauty, variety, depth and magic to the narrative of our times, it would correct the inequity of voice and the crisis of imagination crippling our industry. It would bring diversity of thought to our decision making. It would grow our businesses.
According to one estimate, by 2025, media and entertainment will be a 2.6 trillion dollar business –an unprecedented tidal wave of content – both fiction and non-fiction. And with the rapid proliferation of streaming, broadband, digital technology and AI, the stories we produce today will live on forever, and the biases they contain, if not corrected, will multiply. The question is, what is the record of our time we want to leave behind? One told through the western lens, heavily skewed to Caucasian history, its values, goals, and monoculture, or a more inclusive one where the entire world and all its races are mirrored in their technicolor, phantasmagorical glory?
It is true western media companies like Netflix, Amazon, Disney and others looking for foothold in the so-called growth markets like Asia and Latin America have given livelihood to thousands of people, elevated the craft of documentary and fiction filmmaking, and brought some new stories from far-flung cultures into the global mainstream. But they have also perpetuated stereotypes, widened the chasm between those with or without voice, and choked creativity in many countries. Netflix’s “Fauda” for example, is an exhilarating and well made series from Israel but Palestinians have nothing like it to present their point of view. They have no control over their own story.
To be clear, the crisis of imagination is not exclusively a white problem. In India, Bollywood and Hollywood, the twin-engines propelling storytelling are mostly focused on trite urban Indian narratives in Hindi, and local remakes of successful western formats, like Luther and Elite, ignoring the vast, rich mythology of the country, its 22 other languages and hundreds of dialects. Rural India, and the countries minorities are trapped in stereotypes, and it's fascinating subcultures from the north east to the heartland and the south are unexplored. We do not need an Indian version of the Archies. We have our own vibrant youth culture that needs celebration with the massive investment in connecting with new audiences in non-western markets, we have the possibility to tell a more inclusive story of our time. We have a powerful opportunity to correct the inequity of voice and create a new global mythologyone that reflects all people.
This is not an easy task. There are many ways to do this, but all of them require vision, audacity, courage and intellect. First, we have to reframe the world: Earth is not just a setting for western narratives. Africa and Asia are not just backdrops for fantasy and disaster where locals are sidelined. We need to get past generalizations and narrate with specificity. We need to tell stories of hope, joy and empowerment, not distress and squalor.
Second: we need to deepen storytelling from the rest of the world and dig deeper into global mythologies. Africa, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Latin America, all have phenomenal stories to be excavated and great talent. Beyond the tropes of Bollywood, there’s beauty and complexity in
India where multiple cultures co-exist. Authentic, progressive representations will arise from empowering local talent, which is plentiful.
Third: We should focus on women storytellers . There are visionary female filmmakers in every part of this planet. From Haifa Al Mansour in Saudi arabia to French-Senegalese Mati Diop, to Waad Al-Kateeb in Syria, to Amanda Kernel, the Sami filmmaker from Sweden, there is phenomenal female talent that can inject new and important perspectives to factual and fiction formats.
And finally, we need to create systemic change in the story engine – it’s the only way to create equity of voice. We need to invest in fresh talent from the parallel universe we have ignored. If most of our writers are white men from Dartmouth or Goldsmith, we will continue perpetuating a monoculture starved of risk-taking, boldness and new blood. We should filter projects through the lens of equity of voice. As much as the world adores Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Harry and Meghan, and JJ Abrams, perhaps the multimillion dollar deals the streamers have given them essentially for doing nothing could have been invested in diverse talent that is hungry for support, urgently trying to tell untold stories from unseen places.
All of us in this room have the power to make change – whether it is to hire new writers, directors, cinematographers or actors, commission new projects, distribute a new documentary or even champion a new idea, all of us can use our influence to connect the content eco-system to the urgent realities of our time and create a more inclusive story engine. Recent successes in fiction and documentary projects from India and other developing markets have proven that audiences, critics and juries are ready for a change. Ready for the strange and unknown, ready to be surprised and delighted, shocked and inspired by the new.
Filmmakers from this other world, are some of the best, the state of the craft in our countries is advanced and evolving. "Everything Everywhere" from the US and "RRR" from India have proven that our themes and struggles are universal. We can make you cry and make you dance. And stellar factual content like “All that Breathes” by Shaunak Sen, and the recent Academy Award-winning “The Elephant Whisperers” by Karthiki Gonsalves, enrich and enlighten us with their poignant themes, unforgettable characters and scintillating photography.
We live in a world of astounding possibilities – where fact is stranger than fiction, there are real characters, heroes, heroines and villains that would make the Marvel Universe seem dull and boring. The electric thrum of the streets of Tangier, the magical backwaters of Kerala, the technicolor and riveting stories of musicians from Niger, the mind-blowing tales of transcendence and survival from Syrian refugees, the drama of Old Delhi, the awe-inspiring, heartbreaking stories of the women in Iran and Afghanistan, the fables and magic of my hometown of Lucknow.
All of these are mysteries to be unraveled – they contain danger, desire, tragedy, heartache, love, loss, joy and ascendence. They are tales of gods and shamans, winners and losers, saints and murderers, punks and poets, muses and magicians.
The world is hungry for these stories of the gorgeous unseen and we have the power to tell them.