‘You have to believe in the idea’: Fatima Salaria talks diversity and pitching at AIDC

Fatima Salaria.

Having worked as both a commissioner and an independent producer, Naked Television managing director Fatima Salaria was able to bring insights from both sides of the fence as she addressed the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC) on Sunday from the UK.

Salaria has more than two decades of experience in British broadcasting, much of which was spent at BBC, where she worked her way up to commissioning editor for religion and ethics.

During this time, she acted as the principal commissioner for Who Do You Think You Are?, commissioned the BAFTA-winning Muslims Like Us, and curated the Black and British and Big Asian Summer seasons.

She left the pubcaster to become head of factual specialist at Channel 4 in 2019, overseeing the production of popular formats such as SAS: Who Dares Wins, as well as award-winning documentaries 100 Vaginas and The Identical Strangers.

Salaria joined the Fremantle-owned factual and entertainment programming company Naked in September 2020, which she runs along with sister label Boundless.

Speaking in conversation with SBS head of documentaries Joseph Maxwell, she admitted to not taking the traditional route to a career in broadcasting, noting her first role at the BBC was in part due to being at the “right place at the right time”.

“The BBC, 20 years ago, wanted to get different people from different parts of the world into their programming,” she said.

“My first job at the BBC was working for a south-east Asian program unit, where I was telling stories of people from my heritage, which is Pakistani.

“As an assistant producer, as a researcher, I was working alongside people who had a lot more experience than me.

“I didn’t do the traditional Oxbridge route, or Cardiff film school; I kind of went in through the back door.”

Salaria spent nearly 15 years as a producer for the public broadcaster before being promoted to a commissioner.

She said while her background had allowed her to delve into important stories, she began to crave a broader scope of work from her employer.

“On one hand, [my heritage] was my unique selling point that no one could take away from me and I also had a huge passion for telling those stories because nobody else was.

“But as I progressed, I began to get more and more frustrated. When I looked at my other friends, peers and colleagues, who were then going off into Newsnight, and they were doing the big stories… that were around in that era. I was frustrated that I didn’t have access to those stories or I wasn’t deemed ‘good enough’ to do those kind of stories.

“I also noticed my promotion to becoming a series producer was taking way longer than my white male colleagues.”

Salaria’s journey within the factual landscape has included fostering diversity in front of the camera.

Mehreen Baig.

Mehreen Baig, who starred in Muslims Like Us, has gone on to become an established presenter since her appearance on the 2016 show, reporting for The One Show on BBC and for The Truth About… documentary series.

For the one-off documentary The Satanic Verses: 30 Years On, on which Salaria was executive producer, young journalist Mobeen Azhar had the opportunity to return to his native home of West Yorkshire to chart the impact of Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel across different generations of Britain’s Muslim community.

She said both Baig and Azhar represented voices that had not previously been heard.

“I believe that ten years ago if we were going to do a program around the anniversary of the Satanic Verses… some established white journalist would have been in front of the camera,” she said.

“We were absolutely adamant… that we had to have the true representation of people who may not have been around – Mobeen was quite young when the book was released – but had grown up with the legacy of Satanic Verses hanging over them, particularly in a Northern town, which was the epicenter of where it all went on.

“To me, you start to challenge the status quo in television when you bring in the outsiders and different people and you support and nurture them.”

The debate about on-screen representation reached a flash point in 2020 as the Black Lives Matter protests sparked a re-evaluation of many long-held industry standards.

Salaria, who was head of factual commissioning at Channel 4 at the time, said it was a moment that she couldn’t “leave unmarked”.

“There was a real challenge for us. One, to commission programmes into that. But also to talk about that at an industry level; to talk about diversity and our role as black filmmakers and Asian filmmakers,” she said.

“The ideas and lessons that came out of BLM… had been going on for years and years and years, so there was a kind of frustration and anger from people within the industry, saying that all of a sudden ‘Our phones are ringing off the hook because we happen to be black and all of a sudden, you’re discovering this black generation of filmmakers, that had been banging on the door to get into these elite circles.'”

Salaria said there was a real “mental health strain” that came out of some of the industry conversations around BLM, where POC filmmakers were often talked about as ‘other’.

“You wonder: ‘When am I going to stop being seen as the ‘other’? When I going to stop being seen as the ‘people that need the extra help’? Who either has to go on a scheme, or has to have equal opportunities training?’

“[I felt like saying]: ‘Guys, you’re preaching to the converted. We don’t need this. We just need you to open those doors and allow us a seat at the table, and to be able to bring our views and what we are saying to that table without feeling that somehow you’re doing us a favour.'”

Salaria is now able to use her influence the MD of Naked Television, which encompasses factual and specialist factual programmes including 60 Days on the Streets, The Day I Picked My Parents and the upcoming Planet Sex with Cara Delevingne.

Having worked across both commissioning and development, she said passion was essential to the progression of an idea.

“You have to believe in the idea,” she said.

“I tell my development team to go with two ideas they can see we are invested in, rather than six or seven.

“To be able to have that conversation with somebody is really integral.

“You have to believe in what you are pitching because they will see through it if you don’t.”

AIDC runs until March 3.