Sunday, December 30, 2007

A New Year, a New Organization

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog may know that Docs Interactive is a program of Docs in Progress, an organization based in Greater Washington DC which focuses on empowering independent documentary filmmakers to create and cultivate their projects.

2007 was a whirlwind year for Docs in Progress. We organized and moderated nine work-in-progress screening workshops in Washington DC and Maryland, sponsored two all-day seminars with "Documentary Doctor" Fernanda Rossi, provided private consultations to numerous film projects, and maintained our quarterly e-newsletter and this blog. Alumni of our programs have gone on to have their films screened on television; at film festivals around the world; at museums, universities, and schools; and even at the White House (whatever you may think of the current inhabitants, that's a pretty cool achievement).

In 2008, we will continue to hold our public screening workshops in Washington DC and Baltimore. In fact, we've got one coming up in just a few weeks at the Jack Morton Auditorium in Washington DC, on Tuesday, January 8. Come join us to see BEAUTY: IN THE EYES OF THE BEHELD and LEARNING FROM JAMES.

We will also be partnering with on a special edition of Docs in Progress where we are soliciting documentary work-in-progress submissions from filmmakers based anywhere in the world (the filmmaker can participate in the discussion via Skype).

We recently set down roots in documentary capital Silver Spring, Maryland. Our new address is 8607 Second Avenue, Suite 402-E, Silver Spring, MD 20910. We are just a few blocks from the Silver Spring Metro Station, the American Film Institute, and Discovery Communications. This office will be used for administrative functions and the growing demand for private consultations. Our public workshops will continue to take place at the Jack Morton Auditorium in Washington DC six times a year and other venues for special events.

We are also thrilled to welcome Sam Hampton to the Docs in Progress team. Sam is a documentary filmmaker who has nearly 20 years of professional and academic experience in research and documentation of social justice activities. He is also an experienced grantwriter and consultant for non-profit organizations who will be focusing on developing our strategic plan as an organization and also supplementing our consulting services to filmmakers needing advice on fundraising strategies.

And last, but far from least...Docs in Progress is now officially incorporated and will soon be a 501c3 non-profit organization. In the coming months, we will be developing our board and building a strategic plan for future programs to benefit the independent documentary community in the Mid-Atlantic region and beyond.

Though we are growing as an organization, we will never lose our commitment to independent documentary. Whether you are a documentary filmmaker or a film fan, we look forward to having you grow with us in 2008.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned...

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Doc Happenings

Yes, it's winter when things are supposed to slow down. But there's actually quite a few educational things happening for documentary filmmakers, including one this week. So take a break from shopping or editing or whatever it is you are doing and check these out...

First up, everything you've ever wanted to know about ITVS funding for both U.S. and international filmmakers can be found on a special online conference this week on the D-Word Community. ITVS executives Joy-Marie Scott, Cynthia Kane, Karim Ahmad and Kathryn Washington are participating in a virtual Q&A and being very candid with their information and answers. The conference continues through December 22 and will be archived for future reference.

Working Films, which has worked to advance social justice by linking independent non-fiction media to activism, is accepting applications for its five-day residency for documentary filmmakers at MASS MoCA in Western Massachusetts. The residency, which is called the Content + Intent Documentary Institute, will take place March 12-16, 2008 in North Adams, MA. The application deadline is January 25, 2008. For more information, visit the website of Working Films.

And it's not too early to register for Making Your Media Matter, the annual conference sponsored by the Center for Social Media at American University. This is the must-attend event to network and gain new insights into the latest tools and trends in creating and distributing social issue media. It will take place February 7-8, 2008 in Washington DC. More information on this website.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Documentaries to Revisit: Iraq in Fragments

While every documentary should be unique, it is important for documentary filmmakers to be well-read when it comes to documentaries to see different ways that those who have come before them have dealt with the joys and challenges of non-fiction storytelling. Until recently, it has been difficult to see documentaries on demand. But now many documentaries are easily available through Netflix, Amazon, or the local video store. With this in mind, we wanted to revisit a few documentaries which reflect a wide variety of styles, but all share the power of effective story structure and character development. Docs in Progress co-founder Adele Schmidt recently took a look at IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS, James Longley's 2006 Oscar-nominated film.

When I was watching the film IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS, I was asking myself what is it a documentary filmmaker can learn from this film. I would like to focus on three points which this film is mastering at a high level.

1. Even if we are confronted with a situation of chaos, it is important to find order in the chaos and give a precise structure to the film.

2. Access to the characters is key to tell a compelling story.

3. The early determination of the stylistic approach (how to tell the story) helps to set the path for the whole film.

Order in the chaos

The chaotic situation of an ongoing war is not the easiest place for a filmmaker to organize production and find a structure for telling the story in a meaningful and comprehensive way. James Longley's approach to divide the film into three parts makes complete sense. Each part spotlights a different side of Iraq: The Sunni, Shiite and the Kurd perspectives.

The division in the film reflects the fragmentation of the social and political landscape of Iraq, a fragmentation which has deepened over the years of war and which presents one of the greatest challenges to initiate a process of reconciliation and peace. By presenting each side, the filmmaker is not trying to give a broad perspective; instead he concentrates in each part on one personal story, the story of ordinary people. The director uses no voiceover or narration to move the story along. He just holds the camera close to the characters and events we see unfolding. If we get to listen to a voice, it is the voice of each character who comments on situations and reflect about their lives.

In the Sunni side, we get to know Mohamed, an 11-year old boy who lives in a working class neighborhood in Baghdad and who works in a mechanic shop. The Shiite section is narrated by young cleric, Sheik Aws al-Khafaji and with him, the camera leads us into different situations with militant Shiite followers of Moktada al-Sadr in Nasiriya and Najaf. The third story is filmed in a pastoral Kurdish region, in a small village outside of Erbil. Each story is filmed with immense closeness to the characters and it is the payoff of Longley spending almost two years in Iraq to film this documentary.

Access to characters

Getting close to the characters allows James Longley to access the chaotic situation and through their eyes and voice we have a deeper look into war torn Iraq. It seems contradictory but the closeness opens us up a wider picture of each section.

Mohamed has lost his father to the regime of Saddam Hussein. His boss, owner of the mechanic shop, is like a father for him. Or at least that is what Mohamed says at the beginning. But the camera tells another story. The boss mistreats him and humiliates him on a regular basis. Mohamed cries and the boss laughs in satisfaction. In the relationship between boss and Mohamed, we observe the components of living under a dictatorship: the abuse of power and irrational violence of the oppressor and the fear, confusion and frustration of the oppressed.

If the first story is concentrated on the inside of the mechanic shop and the tense relationship between Mohamed and his boss, the second story happens mostly on the streets. Young men scream in a religious procession and hit themselves with chains. We are now on the fanatic side. In another moment, young men organized in their own sectarian group decide to execute their view of law and order a market turned upside down in search of vendors of alcohol. Covered with masks, they beat their victims and detain them randomly. It seems that the reality is dominated by young men. If women appear at all, we see them crossing the street in the background of the frame or kneeling before men in power, begging to free their husbands.

It is the setting of a little village and the landscape which makes the third story quieter. An aging Kurdish father and his son are the main characters. They express they desire for normality and peace, but again, as soon as politics gets involved, chaos breaks out. On voting-day, the Kurds get into a fight with the police.

All three stories give an unknown look into the life in Iraq today and each story makes clear that the human sacrifice paid in this war has huge dimensions.

Stylistic Approach

In this film it is clear how important it is to define a style before even setting up the camera. The close and immediate camerawork makes this film authentic and compelling. The camera is on a constant move and is followed by a fast and extremely nervous editing. James Longley is the director, photographer and co-editor of the film. It is the same hand which executes all three departments with restlessness and precision.

This stylistic approach is appropriate for a situation of chaos and uncertainty. In a certain way, we feel thrown into that dangerous and complex reality out of which it is difficult to make sense.

Conclusions about the war in Iraq will be drawn in years to come. IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS does not pretend to have conclusions, but it tells an internationally relevant story on a human scale.

© 2007, Docs in Progress
This article may not be reprinted without permission.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Marketing Mastery

One of our first blog entries here on Docs Interactive was all about documentary websites being a vital tool in helping to get the word out about your film even long before it is complete. But let’s say your film is done and you are ready to start applying to festivals and create some buzz about your film.

First, a very important point: No film is ever accepted to a festival or by a distributor or broadcaster simply because it came in gorgeously-presented packaging. If the story of the film isn’t there, no amount of perfect press kits, lovely loglines, or stunning stills are going to make up for that fact. So this is not a recipe for getting a press kit to make up for a less than well-executed film.

But if you have an amazing documentary that is likely to have a healthy run on the festival circuit or is a serious contender for television or a theatrical release, you cannot live by the film alone. Your job is to help make the life of the programmers, broadcasters, and distributors as easy as possible. You may want them to do the work for you, but ultimately you are your best advocate and need to showcase your film in its best light possible.

