Combatting Sexual Harassment: Strategies for Newcomers in Film
In 2006, sexual assault survivor and activist Tarana Burke first used the term "Me Too" while sharing her experience. It gained widespread recognition in 2017 during the sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein. American actress Alyssa Milano ignited the spark when she posted on Twitter, "If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote 'Me too' as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem." Subsequently, numerous high-profile posts and responses from American celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd, Jennifer Lawrence, and Uma Thurman followed. This wave of revelations led to a series of allegations that ultimately resulted in Weinstein's conviction and a 23-year prison sentence.
Recently, during an X Spaces discussion on the subject of abuse, specifically sexual harassment and exploitation in the film industry, the question of whether naming and shaming could be an effective tool to raise awareness about the perpetrators of these abuses was raised. A speaker (whose name I'll withhold) countered that the concept might not work as effectively in the real world as it seems in theory. Although he didn't provide specific details, I understood his perspective, drawing from the experiences and stories I've encountered from survivors and, in some cases, even abusers themselves.
One notable downside of naming and shaming is its potential for misuse. When someone is accused of a heinous act, it often results in significant societal, physical, or reputational consequences. Regardless of whether someone is guilty or innocent, the public tends to perceive them through the lens of the allegations. A prime example is the case of American actor Morocco Omari. A question was raised during a film conversation about allegations of physical assault against a woman that had occurred in 2017. Despite being acquitted of these allegations, Morocco Omari expressed his frustration with how the public continued to remember him more for the accusations than for his work in the movies. This illustrates the often unforgiving nature of public perception, where individuals are more likely to be remembered for their misdeeds than for their positive contributions.
Returning to the core issue, naming and shaming is seen by some as the least effective means of combating sexual harassment. The question now remains, what could be the alternative effective ways to combat these vices at scale, especially for actors who are often at the start of their careers and may not have a significant voice in the industry? In the Ugandan film industry, the statistics are not clear regarding the prevalence of sexual harassment. However, it is an unfortunate irony that a significant number of actors have shared experiences of harassment, particularly when they are starting their careers.
In Hollywood, while precise figures vary, numerous reports and surveys have highlighted the extent of the issue. A 2018 study by the Women and Hollywood organization revealed that 94% of women working in the film industry reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment or assault during their careers. For men, the numbers are lower, but not negligible. The same study found that 38% of men working in the industry had experienced harassment. These figures underscore that sexual harassment is a pervasive issue affecting individuals across the gender spectrum in the creative sector.
It's crucial to recognize that even the most prominent employers in this industry have faced allegations of harassment towards their employees, both on and off the sets, as well as in communications. Unfortunately, in Uganda, there are no functioning bodies specifically designed to address such cases. The creators' union, which is available and responsible for addressing these issues situated at the National Theatre, remains largely unknown to artists in the industry and rarely receives such cases. The effectiveness of this body in handling and resolving complaints, if it receives any, is unclear.
In many cases, the easiest route to seek justice is through the police. However, as narrated by a young actress (who wanted to remain anonymous) who reported a producer four years ago, the path to justice with the police in Uganda can be challenging and fraught with obstacles.
So, what alternatives are available to combat sexual harassment in the creative sector effectively? While it may be disheartening to consider preventive measures, they are often the most practical means to reduce such cases, both for men and women. Let's explore some of these preventive strategies:
1. Contractual Safeguards:
Until recently, it’s been extremely rare, but signing contracts for every job in the industry is crucial because it not only clarifies the expectations and terms of your engagement but also offers legal recourse should disputes arise. By carefully reviewing and understanding the contract terms, you can identify and address exploitative clauses that may expose you to unnecessary risks.
For instance, a standard contract should outline your role, responsibilities, compensation, working hours, and any specific clauses related to personal boundaries and conduct on set. If you encounter clauses that demand compromising or unsafe actions, it's essential to negotiate or seek legal advice to amend those terms. By proactively addressing such issues in the contract, you establish clear boundaries and expectations, reducing the likelihood of harassment.
