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34 posts categorized "Film"

‘Justice Matters’ and the Power of Film to Persuade

June 12, 2017

JusticeMattersEach year, Justice Matters, a special series within Filmfest DC, the annual Washington, DC International Film Festival, shines a spotlight on some of the best new social issue films from around the globe. This year, three of the films were judged outstanding by jurors and audience members.

Filmmakers throughout the history of the medium have felt the need to address injustice, poverty, and other social concerns, prodding audiences to reflection and action, a tradition that continues today. As Filmfest DC founder and director Tony Gittens noted in launching Justice Matters in 2010: "What better city to highlight this tradition than our nation's capital, the vortex of ongoing debate on how best to further democracy and equitable treatment for all." And what better time than the present.

I was happy to catch the Justice Matters 2017 program during this year's festival in April. I had attended Justice Matters in 2012, highlighting 5 Broken Cameras in an earlier PhilanTopic post and was eager to see this year's selection of films, especially The Good Postman, an intimate story about the flood of Syrian refugees into Europe set in Bulgaria, where I'd lived for two years.

This year's lineup included eight award-winning films that explore some of the most pressing challenges of our time and some of the most creative and courageous responses to those challenges: corporate corruption (150 Milligrams); corrosion of public trust and the need for a free press (All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone); the privatization of public education (Backpack Full of Cash); refugee integration (The Good Postman); the crisis in Syria (Last Men in Aleppo); and climate change (Tomorrow). Two of the films mined the past for lessons and inspiration: one a personal recollection of the U.S. invasion of Grenada (The House on Coco Road); and a musical quest set during Freedom Summer (Two Trains Runnin’).

(All the films should be available in other festivals, theaters, broadcast, or on the Internet. More information about each is on the Justice Matters site and/or on the films' websites.)

Jurists for the series included Conrad Martin, executive director, the Stewart R. Mott Foundation and executive director of the Fund for Constitutional Government; Montré Aza Missouri, founder and director, Howard Film Culture; and Kathryn Washington, director of diversity and innovation at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The impetus for Justice Matters was provided by two Filmfest DC fans. Ken Grossinger, who had a career as a community and labor organizer, and Michelíne Klagsbrun, an artist, have always been deeply concerned about social and economic justice. In 2007, they started the CrossCurrents Foundation to support those interests. A family foundation, CrossCurrents' broad funding interests include civic engagement and the environment, peace and security, civil rights, and public art. Both founders had been attending Filmfest for many years and appreciated seeing films that addressed issues they cared about.

"I always believed in the power of art to inspire social movements, to work toward social change," Klagsbrun told me.

Grossinger came to appreciate that potential through his wife, Klagsbrun. "Organizers know how to move the needle a few percentage points," he said. "But I realized that for shaping public opinion, there is nothing like the arts. There's a transformative power there that penetrates hearts and minds in a way that political discourse doesn't. And film offers visibility to issues on a scale beyond the reach of many approaches to community organizing. Together, a strong film coupled with an organizing strategy can advance social change."

Soon after they created their foundation, the couple contacted Gittens with a proposal to establish the Justice Matters film series and award. Gittens was enthusiastic about the idea and hired Linda Blackaby, a longtime festival programmer whose career has centered around connecting films with communities and who was already advising the festival on its annual lineup. (She's now the festival's senior programming consultant and has curated the Justice Matters series since its inception.)

"Over the past eight years, Justice Matters has featured forty-one films," Blackaby told me. "And thanks to the Wyncote Foundation, we've been able to create that community connection, too: taking films out to schools and other settings, using social media to reach new audiences, and bringing the filmmakers and resource people to post-screening discussions."

That combination of films-plus-impact appealed to Grossinger and Klagsbrun. "We were involved early on with Good Pitch, which really influenced our thinking in this area," said Klagsbrun.

Good Pitch helps filmmakers find financial support for production costs and community engagement activities, connect with nonprofit organizations working on the issues captured in their films, and build relationships with industry representatives. It's supported by a range of funders, and though it now offers a variety of events around the world, its core program remains focused on filmmakers who are trained to "pitch" their films to a select group of potential donors and partners.

"Good Pitch gets it right in their approach to advancing social change," said Grossinger. "They provide support for both production — the making of the film — and for impact. The filmmakers learn through Good Pitch that it is as important to understand organizations and the work they do as it is to produce a film about those same issues. Good Pitch links the two. We've supported the production and subsequent organizing of several films through Good Pitch."

The CrossCurrents Foundation has continued to look for new ways to carry out its mission, supporting a range of projects, including the mural project in Baltimore that helped sustain that community as it was grappling with the death of Freddie Gray. And it continues to look for ways to support film. Grossinger and Klagsbrun are enthusiastic, for example, about a new project: Double Exposure, a three-day film festival featuring investigative journalism-inspired documentaries and a concurrent symposium for film projects developed by teams of filmmakers and journalists. As traditional media has cut back on its coverage of complex issues, and many online media sources offer only superficial coverage of such issues, policy experts and consumers alike recognize the role that serious films can play in sustaining good journalism.