Here’s a dirty little secret: Festival programmers have very short memories (having just finished up programming more than 60 films for a small festival, I have discovered new limits to the synapses in my brain just to keep the titles straight). A festival programmer may be working solo or with a large team of paid staff or volunteer screeners. Even if your film is selected, it has likely been chosen from at least a few hundred entries (or a few thousand if you are talking top-tier festivals). By the time the programmer is tasked with writing up the films for the catalogue, she will not retain every detail about what was viewed. So she will return to your materials to refresh her memories. In some cases, she may crib directly from the synopsis you have sent. So you had better make that synopsis count because it may very well be the text you see word-for-word in a festival catalogue or a TV program website. You want it to capture what your film is about without giving the story away.

How to study good synopses? Take a look at the online catalogues of film festivals you admire or peruse a site like Mediarights and see which film descriptions jump out at you and make you want to see THAT film. Then look at YOUR film. Start with the journalistic Who? What? Where? and When? Then branch out to the Who Cares? What’s the story? Where and when is it happening? Who’s the character(s)? What is at stake for him/her/them/it? You may think your film is the best thing since sliced bread, but what is that makes it stand apart? Why would I choose to spend time/money/brainpower on watching your film? How can you get me to see it without giving away the ending? Convince me.

So how long should a synopsis be? While I would love to say, “As long as it takes to grab me,” you do have to take into consideration limited print space. Withoutabox, the online film festival submission program, got it right when they created a means to offer different lengths of the synopsis. Even if you don’t use Withoutabox, give programmers the maximum flexibility by offering different variations on the synopsis. A one sentence logline could make it into a press release on the festival or a TV guide blurb while a 30-word version might make it into a small printed program and a 60-word version on to a website or into a festival catalogue.

While a synopsis is invaluable in representing your film, there are a lot of other materials which can be invaluable in a press kit or other marketing materials. To see an example of a standout presskit, take a look at the film which is reviewed in our latest newsletter, Iraq in Fragments. And here’s a run-down of some of the things you should include:

You’d be amazed how many times we request a still from filmmakers for a Docs in Progress workshop and we get sent a postcard or a poster or a posed image of the characters from the film. A “still” refers to a high quality still image from the film which represents that film and can be used in press articles and on websites. No text. No titles. Just an image which speaks a thousand words. While I’ve just spent a few paragraphs saying it is the synopsis or logline that must capture attention, let’s remember that film is about visuals. The festivalgoer’s eye is going to go straight to the image, so pick one wisely. Although screen captures are becoming more and more professional-looking with advances in digital technology, we’d recommend making the investment to have a professional photographer snapping a few shots at the same time you are filming. Some filmmakers choose to have stills downloadable on their website. Others put them on a CD or even print copies for a festival.

Production Photos
While stills sell the film, production photos of the director at work on the set or the characters clearly being filmed can sometimes be useful supplement to scenes from the film.

Credits can consist of a single sheet or webpage with the principal credits for the film. You should also include a bio of the director and, where requested or helpful, of other principal contributors (producer, editor, cinematographer, star narrator or music, etc.). While filmography lists are sometimes useful (and some festivals may actually request this format), I’m partial to a bio of 2-3 paragraphs because it can more easily be cribbed for a festival catalogue of they are include filmmaker bios. Once again, the easier you make life for the festival programmers, the better your film will look in the process.

Director’s Statement
I have mixed feelings about Director’s Statements. At their best, they provide a window into the motivations and challenges of the filmmaker. At their worst, they are an exercise in navel-gazing or tell us what we are supposed to feel about a film instead of letting us watch it and judge it for ourselves.

If you are planning to do a Director’s Statement, it might be helpful to have a friend or another filmmaker interview you and then transcribe the interview to help put it together into a statement. At its most basic, it should give some insight into why you made the film. What was your motivation? What was production like? How did you meet your characters? Did you have any amusing, touching, or bizarre experiences while you were making the film? For inspiration, look at the filmmaker interviews done for the films which appear in PBS’ POV series films.

Other Items to Include, if Applicable

List of festivals and other venues screened, including notations of any awards.
Press reviews and/or quotes from well-known or well-regarded people or publications.
Posters: Festivals love posters since it helps them promote their festivals. They are well worth the investment, but only send them after you have been accepted. Don’t expect to get them back at all or in good condition.
Postcards: As with posters, only send these after you are accepted. Include space on your postcards to paste stickers with your screening information. And always bring more with you if you are attending a festival, since they may all be gone by the time the festival starts.
Press Outreach Materials: If you are a super control-freak like yours truly, sometimes it helps to get that energy out by sending the festival your own press release (they may either ignore it or grab a line or two to use in their own press outreach). Also, if they are a larger festival with its own press section, you should check with them about sending extra screener tapes and/or a three minute scene which can be easily used by local TV media.
Script of Your Film: Foreign film festivals or broadcasters may request this if they are going to provide subtitles, simultaneous interpretation, or dubbing.

Here’s a tip with marketing materials that is easy to overlook: identification. Make sure to put your name, your contact info, and the name of your film on EVERY page of your press kit and on the back of your photos if you are sending hard copies. Pages get easily lost or re-ordered in festival offices which are often staffed by a rotating cast of characters. Make sure a festival has all the following information for you: name, phone, e-mail, website for the film, distribution company address, and the filmmaker's home address (if different) for those rare festivals which might actually consider flying you in.

The bottom line of press kits and marketing materials is that, while they can’t make a bad film look good, they can make a great film look like the best film out there.

© 2007, Docs in Progress (authored by Erica Ginsberg)

Friday, September 07, 2007

Going to the IFP Market?

Are you headed to New York from September 16-19 for the annual Independent Film Project (IFP) Market? This has become one of the key events for American documentary filmmakers to get a foothold with festivals, distributors, and other industry folks by having a place to screen and promote their works in progress. Many of the docs first spotlighted at IFP have gone on to bigger and better things.

We'll be featuring a story on the IFP Market from the perspective of two Docs in Progress alums in our October online newsletter, but, in the meantime we'd also recommend you take a look at two recent articles from Agnes Varnum, one which appeared in indieWIRE and the other on RenewMedia.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Funding Alert: Southern Humanities Media Fund

The Southern Humanities Media Fund is accepting preliminary applications for media projects that focus on the “new face” of the South. Nonprofit organizations and eligible government agencies in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, are encouraged to apply for support for the
shooting/production, editing, and/or finishing of film, video, and audio programs for a general public audience. Projects that offer insights into the region's changing social, economic, and political conditions will be favored. Preliminary applications are due October 19, 2007.

Southern Humanities Media Fund
c/o Virginia Foundation for the Humanities
145 Ednam Drive
Charlottesville, VA
22903 -4629

Phone: 434-924-6895
Fax: 434-296-4714

Geographic Scope:
Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia

Total Annual Giving: $100,000

Eligibility Requirements: Nonprofit organizations

Application Deadlines:
Preliminary applications: third Friday of October, annually
Final applications: third Friday of March, annually

Areas of Interest:
The Southern Humanities Media Fund (SHMF) supports inventive film, television, and radio programs and is particularly interested in media productions that focus on the “new face” of the South, offering insights into the region’s changing social, economic, and political conditions.

The SHMF encourages ambitious and well-conceived media projects, with an emphasis on analytical and interpretive documentaries. The SHMF seeks projects that affirm the value of the humanities, including the study of literature, history, folklore, jurisprudence, philosophy, comparative religion, archaeology, and the theory, history, and criticism of the arts.

The SHMF only considers projects developed or sponsored by nonprofit organizations or governmental agencies (e.g., a state-funded television station). Grants are awarded only in support of the shooting/production, editing, and finishing of films, video, and audio programs created for a general public audience.

The SHMF does not provide supplementary support for projects that have already received their primary or major support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Application Procedures:
Application guidelines are available on the SHMF website
or may be requested from the address listed above.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Documentaries to Revisit: Darwin's Nightmare

While every documentary should be unique, it is important for documentary filmmakers to be well-read when it comes to documentaries to see different ways that those who have come before them have dealt with the joys and challenges of non-fiction storytelling. Until recently, it has been difficult to see documentaries on demand. But now many documentaries are easily available through Netflix, Amazon, or the local video store. With this in mind, we wanted to revisit a few documentaries which reflect a variety of styles, but all share the power of effective story structure and character development. We decided this time to focus on DARWIN'S NIGHTMARE by Hubert Sauper. This 2005 film is now available on DVD and has been reviewed by Docs in Progress co-founder Adele Schmidt.

In 2006, Austrian filmmaker Hubert Sauper was nominated for an Academy Award for his documentary DARWIN'S NIGHTMARE. Though the film lost out to another European production, MARCH OF THE PENGUINS, it is worth a look back at this film as an example of a multi-layered look at globalization. Sauper's vision is dark, his pictures are disturbing and the realities he uncovers are uncomfortable. But, through his films, it is clear that Sauper is an highly intelligent filmmaker who has a deep understanding of the political, social and economical complexities of the realities he is filming. As I was watching this film, I was grateful for it, because so many western films dealing with Africa are made by filmmakers who do not take the time to to get involved with the situation and do not spend enough time the with characters to gain their trust. The results are superficial films where the filmmaker is speaking for the people and over-relying on narration to explain everything which is not delivered from the film itself.

