EXCLUSIVE: The British Film Institute, one of the UK’s most powerful movie funding bodies, admitted to a filmmaker of color last year that it is “systemically racist” after apologizing for how it handled his long-running complaint over alleged discrimination.
The BFI is making changes to its complaints procedures and has committed to continued anti-racism soul-searching after Faisal A Qureshi, a scriptwriter, producer, and researcher, whose credits include Leaving Neverland and Four Lions, went on record for the first time to detail his experience.
Qureshi remains disturbed by his treatment. His case is unresolved after more than two years and, although the BFI has acknowledged his complaint could have been handled better, Qureshi told Deadline he is yet to receive the formal written apology he requested.
He is fearful that his pursuit of the BFI could be damaging to his career, despite assurances from the institute that complaints would never compromise access to funding.
Qureshi’s concerns were echoed by several filmmakers, who told Deadline that they had lost trust in the BFI, despite well-documented efforts to improve its diversity record in recent years. The conversations formed part of a Deadline investigation that can reveal:
- The BFI’s Head of Inclusion told Qureshi in a private meeting that filmmakers of color can have traumatic experiences when dealing with the institute and she compared the organization to the Titanic
- The highest number of funding complaints to the BFI over the past three years concerned racial discrimination
- The BFI engaged an external consultancy to review its complaints handling processes late last year and the institute is now overhauling its procedures
- The BFI is currently undertaking anti-racism training as part of efforts to acknowledge and address unconscious bias
- BFI Film Fund executives will now be hired on fixed-term contracts after Director Mia Bays was told people had been in posts for “too long.”
Filmmakers said the issues were not unique to the BFI, but that the organization was a lightning rod because of its role in dishing out £45M ($55M) of National Lottery money every year. They said their concerns about the BFI, which counts Netflix’s Scott Stuber among its governors, spoke to broader anxiety about access and mobility for people of color across the film British film business.
The revelations come just days after the BFI set out a new strategy for its Film Fund as it looks to foster the next Rye Lane, which premiered to warm reviews at Sundance, or Aftersun, the Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning Paul Mescal drama.
Mia Bays, Director of the newly named Filmmaking Fund, said she would introduce quotas to increase the diversity of funding applicants after the BFI has overperformed its representation targets. Also last week, three senior fund executives announced their departure, taking with them nearly 50 years of experience at the BFI and UK Film Council.
Ben Roberts, the BFI’s Chief Executive, told Deadline it is right that the institute is held to the highest standards and it is conducting “challenging and thought-provoking” work to embed anti-racism practices. He admitted that the institute does not have the “perfect system” for handling complaints and has a duty to ensure those who are unsuccessful with funding bids continue to be motivated to engage with the BFI. “This work is incredibly important to us,” he said in a statement.
BFI Accused Of Being “Racially Insensitive”
Faisal A Qureshi has pursued the BFI for more than two years, ultimately extracting apologies from the institute, despite its initial reluctance to address his concerns.
Qureshi has had a near-30-year career in the film and TV industry, securing Associate Producer credits on British director Chris Morris’ two features, Four Lions — which won a BAFTA and starred Riz Ahmed — and The Day Shall Come. He was also an Associate Producer on Leaving Neverland, HBO’s Emmy-winning Michael Jackson documentary. Qureshi has advocated for diversity during his career, chairing the Black members’ committee at Bectu, the UK’s biggest film trade union.
He complained about a funding meeting with a BFI representative in Sheffield in March 2019. Qureshi alleged that the individual — who no longer works for the BFI — pushed him to discuss a historical experience of discrimination against his wishes and that the executive told him he was “very forthright” on social media about race, which he considered to be a microaggression. Qureshi also claimed that the BFI representative, who was relatively junior, wrongly said he was ineligible for funding because of his hiatus from directing.
Qureshi said his original complaint was compounded by the BFI’s response, which he felt was dismissive of his concerns. He obtained internal BFI email correspondence relating to his complaint through subject access requests, which allows individuals to obtain personal data under UK law.
A senior BFI manager emailed colleagues in April last year to say that he was unable to substantiate Qureshi’s claim that he experienced “racially insensitive behaviour” but that he “likely did receive blunt general feedback.” The emails also reveal that BFI executives misinterpreted Qureshi’s complaint, believing he had claimed that diverse filmmakers had been subjected to racist slurs. In reality, Qureshi made no such allegation.
The senior manager’s email added: “It goes without saying we’d all like to be able to give Faisal some kind of resolution to all this communication that ensures he feels heard and that the industry is moving in the direction he (and we) want it to.”
