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‘WHITE’ Director David Moya on ‘breaking through ideological shields’ with humour

After almost three years, 23 awards, and 61 festival selections, filmmaker David Moya has decided the time is right to make his short satire WHITE freely available to the public. He spoke to Indy Film Library about the absurdity of ‘polite’ systemic racism, and the importance of making fun of difficult subjects.

It’s been a long time coming, but you are finally releasing WHITE for public viewing. Why now?

To be honest I thought that racism would be solved by the time we released the film, but unfortunately it seems to be getting worse by the day. That’s why we decided to release WHITE and see if we can bring some clarity to my fellow whites about their privilege.

Considering the hefty topic of systemic racism that the film handles, it’s interesting that you opted to tackle them comedically – what was it that inspired you to take such an approach to this subject?

I think it is in my nature to lean towards making fun of very inconvenient subjects. My mother has been struggling with it since I was a child. It’s the only way I found so far of coping with anger and my thin skin towards injustice.

My partner Erika Otto is a social anthropologist and she introduced me to Whiteness Studies, which appeared as early as the 1860s with W.E.B. Dubois as a form of black academic empowerment. Black academics decided to shift the subject of study from the victim to the perpetrator, but they also did something that is even more interesting to me, which is establishing that oftentimes the sheep knows more about the wolf than the wolf itself.

Unfortunately, more people go to the cinema than to university seminars, so I thought of combining both and see what happens when you present pedagogic content in an entertaining way.

To my surprise it was a success and it reached out to more people than I expected. To this day nobody has abused me online or sent me any death threats… We’ll see how it goes after the online release.

Did you ever find it difficult to strike a balance between the film’s absurd Python-esque angles and the horrific reality you were satirising?

My parents are both atheists but I spent 10 years in a catholic school, which is an interesting contradiction that my parents still haven’t been able to explain in a convincing manner. I remember that I was 16 when I first saw Life of Brian and that movie spoke to me in a way that changed my way of seeing comedy. It was as if someone had summarised my thoughts after reading a passage of the bible every single morning for 10 years. I think that was the point when I really understood the power of comedy and its capacity to enter people’s minds without them noticing.

I believe that the success of this story is that it does not trivialise racism but it makes fun of those who deny it. My objective was always to represent racism as a complex subject with many layers and nuances. Privilege is all around us, at all levels and to individually blame people for it is rather short-sighted. That’s why Toby Longworth (WHITE MAN) meets with Jason Thorpe (PUBLIC SERVANT), who represents good, old, polite, systematic racism. They are two sides of the same issue. 

The movie also makes a strong emphasis on communication. Both white men spend 90% of the movie pointing fingers and trying to deny their privilege instead of listening to BLACK MAN. The only time they agree is to ignore his words. To me the room was a micro-cosmos or a tweet feed where nobody listens and the person who knows the most about the subject is openly ignored.

This would be a very hard story to tell without its comedic tone and I honestly think that we managed to reach more people, breaking through some ideological shields, because the movie is funny and the characters struggle a lot with their inner and outer contradictions, which is what we all do at the end of the day.

How did you help your cast understand the complex tone you were going for?

I think they all got it very quickly and were extremely engaged with the concept. The best advice I can give to first-time directors is to surround themselves by people who know more than themselves. It is never a good sign to be the most experienced member of your crew. Back to the subject, it was important to me to involve the cast in the re-writes because I wanted them to sound natural and to embody their lines. I also wanted to explore Zephryn Taitte’s (BLACK MAN) relationship with institutional racism and we worked on his monologue until the night before, which means that he will always hate me for having to memorise a monologue in a few hours but he is such a great young talent that it didn’t show at all.

Since the subject was a bit controversial you never know if your message will come across or if people will understand; but it became apparent that we were on the right path during the rehearsals and the filming. There the conversation about privilege and racism kept coming back and forth behind the scenes between cast and crew. 

Did you have any particular influences or experiences you drew upon when writing the script?