Sauper's approach is different. I still remember scenes of his 1998 documentary KISANGANI DIARY: FAR FROM RWANDA, in which he follows Hutu refugees after an attack against their camp in what was then Zaire (now The Democratic Republic of Congo). There is always a strong commitment of Sauper to his topic and his characters and that is what makes his films so remarkable. In DARWIN'S NIGHTMARE, Saupert transports us to Tanzania, to the small town of Mwanza on the shores of Africa's biggest lake Victoria. We learn that the town sees a lot of business because of the massive exports of a fish called the Nile Perch. This species of fish was not known in that lake before the 1960s when it was introduced to the lake. A predatory species, the fish multiplied, but also caused the extinction of other species to the point that the lake could be considered a mono culture.

And here starts the complexity of the problem: We are at a lake which is ecologically out of balance waiting for a disaster. The export of the fish is seemingly good for the development of Mwanza because it gives jobs to tousands of people who work in a processing plant. Two airplanes come every day from Russia to this little town to load in 500 tons of frozen, packaged fish fillets and fly them back to the restaurants and dining rooms of Europe. The daily cargo could feed the little town for a long time, but the villagers don't get to see the fish fillets because after the fish has gone through he modern processing plant, they cannot afford the fish. The only thing the locals get to see and eat are the leftovers of the factory: the carcass head of the fish. Thousands of these rotting fish heads are piled up on a beach nearby Mwanza. As the camera pans across all these fish heads and the people who carry them away in buckets, one can just say that all this is not fair. That we are one more time before an example of crude exploitation by Northern countries, in this case Europe, towards the South. The fact that the film was shot during a time when Tanzania was hard hit by famine makes this situation even more unbearable.

But Saupert does not want us to focus too much on the fish. For him, the fish business is a by-product of the bigger story which he wants to unfold to the public. There is a rumor that the transport airplanes don't just depart with fish, but also bring weapons and munitions to conflicts in other African countries. The story was on the news and a local journalist claims to have evidence. Of course, we never see weapons unload from the planes in Mwanza. People asked on the streets are convinced that the planes are empty when they come. Though Sauper asks the Russian pilots again and again, they won't tell and simply lower their heads in silence. But once the thought is introduced by the film, we can not get rid of it. Tanzania is bordered by countries with a very recent history of war: Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda and it is not much further a plane ride to other hotspots. As one of the pilots cynically says, "The children of Europe receive grapes for Christmas, the children of Angola receive guns." You would have to be naive to believe that airplanes come empty from Russia just to load fish. What a lost opportunity that would be for the international weapon smuggling networks! As we watch the locals of Mwanza tilt their heads to see another airplane crossing above them in the sky, we draw our own conclusions.

It is this lack of proof which some may find troubling, especially those who are accustomed to seeing journalistic-style documentaries where proof is so key to storytelling. But Sauper makes clear in the film that he has his own point of view and that he is not hesitating to impose his own truth. It is now up to the viewer if he or she wants to share that view. I can say that my colleague, Erica Ginsberg, has had challenges with the film for this reason and also because she believes that the film is ultimately so dark and hopeless that it leaves the audience with little reaction but to feel despair and maybe give up eating Nile Perch.

Indeed you could argue that Sauper focuses too much on the dark side, on the side of African despair. Through his eyes it seems that the village of Mwanza is populated by a collection of glue-sniffing kids living on the streets, prostitutes plying their trade to the Russian pilots and occasionally to the migrant workers, families reduced to half of their size because of the effects of AIDS, and the assorted foreigners involved in the processing and export of the fish. He takes us inside the lives of these characters. We meet them in close conversations and engage with them because the filmmaker captures them as they laugh, sing, and share their dreams. The camera is always very close to the subjects. Sauper has obviously spent a lot of time with them to get them to feel comfortable opening up, as though in a conversation. The moments breathe. When we hear a prostitute sing a song “Tanzania, Tanzania” with a big smile on her face, we understand how proud she is of her country in spite of its dire circumstances. She says she dreams of getting a better education. A street kid aspires to become an engineer. These dreams are authentic and valuable but we are already so drawn into the hopelessness of their lives, that we know full well these dreams cannot be fulfilled. Not in the world Sauper portrays.

And here Sauper leaves us alone with a situation which seems not to have a solution. Yes, the dark side is a truth in Africa but it is far from the only one. It is hard to believe that there are not other normal people in this town with a positive take on the situation. People for example who work in the factory and have benefited from the fish business, even if it is on the sacrifice of the lake. People who are working their way out the circle of poverty because they have a job and they now can improve their living condition and send their kids to school. But Sauper does not enter that terrain.

Maybe Sauper thought by bringing in more diverse voices, the message of the film would be in jeopardy, but here he is mistaken. Bringing in positive voices would have made the situation more complete and would have given the people from Tanzania respect. Now we just feel miserable for them.

DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE feels like a “film noir.” It is not an activist film which presents a problem and suggests a solution. Instead it helps shed light on a place that few of us would have the likelihood to visit and yet which is impacted by our actions or lack of action.

© July 2007, Docs In Progress. Blogs and articles may not be reprinted without permission.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Erica's Report from Silverdocs

I feel lucky not to have to travel far to go to what has arguably become one of the best festivals for documentaries in the United States. Every June, SILVERDOCS comes to Silver Spring, Maryland for six days of films, panel discussions, and industry networking opportunities. I make a point of going every year, not only to check out the latest and greatest in the world of documentary, but also because I feel a special pride in seeing movies in the AFI/Silver Theatre. I went often to that theater as a child, growing up in Silver Spring when its downtown was home to no less than five single-screen movie theaters -- the Silver being the most magnificent of them all. Seeing E.T. in the Silver made me want to be a filmmaker in the first place.

This year I think was one of the strongest years for SILVERDOCS in terms of the quality of the films. It was also apparently one of their strongest years ever for ticket sales, resulting in lots of sold-out screenings and the resulting scramble to add screenings and do their best to ensure that filmmakers and other industry passholders could make it to the head of standby lines for the numerous sold out films. They also added some industry-only screenings at Discovery headquarters this year which made a big difference in appeasing those who shelled out a few hundred bucks to ensure they did not get shut out of films.

The festival opened Tuesday night with PETE SEEGER: THE POWER OF SONG, an American Experience-style biopic on the life of the folk singer. I took my mother, a long-time folk fan who has caught Seeger's performances since the 1950s, and she sang-along to the whole film. Following the screening, we were all treated to post-show musical performances by Tom Paxton, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock, and Odetta who, while frail and preferring to sing from the audience, was unfazed by the sound of a cell phone going off during her performance. Also featured on stage and at the post-film Gala were the Mammals, a band including Seeger's grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger.

I spent the next few days, balancing my time between films, conference sessions, one-on-one networking, and trying to catch a few Zs between it all. While scheduled meetings meant I didn't have a chance to attend as much of the conference as in the past, I did make it to a few sessions from the Future of Real 2.0 series. One session on Cutting Edge Technology Issues featured a panelist in avatar form from Second Life. Another interesting session focused on the impact of digital downloads on distribution, with updates from JAMAN, DER, and New Video. One of the most interesting exchanges of this session related to rights for Internet distribution, with Debra Zimmerman from Women Make Movies suggesting from the audience that, if filmmakers cannot convince a broadcaster who is not offering digital downloads or streaming rentals as an option (but still wants to retain those media distribution rights) to let the filmmaker retain the Internet rights entirely, they should at least try to negotiate a time limit on those rights, perhaps having the Internet rights revert back to the filmmaker in six months or a year.

I also had a chance to drop in on a bit of DocAgora, a relatively new initiative which has been traversing major film festivals worldwide to provide a platform for interchange between the documentary film community about socially-engaged documentary content. At SILVERDOCS, one of the main features of DocAgora was a debate around the proposition "New Media has re-defined the meaning of Public: the wall between public and commercial media no longer exists." The discussion, while somewhat academic, was intriguing and I wish I could have stayed beyond the panelist debate to see how the audience took on the proposition. But unfortunately, I had to run to catch another panel -- one of the biggest challenges of SILVERDOCS is deciding which panels to attend. There were more than a few that I wanted to see which were all scheduled simultaneously. Some of them were recorded so I will post an update if SILVERDOCS uploads any podcasts.

Speaking of podcasts, Joel Heller of Docs That Inspire (one of the best documentary resources in the blogosphere) recorded one of the most poorly attended panels on one of the most important advocacy issues for documentary filmmakers today -- a special session on the controversial Academy Award qualifying rules. Moderated by Sandra Ruch from the International Documentary Association, the panel featured different points of view from outspoken filmmakers A.J. Schnack and Marco Williams and producer/distributor Julie Goldman on the topic of what it takes to qualify for an Oscar. Frieda Lee Mock, Governor of the Documentary Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was also invited to participate, but was unable to do so. However, IDA distributed a handout which included contact information for her (, as well as for questions related to the ever-changing Oscar qualification rules (Torene Svitil - Awards Office, Department Head of AMPAS, or 310-247-3000) and for questions related to technical formats (Andy Maltz, Director of the Science and Technology Council, or same phone number as Svitil). To listen to the panel discussion, click here to download an unedited MP3.