Of course, for Ugandan creatives, there is still a long way to go before these kinds of arrangements become the norm and are not perceived as an actor being a diva. However, recent professional sets have been very professionally aligned, and I expect this approach to spread throughout the industry in the near future. This will largely depend on whether the actors themselves actively seek such changes
2. Strength in Numbers:
Working in groups, especially during night shoots or potentially vulnerable situations, significantly reduces the risk of harassment. When you have colleagues around, you create a protective buffer that can deter potential harassers and offer support in case an incident does occur.
Let's say you're shooting a late-night scene in a Bwebajja. Rather than being alone with a small crew, request that other cast and crew members also be present. If you're concerned about an off-set gathering that may involve alcohol, encourage your fellow actors and team members to attend together. By making such arrangements, you not only promote a safer environment but also demonstrate solidarity, encouraging others to do the same.
3. Designated Communicators:
Having a designated individual communicate on your behalf with those hiring you adds an additional layer of protection. This trusted intermediary can maintain professionalism during negotiations and discussions, making it more challenging for potential harassers to engage in inappropriate behavior.
Your designated communicator could be a manager, a family member, a friend, or even a professional agent. For instance, if a producer or director wants to discuss your role and conditions, your designated communicator can manage these conversations and ensure they remain focused on your professional responsibilities. This not only minimizes the opportunity for harassment but also streamlines communication, making negotiations more efficient and objective.
While this approach is still often seen as diva-like behavior in much of the film industry, and there may be instances where you risk losing a role when producers have to deal with your manager or your PR representative, it should not dissuade you from adhering to what you believe is best for your career and yourself as an actor. There are professionals in the industry who are willing to engage with your representatives in a professional manner.
4. Establish and Promote Reporting Channels:
This still has a long way to go, as the industry is deeply interconnected. The person you're reporting to maybe a friend or a colleague of the person you're reporting. However, this should not deter us from pursuing clear and independent channels to report these cases and seek solutions. We should actively promote the creation and endorsement of clear and confidential reporting channels within the industry. These channels offer a safe space for individuals to report instances of harassment without the fear of retaliation.
Production companies and unions can establish dedicated hotlines or online platforms where individuals can report harassment anonymously. By ensuring that such reporting mechanisms are widely known and actively supported, the industry sends a clear message that harassment will not be tolerated. Training sessions can also be conducted to educate industry professionals about these reporting options and the importance of taking action.
Finally, we can always encourage and support victims to pursue due process, always be on the look, and actively encourage others to do the same. If you witness or experience harassment, report it promptly and encourage others to do the same. By collectively advocating for change, the industry can shift towards a safer and more inclusive culture.
For newcomers in the industry, it's essential to remember that avoiding uncomfortable situations starts with refraining from desperation to be on set. Instead, focus on honing your craft and have confidence that your opportunities should be based on merit, not favors. Prior to entering the industry, conduct thorough research to know who to approach and how to navigate it effectively, ensuring that you don't fall into the hands of those with ill intentions. Succeeding in any field, whether it's music or film, is undeniably challenging. Be prepared to face rejection, but see it as a learning experience that can help you grow. By doing so, you won't feel as though you're being rejected because you're unwilling to compromise yourself.
These preventive measures, when combined, establish a robust framework for addressing and reducing sexual harassment in the creative sector. They empower individuals to take control of their careers while fostering a culture of safety and respect within the industry. Although naming and shaming may not be the most effective method for eradicating such vices, alternative approaches can help reduce the risk of harassment on an individual basis.
It's important to acknowledge that even with these measures in place, it's unlikely that such vices will be completely eradicated. However, we can make significant strides in reducing their prevalence. This article is inspired by a real-life experience of someone I know who found herself in an uncomfortable position with a producer. While we were there to advise her on how to protect herself from that particular producer, many individuals may not have a support system to guide them on the right course of action. Hopefully, with this article, more measures can be considered to further diminish the occurrence of such incidents.
For the perpetrators, mweddeko.
By Martin Kabagambe