Blackaby's work on the audience-engagement component in Justice Matters relates to that concern and takes advantage of the festival's home base in Washington, as Gittens, from the beginning, hoped it would.

Feras Fayyad, co-director of Last Man in Aleppo, is Syrian; as a filmmaker in that war-torn country he was jailed and tortured. He now lives in exile in Denmark but continues to receive death threats. The film is about two men who work for the volunteer Syria Civil Defense group, or White Helmets, an NGO that became famous for its work rescuing victims of the intensive shelling and bombing of the Syrian city of Aleppo.

"We provide links to White Helmets and two other NGOs, and Feras promotes involvement from the audience," says Blackaby. "It's an example of some of the films we show that have a very clear activist agenda. But our aim is also to support these filmmakers in their professional development, to help them continue to bring social issues to the fore. Feras was here for four days, watching the other films, meeting those filmmakers, and making contacts that will continue to sustain his work."

For Damani Baker, the director of The House on Coco Road, the project was personal: his family was living in Grenada when the U.S. invaded the country in 1983. But the film also is an informed exploration of the politics of the Reagan years. Justice Matters set up interviews for Baker with WPFW's "Voices With Vision" host Netfa Freeman, a political analyst at the progressive Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C, who interviewed him for one of the post-screening discussions, and Kojo Nmandi, host of the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU, who interviewed him after a second screening — a more substantive experience for the filmmaker and the audience than the usual post-screening Q&A.

Through a collaboration with DC-based Teaching for Change, screenings and post-screening discussions of The House on Coco Road, Backpack Full of Cash, Two Trains Runnin’, and All Governments Lie also were taken to six local high schools. In addition to conversations with the directors and producers, students met with Judy Richardson, a former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee member and civil rights activist who shared her own personal experiences behind the events depicted in Two Trains Runnin’. (For more details and great photos about those events, check out this report on the Teaching for Change website.)

Not all social issue films have a concrete impact agenda, however. "Sometimes there are short-term measurable outcomes to a film's social change goal," Blackaby says. "But the experience of viewing a film can also resonate over time, deeply affecting one’s consciousness and understanding."

For their part, Grossinger and Klagsbrun see increasing interest in film within the grantmaking community.

"I participated in an arts and social justice workshop some eight years ago organized by Claudine Brown, who at the time worked at the Nathan Cummings Foundation. The meeting took place immediately in advance of the annual Grantmakers in the Arts national conference," Grossinger (a GIA board member) told me. "Only fifteen people came. But several years later, we had to close registration for the same event at one hundred. And subsequently, GIA held an all-day meeting designed to bring film funders together with other arts funders to explore possibilities for collaboration. Foundation board members still need to be persuaded, but many grantmakers agree that it's a winning strategy to fund film production and the associated impact campaigns, especially when the film's content lines up with a foundation’s priorities."

At a brunch at the Grossinger-Klagsbrun home in Georgetown, on the next-to-final day of the festival, the filmmakers, the community engagement partners, the Filmfest DC staff and consultants, the award jurists, and funders gathered to celebrate. In thanking everyone and reiterating his vision for the festival, Gittens emphasized the potential of film, even in a time when we're challenged to make sense out of the nonsensical.

"I want the audience to be changed," said Gittens. "I want them to walk out of the screening thinking and feeling differently than when they walked in. And I think Justice Matters makes that happen."

The next day Grossinger announced the Justice Matters jurors' awards: best film, 150 Milligrams, with an honorable mention for The Good Postman and the overall festival audience award for best documentary going to Last Men in Aleppo.

Kathryn Pyle is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. Check out her other great posts for PhilanTopic here.

Profiles in Compassion: Sister Rosemary Niyurumbe

October 13, 2014

Headshot_sister-rosemary-nyirumbeRecently, I attended a screening of the documentary "Sewing Hope," an hour-long film about the efforts of Sister Rosemary Niyurumbe, a Catholic nun living in Uganda, to help girls and young women abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army, the cult-like militia led by Joseph Kony that was the subject of the viral "Invisible Children" campaign in 2012.

Narrated by the actor Forrest Whitaker, the film grabs you from the first frame. In harrowing detail, it describes how girls from rural villages were abducted from their homes and forced to commit unspeakable acts of violence against their own family members in order to prove their loyalty to the LRA. Many of the girls were raped and tortured, with Kony himself responsible for dozens if not hundreds of rapes, and many became pregnant and ended up bearing children. Girls that were able to escape often found themselves ostracized by family members and friends who viewed them as damaged goods.

Hearing about these girls, Sister Rosemary, the director since 2001 of the Saint Monica's Girls Tailoring Center in Gulu, Uganda, and one of TIME's 100 Most Influential People for 2014, realized she had to do something. Before long, she had opened doors of the center to as many of these girls as she could find and set about teaching them how to sew and make dresses, handbags, and other goods, imparting skills that can help them provide for themselves and secure a desperately needed measure of independence. Displaced children were placed in school and given a new lease on life, away from the horrors of Kony's atrocities.