Every SILVERDOCS features numerous films related to war and post-conflict. This year, one of the best panels took on the topic of how documentaries cover war -- or, more specifically, the war in Iraq. Among the panelists were Alex Gibney (TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE), Charles Ferguson (NO END IN SIGHT), and David Modell (WAR TORN: STORIES OF SEPARATION). Almost stealing the show from the filmmakers were Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former Chief of Staff (who is featured in both Gibney and Ferguson's films) and Paul Hughes, who served on the Iraq Study Group’s Military and Security Expert Working Group (and is also featured in Ferguson's film). While Hughes (who currently works for the U.S. Institute of Peace) maintained the normal Washington diplo-speak, Wilkerson pulled no punches in his outspoken criticism of the Bush administration's Iraq policy.

I did not have a chance to see NO END IN SIGHT (I can only take so many war films and thankfully this one will start its theatrical run at Washington DC's Landmark E Street theater next month). But I did see a sold-out screening of TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, a powerful follow-up to Gibney's previous film ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM. The access he was able to get (particularly to U.S. soldiers who had been convicted of abuses at Bagram prison in Afghanistan) was incredible. More importantly, he builds an effective case that torture has essentially become an accepted part of U.S. doctrine in a post 9/11 world. His film is free of the partisan polemics that mar so many documentaries related to the War on Terror.

I also saw WAR TORN, part of a shorts series titled Embattled. It was impossible to keep a dry eye during Modell's film, which focuses on the impact of the war in Iraq on the home front from the perspective of the families of British soldiers who have died or been damaged as a result of the war. The film is told as four vignettes, with voiceover of wives or mothers on top of still images of the soldiers, their families, and their lives in both Iraq and England. Originally conceived as an Internet project for Channel Four, the WAR TORN series received such an overwhelming response that it was ultimately aired on television over consecutive nights. Even Modell was surprised by the emotional impact on the festival audience, watching the four vignettes back to back. The Embattled series was probably one of the strongest collection of shorts I have ever seen in a festival. It also included SARI'S MOTHER, James Longley's film about the relationship between an Iraqi woman and her son who has AIDS. Shot at the same time Longley was making his Oscar-nominated feature IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS, SARI'S MOTHER retains much of the same style of beautiful cinematography and visceral storytelling, letting the story unfold not through dialogue or any form of narration, but through careful observation of human interaction and moments of facial expression which speak volumes about the characters. A third short about Iraq, Ed Kashi's IRAQI KURDISTAN, looks at the relatively peaceful Kurdish region of Iraq through images of various people engaged in everyday activities. Like Longley, the film eschews dialogue in favor of slice-of-life closeups of Iraqi people. But, unlike SARI'S MOTHER which has a languorous pace, IRAQI KURDISTAN uses an experimental style, reminiscent of animated flip-books, setting a rhythm which stops at moments to reflect on a particular human expression. Another film in this shorts series was BULLET PROOF VEST, a film about children living in a tent city as part of a protest against neighborhoods which provide no safe havens for children to play. The film was impressive, especially since it was a student work and was created with only a small amount of 16 mm film available to the students. The final film, LOT 63: GRAVE C, looked at life, death, and obscurity from the perspective of Meredith Hunter whose murder at the 1969 Altamont rock concert was captured in the Maysles classic GIMME SHELTER, but who remains a mystery and is buried in an unmarked grave.

Perhaps the flip side of LOT 63: GRAVE C was to be seen in FOREVER, the latest work from one of my favorite directors Heddy Honnigman. Festival programmer Sky Sitney confessed to the audience that, while she loves all her "children," this was one of her favorite films in the festival. I would have to agree. Once again, Honnigman finds a way to take a topic on the surface and delve deeper so that it becomes something else entirely. We enter Paris' Pere Lachaise Cemetery purportedly to tour the graves of some of France's most famous writers, artists, and composers. Ultimately though the film becomes about the legacy these dead artists have left for the contemporary living, as each "guide" relates the visit to the grave to something in their own life. The film leaves us with the notion that, as Egon Schiele once famously wrote, "art is eternal" because it lives on in all of us and how we react to it.

Life, death, art, and fame were recurring themes throughout the festival...or at least in the films I chose (hmmmmm). One of the biggest surprises to me was KURT COBAIN: ABOUT A SON. Neither a fan of music documentaries nor of Nirvana in particular, I added this film to my list because I know of its filmmaker, A.J. Schnack through his popular (and sometimes controversial) blog on documentaries, All These Wonderful Things. I was blown away by the film which ultimately is not as much about Cobain or Nirvana, as it is about the relationship between man and place. The film employs the sound of a long conversation that music writer Michael Azerrad had with Cobain about his childhood, upbringing, and obscure path which led him to fame. Almost all of the visuals are landscapes, streetscapes, and humanscapes which evoke the three Washington cities which formed his life's arc. The visuals were story boarded and edited to work side by side with the sound of the interview and a music soundtrack which includes nothing by Cobain or Nirvana, but a wide variety of his musical influences. This film renews my strong belief that documentary is not a genre in and of itself. Instead documentary has its own sub-genres which can employ visuals as effectively as any fiction film, even when those visuals are very carefully constructed and controlled.

With so many serious and (at the risk of sounding like Jerry Seinfeld at the Oscars) frankly depressing films on my plate, I was glad to break it up a little bit with some more humorous documentaries. Interestingly the two funniest documentaries I saw were actually part of very serious funding initiatives. STAND UP: MUSLIM AMERICAN COMICS COME OF AGE was partially funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's America at a Crossroads grant initiative. While the film did not air with many of the other funded films as part of the PBS series earlier this year, it was in many ways a more interesting look at the impact of post 9/11 America on our popular culture and social commentary. Two of the comedians featured in the film -- Ahmed Ahmed and Dean Obeidallah joined filmmaker Glenn Baker at the Q&A.

The other film which had plenty of laugh-out-loud moments was PLEASE VOTE FOR ME, which, along with TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, was one of the 10 documentaries funded by the Why Democracy? initiative, an international effort of nearly 40 broadcasters and institutional funders to support projects which address the various meanings of the word "democracy." PLEASE VOTE FOR ME looks at democracy from the perspective of Chinese third graders running to be elected by the peers for the office of Class Monitor. Hijinks ensue, with the candidates (and their "campaign manager" parents) taking on every politician dirty trick stereotype -- bullying each other in debates, looking for their opponents' weaknesses, and even trading favors for votes. Though the film looks at a microcosm of democracy, it has a larger reflection on a changing Chinese society, where the One Child Policy has left a generation of children (especially boys) spoiled by parents and grandparents in their efforts to achieve at all costs.

Other films I had a chance to see included:

Maria Yatskova's MISS GULAG, which takes us into the world of a Russian prison beauty competition and, by extension, into the psyche of the post-Soviet Generation Y. The film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and Silverdocs was its North American premiere (soon to be followed by screenings at the Seattle International Film Festival).

Esther Robinson's A WALK INTO THE SEA: DANNY WILLIAMS & THE WARHOL FACTORY, which also addresses the flip-sided themes of life and death, fame and obscurity through the lens of the filmmaker's uncle who was part of the Factory scene until his untimely disappearance.

Marco Williams' BANISHED, which looks at the legacy of ethnic cleansing in United States when, especially in the Reconstruction era and early 20th century, a number of communities forced African-Americans to move out.

And, of course, WAR/DANCE and MADE IN L.A. which we plugged as our picks in our most recent blog posting. The former was made especially poignant by the fact that the filmmakers were local and had a loyal crowd at their screening. The latter was emotional because several of the garment workers featured in the film joined the filmmakers for an English/Spanish bilingual Q&A.

If there are criticisms that can be lodged this year, the two biggest ones were beyond SILVERDOCS' control: the weather and the location of the Cinema Lounge. The first few afternoons of the festival were marred by monsoon-like downpours which made even a one or two block walk between locations the equivalent of a moonlight swim under a waterfall. While SILVERDOCS is trying to do its part against global warming by becoming the first carbon-neutral film festival in the country, maybe next year some enterprising sponsor will include as swag in the welcome bags an umbrella or recyclable rain poncho.

As for the Cinema Lounge, regular SILVERDOCS-goers were dismayed to learn that last year's location for the lounge on the second floor of one of the stores in the shopping strip behind the Silver Theater had become a dance studio. The new Cinema Lounge was now located three blocks from the venues where most of the screenings and conference sessions were taking place. While three blocks may not seem a long distance, it was far too far to become a place to drop by for a quick 15-20 minutes between sessions or films as it had been in the past. As a result, the Cinema Lounge did not have the same feel of a thriving, energetic networking place as it had in past years, although it did liven up a bit around lunch and in the evenings when it hosted some of the parties. With Silver Spring hopping with new restaurants, stores, and businesses, it is probably becoming more difficult for SILVERDOCS to rely on a close-by space that is between renters to turn into the Cinema Lounge. But to keep the importance of the Cinema Lounge as a place to meet, it is essential to have something for industry. Especially given the vagaries of June weather and the very full festival and conference schedule, it would be great to have something within a block of the main festival venues. But if these are the two worst things to complain about, then I'd say it was a pretty successful year.

