The question of quotas for diversified talent in the UK film industry was a hot topic at Screen International and Broadcast’s Diversify conference today; experts’ views were decidedly mixed.

Femi Oguns, founder of Identity Drama and Identity Agency Group, said emphatically, “We should force a quota.” Director Penny Woolcock agreed: “I actually think it’s worth a try…it could open the door to new kinds of stories. It’s the only way of changing it to force people.”

But writer/director Amma Asante said: “I’m nervous about quotas. I’ve heard too many times even today, ‘Oh she’s there because she’s black or she’s a woman’… it’s not the reality I’m worried about, it’s the perception.”

Jason Bradbury of LGBT-friendly distribution company Peccadillo Pictures was also fearful of quotes: “I’m not sure quotas would work, it’s a dangerous route to go down.”

Writer/actor/director Kwame Kwei-Armah, noted that several careers in the theatre world had been launched internationally after the UK government had previously put penalties on theatres that weren’t diverse enough.

Kwei-Armah, who passionately moderated the On-Screen Portrayal panel, said he was sad that this conversation had been going on for 30 years, but he added: “It’s important to celebrate the incremental changes over the last 30 years.”

Danny Cohen of the BBC added that “Diversity comes in lots and lots of different ways.  We want to make sure we’re covering it in lots of ways, race, gender, social economics, class, disability, I want us to get better in all of those areas.”

He said the BBC had made strides, including commissioning the first Muslim sitcom, Citizen Khan, but more work could be done. Cohen said: “We’re genuinely making progress but what are the ways in which we can make faster progress. That’s schemes, taking pitches. You have to have a diverse workforce to be as good as you need to be, and I think in the industry overall we’re not there yet.”

Too many urban stories?

Another dividing point is whether too many ‘urban’ stories were being told, without enough diverse actors being hired for middle-class or upper-class roles. “I’ve seen a rise and rise again of urban stories, and very little of the black middle class,” Kwei-Armah said.

Penny Woolcock noted that her films 1 Day and One Mile Away, defended her films about urban black youths. “That is a story not the only story,” she said.

Dylan Duffus, star of Woolcock’s One Mile Away, said “People that I speak to they want to see more of [urban stories]. There’s lots of urban things and its not a true representation of us, so for people where I come from film and TV is not representing us correctly.”

Bradbury said the LGBT community also suffered from stereotypes. “In the industry, there tends to be trends with LGBT representation.  We had the hyperfeminine character in the ‘90s and we also now have the hypermasculine, that’s dangerous as well…we have to be careful to show what we are trying to represent.”

Amma Asante, director of Belle, added that it was everybody’s responsibility in the industry, but people at the top still have power. “I don’t think it’s down to one or two people at the top but they are important in the decision making process…if you don’t get those people to open their minds, it will not be made.”

She said that working with Fox Searchlight has showed her how a US company “had a diversity of people involved to carry the project forward…we do not have that here [in the UK] yet.”

The panel called for writers to tell more diverse stories, and they commented that indeed there may be many great transgender, lesbian, disabled, or black middle-class scripts being written now, but those narratives need to be supported and commissioned by people in power.

Asante said that writers may start off writing projects that represent their communities, but become disillusioned when those stories aren’t made. “What tends to happen you become a writer who writes what sells. It’s also about earning a living and telling stories that commissioners will buy.”

One audience member quipped that Idris Elba may star in Luther, but he’s the only black character. “Luther has no friends,” she pointed out, to much laughter in the room.

Oguns added that the situation shouldn’t be “overcomplicated.” “Before we’re black, we’re human beings…The writers are out there and there are stories to tell. All you’ve got to do now is tell human stories.”

Kwei-Armah, ended the panel with a powerful challenge: “Fundamentally we all want our screens to look like the world we occupy and the world we dream for our children.”