Sunday, April 20, 2008

Documentary Filmmaker As Project Manager

Docs In Progress' newest partner Sam Hampton has many years of experience as a consultant to organizations looking to manage their projects better. He sees definite parallels between the work of these organizations and that of independent documentary filmmakers, especially when it comes to managing the documentary project. Sam tells us more.

For many first-time filmmakers in the world of documentary storytelling, the excitement of being out in the field, conducting interviews and the like sometimes overshadows the importance of developing a comprehensive plan to help facilitate the documentary process. While some might shiver at the thought of treating the documentary process as project management, the making of a documentary can be enhanced as a project that is properly managed from conception to completion.

Managing your documentary project should not be difficult; it also gives a sense of comfort and calm when the going gets tough. Think about it: how can you feel at ease with your documentary if you have only a vague idea of whether anyone is interested in your story, you are not sure of the amount of time it takes to make your story, or if you question whether you have the proper resources to finish and distribute your story?

Perhaps the single most important factor in managing the documentary is to develop a plan and put that plan on paper. The plan you create should be treated as your guiding light, your best friend, your trusty road map. The quality of your plan will determine the effectiveness that you, the filmmaker, will have in navigating through the documentary process. It will also form the basis for other elements which need to be conveyed through text – grant applications, press outreach, websites, and so on.

A good plan enables filmmakers to work better, and for that reason, I use the term “work plan” to describe the details of the participants, resources, actions and goals of the documentary project. There are established rules for developing a good work plan, and most plans include the same basic elements:

Project Mission
The first element of the work plan is a mission statement that includes the background, purpose, benefits and objectives of the documentary project. A mission statement is more than a summary of your project. The mission statement should declare the purpose of your efforts, and clearly define the project in order to keep everyone in the project team in necessary agreement. To use examples from well-known documentaries, the mission statement for HOOP DREAMS might have been something like “The film will follow the lives of two Chicago teenagers as they reach for their professional and personal dreams through basketball. By following the teenagers and their families over the course of several years, our hope is to tell the story of families seeking to overcome obstacles and rising above media stereotypes people may have about life in the inner city.” Or the mission statement for SICKO might have read “This film will look at the failures of the U.S. health care system through interviews with ordinary citizens faced with extraordinary and bizarre challenges in their quest for basic health coverage and through comparing the U.S. health care system with that of other countries. The goal of the film is to draw public attention to the health care crisis and be a catalyst to bring political change to the health care system by calling for a replacement of private, for-profit health insurance with a universal health care program.”

Scope of the Project
This part of the work plan demonstrates your understanding of the scope of the documentary project in terms of the resources needed to achieve your objectives. For example, who are the personnel involved in the project, what are the facilities, equipment, and budget? In addition, there should be a clear purpose to the project: advocacy, case study, historic preservation or other such intent. Also, who is the desired audience for your project? Most importantly, this part of the work plan should predict the benefits to the targeted viewer in watching your documentary. These benefits may involve changes in knowledge, attitude, values, behavior, condition or status.

Project Approach
As an independent filmmaker, it is important to establish a method of doing things for your project. While many different approaches may be considered for implementing a project, you will have to decide the best approach given the scope of the project and commit to it. Decide how you are going to communicate with others, how you will solve problems, and how you will effectively use your resources.

Project Time Frame
To the best of your abilities, the work plan should have a comprehensive and realistic timeline with milestones included to help stay on target as you move through the project. In this section of the work plan, it is important to list the events and locations, from beginning to end that are necessary to complete your project. For example, knowing when production ends and post-production begins has a direct impact on the scope of the project and how you utilize your valuable resources. In the real world of independent documentary filmmaker, your project time frame may change depending on many factors beyond your control – needed funding takes longer than expected, the life of a character you are following takes a dramatic turn, your dream editor can’t fit you in for another month, etc. But having a plan written down – even in pencil – will help you reach your goals faster.

Understanding risk is critical and should be reflected in the work plan. Risk is the cumulative effect of the chances of uncertain occurrences, which may adversely affect your project objectives. In other words, it is the possibility of exposure to negative events and their probable consequences. To realistically measure the risk in your documentary project, think about what events could prevent the established outcome of your project. Also think about the likelihood of a negative event occurring. What is out there that could jeopardize the success of your project? Remember, risk is the opposite of opportunity. Build in your work plan a mitigation strategy to lessen risk by lowering its chances of occurring or by reducing its effect if it does occur. Have an alternative for action if things don't go as planned or if an expected result fails to materialize.

The documentary project can be viewed as a system, with elements such as mission, approach, scope, time and risk that operate together for the common goal of producing and distributing a quality work. As an independent documentary director, or project manager, you have the sole responsibility for ensuring that all the elements work together as best as possible for your project, and we all know that no one will care about your project as much as you will. So, well before turning on the camera, have a complete work plan in place to ensure the success of your documentary.

