JoanJoan Talks … ‘That Great British Documentary’

It took filmmaker Joan Hillery aka JoanJoan 8 years to complete her latest project.

The documentary ‘That Great British Documentary‘ was inspired by the death of Joan’s white father, which took her on a journey of discovery of Britain’s colonial past and the legacy her dual black and white heritage has had on her life.

We had to find out how death inspired this insightful exploration …

Please introduce yourself

My name is JoanJoan. I am a documentary director and writer. My birth certificate claims that I’m British but being part ‘white‘ and part ‘black‘ awards me the label ‘dual heritage‘.

Describe your life right now in a word or one sentence

I have achieved something that I never felt possible; my documentary. I was homeless just over twenty years ago, with a sprinkling of section-ings thrown in, so now I know never to give up. Like ever.

What’s your role on The Great British Documentary?

I am the writer, director, filmmaker and producer of it. I am also the subject of the documentary.

How did The Great British Documentary come about?

It started when I filmed the last six weeks of my Dad’s life. Then Grenfell happened; I wanted to see how the press would portray the Grenfell victims, so I followed the press everywhere to [see if I could] prove that there are not enough people of African descent behind or in front of the camera.

What were the biggest revelations that came as a result of putting The Great British Documentary together?

This is not so much of a revelation as a confirmation of suspicions I never dare say out loud. I realised that I was a better director and writer than many of the people who tried to diminish me in this industry. I have achieved great things despite the sometimes devastating hurdles. Suddenly people who ignored me before want to say hello. The media toys, twists and violates the truth because it refuses to consider black perspectives. There is no truth in mainstream media until there is a fair representation of Black voices employed in the business. Britain markets itself as ‘Great‘, but when a country has as much genocide in its past as it has committed on people of African descent and still does, it’s no wonder Black voices are erased from journalism and on our screens.

As a mixed-race filmmaker, what is the industry getting so wrong when it comes to allowing non-white creatives the room to tell their stories?

The industry intentionally or accidentally wants us so-called ‘BAMES‘ to remain in a begging position. There are those, like my commissioners who are on our side but I feel that they are an exception. The industry infantilises us just as Britain’s history infantilised Africa and the Caribbean. We are allowed into the kitchen; the toilets of these media institutions. We are allowed to guide these media institutions. But if we were to dare to ask to sit at the table, the big tables, we’re manoeuvred into becoming ‘sellouts‘ to our own.

Mixed-race people can be used as political tools to make it look like the oppressor cares about people of African descent, whilst constantly reminding us that the darker we are the less likely we are to be allowed into the boardrooms. This is history on repeat. Everything to do with being in the film and TV industry is directly connected to Britain’s horrific colonial history across the world.

For seven years filming my documentary with my own money, before they commissioned me I had to work to prove myself whilst my European peers barely lifted a finger to make their documentaries. Having said all of that, my commissioners were brilliant and I am glad it happened this way because my ‘voice‘ is so clearly there which I don’t think would have been the case had been commissioned at the start of my journey with this film.

This is a very long and complicated answer and the key is that platforms like The British Blacklist has taught us that we do not always need to navigate those institutions to make a difference. We do, however, need to be in the mainstream in order to change the narrative which then leads to a better understanding of why Black women die in childbirth more, whilst people of African descent die at the hands of the police, why our children are marginalised at school and why we are not diagnosed earlier enough in the mental health system. So, filmmaking is something we all need to do because our story is the only story.

I could speak forever on this question. There are good people in the media who are European. If you meet them nurture the relationship. I knew one of my commissioners for 3 years before I began my film.

Highs, lows, solutions?

Being ‘mixed‘ meant that it was assumed that I was ‘picking a side‘. I don’t pick sides. I pick a continent – Africa. I had extreme depressive episodes because when I found Dad’s Super 8 camera, nine years into the film. It brought back horrific forgotten memories. People of African descent carry so much trauma but we don’t always have the money or time to deal with it. Also, I wrote a really strong script that had to be tweaked because it was regarded as too biased towards my black side. However, I think it’s still clear where my compassion lies. 75% of my production team worked for free. The post house, Bubble TV – Greek owned gave me a massively reduced rate, probably 20% of what they could have charged me. Without Bubble TV this documentary would never have gone to air.

If something goes wrong I don’t see it as wrong. After my initial plummeting self-worth and internal self-hating mantras, I checked in with my friends. They reminded me that I am a unique storyteller so keep on going. Sometimes something going wrong is actually the key to making something deeply dark and weirdly funny. Robbie Samuels, a director and producer, did a huge amount for me, that was priceless. Sagal did a great deal. My editor was Scottish and reduced his rate significantly.

What’s your current plan B?

A second documentary. Some has already been filmed.

What are you watching right now?

I watch Nope by Jordan Peele every day. If I don’t I get dodgy withdrawal symptoms. I watch Nope and Get Out or Candyman in one go.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading all the comments about my film and trying to work out if I deserve them.

What are you listening to right now?

I’m listening to the soundtrack of Nope by Jordon Peele on the TV in one room whilst also listening to Jay Z’s Story of OJ in the kitchen.

The last thing you saw on stage?

Death of England written by Clint Dyer and Roy Williams. It was on at the National Theatre about 2 years ago.

What’s on your bucket list?

I don’t have one. I kind of don’t want to answer it. I’ve seen death and I ain’t making no lists.

Celebrate someone else

I rate now and always the incredible talent of my mate Robbie Samuels aka Superrocketman who is a gifted director. He part produced my documentary and filmed a couple of bits. You can tell that I trust him as a director because the scenes are engaging. Trust is a big thing in documentary-making.

Celebrate yourself

I’ve been homeless, was expelled from school, have been sectioned and have been suicidal. I don’t really know who I am because of abuse in the past but I do know that I’ve achieved more in life than many of my Caucasian peers who had more economic and educational foundations than me. I celebrate that my ancestors and friends keep me hustling to get the right narrative out there because I’ve been lied to for too long.

Whose footsteps are you following in?

I don’t follow in anyone’s footsteps. I’ve created my own. We all need to understand that we are born leaders. Oppression and menticide have convinced many, including me, that we cannot lead. Now I know differently. I create footsteps alongside all my contemporaries who are leaders too. I’m done being infantilised by a narrative that demonises me. It’s not easy but everyone is their own author and should understand that their story is their legacy.

What’s Next?

I’m making That Great British Sequel. I also do a lot of talks. The ‘Mind Map‘ created in the film is going into a gallery.

Where can watch That Great British Documentary?

BBC iPlayer until March 2024. Find out more here

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