Sterling Award: Feature - Please Vote for Me
Sterling Award: Short - Lot 63, Grave C
Special Jury Mention - Enemies of Happiness
Honorable Mention: Short - I Want to Be a Pilot
Cinematic Vision: Feature - Kurt Cobain, About a Son
Cinematic Vision: Short - My Eyes
WITNESS Award - The Devil Came on Horseback
WITNESS Award Honorable Mention - The Price of Sugar
American Film Market Award - Big Rig
Beyond Belief Award - Audience of One
Music Award - Nomadik TX
ACE Documentary Development Grant - The Concrete Jungle
Audience Award: Feature - Souvenirs
Audience Award: Short - A Son's Sacrifice

Erica Ginsberg, Co-Founder of Docs in Progress

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Our Picks for Silverdocs

The AFI/Discovery Channel SILVERDOCS Documentary Film Festival starts this Tuesday, June 12 and continues through Sunday, June 17 at the AFI Silver Theatre and other venues in Silver Spring, Maryland. With only six days to pick from nearly 100 documentary films to see, we wanted to offer two suggestions:

Adele's Pick: War Dance

I saw WAR DANCE at the Sundance Film Festival in January where it won the Documentary Directing Award. The film follows the journey of several war refugee children competing in a national dance and music festival in Uganda. I was blown away by the beauty of the images, the depth of the story, and the outstanding multiple character development. Considering that the film was shot in a refugee camp in war-torn northern Uganda under very difficult production circumstances makes the result even more astonishing. It is a must for every filmmaker to see an example of outstanding storytelling and editing.
War Dance screens Thursday, June 14 at 8:30 pm. Click here for more info.

Erica's Pick: Made in L.A.

If you want to see a great example of combining activist filmmaking with pure documentary storytelling, look no further than MADE IN L.A. Beyond the headlines of the current immigration debate, we go inside the lives of three women as they struggle to survive the sweatshops in Los Angeles' garment industry and become empowered to fight for fair labor conditions. A good example of patient, observational documentary filmmaking, as the story and characters developed over the course of several years. While the film will be screened in September on PBS' POV series, this is your opportunity to see it in its World Premiere with the filmmakers and several of the main characters in attendance.

Made in L.A. screens Friday, June 15 at 7:30 pm and Saturday, June 16 at 12:45 pm. Click here for more info.

Have your own must-sees at Silverdocs? Post them here. In the meantime, look forward to seeing you in Silver Spring...

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Monday, April 09, 2007

Documentaries to Revisit: Jesus Camp

While every documentary should be unique, it is important for documentary filmmakers to be well-read when it comes to documentaries to see different ways that those who have come before them have dealt with the joys and challenges of non-fiction storytelling. Until recently, it has been difficult to see documentaries on demand. But now many documentaries are easily available through Netflix, Amazon, or the local video store. With this in mind, we wanted to revisit a few documentaries which reflect a variety of styles, but all share the power of effective story structure and character development. We decided this time to focus on JESUS CAMP by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. This 2006 film is now available on DVD and has been reviewed by Docs in Progress co-founder Erica Ginsberg.

At Docs in Progress workshops, one of the questions we ask every presenting filmmaker is “why did you make the film?” It is important that documentarians think about what their intentions are with a documentary. Especially when treating a controversial subject, it is essential for the filmmaker to know his or her own point of view even if he or she has no intention of being a character in the film.

In the 2006 film JESUS CAMP, filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady enter a world quite unlike the one they know firsthand. With both filmmakers hailing from “Blue States” (New York by way of Detroit and Washington DC respectively) and neither actively religious, they chose to enter the world of the Evangelical Christian movement and explore the relationship between religion and politics and the national debate over values.

That values debate forms a narrative device in the film. We open to the scenery of middle America (highways, fast food joints, gas stations, and motel signs reading “God Bless USA). A car radio blares the news that Sandra Day O’Connor has just announced her resignation from the Supreme Court. Talk radio goes wild with speculation about whom President Bush will nominate as her replacement and how much impact Christians can have on the nomination process. The camera takes us inside a radio station where extreme close-ups of the technical equipment underscore how media – especially talk radio – plays an integral part of that values debate. However, this radio host, Mike Papantonio, provides a dissenting voice to what we heard on the car radios. He is openly critical of what he calls the “religious right” because he believes they are entangling politics and religion. “What kind of lesson is that for our children?” Papantonio asks. Less than four minutes into the film, the main conflict of the film is established, even though we have not yet met any of the main characters.

This war of words acts as a backdrop for the main story, which looks at how the next generation of Evangelical Christians is being raised in their faith. Children with camouflage warpaint and carrying stick swords dance at the front of a church, speak in tongues (in keeping with their Pentecostal beliefs), and talk of being soldiers in the Army of God. They are led by an unlikely general, Becky Fischer. A children’s minister who challenges kids to be the part of this movement, Fischer has a down-to-earth style and disarming sense of humor which engages the viewer as much as it does the children to whom she preaches. In one scene she compares, almost enviously, her children’s ministry to that of radical Islamic madrassas. In another, she is teasing her hair in front of a mirror, betraying the more routine concerns of a middle-aged woman.

In fact, it is the juxtaposition of the humanity – and indeed the mundanity – of the characters with the idiosyncrasies of their religious beliefs that really gives depth to the film. On the surface, we are in the landscape of Anywhere Suburbia. But there is always a twist. A mom helps her children with their homework; they read from creationist textbooks which are central to their home-schooling. Children play videogames and read stories, but they are all Christian-themed; their homes are free of Pokemon and Harry Potter, both of which are seen as anti-Christian endorsements of witchcraft.

As the film progresses, we gain a deeper understanding of the characters, even if we do not share their beliefs. In addition to Fischer, the film focuses on three children. Levi has aspirations to be a preacher at a mega-church, seeing himself as part of a key generation to bring Jesus back to America. Rachael takes pride in her efforts to evangelize non-believers, whether it’s her next-door neighbor or a stranger at the bowling alley. Tory loves to dance, though she prefers Christian heavy metal to Britney Spears because she says it is for God and not for the flesh. The film masterfully reveals each of the kids through a combination of observational footage and interviews done in the mise-en-scene of the characters, often while they are engaged in their everyday activities.

While the first act of the film introduces us to the values debate and the main characters, the second act takes those characters and us to the Families on Fire Summer Camp, run in North Dakota by Becky Fischer. Again, we see the contrast of the normal rites of passage of a children’s summer camp with the deeper reasons why these children are there. In one scene, a group of boys stays up late for the familiar ritual of telling ghost stories, only to have the party broken up by one of the parental chaperones who reminds them that such stories are not honoring God. In the daytime, the kids have some time to be kids: play on swings, skip stones in the lake, laugh with friends in the cafeteria, or go exploring in a nearby cave. But they spend good portions of their days participating in the intense fervor of sermons that focus on washing away their sins of hypocrisy or breaking the reins of secularism over government. Fischer and the other pastors challenge the kids about whether they are ready to be a part of the Army of God.

This brings us to the third act which shows how the children are becoming part of this movement to use their religious values to influence politics. Whether it is blessing a cardboard cutout of President Bush or going on a field trip to Washington DC to protest against abortion in front of the Supreme Court, the children are ready to fight for what they perceive to be “one nation under God.” Levi even pays a visit to one of the largest megachurches in the country, the New Life Church in Colorado Springs which was at the time led by Pastor Ted Haggard (filmed before the sex scandal which forced him to resign). Haggard makes an appearance in the film and drives home the message that it is churches like his which have the power to influence the national political agenda. As he says in the film, “If the Evangelicals vote, they determine the election.”

JESUS CAMP met with praise and controversy when it was released in 2006. Some felt that it treated the topic in a sinister manner through its reliance on a spooky-sounding score and editing of sound bites that emphasize militancy and political activism espoused at the camp. Pastor Haggard spoke out against the film as not representing the full spectrum of evangelical Christians and encouraged members of his church to stay away from the film when it previewed in Colorado Springs. Although Becky Fischer has indicated on her Kids in Ministry website that the film is not a totally accurate representation of her ministry (especially the theatrical trailer which she felt portrayed her ministry as “cult-like”), she also believes the success of the film has given her a unique opportunity to convey her mission. She and several of the kids have attended various film festival screenings with the filmmakers and her ministry’s website contains many comments from viewers who felt the film actually encouraged them to become more fervent in their faith and eager to attend the camp. Similarly on the film’s MySpace page, the comments reflect a diversity of opinion – from those who have been inspired by the film to others who have found it deeply disturbing.