In July last year, Qureshi met on Zoom with Melanie Hoyes, the BFI’s Head of Inclusion, in an effort to resolve his complaint. It was the fourth time he had met with BFI representatives to discuss his concerns. In an opening statement, he questioned whether white BFI executives have the personal experience required to determine “what is and isn’t racism faced by creatives of color.”
BFI Inclusion Boss: We Are “Systemically Racist”
Hoyes told Qureshi that she was sorry about his experience and admitted that the BFI is a “systemically racist” organization. He took notes during the meeting and Hoyes’ comments were corroborated by a witness, who attended to support Qureshi.
Hoyes, who was appointed as Head of Inclusion last March, said during the meeting that she was aware of other people of color who have had traumatic interactions with the BFI. She compared the BFI to the Titanic, saying that the organization may have already hit an iceberg. Hoyes told Qureshi that the BFI had been working with the What If Experiment, an anti-racism consultancy, to improve its culture.
The collaboration with What If will continue into 2023. Roberts told Deadline: “It’s been challenging and thought-provoking work, but it is building our awareness of the inequalities and barriers in our processes. Mel is right in the middle of this difficult work and she does an excellent job holding us to account, and balancing sensitive conversations and situations with people inside and outside the BFI.”
Qureshi followed up the private meeting with a request for a formal written apology and an independent investigation into the experiences of filmmakers of color. The BFI, replying through a generic customer services address, did not engage with either request.
“It felt like I was complaining about a bad meal, not about something that had significantly impacted my career,” Qureshi told Deadline. The BFI made clear that it had consistently listened to his concerns and that he had received apologies from three executives, including Hoyes.
The BFI told Qureshi that if he wished to pursue his complaint further, his concerns could be escalated to Verita, the complaints reviewer for National Lottery-funded organizations. Qureshi asked a number of questions about Verita, which went unanswered. He has not received any correspondence from the BFI since last November.
The BFI said it was unable to answer Qureshi’s questions about Verita because its contract as an arbiter of complaints was being renewed. The BFI said Qureshi’s case had not been closed and he had not received a written apology because it would pre-empt the outcome of his complaint.
The BFI admitted that it does not have the perfect system for handling complaints. An independent consultancy carried out an equality impact assessment in December last year, and the BFI is now in the process of updating its procedures. This will include named individuals replying to complaints instead of a generic customer response email, which upset Qureshi. Among other changes, the BFI will phone complainants after concerns have been raised, provide people with clearer information on its procedures, and update its “customer charter” to account for diversity.
Roberts said: “As a public funder that is open to all, one of our greatest challenges is managing the inevitably high level of unsuccessful applications. Failing to secure funding for a project can leave applicants feeling that we are not a place for them, so our job is to make sure that filmmakers stay motivated to apply with future projects, and that we handle challenge and complaint well. We realise that we don’t have a perfect system and we are working hard to make it more user-friendly.”
Written Complaints To The BFI
Qureshi is not alone. During his July 2022 meeting, inclusion boss Hoyes said she was aware that many other people have raised concerns about their dealings with the BFI.
The organization received 11 funding complaints between 2019 and 2022, four of which concerned racial discrimination, according to a Freedom of Information request. This was higher than the number of complaints relating to sex and gender (three); class, age, and social background (one); and general complaints (three).
Deadline has seen 92 pages of documentation, released under Freedom of Information laws, detailing complaints received by the BFI and internal correspondence relating to those complaints.
In one example from 2019, an individual, whose identity was redacted, complained on behalf of a Black friend who had been turned down for funding for a film with a majority white cast. The person questioned if the BFI only wanted Black directors to make films about the Black experience. This should be considered “a form of racism,” the complainant said.
In internal correspondence, a BFI executive described the complaint as “very vague,” adding that they were “not sure how we’re supposed to answer this.” The organization’s response was delayed because of internal “miscommunication.” It eventually emailed the individual, making clear that the BFI would not reject a funding bid based purely on the diversity of the cast or those behind the camera. The BFI added that it had a “huge amount of very strong applications.”
In a second example from 2020, a filmmaker accused the BFI of “unconscious bias” after receiving a funding rejection. The individual complained about the tone of their interaction with the BFI, arguing that they were treated as if they were “unworthy of dignity and professional respect.”
The complaint was not upheld. A BFI executive tasked with handling complaints said there was “no evidence of discrimination” and the funding application was assessed in line with “agreed and published” procedures. He admitted, however, that the BFI’s correspondence “may not have been as clear as it could have been.”
