Aisha Bolaji on raising voices and raising the bar for diversity in the Irish industry

People are not one genre. When a community is properly able to tell its story, we see how obviously just one story doesn’t cover it, that ‘representation’ alone doesn’t allow for the full range of expression, insight and entertainment that comes from providing underrepresented artists the freedom to create. It’s important for people to share their experiences, but that doesn’t mean that every experience should be ‘important’. Recent British releases have provided vibrant and envigorating films of a variety of genres. Romcom Rye Lane by Raine Allen Miller and coming-of-age action Polite Society by Nida Manzoor are fresh, fun and visually fizzing, stories that proudly show off diverse London cultures, making a statement without stepping into tragedy.

And we need the tragic stories too. Marginalised communities shouldn’t have to disguise what makes them marginalised; the prejudices, state inadequacies and social ignorances that breed injustice. But where the funding, filming and promotion that goes to diverse creatives is limited to these stories only, they can come to define those groups on film. In Ireland, we haven’t had a feature like Polite Society just yet, a blend of genres bursting with ideas and enthusiasm. But the creatives to make it are undoubtedly out there.

Aisha Bolaji is a Nigerian-Irish freelance creative director and visual artist with a diverse range of experience in film and the arts, her work often taking inspiration from her own heritage and upbringing as well as pop culture. Aisha is also the co-founder and head of the visual arts team at The GALPAL Collective, the arts and media collective dedicated to the creation, curation and support of works by young queer folk, women, and people of colour. An IADT grad, Bolaji both directed and produced films screened at this year’s National Film School Class of 2023 showcase, was the shorts programmer for this year’s DIFF and programme assistant for Limerick’s Catalyst Film Festival, as her standing in the Irish industry continues to rise.

We spoke to Aisha about the need for vibrant, creative, multicultrual storie s in Ireland, and her responses provided invalubale insight.

It’s worth noting that the landscape of Irish film and television is constantly evolving, and it’s an exciting time for the industry, that we don’t want to get too caught up and think that equality, diversity and inclusion shouldn’t be part of these conversations and be valid critiques of the industry as it is now.

The acclaim that Irish film has enjoyed in recent years has been exiciting, and hard earned. To continue that progress, Aisha recognises the need for an expanded perspective within the local industry.

Ireland, historically, has had and still has a predominantly white population, which has influenced the stories and characters portrayed in its film and television industry. However, as the country becomes more diverse, there is a growing need for greater representation of racial and ethnic minorities in storytelling. Including more diverse perspectives can enrich narratives and provide a more inclusive representation of Irish society. Efforts to promote and support diverse voices in the industry, both in front of and behind the camera, can help ensure that a broader range of stories are told. We have the talent there with the likes of Nell Hensey, Derek Ugochukwu and more making waves in the industry, the future is bright and in the right hands in that regard.

Adding and aiding more hands into the mix is part of the goals of the GALPAL Collective. Founded by Bolaji and Ashley Chadamoyo in 2020, the group is committed to community cultivation, supporting works by queer folk, POC, migrants and women. Recognising that the talent is there, the Collective’s goal is to provide solidarity and a spotlight. On International Women’s Day this year, they curated a selection of narrative fiction, documentary, experimental films, and music videos, all directed by women, which screened at the Irish Film Institute.

Although progress has been made, gender diversity also continues to be a significant area for improvement in Irish film and television. Historically, the industry has been male-dominated, both in terms of storytellers and the characters portrayed on screen. There is a need for more female-driven stories, as well as opportunities for women to occupy key creative positions behind the camera, such as directors, writers, and producers on larger scale projects. Greater gender diversity can help challenge stereotypes, provide fresh perspectives, and foster a more inclusive industry.

Photo by IFI Director Ross Keane of the GALPAL Collective event ‘Directed By Her’, Wednesday 8th March, 2023

The talent is here but it’s about allowing them the resources, support and platform to elevate their voices. It’s important to address intersectionality within that, not just young white upper-middle class cis women, we need to look at older women, women of colour, disabled women and so on, and see their perspectives as just as rich and valid, and needed within the scope of Irish cinema. To address these gaps, it is important to foster an inclusive and supportive environment that encourages and amplifies diverse voices. This can be done through initiatives such as mentorship programs, funding opportunities, and the creation of networks that specifically aim to promote underrepresented storytellers, which is something we aim for within the GALPAL Collective.

Aisha stresses that GALPAL are, well, a collective, each their own specialisations. Together, their talents make for a rich and rewarding experience. She serves as the Creative Director and provides the expertise as a filmmaker on programming and curation. Co-founder Ashley brings her experience of journalism and acts as short form film and commercial producer. Oyen Adeyemi works on finance, with Riziki Bakari specialising in creative marketing – both are involved with the Collective’s social media. Lisa Dempsey, who co-curated Directed By Her with Aisha, works on Creative Management, writing, and again programming and curation. The enrichement that comes from enabling a variety of artists is well rewarded – the Directed By Her event sold out, the group have successfully applied for Arts Council funding.

To accentuate the sparks that start flying between Yas and Dom in Rye Lane, the area around them should be just as exciting and alive. Filming during the height of the pandemic, Raine Allen-Miller nevertheless recreated the local areas of London crackling with activity; banging tunes, bustling shops and busy patrons from a variety of backgrounds. The film feels real, current and enamoured with its setting. All the better a surrounding for us to fall for its characters, and them with each other.