In my own opinion, if a film can take a controversial issue and be equally upsetting to both sides of a debate, then it is as close to balanced as it can ever be. But the one truth about non-fiction work, it is that it can never be truly balanced. Even John Grierson’s definition of documentary – “the creative treatment of actuality” – indicates that there is no way to portray truth, but only to creatively interpret it. Selecting the characters, deciding when to turn the camera on and off and where to focus its attention, choosing clips and contextual information and the order of how they are edited, and deciding on the music and where to place it in the film all reflect a point of view.

Even the presence of the filmmakers can impact the reality they document. While this was certainly noticeable in JESUS CAMP in the Ted Haggard sequence where the film includes shots of him teasing the cameraman, there is another sequence which many viewers may not even realize was impacted by the filmmakers. At one point, Becky Fischer calls in to Mike Papantonio’s radio show for a debate on whether her ministry is indoctrinating children in its religious and political beliefs. This is a key scene in the film because it returns us to the film’s major theme of the values debate by actually including a direct debate over values. However, according to the directors’ commentary on the DVD, Fischer’s call-in came about as a result of the filmmakers’ intervention, not as a chance happening in an unfolding documentary reality. While the call-in itself was not scripted, this sequence does present an ethical issue to the documentary filmmaker. What is his or her role in impacting a storyline in order to craft a more dramatic narrative arc?

I should add here that it was a controversial decision for Docs in Progress to feature this film among our reviews because my colleague, Adele Schmidt, and I have very divergent views on this film. We both agree that there is merit to seeing the film because it covers an issue about which almost every viewer may have a strong opinion. Additionally, it is a case study of how to tell a big-issue story through the more accessible lens of a character-driven narrative. However, we disagree vehemently on the issue of the film’s point of view. Every directorial decision ultimately reflects the point of view of the filmmaker(s). Filmmakers should never shy away from having a point of view, even when trying to present as balanced a story as possible. In my view, this film seems to have helped Ewing and Grady – and, by extension, viewers who come from similar secular backgrounds – to step outside of their own environment and discover more about people with whom they may never agree, but who they can now better understand. In Adele’s view, the filmmakers bent over too far backwards to please their subjects and betrayed their own point of view in the process. She does not equate discovering a reality with having a point of view.

We’ll leave it to you to see the film for yourself and decide. We invite you to add your own comments to the discussion.

© April 2007, Docs In Progress. Blogs and articles may not be reprinted without permission.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Getting Busy with Docs in Progress...

If you're clicking here from the recent indieWIRE article on Documentary Blogs or just found us on an online search for documentary film resources, you may be surprised to see that the Docs Interactive blogs are updated less frequently than many other blogs. It's not out of laziness as much out of busyness. In addition to running our bi-monthly workshops , we are also preparing for a new edition of our quarterly online newsletter. It includes interviews with doc professionals, reviews of documentaries, a calendar of upcoming events and deadlines, and more. It's free to subscribe to the newsletter by joining our mailing list through our website. On top of that, we are also partnering with Fernanda Rossi, a.k.a., the Documentary Doctor, on an all-day workshop on trailer mechanics in Washington DC on May 12. Did we mention we also both work fulltime, Erica's curating the 2008 Council on Foundations Film Festival, Adele has a film coming soon to PBS, Erica's got a dog to walk, Adele's got two kids at home, and it's tax season?

Not that we're trying to excuse ourselves.

But take a look through our back pages, feel free to comment on anything, bear with us for our shameless self-promotion, and stay tuned for more resources intended to aid the independent documentary filmmaker.

Adele Schmidt and Erica Ginsberg
Co-Founders, Docs in Progress

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Have ideas about alternative distribution? Sound off on The D-Word Forum from Feb. 19-23

Our pals at The D-Word ( are sponsoring a free online forum the week of February 19 on the topic of Alternative Distribution Models for Documentary Films.

This is a continuation of a lively discussion that began at the Docagora Conference at IDFA in December 2006. Joining the discussion will be international representatives from many of the organizations that took part there, including:

- Fleur Knopperts, Amit Breur, Peter Wintonick- Cameron Hickey- Cay Wesnigk- Ben Ross- Peter de Kock- Vernon Gielen
- Davin Hutchins- Pat Aufderheide

To take part in the discussion, go to the d-word forum at (you will need to register for a free sign-in through NewCafe - the instructions are on the site)

It's all part of The D-Word's recent series of conferences devoted to reaching a wider audience online.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Robert Greenwald's Approach to Outreach

In our previous post on finding funding, we referenced Robert Greenwald as a prime example of finding creative ways to raise money for your films. While the idea of being able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars through small personal donations or building audiences simply by word-of-mouth appeals to many filmmakers, it is not something you can simply quickly or randomly. It takes a long time to build trust and accountability with funders and Greenwald did not accomplish this simply by sending an e-blast and then seeing the money roll in or the audiences build. His approach has been much more nuanced and purposeful, requiring time, and sacrifice.

This past week, Greenwald was the keynote speaker at the Center for Social Media's "Making Documentary Matter" conference. Docs in Progress co-founder Erica Ginsberg was also there and made some notes on Greenwald's key points. These were originally posted on The D-Word Community and have been reposted here and on other blogs to share Greenwald's approach to outreach. Whatever you may think of his films, we felt he made some some important points, especially regarding outreach for social issue documentaries.

Keynote Highlights

  • Film, in and of itself, does not create social change. Partnerships do.

  • The alternate distribution model is more effective in bringing change than TV or theatrical releases. If your goal with your film is social change, you may need to forego the Oscar, the theatrical release, or the TV broadcast to partner instead with grassroots organizations which can get your film out to the broadest audience possible and, most importantly, reach audiences who will take action and not just watch a film passively.

  • You cannot look to these partners as distributors or buzz-makers for your film. Instead, your responsibility is to figure out how to connect to them and make the film useful for THEM.

  • With UNCOVERED, Greenwald and his production company, Brave New Films partnered with the Center for AmericanProgress, Move-On and other online groups and chose to do a single-day e-mail promotion for the DVDs on the same day they held the first screening of the film in Washington DC. They thought they'd sell 2,000-3,000 DVDs and were shocked when they made $10,000 in the first day and $25,000 within three days. Ultimately, they raised $1 million for MoveOn.

  • The challenge with working with partners is that each has their own way of working, some can be bureaucratic, and many of them so narrowly define their issues that it can be a challenge to bring multiple partners to the table in a broader coalition. WALMART: THE HIGH COST OF LOW PRICE, for example, brought together very strange bedfellows. IRAQ FOR SALE was the most challenging one to gain partners because some organizations were concerned that they could lose their non-profit status if they were seen as taking a side in the political debate during the election season (although the film purposely does not advocate for one candidate over another).

  • With the WALMART film, Greenwald made a strategic decision to stick to a specific date to roll-out screenings (most of them free to the public) and made a very broad coalition, including 1000 churches, student groups, unions, and women's groups. They were especially glad that churches formed part of the coalition because it was a means to recapture moral ground after being accused of being too lefty.

  • With funding, doc filmmakers need to accept that we are beggars. The irony is that Greenwald, who had years of experience inHollywood, found it easier and more dignified to get money from the Hollywood studios for all his feature films and TV movies than he does now to ask foundations and NGOs to support his documentaries.

  • As has been widely reported (including in this blog), with IRAQ FOR SALE, Greenwald was able to fund much of the film by getting small donations from enormous mailing list. More than 3,000 people got producer credit even though they contributed only about $25-50. Greenwald was astonished by the response and admits that he felt more accountable to these 3,000 people to make a worthwhile film than he ever had to a studio.

  • Brave New Films have tried to take advantage of the technologies available not only for fundraising and outreach, but for production itself. Very often, they didn't have resources to send someone out to conduct an interview in person so they would do it by phone or even by an Internet hookup. They created their own Wikis to conduct research. People across the country could access and enter information so they could narrow down their interviews without having to do pre-production trips to see if someone would be a good interview. They also created a secure website so they could view all of the dailies online.

  • Similarly, they enlisted their audience to become part of the production team. They had researchers around the country who they never met. Greenwald cited 10 people they recruited for OUTFOXED. These volunteers were tasked with watching Fox broadcasts all day and were given keywords to look for. They would note them down and the time of day the broadcast took place and send in daily reports so that the Brave New Films team could find the specific material from Tivo. The volunteers loved the work so much that they ended up founding a site called The Newshounds with the motto "We watch Fox so you don't have to." Similarly for WALMART, they recruited 1500 volunteer field producers who filmed empty Walmarts across the country. They now have more than 6,000 people willing to be screening hosts for their upcoming films.

  • Greenwald believes, in spite of the success of theatrically-released documentaries, that is not the future for most documentaries. In the near future, he is not even focusing on any long-form docs, but is instead taking on short 2 or 3 minute pieces which can stand alone or be "webisodes" which can be easily shared virally. The first one, recently released, focuses on likely presidential candidate John McCain. They will also be launching an online memorial for all those killed in Iraq on the March 19 anniversary of the start of the war. Modeled on the AIDS quilt and the New York Times spread on 9/11 victims, it will feature people who had a loved one killed in the war talking for one minute about that person. They already have the commitment of more than 350 blogs to carry the piece. And they are working to draw on their success to help other documentary filmmakers reach wide audiences. Brave New Theaters provides a space for social issue filmmakers to offer their films for online "Meet-Up" type screenings of their films.