Filmmakers Demand Change
Kolton Lee, director of 2010 feature Freestyle and former editor of Black British newspaper The Voice, and Jonte Richardson, an independent producer who has worked on the BET Awards, claimed that little had changed in the five years since they had a “troubling” meeting with BFI CEO Roberts about a failed funding bid.
The pair expressed their dismay at the BFI overlooking filmmakers of color in funding decisions. Richardson said the BFI was a “white middle-class club,” which Roberts has been part of for more than a decade. “Since the great racial reckoning in 2020, I haven’t seen much improvement,” Richardson said.
Lee, who wrote an open letter about his BFI experience in 2018, said increased diversity at the institute had not fixed the problem. “There is something about the systemic nature of the way these projects have been handled,” he said. “Unless you have a very serious approach to dealing with this, then it won’t be dealt with.”
The BFI’s own figures offer a counter-narrative. The BFI said 35% of the productions it has supported over the past 12 months hail from ethnically diverse writers, directors, and producers. This exceeds its target of 30%. Further research by Deadline shows that nearly a third of the 25 films the BFI has funded to the tune of more than £1M ($1.2M) each since 2020 were from directors of color. These include Reggie Yates’ Pirates and Basil Khalil’s A Gaza Weekend. “We’ve seen real progress in the diversity of storytelling supported through the BFI Film Fund,” Roberts said.
Despite these improvements, Lee and Richardson’s concerns about a lack of personnel change at the BFI Film Fund were echoed by several other filmmakers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity amid fears that being named could damage their careers.
None of the filmmakers accused any specific BFI executives of discrimination, rather they said the issues were systemic. Filmmakers said similar concerns could be leveled at BBC Film and Film4. Indeed, many said the BFI is doing more to tackle systemic issues than its publicly-funded peers.
“A fixed-term tenure for all public-funded creative decision-makers is imperative so decisions are not forever made through the same filters,” said a source familiar with the BFI.
This idea of creative renewal was communicated to Film Fund boss Mia Bays during her listening tour last year. “Several execs have been in their jobs too long. Need to refresh team,” Bays was told, according to notes captured from the tour by the BFI and later released under Freedom of Information laws.
The BFI appears to have engaged with this concern. We can reveal that all new Film Fund recruits will be on fixed-term contracts. Bays herself is on a deal that lasts for three years, while Ama Ampadu joined in January on a fixed-term deal as a Senior Production and Development Executive.
Bays is also reviewing the structure of the Film Fund team after announcing the departure of three top executives: Lizzie Francke, Editor-at-Large; Fiona Morham, Head of Production; and Natascha Wharton, Head of Editorial. In a statement last week, Roberts praised the trio’s “amazing slate of projects” and their commitment to “equity, diversity, and inclusion.”
All BFI funding applications are read by at least two people, while editorial meetings are held to collect broader feedback and perspectives. All applications are assessed in relation to the BFI’s diversity standards introduced in 2014.
The changes have not stopped some from calling for an independent panel of filmmakers to monitor diversity in BFI funding decisions. Others said they would like to see changes to the way films are developed so that people from diverse backgrounds do not get stuck in development.
The BFI has more than 150 projects in development at any one time, though only a small proportion of these receive production funding. As with the wider industry, films can spend years in development, but the BFI said it is committed to providing clear feedback to filmmakers and emerging producers can request enhanced overhead support.
Dr Clive Nwonka, a London School of Economics film fellow who conducted academic research on the BFI’s diversity standards in 2020, said that diversity improvements have been made across the industry, but there remains disquiet because people of color still feel like outsiders.
“We have relied so heavily on representation and visibility of racial difference to try and remedy structural issues that we have neglected the conditions of representation and the conditions of inclusion,” he explained.
“You rarely have a situation where the film industry has taken a long hard look at itself and recognized and acknowledged racism as being an everyday fact of life within institutions. If you don’t recognize and see the problem, you can’t be part of the solution. And sometimes you can’t recognize the problem because you’re part of the problem.”
BFI CEO Roberts said: “As a public funder and the industry’s lead body, the BFI is rightly held to the highest standards. The work we do in building a more diverse and inclusive organisation, and continuing to improve representation across the screen sectors, is at the heart of our ten-year strategy Screen Culture 2033 … Becoming a truly anti-racist organisation is incredibly important to us and I’m proud of how seriously our teams take this work.”
The post BFI Admits To Systemic Racism & Vows To Improve After Apologizing To ‘Four Lions’ Producer For Mishandling Discrimination Complaint appeared first on Deadline.