Filmmaker Ahmed Osman is an African and a Muslim and this week’s guest on The Fold podcast. He writes about the challenges he’s faced in his industry – and the opportunities which exist if they’re surmounted.
I remember, as a six-year-old in Kenya, watching Bollywood films, translated in Somali, and being transported to this magical world full of action, colour, dance and music. For two hours I could escape everything that was happening around us. I loved going to the movies at every opportunity, and would sometimes skip school to do it.
Later, growing up in Aotearoa as an African and Muslim meant not seeing anyone who looked like me on our screens. I became a filmmaker so I could challenge the perception New Zealanders have of Muslims and Africans, but how do you do that when you’re not afforded the opportunity? When you’ve never seen yourself reflected behind or in front of the camera? Since finishing film school, my opportunities in the film and television industry have been limited to only small running roles, production assistants or clerk positions.
What’s made opportunities for any advancement or funding more difficult is a lack of understanding and opportunities, and systemic factors that contribute to the unequal outcomes. Ask yourself this: can you recall the last time you saw a Muslim character on a locally-produced television show, film or commercial? Are there any Africans or Muslim New Zealanders working in our newsrooms? In production houses? At networks and casting agencies? The answer would be hardly any at all. I wince when we speak about diversity in the media because I know from firsthand experience we are not a truly diverse industry.
I think about the opportunities given to the likes of Raiza Biza, who’s been making music for the last 15 or more years, touring all over the world and selling out shows. When was the last time you heard his music on commercial radio? When was the last time you saw Mazbou Q, Jess B, Abdul Kay, Mo Muse and the many other talented Afro Kiwi hip hop artists or musicians given the same platform that others in their industry are afforded?
We are told that there isn’t an audience for these stories – but I know how well received Third Cultures Minds was. The series we made for Re: won mental health journalism awards in Australia and New Zealand and started important conversations. But nobody knows about the challenges Guled Mire and I faced trying to get Third Culture Minds made. The lack of funding that was available to us, being turned away by multiple platforms, being told there was no audience for this type of content.
Seeing yourself represented in all aspects of society means that your aspirations are unlimited. I look at Golriz Ghahraman, Abbas Nazari and Ibrahim Omer and think about the next generation of Kiwi Muslims and former refugees they are inspiring. I wonder what that would do for them if they saw themselves in our newsrooms, on our networks and on our screens.
I know firsthand the material consequences of misrepresentation. It means impaired social mobility and discrimination. It feels like your voice has been taken away from you and others are telling your story. We have seen the consequences of what could happen when Hollywood attempts to tell the stories of others in the They Are Us debacle. We saw the hurt and the pain that saga caused our community.
We need to do better when it comes to Muslims and African representation in the film and TV industry in Aotearoa. It’s the reason why Mohamed Hassan and I launched Homegrown Pictures. The first production company in New Zealand headed by Muslim and African Kiwis. A production company that aims to bring authentic stories to further the presence of Muslims and Africans on our screens. But to do that we are going to need the help of everyone in our industry, including the funding agencies, producers, directors, writers, the network commissioners, the newsroom editors and the casting agencies.
I feel privileged to be part of this industry. I will continue to tell our stories and share our experience and our journey. Because I know somewhere out there is a six year old me, skipping school for those few magical hours at a movie theatre.