With the help of Erika, I discovered quite a lot of books and authors. 

People like Tim Wise and his book White Like Me where he does a wonderful exercise of self-reflection and analysis of America and white privilege from a personal perspective.

Another wonderful book about whiteness that I would encourage everyone to read is ‘How the Irish Became White’ by Noel Ignatiev. The book explores whiteness within the Anglo-Saxon world and its nuances. Another big influence is Black Indians where William Lone Katz narrates the beginnings of colonisation and the many revolts started by coalitions of white serfs, African slaves and American Natives against their masters and how segregation and privilege were implemented to break these communities apart. This and other writings strongly influenced some of the elements of the script.

These books explore the complexities of whiteness and its many layers. 

WHITE’s award and selection count suggest it was received very well among the festival community – did you encounter any distributors or audience members who were more hostile towards the film?

There’s no point trying to please everyone, I was always told ‘your audience will find you’. I have been in rooms without laughter but never been booed, heckled or abused. I remember a festival in the South of England that made a very eclectic selection of shorts and mine landed a bit by surprise. I could only hear one person laughing. It was a 15-year-old Asian kid who came to talk to me afterwards.

That’s sometimes the challenge of shorts festivals, audiences are presented with a new narrative every 20 minutes and if they don’t curate things right, you might appear after an animation sci-fi with robots and dinosaurs. My hands are always sweating when I screen the movie but I have learned to not be bothered too much by people not responding.

I am still very grateful for all the awards we got and the places that decided to screen us. I met wonderful like-minded people in the most unexpected places. Counter to the general perception, oftentimes the smaller festivals were the ones who’d try to make sure the screenings were full and organised Q&A’s, which is the best moment for creators when we have the time to engage in a conversation with the audience.

If there were one thing you would hope viewers would take away from the film, what would it be?

I think the overall message is: ‘question yourself and listen.’

Zephryn’s character is probably the only one who knows from personal experience what racism is really about and is silenced over and over again. Even when he decides to make a scene and scream out the truth, his arguments are dismissed as anger and rage.

I believe that Isaac Asimov summarised it in a very precise way: “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

I’d say that this trend has been exported around the globe, society encourages mass confusion by asking us to speak at all times and have an opinion about everything, even more, if we don’t know anything about the subject. So, I’d say that if you’re reading this interview and one day you’re sitting on the toilet, scrolling through your Facebook Newsfeed and you feel the urge to fix sexism, homophobia, racism, or any of the big issues of our time for which you have no personal or professional understanding, think of Isaac.

What was the most important lesson you learned from your experiences with the production and distribution of WHITE?

If I am honest, I think making the movie, although non-exempt of complexities, was the easiest part.

Like with any self-funded first project, the journey has been a bit rocky, both because of my inexperience and because of the festival circuit itself. We were invited to participate in the Cannes Short Film Corner, attending all the seminars, round tables, pitching sessions, and networking events. It was like an intensive one-week camp on distribution. Now I regret we didn’t attend before distributing WHITE, we learned so much it hurts. Looking back, I think that the subject, the timing, combined with our inexperience as first-time festival filmmakers, made it complicated to distribute. Now I’d have taken distribution more seriously and contacted professionals instead of trying to do it all by myself. It can be expensive but in the long run, it pays off. I still think we did well, but we could have done better.

We got a significant number of awards but the most common answer I got was: would you like to take part in our special comedy program ‘outside competition’. I think I am not uncovering anything new here when I say that in the circuit, comedy is usually relegated to special programs, outside competition, and very rarely is considered for major awards. In general, people tend to regard drama as more award-worthy.

Aside from personal self-criticism, I feel that many festivals did not really know how to curate us into their programs, four years ago, when I wrote WHITE, the mainstream discussion about white privilege was still in its infancy but now it is at the forefront. I think nowadays we’d have been screened in more places.