These are just the highlights of Greenwald's speech and the other presentations made at the "Making Documentary Matter" conference on January 31-February 1, 2007. The podcast of Greenwald's keynote address is available on the Center for Social Media website.

What do you think of Greenwald's ideas? Can they work for you? What has he missed? Tell us what you think by posting a comment here.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

How to Find Funding for Your Documentary?

From time to time, we at Docs in Progress get e-mails from filmmakers seeking our advice on fundraising. Some filmmakers who submit their films for consideration for Docs in Progress workshops tell us they are looking to the workshop to help them raise funds. We used to explain to filmmakers that the purpose of the workshops is really to get feedback on the story of the film, not to seek funds. But in reality, fundraising is a vital part of the story of every documentary and the two go hand in hand. Filmmakers screening their rough cuts at Docs in Progress are screening to an audience. Raising funds for a film is another form of screening to an audience – even if you have no footage yet to screen. So we thought we’d devote this entry to some advice about fundraising. It is by no means comprehensive, but will help give those who are lost some potential direction. We welcome additional suggestions and comments.

The first question you need to ask of yourself before you start fundraising is pretty much the same one we use to get the discussion rolling at our workshops “Who is the target audience?” Once you can identify who this audience is, you can target your fundraising more effectively.

The second question you should think about is whether your project is being produced non-profit or for-profit. This brings us to a reality check about documentary; in spite of the recent success of theatrical documentaries, the majority of independently-made documentaries do not turn a profit. In fact, many documentarians find it difficult to make a reasonable income from their films and often work on their projects as an adjunct to freelance gigs, commercial work, or day jobs. While there are niche documentaries which can turn a profit (say one which involves Paris Hilton in a compromising position), there are very few which will be credible for an investor to see a return. So our focus here is more on the non-profit model.

Does this mean you need to be a non-profit organization? Nope, but you will need to know one who is willing to serve as your proxy for fundraising. Having what is known as a “fiscal sponsor” will open up the kinds of grants you can apply for. It also means that you can receive private donations and the donors can get a write-off on their taxes because they will be making a charitable donation. Fiscal sponsors vary. There are film organizations which specialize in being fiscal sponsors – International Documentary Association (IDA), Independent Film Project (IFP), Film/Video Arts, Film Arts Foundation, IMAGE Film and Video Center, Women Make Movies, Film Forum, Documentary Educational Resources to name a few.

Or perhaps the topic of your film lends itself to partnering with a non-profit advocacy organization working on the same topic. Many film fiscal sponsors are content to simply be a “pass through” where they take the 5% sponsorship fee (to cover their accounting expenses) and do not get involved in your fundraising or editorial content. Advocacy organizations may want some editorial involvement in the project (not necessarily a bad thing if you can be mutually beneficial to each other in building an audience and doing outreach).

So now where to look?

Friends and family
Funny we should mention this first, but sometimes people forget the resources which are the easiest at hand. Tell your friends and family what you are doing. When you are starting out, even a little bit of support can be a big help. And remember the six degrees of separation. Get your friends and family to be your biggest advocates, both for moral support and financial support. Keep them informed on developments with your film through a blog, mailing list, or fundraising parties to showcase the trailer from your film. And remember that financial support can include in-kind donations, not just hard cash. Countless documentary filmmakers have relied on the old-fashioned barter systems to trade services, share equipment, and so on.

Ah, yes, the time-tested method for most documentary filmmakers. Some say grants have dried up. Others say they are as vital as ever. The key, as with everything else, is to target them strategically. As an independent filmmaker, your time is extremely valuable and you do not want to spend most of it writing grant applications. Do your research and apply for funds that are within the realms of possibility, not every grant that’s out there.

Many filmmakers know of the major sources of funding: National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Science Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation. And that’s just the problem. Everyone knows them, so lots of people apply. While these grants can sometimes fund the bulk of a documentary budget, they are extremely difficult grants to get without a track record and, in the case of some of them, require the equivalent of a graduate dissertation to fill out the grant materials. Especially if you are a first time filmmaker, it may be a better use of your time and energy to focus first on fundraising for smaller amounts.

Foundations are the tried and true method of major fundraising, but this is where you need to pay special attention to who your audience is for your film and know who you are targeting for funds. Start out by visiting in person or online The Foundation Center and researching which foundations (a) fund film and/or (b) fund topics such as the one you are trying to present. Next, look at other documentaries. Lots of them. Especially ones on similar topics to yours. Pay special attention to the credits. Note down the sources and research them. Look at films which have been screened through the Council on Foundations. Look at your network: who do you know who has been funded or knows a funder?

If you are frustrated by foundations which want you to have more of a track record of other films, consider creating a track record by bringing on a more experienced filmmaker who has successfully fundraised from foundations as an executive producer. This will give you the added benefits of that person’s knowledge and the potential funder the reassurance that the film really can be made.

While there are many foundations out there, some of the foundations which are known to be friendly to documentary projects are the Sundance Documentary Fund, the Paul Robeson Fund for Independent Media, The Jerome Foundation, the Playboy Foundation, and the Pacific Pioneer Fund. Pay special attention to geographic residency requirements and the kinds of films these foundations fund. Don’t overlook family foundations if they fund topics similar to yours. Again – and we sound like a scratchy record here – know the audience for your film and the audience to whom you are pitching.

If you aren’t ready to try for NEA or NEH, think about your state or local humanities and arts councils or ones which relate to the topic of your film. These grants are often relatively small ($1,000-10,000) but are often easier to get, especially if your project relates to the locality in some way. Don’t overlook small grants. They help establish your fundraising credibility. Note that humanities councils will usually require scholarly involvement with the project and some of these organizations may also require that the filmmaker or fiscal sponsor be resident or that the topic of the project relate to the locality in some way. Filmmakers in the Washington area may wish to look into these local organizations:

In Washington DC: Humanities Council of Washington DC and DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities
In Maryland: Maryland Humanities Council and Maryland State Arts Council
In Virginia: Virginia Commission for the Arts and Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

One very important note when you are writing grant proposals: Despite what we said about documentarians finding it hard to make a living, you should not compound this problem by thinking funders expect you to work for free. While you may think that a potential funder will look at a grant application where you have donated your services as being an indication of your passion for the project and budget-conscious nature, most funders will question why you have not set aside income for yourself. From their perspective, they want to fund films which will get made and finished as soon as possible. From a funder’s perspective, films made by people who obviously need to focus part of their time and attention on making a living from other means are not films which will be finished quickly, if at all. Communicate your passion through your treatment or trailer, not your budget.

Television Pre-Sales
This could be the topic of a whole book, so we won’t go into great detail here except to say that, unless you are Ken Burns or already have an existing relationship with PBS or HBO, you should not hold your breath to fund your project through an advance sale to American television (though a letter of interest from a broadcaster can be valuable in seeking other funds).

You may also want to look at the different programs of the Independent Television Service (ITVS). Funding from ITVS is technically not a pre-sale since ITVS funds do not guarantee broadcast on PBS. But ITVS funding is unlike a grant in that you actually are giving ITVS a Production License for the rights for domestic public broadcasting and direct broadcast rights.

Some films lend themselves to seeking funding from broadcasters in other countries, such as much of Europe and Canada. While commissions and pre-sales are more common outside of the United States, you should not approach this blindly. Very often, you will need an in-country co-producer or spend many years building relationships with European commissioning editors. The key to starting this process is to attend events where these individuals will be – generally international film festivals which have pitching forums attached to them such as the Toronto Documentary Forum at Hotdocs or The Forum at IDFA in Amsterdam. If you are serious about networking in Europe, you may also want to join an organization such as the European Documentary Network which provides members a directory of contacts at all the European television networks and also organizes smaller pitching sessions held throughout the year in various places in Europe.

Creative Fundraising
What we’ve described above are the traditional methods of fundraising. They can also be the most challenging and frustrating for independent filmmakers because there are many hoops to jump through and there is so much competition for relatively limited funds. The good news is that most documentary filmmakers are scrappy types who are capable of coming up with creative ways to fulfill your filmic dream. Before you start to consider the worst-case scenarios of maxing out your credit cards, drawing on your 401K, or doing anything illegal, you may want to look at some other ways to raise funds.

One of the easiest is to organize a fundraising party. This could be a one or two-time event where you invite your biggest supporters to a party where they will make a donation to your project. This can be held in a private home or a public place such as a restaurant or organization with similar goals to your project. Beg, barter, and borrow as much as possible so the costs of putting on the party do not exceed the funds you raise. Important elements are inviting people who will invite other people who will likely be sympathetic to your project and either establishing a fixed entrance fee or saving the call for funds for the mid-point of your party (when, if alcohol is being served, some guests may be even more generous than expected with their checkbooks). For much more on fundraising houseparties and fundraising in general, check out the website of Morrie Warshawski, long considered one of the top experts on film fundraising.

