Article: ID Screening Days 2021: Ashley Clark on responsive and engaged film programming

Writing for The Bigger Picture, film programmer Thea Berry talks about the impact of Ashley Clark‘s keynote speech at ID Screening Days 2021.

Over the last week the ICO ran its Inclusion & Diversity Screening Days which was three days of talks, workshops and film screenings that encouraged us to think critically and creatively about the ways in which we work; to examine our practices and to think about how we can grow as film practitioners. This year, the workshop sessions were divided into the four pillars of cinema and film festival operations: Programming, Marketing, Operations, and Access. 

The hybrid event was kicked off by a keynote speech from the Criterion Collection’s Curatorial Director, Ashley Clark, and beamed into Cinema 1 at Watershed from his living room in Edison, New Jersey at, what was for him, 06:30 in the morning. Clark detailed the trajectory of his career from being a freelancer writing about and programming film, to then getting his first permanent job curating film as the Director of Film Programming at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in 2017 before being at his current post. 

The main takeaway from this speech was how wonderful and encouraging it was to hear about someone’s own creative practice and crucially the amount of thought and care that goes into it. Clark explained that his film programming philosophy and practice is to “enthusiastically share my love of film with others and to help amplify and support the work of artists who have been overlooked in mainstream white dominated film conversations.” 

Starting with the influence 1988’s Now That’s What I Call Music 12 had on Clark and his creative process and what he now blames for his “inability and unwillingness to differentiate between high and low culture, [his] Catholic taste and [his] curatorial ambition.” Which I’m sure we have to thank now for Clark including a 35mm print screening of the Waynes Brothers’ White Chicks as part of BAM’s season Beyond the Canon

“Through a new monthly program, we investigate and challenge how traditional histories of cinema—best-of lists, awards, academic recognition, films deemed worthy of “serious” discussion—have tended to skew toward lionizing the contribution of the white male auteur while overshadowing other groups.”

New meaning and discussion

With the care and attention that goes into programming and developing a season such as this, not only starts with research but relies so heavily on collaboration. When bringing in “potentially disparate pieces of art into conversation with each other to create new meaning and discussion” it’s vital to bring new voices plugged into different communities into that discussion space to provide new perspectives. 

Clark, quite rightly, pointed out that the cinephile space can often feel alienating and exclusionary to those who are starting out. And so, it’s essential work to support and platform the voices of those who traditionally haven’t been given the space, whether that’s through commissioning new writers or mentoring film programmers (Clark himself was mentored during his time at BAM by its then Head Gina Duncan, now the Producing Director of Sundance). 

Or, whether it’s supporting filmmakers themselves and giving their work the space and time it needs to be out in the world. See here the seasons Garrett Bradley: A Journey through Race & Time and Race, Sex & Cinema: The World of Marlon Riggs for wonderful and inspirational examples. 

This process of nurturing and care takes time and I would echo Clark’s views on how important the act of mentorship is. I actively encourage all of you that have the backing of an arts organisation to take a chance on someone; it’s something that has been crucial to my own career trajectory. 

From writing engaging and pithy copy, to including a sense of ‘showmanship’ into event production, and to creating a inclusive spaces that are skillfully and sensitively moderated – I can only repeat Clark’s admiration for the art of the conversation and Q&A – each step in this creative process, which mirrors those four pillars from these Screening Days: Programming, Marketing, Operations and Access, which are imbued with a collective sense of care, responsibility and sincerity – which I know, for those of us from UK can be difficult. 

So when we think about inclusion and diversity in our work, returning to BAM for a moment, that their mission statement provides a succinct and direct framework:

“To create a nimble, responsive and engaged film programme that centres marginalised communities and challenges prevailing narratives.”

This clear statement of intent doesn’t mean we have to talk about diversity and inclusion but that it’s woven and modelled directly into our work. Being authentic in who we support and how we work and being bold enough to not listen to those signifiers of taste and to stand behind the films we love and the artists we admire. 

Ashley Clark is the curatorial director at the Criterion Collection. Previously, he worked as director of film programming at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and he has curated film series at BFI Southbank, the Museum of Modern Art, TIFF Bell Lightbox, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, among other venues. He has contributed writing to publications including Film Comment, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, and the Guardian. His first book is Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” (2015).

+ Follow Ashley Clarke on Twitter

Thea Berry is a film programmer & talker. She works as an Impact & Outreach Coordinator for Together Films and as a Cinema Outreach Coordinator for Exeter Phoenix. She is also a member of BFI FAN Young Consultants.

+ Follow Thea Berry on Twitter

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