I remember a slightly intoxicated distributor in Cannes kindly admitting: ‘there’s only one thing harder to sell than comedy and that is political satire’. Well, we made a satire of a widespread taboo.

I have loved every minute of the festival circuit but I still think that the mainstream festivals are still a bit lost when it comes to political satire and they don’t know what to do with us. But I guess that when your aim is to provoke, confusion is not always a bad sign.

On top of your creative output, you have a CV as long as your arm – you’ve worked with the BBC, Discovery Channel, The Telegraph, Disney Channel, and so on – is it difficult to balance that kind of day-job with more subversive independent work?

Haha! I’m a freelancer, I have worked in many places but that doesn’t mean they called me back. Jokes aside I find the media and advertising industry as a great source of comedic inspiration. I mostly work as a video editor, so I am oftentimes brought into a room with Terabytes of footage and asked to improve it. To this day I think that there’s nothing funnier than an edit suite with two creatives, a producer, an account manager, and the client discussing how to make their deodorant more feminist.

Like many people in this industry, I was not born in an artistic or media connected family and had to elbow my way in, which means working for money and landing in advertising and online content; this is my bread-and-butter.

Capitalism has contradictions for everyone who is not willing to become a hermit, and for those who enjoy reflecting and questioning life, it is challenging to play along with the industry. The same people that five years ago were asking me to zoom in to a 4K shot of a woman’s chest today ask me to remove a line that might not be inclusive enough. The industry has no ideology but money, likes and shares which is an ideology in itself.

However, I must say that not everything is bad and my professional experience has allowed me to do some projects that I am very proud of like a small BBC documentary on the #metoo backlash in France with Hélène Daouphars, where we managed to get anthropologist and historians in prime-time to discuss feminism and sexual harassment in France. And I am also very proud to say that these hours trying to make people feel as if their deodorant cared for the gender pay gap also paid for WHITE. So yes, it is challenging because it takes me 5 years to make a short film, but that also makes these projects more precious.

How has the pandemic impacted your work as a filmmaker over the last year, in either capacity?

I know many people have said this before me but 2020 was going to be a great year. We had another short lined up for production. We even won an award in Bulgaria for best pitch, which injected a tiny bit of cash as well as granting Bulgarian premiere in one of their biggest short film festivals. My partner and I had been hired by a producer we met at a festival to write a three-part documentary series about online disinformation and decided to take our first holiday in four years… in March… 2020…

I have managed to work here and there throughout the pandemic but it is fair to say that my workload has declined by 80% – although it is slightly picking up in 2021. I think that, like many, I have struggled with having so little money and so much time. I feel I am one of the lucky ones because I had savings and managed to pay my bills but, creatively speaking, the uncertainty is quite blocking.

According to IMDb, your follow-up film The Silence is currently in post-production. How does it differ from WHITE, and are there any common threads running between the two?

The Silence is a project that has been in post-production for quite a while, it was actually shot before WHITE. Unfortunately, we struggled a bit with the sound design and the pandemic only made things worse. I am working on it at the moment and hopefully, I will be able to send it to the film circuit sometime this year.

Theme-wise it’s not a comedy but a drama that takes it on the Pitesti Experiment, a re-education centre for political prisoners in Communist Romania. It is a political subject that connected with me because it had lots of common elements with my country’s past and the way countries deal with these traumas. My father’s family was blacklisted and imprisoned in Spain during Franco’s regime but it is something my father only started speaking about recently. 

This is a movie about the silences in history, the generation that decided to forget (my grandfather’s) and the generation that decided not to ask (my father’s).

I am very proud of it since I directed it partially in Romanian, and had the opportunity to work with great actors, as well as reading some great books and interviewing incredible people to write the script.

Where can we find out more about you and your future projects, and is there any way our readers can help support your work?

Please share WHITE and any other project you like as much as you can, that’s the best way to help. You can also follow me on Twitter: @DavidMoyaSan, Instagram: moya_films, on Facebook, or my website.

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