The recent proliferation of Meet-Ups has provided a variation on the Fundraising Party. The most noted success was that of Robert Greenwald. While he had previously used Meet-Ups to successfully distribute his political documentaries and engage viewers in discussions with like-minded activists, he took a new approach with his film IRAQ FOR SALE by actually using the online-organized houseparties to solicit funding in exchange for giving everyone who contributed a producer credit at the end of the film. While most of the donations were less than $100, Greenwald managed to raise more than $200,000. While not everyone has the name-recognition of Greenwald, viral Internet marketing is an area where many emerging filmmakers have the edge over more-established filmmakers who may be less web-literate. Heck, Docs in Progress even has a MySpace page now and a lot more people know about us as a result. Spreading knowledge about you and your film is the first step towards engaging potential funders and future audiences.

You don’t need to limit yourself to fundraising parties or online fundraising either. Think creatively. When DC-area filmmakers Gillian Klempner and Meghan Shea wanted to raise some funds for their documentary, THE NEW WOMAN: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ANNIE “LONDONDERRY” KOPCHOVSKY, about the first woman to traverse the globe on a bicycle, they took a lesson from their main character. In the summer of 2006, Klempner and Shea donned bloomers, got sponsors, and bicycled their way to various fundraising events between Boston and New York. They raised $10,000, enough to make headway on the film and get some buzz going in the process.

Final Thoughts
Don’t give up. Fundraising is not easy and, for many filmmakers, it is the last thing you envisioned yourself doing when you got into film in the first place. Through all the work and frustrations with raising money to you’re your film, don’t ever lose your greatest resource – your passion. It will often take you much further than you think.

If you have some additional thoughts and suggestions on fundraising, please feel free to comment.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Documentaries to Revisit: Lost in La Mancha

While every documentary should be unique, it is important for documentary filmmakers to be well-read when it comes to documentaries to see different ways that those who have come before them have dealt with the joys and challenges of non-fiction storytelling. Until recently, it has been difficult to see documentaries on demand. But now many documentaries are easily available through Netflix, Amazon, or the local video store. With this in mind, we wanted to revisit a few documentaries which reflect a wide variety of styles, but all share the power of effective story structure and character development. This time we examine LOST IN LA MANCHA by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe. The review is by Docs in Progress co-founder Adele Schmidt.

Filmmaking can be a very torturing process. Nowhere can this be seen more easily than in documentaries about the making of a film. Some documentaries have provided deep insights into how difficult it is to get a script onto a screen. Just remember the insightful documentary BURDEN OF DREAMS by Les Blank who follows German filmmaker Werner Herzog into the Peruvian jungle where he was filming FITZCARRALDO. As the documentary unfolds, Herzog encounters enormous problems during the shooting in the Amazons. Even after three years of stop-and-go, FITZCARRALDO was completed and Werner Herzog's dream fulfilled. But what happens if the fight to realize a dream ends in a fiasco? How does this affect the “Making Of” story?

Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, the makers of the documentary LOST IN LA MANCHA, lead us through that worst case scenario by documenting the making of the movie THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE, an ambitious film adaptation of Don Quixote by charismatic filmmaker Terry Gilliam. Sure, this documentary was planned with a different outcome, the “happy ending” of a finished film, but the reality unfolded itself in a different way and filmmakers Fulton and Pepe had no choice than adapt to that change. The film production of THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE failed after only one week on location. The documentary which intended to document the making of a $32 million movie turned into a film about the downfall of a production. Out of that production experience came not a feature film, but a documentary which every filmmaker should see to learn how to handle a story which goes off course from the one you expected -- and perhaps even find a more interesting story in the process.

In spite of the fact that Fulton and Pepe had just six days of shooting on location, they managed to document the passion which stands behind Terry Gilliam’s creation. At the same time, the documentary is constantly reminding us of one crude reality which waves behind every mayor film production: That next to talent, enormous management skills are needed to complete a movie and sometimes luck is not on your side.

The passion of filmmaking

Terry Gilliam is known for his eccentric futuristic fantasy films, such as Brazil and 12 Monkeys. This time, Gilliam is not projecting his imaginations into future but into the past, into the mindset of Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes who wrote Don Quixote in 1605. The plot is well known: An old man who has read so many stories about knights believes in a confused state that he himself is a knight and sets out with his horse to fight injustice. In one of his most famous adventures, he fights against windmills, believing that they are giants.

Unfortunately we never get to see the unfolding of the fight against windmills before the camera. The only thing we get to see from that scene is the casting of the three giants. Gilliam selects three big and comical looking Spanish men and does some camera rehearsals with them. What we see through the camera lens in that rehearsal makes us want to see more. Fulton and Pepe make it clear throughout their documentary that quite an outstanding film is on the way.

A look at the storyboard alone, illustrated in animated drawings, helps us to understand that. These drawings, a mix of surreal cartoons traced with extraordinary detail, are an art work unto themselves. Fulton and Pepe choose to start their documentary with these drawings to set up the high stylistic level of Gilliam’s film. These animations also give us a hint on how complicated this production will be, with huge set constructions and extravagant costumes. Gilliam, the fantasy auteur, envisions a film where magic dissolves into reality, where giants appear, and where gigantic handmade marionettes dance on enormous strings.

Most of all, we see an enthusiastic director who is in love with his project. The camera follows Gilliam as he interacts with his crew in preproduction. He macro-manages the overall look of the film, giving instructions to the set designer and at the same time micromanages details when we see him in discussion about Don Quixote’s armor. We get to know other crew members as they are all working full speed in each department to be ready for the first day of shooting.

Fulton and Pepe made important choices in editing in order to create the drama. By giving us from the start a good taste of the high production value of THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE, we fall in love with the project. We want to see the film happen. We want Gilliam to succeed with his dream.

Fighting the odds

The documentation of the downfall condenses weeks of pre-production and les than a week of production into 90 minutes. It points out the risk factors which can make any film production fall apart, especially one which aspires to Hollywood production values without being produced by Hollywood.

We are told from the beginning that the real cost of this film is $80 million. Gilliam was not able to convince any Hollywood studio to produce the film. He raises half of the money from European investors and sets out to Spain to shoot the film for $32 million. Filming at a less than an ideal budget is a scenario familiar to most documentary filmmakers. Gilliam faces similar tradeoffs and compromises that many low-budget doc-makers face.

Filming under budget means a director has less time or no time for rehearsal. Less rehearsal means more time on the set to get the acting and dialogue right. Selecting French actor Jean Rochefort to play Don Quixote makes sense for the European investors who need a hook to get the film into French cinemas, but Rochefort speaks shaky English. We are told that he started to learn English just to perform his part. All this contributes to problems on the set from the start.

Filming under budget also means crew and actors get paid less. Less payment means less commitment. Johnny Depp, who will play Sancho Panza, makes clear from the beginning that he has an extremely tight timeframe for the shoot between other film commitments and cannot extend under any circumstances.

Further, filming under budget means that the shooting schedule is extremely tight and must be executed as planned. There is no room for unexpected events, accidents or emergencies.

Fulton and Pepe select the crucial moments in the six days of shooting to document the challenges facing the production. We see Don Quixote riding his horse in a desert landscape. We soon learn that this landscape is located next to a NATO airbase, something one would think could have been identified during the location scout. On almost every take, a NATO fighter jet speeds through the sky, drowning out dialogue. The film crew spends most of the day on the rocks waiting for silence.

The next day, clouds make their appearance in the sky and turn into a severe thunderstorm with such a heavy rain fall that the crew has little time to hide in cars and secure the equipment under plastic sheets. The equipment gets flooded anyway and the next two days are used to restore it. Back on the set after four days of unsuccessful shooting, Jean Rochefort screams in pain as he unmounts his horse. It turns out that he has prostrate problems. He flies out to Paris to consult his doctor. Gilliam still hopes that the production can resume to shoot scenes where Rochefort is not needed, but soon learns that Rochefort is under doctor’s orders not to get back on a horse. Without their star, the insurance and the investors close the production down.

As we see the puppets get packed back into their boxes, we ask ourselves if everything can be blamed just on unforeseen forces that brought the production down. That is the argument Gilliam uses to convince the insurance company who has to come up with the lost money. But we have to wonder whether his unrealistic planning was also a major factor in the equation. Is it possible to act like a Hollywood director without having Hollywood behind you?

Fulton and Pepe do not get into details here because they have found a new story for their documentary. Just as Gilliam’s heart breaks over the loss of his dream, so too does the heart of the audience who had invested our hopes in the film being completed. What started out as a “Making Of” documentary found a new life as an “Unmaking of” documentary. A man dreams the impossible dream and finds invisible forces – many of his own making – block his way. Only the man is not Don Quixote, but Terry Gilliam.

When all is said and done, LOST IN LA MANCHA has two lessons for documentary filmmakers:

* Pay attention to what is within your control. Plan carefully to make your production a success. A low budget is not an excuse for poor common sense.

* Pay attention to what is outside of your control. The story you want to tell may not be the one which wants to be told. As you document what unfolds, go with the flow and you may find a new, even more powerful story.

© January 2007, Docs in Progress. Blogs and articles may not be reprinted without permission.