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Rob Douglas on Fatherhood

Robert Douglas Academy Director at Signature Pictures Academy and @this_father_life on Instagram, talks family, fatherhood, and film, with ParentFolk’s Pippa Goulden

Tell us about your family

I have an incredible wife and two amazing sons, 6 and 2 who I like to obsess over. Joy is at the core of our family and we can’t function without it.

It sounds like your father is a brilliant role model – what has he taught you about being a dad?

My dad has taught me so much by his actions. He has been there and supported me for every significant moment in my life. The most valuable thing he has taught me is no matter how busy things get or how stressful life may be, you can never let that take away time from your family. Now as an adult, I don’t remember all the toys and treats I was given as a child, but I do remember the time we spent and memories we made as a family. That’s what I want for my boys.  

The tragic murder of George Floyd and the rise of awareness in the Black Lives Matter movement has served to highlight the differences for black fathers in the UK – can you tell us what these are in your experience?

As a father to black children you really must think about how you will support them in the racism they will inevitably face. You have to prepare to have ‘the talk’. Finding the balance between not sowing self-limiting beliefs and preparing them adequately is a difficult and dangerous task that black fathers face. How do you even begin to tell your child ‘you are brilliant but a large part of the world doesn’t value you’? It’s not what anyone wants for their child but something black parents are forced to address when their children are still young. I wrote a post on Instagram recently regarding a statement my son made about wanting to be white because he deemed it better. He was 5-years-old when he made that statement and my work now is to unpick that, build him back up and help him learn to love himself.

What does it mean to be a black dad in the UK in 2020?

This is a big question that deserves a lot of time and attention. There are so many layers to this I can’t do it justice here, but I’ll summarise. For the whole of the black community it’s emotionally draining. I’ve spoken to many black dads from Instagram in recent weeks and the current Black Lives Matter movement has really stirred up emotions, opened hidden wounds, but importantly allowed us to really share and connect on a deeper level. I think the one thing that we all discuss is seeing continuous news reports and things going viral on social media is so tough. We can imagine it being our children or brothers, cousins, uncles, friends or even us. It hurts but it’s also given me hope that people are slowly starting to see us and beginning to understand our fears. 

Our hopes and dreams for our children are the same as any other parent but as a mixed race man (identified as a black man by the world) I know no matter how hard my boys work, how skilled they are, how creative they are or how academic they become, there is an additional barrier they have to overcome which has nothing to do with how well they apply themselves. The reality of that barrier will hit them as it hit me. This is not new, it’s been going on for a long time but it’s still the case in 2020.

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Fatherhood: Robert Douglas and his sons

What do you hope for your children’s future?  

I hope my children are allowed to be successful in whatever they choose to do. I am confident that the world will have shifted and the younger generation will have broken down some of the barriers that previous generations have been chipping away at. They are growing up in exciting times and I’d love them to be at the forefront of the ‘new world’.

You use your Instagram to present a more diverse image of fatherhood – why did you feel that was important?

When I first entered the Instagram space I connected with a number of dads. There weren’t thousands of dad accounts like there are now but there was enough for me to recognise there were maybe two that were black. None were actually getting recognition and I knew we needed representation. There are many myths and stereotypes of black dads – fatherlessness is always cited as a problem in the black community and I wanted to change the narrative to promote the present and engaged father image that I knew. A few years on and we are in a better place but there’s still work to be done.

You lead a film training academy for disadvantaged and underrepresented young people – can you tell us more about the work you do?

Yes, of course, I love what I do. Our founder started the company, Signature Pictures, after working on the Harry Potter series of films and found himself unemployed. He encountered so many barriers to pursuing his passion of working in film that he decided he wanted to make films independently but employ young, disadvantaged people to gain work experience on his sets. I came onboard to lead the Academy function in 2018 and I work closely with Princes Trust and Jobcentre Plus to engage as many young people from underrepresented or disadvantaged groups in the world of filmmaking. I also recognise that certain groups face even tougher barriers to working in the creative industries, so I work closely with ITV, BFI and a number of production companies to educate crews on breaking down barriers and increasing diversity as well as opening up real life job opportunities for our Academy Alumni. Our young people are amazing and some have gone on to work sustainably within film, theatre, TV production and other creative roles. I love seeing them succeed.

What barriers do these young people face in the film and TV production industry?

TV and film is notoriously difficult to enter no matter who you are. Young people from underrepresented groups such as BAME, female and LGBTQ find it even more challenging. There’s the socioeconomic factor and the elitist mindset (film school is about £45k in fees) and then there is the nepotism that is rife within the industry, particularly among small crews which is where you would typically enter the industry. The bottom line is if you don’t have money and you don’t know anyone already in the industry then you are staring through the window at your dream with no way in. I try to be that ‘way in’ for our young people through our Academy.

What was the background to you working in the film/tv industry and how did that lead to you running the academy?

I don’t actually have a background in film, but I have a creative background in theatre production and a learning and development background. In my early 20s, I started in learning and development and abandoned a creative career. I rose quickly becoming a national training manager for a large automotive brand at the age of 26. I got comfortable with the job, environment and pay until a mentally traumatic experience at that job made me question what I wanted. I found Signature Pictures and convinced the founder I could grow the Academy and here we are. I am not a film maker although I’ve now spent enough time on film sets to understand almost all departments and what it takes. Who knows, you may see me produce a film at some stage in the near future!

What impact does it have on the young people you work with?

Filmmaking is transformative. It’s really hard work and long hours, and sometimes there are uncomfortable environments, but you make lifetime bonds with people in a short space of time and the whole process leaves you inspired. We see young people show up on the first day looking like they want the world to swallow them and then they leave after three days on set with a fire in their belly. It’s incredible.


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