© April 2008, Docs In Progress
This article may not be reprinted without permission.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Erica's Report from Full Frame

In an occasional series of reports from documentary-laden film festivals, Docs In Progress co-founder Erica Ginsberg recently attended the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina from April 3-6, 2008.

This was my third time at Full Frame and I must say this year it felt a bit subdued. It may have been the grey and gloomy weather (which, though it was a mild annoyance, was a welcome sight in drought-stricken North Carolina). Or it may be that the festival itself is in a bit of a transition with Nancy Buirski stepping down as festival director to take on a more advisory role. Or maybe it was just me getting older and more critical about the films I see.

What I have always loved about this festival is that it is an all-documentary festival which is both close enough to the major east coast documentary film cities to make it easily accessible and yet is far enough away that folks from those places can actually converse and connect in a relaxed environment. Part of this is due to the nature of Durham itself. With due respect to the locals, downtown Durham is dead on weekends and evenings, so there really is nothing to distract you from the festival itself. And yet, while the fest draws a mix of filmmakers and industry, the locals also come out in droves for the films, indicating a clear starvation for good documentaries outside of the coastal culture capitals. Amazingly enough, Saturday night screenings were packed in spite of the competition with basketball (UNC had made it to the Final Four). According to the Festival itself, ticket sales were up from last year and I can attest to the fact that most theaters were packed. Despite this, I faced no closeouts from screenings, a problem which has plagued other growing festivals (and certainly some of the bigger festivals like Sundance).

In terms of the films, more than 100 were screened and it was sometimes difficult to choose among them. Films which were all the buzz from Sundance and South by Southwest were often pitted against each other and you pretty much had to make difficult choices since no films were screened more than once (if you weren't able to stay to watch the award winners on the final Sunday afternoon). The scheduling in blocks rather than overlaps sometimes made it difficult to pop out of one film and into another and I would find myself with large blocks of free time between screenings. Great for networking. Not so great if you wanted to see lots of films.

So I tried to choose wisely, based partially on the buzz and more often than not, just on my own interests.

The opening night film was TRUMBO, a doc about the blacklisted screenwriter which had premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival. Much of the film was told through the writings of Dalton Trumbo, as interpreted by a number of film actors, including Joan Allen, Liam Neeson, Donald Sutherland, David Strathairn, and an unforgettably hilarious Nathan Lane. Allen joined director Peter Askin and Trumbo's son Christopher for a Q&A following the screening, marred by microphone difficulties.

Technical problems were few and far between, but the other most unfortunate one was at the screening of the new Werner Herzog film, ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD, another alum of Toronto. The festival had been given a bad tape so there were digital artifacts through the entire film which could not be remedied. Annoying with any film, it was downright tragic with a film enhanced by its cinematography. Still it was possible to appreciate Herzog's latest opus which takes us into the world of Antarctica and the scientists and wanderlusters who work there.

While mild complaints about the constant drizzle of Durham were overheard, it all fell into perspective after seeing two different films about Hurricane Katrina. I had originally intended only to see one because I didn't think I could emotionally bear to relive the horror of witnessing your country let its own citizens down in the face of death and destruction. But I changed my mind afer seeing the first film, THE AXE IN THE ATTIC. This film looks at the diaspora created by the hurricane by taking us on a road trip with filmmakers Lucia Small and Ed Pincus who are very much outsiders and reflect often on this along the way. Ultimately Small and Pincus become the most interesting characters in the film since the others are people they spend only a few days with to capture their stories. I found myself intrigued by the filmmakers since they, in many ways, represent the white middle class liberal northerner feelings of anger and powerlessness over a preventable disaster which underscored the race and class divides in our country. So, in a sense, they are stand-ins for me. But at the same time, I found the filmmakers annoying for many of the same reasons, because ultimately the film becomes not about Katrina or the people directly affected by Katrina, but about white guilt and ambivalence towards African-Americans, poor people, and the South. I felt too much time was spent focused on issues of documentary ethics (i.e., of giving money to film subjects) and not enough on the people they met. Small, in particular, worried aloud so much about giving money. And yet the filmmakers also reflected that in one scene (where they filmed Katrina survivors going to a FEMA office to deal with some ongoing bureaucratic hurdles which have prevented them from getting benefits) that the subjects themselves were hoping the presence of the cameras would help move things along faster. So the issue of money became almost irrelevant because this reflected on a larger issue of the relationship between filmmaker and subject. Interesting, but still made me feel at arm's length from the people who the film was purportedly about.

So, with this as a backdrop, I saw a second Katrina film,TROUBLE THE WATER . This film was a bit of a 180 from AXE IN THE ATTIC since it focused on one set of characters who were very much insiders – an aspiring female rap artist and her family and friends who could not afford to leave the Lower Ninth Ward and stayed put in their home to brave the storm. The film was propelled by the "money shot" of having first-person home movie footage from the main character in the days leading up to and during the hurricane which really made me feel the experience more than any news footage. But, while this insider footage is what has given the film so much attention, it was the story the filmmakers captured which really gave life to the characters and the world from which they came. For them, Katrina was a disaster, but far from the first or last of a long history of struggles and heartaches. The filmmakers did not impose their vision of the characters upon them, but instead showed them for who they are, warts and all. I have to say that, of the Katrina films I've seen, none has done a better job of personalizing the story and making me feel less of an outsider looking in on an event than a human being sharing in an experience with other human beings. Apparently others agreed, since the film won three awards at the festival, including the Grand Jury Award, a human rights award, and an award from film outreach pioneers Working Films.

