This is a question that has been instigated by the recent furore over the dearth of black representation at the 2016 Oscars with the absence of a single nomination in any category. But this crisis is not confined to film and TV, it also extends to the arts. Why is this? It can't be because of lack of talent, will or ambition, there is plenty out there.
Drawing completed when I was 13 (mixed media on A3 paper, 1986)
Since the age of 4 it was my dream to be an artist, in fact my parents told me that as soon as I had a pen in my hand I was always drawing. Yet I was acutely aware, growing up in the 70s, of the lack of any visible British Asian artists. The need to create art was innate, yet I ended up studying at the London School of Economics, partly to placate my parents. However, while I was at the LSE I continued to write and paint - this compulsion never abated.
When I left the LSE I thought working as a researcher in TV would be the closest to a creative profession and my first position was at the South Bank Show. Dominated by Oxbridge graduates there was only one other black face and she went to Oxford too, as an LSE Asian graduate I instantly felt excluded. Undeterred I completed other research positions, but felt that the industry and the programmes that were being made didn't reflect my interests or background - how could that be addressed? During one placement I found out about a Channel 4 bursary (a now defunct scheme) partly the brainchild of former commissioning editor Alan Fountain. When Channel 4 started it was very different from the channel we see today; they were pioneers, giving young filmmakers their first break and risk takers, too.
In the mid 80's Channel 4 screened movies by Kieślowski, Tarkovsky and countless French films, without realising it they were educating me in art house cinema and I was hooked. The turning point came when my mother put on Satyajit Ray's 1955 Pather Panchali. It was a revelation; the integrity and simplicity of the story telling, the use of natural light, the audacious and stark sound track. Now I began harbouring dreams to be a filmmaker, artist and writer - how preposterous? I was just a gauche Bangladeshi teenager from Manchester. My creative aspirations seemed like a pipe dream.
Deciding to apply for the Channel 4 bursary I had nothing to lose, at aged 23 I had already written a synopsis for a feature film and had a portfolio of artwork created during summer breaks while studying at the LSE. During the interview I was nervous as hell, Alan Fountain was there and miraculously they decided to take a punt on me. I was awarded a 7,000 pound bursary to study at the Northern Media School and plunged right in at the deep end. My first film was an unmitigated disaster and I was ridiculed and ostracised by fellow students. My second film was about a disabled transsexual called Catrina Day whom I met on the train. With my credibility restored I was allowed to make my MA film on 16 mm: Weakbladder about a young girl who is bullied at school and doesn't fit in the world. It was one of the hardest things I ever did, there was mutiny on the film set, but despite the trauma, my film received the second highest mark at film school and was soon screened in festivals.
Emaciated blue nude featured in my film Weakbladder (mixed media on canvas, size 52 x 54 inches, 1998)
After leaving film school I did a placement at Channel 4 and personally left my film with the commissioning editor of diversity at Channel 4, but I don't think she even bothered to watch it.
The realisation hit me of how tough it was to penetrate this elusive world of film and TV.
By this time I had met Ken Loach, Danny Boyle (on the train) with his then producer Andrew MacDonald who invited me in for a chat and watched my film, commending me on it. I hustled me way into countless production companies, hoping for a way in, but it was like a closed world - impenetrable.
In 1999, fed up with all the rejection, I dropped out of Chelsea School of Art, set up my own arts organisation Pigment Explosion and after a break of 4 years made my next film From Briarwood to Barisal to Brick Lane shot in Bangladesh, New York and London, it was funded by the London Arts Board and Tower Hamlets council. It was the start of numerous commissioned films that I have completed to date. But the way I make films is not conventional, I shoot, edit, do the sound - in effect everything. I had finally given up on the conventional 'film world'. However in 2010 the UK film council did fund my film White Wall (it was the first animation film I did) but now the UK film council no longer exists.
And this is the problem, rather than investing in talent and provide mentors for young film makers from different backgrounds, black and Asian aspiring artists, writers and film makers have to fight for very limited opportunities, and usually these are one offs. There is no nurturing of that person's vision/ideas and without this we will not see a vibrant and diverse film making community. Instead it will remain the preserve of those who are established and the stories that are told will be decided by a select few with the odd token gesture thrown in there. Of course some ethnic minorities have found a way into the industry, but you can name these people on one hand.
Black and Asian film makers have to find the courage to get their stories made in whatever way they can. Yes it would be a bonus to be paid, but rather than wait for a myopic industry to wake up to the black and Asian talent that is ubiquitous, rather than complain and lament the lack of opportunity, we have to go out there and just do it.
Maybe in years to come it will change, but we have to be the initiators of that change or we will just see a perpetuation of the current status quo in film, arts and TV - and how dull would that be?