Places like Dublin, Limerick, Cork all have amazingly talented, multicultural creative talents. We see that in Irish music, with various regions growing into hotbeds of talent. The same potential exists for film to reflect the emerging identities in Ireland, in these cities and beyond.

“I believe that reflecting the multicultural creative talents present in cities like Dublin, Limerick, and Cork is crucial for Irish movies. Embracing diversity and multiculturalism in storytelling not only fosters a more inclusive and representative industry but also brings numerous benefits to both the films themselves and the wider society. Embracing multicultural creative talents in Irish movies opens up economic opportunities for individuals from diverse backgrounds. It promotes inclusivity and equal access to the industry, creating pathways for talent development and career advancement. By fostering a diverse and inclusive film sector, Ireland can tap into the talents and perspectives of a wider talent pool, driving innovation and creativity while benefiting the economy. As well as that I suppose it’s important to look outside of what is essentially these creative hubs and look at more rural areas, and recognise the talent that is there too.”

The industry can provide further support to those talents. Aisha cites the need for major funding bodies to address where the lack of representation is, in order to properly support films, particularly features, in being made. The funding process with various arts bodies can be obscure and intimidating, inaccessible to those not already connected or in-the-know.

Rather than funding bodies waiting for these communities to come to them, they need to change their approach and make it more accessible. It’s that access to information regarding funding, mentorship or even just networking events that is truly invaluable. There is a lack of recognition of the fact that there are people within these underrepresented communities that want to break into the industry but don’t have the right resources or connections. The same approach that gets countless applications from the same type of people can’t be used to encourage more creatives from underrepresented communities to apply, because if the issue is ‘we’re not getting filmmakers who are underrepresented applying’, maybe change that process of application.

Just as her cult television sitcom We Are Lady Parts follows a Muslim girls’ punk band, Nida Manzoor’s feature debut Polite Society is a loving ode to unconventional aspirations. British-Pakistani teen Ria Khan dreams of being a movie stuntwoman, she also enthusiastically endorses her older sister Lena’s ambitions of becoming an artist. When Lena jumps into an arranged marriage, rebellious Ria insists there must be subterfuge afoot – raging against societal expectations with amateur espionage and over-the-top martial arts.

It’s a breathless, bouncing action comedy, cheerfully silly with big Edgar Wright energy. But Polite Society is far from frivalous, looking at the expectations of women in the Pakistani community, the fear of artistic failure, and the high emotional stakes of sisters falling out. Within the creative presentation is the space to look at relevant ideas. It helps the film to stick out more, and more importantly remain emotionally honest, than if it were a dour drama about matchmaking.

I think it’s important to allow people to tell stories outside of trauma. I can only speak from the Black experience but most of the on screen Black representation within mainstream Irish media tends to be focused on Direct Provision, these stories are so important and need to continue to be told, but we are not just one experience and one narrative, there are other truths in being Black and Irish that many Black creatives want to explore but they feel they won’t be given that chance.

 In Bolaji’s short End of the World Tour, music superfan Kemi faces heartbreak when the boyband sensation WHYNOT announces their split.

There’s also an undue pressure on creatives from underrepresented communities to create work that will address the oppression they are facing, when that may not be the story they feel compelled to tell. There should be creative freedom for them too. People from underrepresented communities shouldn’t only be reached out to regarding opportunities that are solely to improve EDI, they can be in the same room as the mainstream media and not much will change until they are. They should be able to speak about the industry outside of their oppression and struggles.

It isn’t a case of ‘discovering’ names. It’s about supporting those already out there, cultivating success, encouraging a pipeline. Aisha can reel off a list of plenty of Irish talents on both sides of the camera.

“I’d definitely keep an eye out for filmmakers Nell Hensey (writer/director), Derek Ugochukwu (writer/director), as well as Oluwatobi Kenneth (director/cinematographer), Elizabeth Adewusi (writer/director) , Bobby Zithelo (director), Ala Buisir (documentary director), Olamide Shoyinka (cinematographer), Dylan Gomery (editor/graphics/photography) and Lámidé Ójé (director).

In terms of on screen talent, oh my god I can’t even name everyone, but the people that come to mind are of course the very iconic Demi Isaac, there’s also Jeanne Nicole Ní Ainle, Brigid Leahy (who’s also a very talented writer), Sinead Akeke, Hilary Ógbèwé, Clinton Liberty, Aaron Katambay, Aaron Edo, Florence Adebambo and so many more.
On the academic side of things, Dr. Zélie Asava just keeping on with her ongoing works is amazing because she is documenting the Black and Irish existence within film, and cementing them as part of cinema history.”

Asava‘s book The Black Irish Onscreen: Representing Black and Mixed-Race Identities in Irish Film and Television, is the first major study of black and mixed-race themes in Irish Screen Studies. Some might call these themes emerging, but the important thing to see on Irish screens is these themes, creatives and creations emerged, fully formed and at the forefront of various media. Cinema history is made with every new release. The most recent IFTAs heavily rewarded Aisha, the emotional feature film about Direct Provision, so the inclination to make more history is there – the challenge now is to expand those efforts, celebrate a range of stories, grow the new Polite Society of Ireland, take a walk down our own Rye Lane.

Where to watch Rye Lane

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