NYFF 2021 review: Prism (Rosine Mftego Mbakam, An van Dienderen, Eleonore Yameogo)

Prism is a must see film for anyone invested in intersectionality and questions of race, representation, and identity.”

Has there been a conscious decision throughout history to have cameras calibrated to be biased against darker skin or was this bias created inadvertently during the invention of the camera which at the time focused primarily on lighter skin? This question preoccupies the minds of filmmakers Rosine Mftego Mbakam, An van Dienderen, and Eleonore Yameogo in their film Prism, which had its worldwide premiere at this year’s New York Film Festival. In Prism, the directors use spare but extremely personal filmmaking to build a satisfying and compelling documentary.

The three directors come from a diverse background. Rosine Mftego Mbakam is a Cameroonian filmmaker working in Belgium who had notable films that played at True/False Film Festival, among other festivals. She has another film which has just been released in New York, titled Delphine’s Prayer, where she examines the life of a female Cameroonian immigrant to Belgium and her experience with the sex industry. An van Dienderen is a Belgian filmmaker who has directed many smaller films, some which have played at festivals such as Rotterdam and Marseille. Lastly, Eleonore Yameogo brings a different unique cultural perspective to the film; she’s from Burkina Faso but now lives in France. Seamlessly, the three craft a narrative and thematic approach in Prism that flows smoothly and resolutely.

The film is structured around a Zoom conference in which the three directors meet to discuss their film and issues relating to darker skin. At first this seems rather unprofessional and unpolished for a film that’s selected for the New York Film Festival, as there are issues with internet connectivity included in this introduction segment. The remote interview is later revealed to have a purpose; as there’s a scene where Mbakam’s laptop camera sits at the wrong angle and it’s very hard to see her clearly. She’s shown as being in a shadow, but with a slight adjustment there’s no problem seeing her. This becomes a direct and obvious criticism of the camera and how it’s not modified for darker tones. Also, these Zoom segments of the film do a lot to highlight the directors’ thesis and the arguments they make for and against different propositions.

The thesis raises the question on whether the camera has been calibrated over time to purposely discriminate against darker skin tones. Interestingly enough, Mbakam and Yameogo disagree. While Mbakam suggests that cameras do have inherent bias against black skin, Yameogo posits that while cameras have been optimized for white skin, they are not outright opposed to black skin. She notes that beautiful images of dark skin have been around for decades (Sissako’s Bamako is noted as a film that portrays darker tones very well) and that filmmakers such as Spike Lee have made major steps in advancing the way in which black skin and actors are represented by the lens. Lee and other black filmmakers have used cinematographic techniques but also have focused on improving practices that can lead to better display of darker tones, such as using costume design and makeup to their advantage and by teaching future filmmakers how to give proper treatment to darker skin. There are more classes and workshops now that center around better makeup and hairstyling for darker skin tones.

But of course there is always reason to suggest that the objectivity of the camera is inherently biased because of past inequality. In the segment filmed by van Dienderen she uses a more technical approach to present the results of a color test and how the camera reacts during the test. As much as the camera is not inherently biased, there is a notable difference in how the camera presents light objects as compared to dark ones. There are ways to change lighting and cinematography to improve the representation, but van Dienderen strongly links this functional bias to that of historical past inequalities. One of those she notes early on, in a short anecdote about the pencil test in South Africa. In this test South Africans had to run a pencil through their hair, and the ease with which the pencil would fall out of a person’s hair would determine what racial category the apartheid government would label them with, even ignoring family background and history. She presents this example as a way to show her reasoned skepticism to the camera being completely unprejudiced.

With Prism, the three directors challenge a critical topic while providing an engaging dialogue about the camera’s objectivity. One of the major strengths of the film is that it is not heavy handed; the trio is able to film and converse about the subject matter without feeling condescending while maintaining accessibility. The film is a brief 77 minutes but successfully explores the subject issue on an emotional and intellectual level, only faltering slightly in its more unrefined technical and narrative qualities. Overall, Prism is a must see film for anyone invested in intersectionality and questions of race, representation, and identity. In the current culture climate and zeitgeist, it is a poignant reminder of how much more needs to be done.