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Difference is the difference that will make the difference

This point was echoed in Saturday’s ‘Diversity on Screen’ panel as part of the ongoing Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival (DIFF), organised in collaboration with Screen Ireland. Following on from Friday’s world premiere of A Girl from Mogadishu[1], this was the first ever diversity discussion – with an all multi-ethnic panel – that I can recall which dealt with the often-unheralded challenges & misconceptions of the African-Irish experience and the issues around Black Irish representation on screen.

Hats off to my fellow Screen Ireland Board member, the award-winning writer Marian Quinn (who also chairs the Screen Ireland Gender Equality & Diversity sub-committee), for gathering such a different, powerful panel of experts, artists & activists.

Focus is often placed on the gender diversity of panels (and Kwaku Fortune noted with humour and humility his place as the ‘token man’ on the panel) and yet rarely, if ever, on its ethnic make-up. How refreshing, therefore, to be captivated by and learn from the personal experiences and insights of the panel of Ifrah Ahmed, Dr. Zélia Asava, Martha Canga Antonio, Kwaku Fortune, Ellie Kisyombe and Áine Mulloy. Expert facilitation came from Adaku Ezeudo and the 90-minute discussion was impassioned and informative.

Amongst the key points raised was that, despite an increased awareness of the demographic diversity of Ireland and a recognition of a growing and successful African/Black/Asian-Irish community, significant barriers to recognition and success remain. Bias (both conscious and unconscious), a lack of exposure, few visible role models and limited support or sponsorship for ethnic artists and/or their stories all combine to create a massive challenge for this integral part of who we are to be heard and understood.

As the panel noted, the black experience has been homogenised and stereotyped – often seen as ‘other’ and separated from the Irish experience. Martha Canga Antonio summed up the frustration of being seen as just an ethnic actor who can just play a stereotyped ethnic role by stressing ‘I have more than my colour’ – it is an unaware and frankly lazy approach to just look at an artist’s skin colour and determine what they can or cannot do or represent.

As a nation where 17% of the population were not born in Ireland (a figure than rises to 25% in Dublin and to nearly 33% when looking at people of working age) diverse stories and talent are abundant in Ireland and there is a consumer appetite to hear them and be inspired by them. Not being able to find these stories or those to play them is no longer a credible excuse - as Áine Mulloy put it ‘if you’re saying you couldn’t find someone; you’re not looking hard enough’.

We all need to play our part – regardless of our ethnicity, nationality or preference – to embrace different and ethnic diversity in particular. The more we do that, the more we will learn about ourselves and the world in which we live. And the better off we will be as a result.

[1] The amazing true story based on the testimony of Ifrah Ahmed (one of the panellists at the event), who—having escaped war-torn Somalia—emerged as one of the world’s foremost international activists against gender-based violence

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