Always interested in international issues, I switched gears a bit and saw two films which gave unique insights into life in Iran, one by an Iranian filmmaker and one by an Iranian-American. TEHRAN HAS NO MORE POMEGRANATES! was a refreshing look at Iran's capital city and more importantly into Iran's unique Iranian culture which is full of humor and pathos. As U.S. relations with Iran have continued to sour, the country is a question mark for many Americans and this film gives us a better sense of urban Iran which faces many of the same challenges and class divisions as American metopolises. Beautiful cinematography, archival clips, and a deadpan narration buoy a film which is part city symphony, part reflection on the urban divide between the haves and have nots, and part an hommage to a place and people who manage to have both a proud and rich history and what appears to be a constant sense of self-deprecation as a form of free expression.

In a very different vein, BE LIKE OTHERS looks at the phenomenon of sex change operations in Iran. A more common practice than many of us might assume, gender change is acceptable under Iran's interpretation of Islamic law since it is seen as a medical-psychological condition whereas homosexual practice is outlawed. So the result is that many who may be homosexual undergo the operation, whether they are transgendered or not. The film follows the story of two such men and the challenges this brings to their relationships with their families, societal expectations, and their own sense of being. Along with A JIHAD FOR LOVE (which has been playing the international festival circuit, but, as far as I know, has yet to premiere in the United States), BE LIKE OTHERS will surely create discussion and controversy around the topic of gender and sexuality in the Islamic world.

BE LIKE OTHERS was paired with FLYING ON ONE ENGINE, a film about an Indian-American doctor who travels to India for months at a time to perform hundreds of free surgeries for children with cleft lip and other facial deformities. What could have been a sentimental feel-good story is balanced by the quirky character of the surgeon himself. Though beset by his own physical limitations, he is only too happy to revel in the god-like status his patients' families bestow upon him. He spares no-one -- neither the women he believes chase him down nor Mother Teresa who he notes won a Nobel Prize even though she left all the dirtywork to others while he has never won the prize (in spite of numerous nominations) even though he conducts the surgeries himself. The film provides a good balance of exposing his character and yet leaving us with a sense of mystery as to his motivations.

Being from Washington DC, U.S. politics is always of interest and the festival marked the premiere of BOOGIE MAN, a film about a unique character in recent American politics, Lee Atwater. While some have wondered why this film would premiere at a festival like Full Frame rather than a larger film festival, I think it was a very appropriate setting to screen the film because of the film's underlying theme -- the impact of the North/South divide on American politics at its very core. Political junkies of all partisan stripes will be drawn to the film because it not only characterizes a legend among political operatives, but also returns to this theme. In an election year where the Southern vote may be crucial (in spite of the fact there are no real Southerners on the ballot), this film will be sure to inspire debate. If it had a major weakness (aside from being in a technically unfinished state), BOOGIE MAN's main drawback is that it presumes a certain pre-existing level of knowledge of the American political system and U.S. history. I tried to watch the film from the perspective of an international who understands the big picture of the U.S. political system as it impacts foreign policy, but may not understand the nuances or the context of why we vote the way we do and who "we" are anyway. I think it would be difficult for a film like this to bring much more understanding since it jumps headfirst into the Reagan Revolution without helping us understand the politics and history which led up to it and why someone like Atwater was so crucial to this shift in political focus and to honing the skills of his successor, Karl Rove.

It remains to be seen how the festival will continue to develop. Though its local audiences are growing and it is still a great place to mix and mingle with industry in a relaxed environment, Full Frame still faces the challenge of being positioned between other, more prestigious festivals which may make it difficult for it to boast many premieres. However, it is definitely one which I would recommend all filmmakers attend -- whether you have a film in the festival or not -- to get a good sense of what's garnering buzz in the world of documentary.

Anne Dellinger Grand Jury Award — "Trouble the Water"
Special Jury Award — "Man on Wire"
Full Frame Jury Award for Best Short — "City of Cranes"
Full Frame Audience Award — "Man on Wire"
Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award — "Lioness"
The Charles E. Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award — "In A Dream"
Honorable Mention — "Up the Yangtze"
Full Frame Inspiration Award — "At the Death House Door"
Full Frame President's Award — "Summerchild"
Full Frame Spectrum Award — "The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)"
Honorable Mention — "Up the Yangtze"
Full Frame Women In Leadership Award — "Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai"
Full Frame/Working Films Award — "Please Vote for Me" and "Trouble the Water"
The Kathleen Bryan Edwards Award for Human Rights — "Trouble the Water"