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Session #3 Notes | Lab Cohort

Cohort Sessions
Q&A with Arij Mikati

For Session #3, Arij Mikati participated as a guest speaker. As the Managing Director of Culture Change at Pillars Fund, Arij presented their work in advancing narrative change for Muslims in the United States. 

After Arij’s presentation, the Lab Cohort asked questions around: 

  • The idea that Muslim creatives don’t necessarily need to create stories about being Muslim 
  • The internalized oppression of some Muslim creatives who play into the dominant culture gaze by writing what they think Hollywood will buy (e.g. terrorism and national security) 
  • Making sure that industry gatekeepers are genuinely interested in change, and not just interested in “checking a box” 

In response to the Lab Cohort’s questions, Arij shared some insights and observations: 

  • Initiatives around cultural or narrative change take longer than planned. Throughout Pillars Fund’s fellowship, they had to stop at many points to discuss important questions (e.g. Who is the audience: Muslims or non-Muslims?) 
  • If a director or showrunner is Muslim, this generally leads to more Muslims in below-the-line roles (e.g. Ramy’s soundtrack is mostly Arab music) 
  • This is a new field and many of the experts they invited for consultation when building the program were white and non-Muslim. This led the Pillars Funds team to ask themselves: What works for us? Arij invited the Lab Cohort to do the same with the ideas she shared, as they may apply differently to the Canadian context. 
Group Discussion

The starting point of the group discussion was: What would work in Canada? What wouldn’t work? 

Conversation around the Canadian context: 

  1. Public funding and lack of profit in the arts sector 
  2. Not enough marketing efforts 
  3. Focus on Canada’s competitive advantage (production > market) 
  4. Shift focus from Canadian to global audiences 

Public funding and lack of profit in the arts sector

All shared the same point of view, regardless of their professional background, that the current system of public funding is not working. While it provides artists with grants to create their work, they end up stuck in a loop, continuously seeking funding, and not making sustainable revenue.  

Some people mentioned the need for private funding in the arts. One person said that many gave up on making a living from their art, and only creating out of passion.

Not enough marketing efforts

Related to the previous point, it was mentioned that funding does not necessarily build an audience/fanbase, unless the artist has the skill to build their own audience.  

Canadian marketing power cannot compare to the USA. In the screen industry, producers are not investing time and energy in community outreach or market research. It’s difficult in Canada for all most shows, but even more difficult when targeting a specific audience that wouldn’t expect this type of content on a Canadian platform (ex. Muslim audiences). 

Another issue with the screen industry is that content branded as “Canadian” may get more exposure, but this tends to be non-POC, so creatives from marginalized communities fight an uphill battle.

Focusing on Canada’s competitive advantage

Most people agreed that Canada can’t compare to the US because of the structure of funding, but also in terms of market size. In the film industry, for example, a few people said that Canada can’t aspire to become Hollywood, or even Hollywood North, because they are different industries. The Canadian context is also different in terms of demography and geography (i.e. the population being widely spread out). Canada needs to focus on its comparative advantages and ask, “how much of our specificities play into the business perspective?” One suggestion was to position Canada as a place to produce, rather than a market to reach.

Shift focus from reaching a Canadian audience to a global audience

Connected to the previous idea, artists could focus on targeting a global audience, instead of the Canadian one. Canadian audiences will follow. Examples were given of projects that garnered attention abroad first before Canadian audiences began paying attention: Schitt’s Creek and Black Bodies.  

“The Canadian market tends to follow after there is some success and then they want to claim the artist as a Canadian…but not while that artist is growing and struggling.” 

The idea is to focus energy on creating locally and exporting internationally, and to take advantage of the lower cost of production (and weaker Canadian dollar) and sell it in other markets (as well as in Canada). This would help attract private funding. 

The need to focus on production rather than the service industry was also briefly mentioned. The fact that many artists leave Canada, or think of leaving it, usually for the USA, often came up in the conversation. This makes it more challenging for Canadian arts because many talented people who could contribute to its success, leave for the US. 

One person suggested that it’s not about leaving permanently but working backwards from larger markets. For example, in music, artists that succeed elsewhere often end up doing more for Canada after gaining success abroad.  

Shifting from Problems to Solutions

What things did we see (even in other communities) that worked and helped to change the game? What thing should we be doing to change the game? 

  1. Create a pan-Islamic identity in the west, to build solidarity

Canada as a hub of pan-Muslim talent in the West, perhaps through a marquee event: “RIS meets TIFF”. 

  1. Being accessible to each other

Muslim artists in Canada work in silos. A solution that many suggested was to create a way to be accessible to each other, whether that’s a physical or online space. 

“Collectively, we have the power to change things” 

Examples of existing spaces: 

  • MuslimLink’s attempt to play that role but not very user-friendly 
  • The Mosquers Makerspace was launched earlier this year, and catalyzed a few collaborations already 

The Cohort agrees that this group can be a starting point: a combination of resources, talent, and expertise. 

  1. Create our own infrastructure

Beyond the creative professions, there is a need to encourage and have other players in the creative ecosystem. (e.g. Muslim-owned ad agency).  

Notes compiled by Rime El Jadidi | August 17, 2022