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Films Are Films: Measuring the Social Impact of Documentary Films

July 23, 2014

Movie-filmEarlier this year, the firm I founded – Aggregate – partnered with the organizers of the True/False Film Fest to conduct a survey of the filmmakers whose films screened at the festival in 2014. True/False is well-regarded among filmmakers, who often talk about how well the festival organizers treat them and the obvious regard the organizers have for the art of storytelling.

The goal of our survey was to understand how these filmmakers felt about their films' potential contribution to social change, any ambitions they had to capitalize on that potential, and their views with respect to measuring the social impact of their films. While True/False isn't specifically a social change film festival, 72 percent of the filmmakers who responded to the survey believed the film they screened at the 2014 Fest could contribute to social change.

As we were getting ready to share the outcomes of the survey, the New York Times reported on the efforts of Participant Media, the film and television production company started by Jeff Skoll, to establish an index that would enable it – and others who invest in social change films – to determine which films "spur activism" and which do not. Based on my reading of the article, the Participant Index measures the ability of a film to inspire "emotional involvement" and "provoke action." So, while a film may generate an intense emotional response, if it does not also lead people who have seen it to take action, it would receive a lower score and, perhaps, not be as well received by potential funders interested in that particular issue.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the filmmakers we surveyed expressed concern about anyone measuring the social impact of their films; indeed, two-thirds (66 percent) said they opposed the idea of using metrics to gauge the impact of their films. While I believe strongly in the value of measurement and metrics, I share some of their concerns. If, for instance, filmmakers and funders begin to weigh the "effectiveness" of films solely in terms of the actions taken in the short term by the audiences for those films, it could lead to the bankrolling of more didactic narratives about issues that lend themselves to relatively straightforward solutions. And that would be a blow to good storytelling.

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Flaherty Film Seminar Celebrates Its 60th

June 20, 2014

Flaherty_seminar_60The Robert Flaherty Film Seminar is celebrating its sixtieth anniversary with a week-long program at Colgate University featuring forty-five short and feature-length films and video installations created by filmmakers from the U.S., Latin America, Europe, and Asia. Many address the conflicting needs for security and transparency in the modern age.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York will be showing eleven films from the program over the next week, plus two films by D.A. Pennebaker and his wife and collaborator Chris Hegedus in an opening-night event on Saturday, June 21. The films were selected by MoMA assistant curator Sally Berger and this year's Flaherty Film Seminar curators, Caspar Stacke and Gabriela Monroy. 

The MoMA series includes films by Shaina Anand, from Collaboration Around Micro Politics (CAMP) in Mumbai,India; moving-image artist Duncan Campbell, who is based in Glasgow, Scotland; and Shuddhabrata Sengupta, a member of the Raqs Media Collective in New Delhi. All are artists who explore "new aesthetic idioms" in documentary filmmaking while focusing on possibilities for democratic renewal in the contemporary global economy. The three filmmakers will show clips and discuss their works on Monday evening, June 23, as part of the series.

Born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1972, Duncan Campbell represented Scotland at the 2013 Venice Biennale  with his film It For Others, "a social and historical examination of cultural imperialism and commodity" that will be shown at MoMA on Sunday, June 29, and has been shortlisted for the Turner Prize, which recognizes new directions in contemporary art and is organized by the Tate Gallery in London.

Earlier this week, I talked with Campbell about his filmmaking process and some of his central artistic concerns.

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Documentary Film and Gentrification (Part 2)

April 15, 2014

(Kathryn Pyle is a documentary filmmaker and a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. Click here to read part one of this two-part series.)

Poster_holding_groundIn my previous post, I wrote about a handful of documentary films that explore the phenomenon of gentrification. In this post, I'll consider urban redevelopment in a broader sense – with the pressure coming not only from private developers but from city government and, in some cases, endowed institutions with agendas of their own.

Over the past decade, the Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia has offered a variety of programs designed to build the media skills of community activists. Through its Precious Places project, for instance, Scribe has provided video production support to nearly seventy organizations looking to record the stories neighborhood residents have to tell about the buildings, public spaces, parks, landmarks, and other sites that define where they live. The series has been broadcast on WHYY and screened in film festivals and community settings around the country.

A number of Precious Places films focus on the eroding sense of community in urban neighborhoods. Two of those short films address the value of green space and community-based arts and, in the process, challenge public policy assumptions about "redevelopment."

Featuring sixty local gardeners and other residents. La Mott Community Garden (2011) tells the story of a two-acre community garden located just outside the city line adjacent to La Mott, the oldest historically black community in Pennsylvania. Part of a larger twelve-acre parcel deeded to Temple University in 1939, the garden has served the community for more than eighty years. At some point along the way, Temple built the Tyler School of Art on part of the property, leaving the garden intact. But when a new facility was constructed for Tyler on Temple's main campus in 2009, the entire parcel was put up for sale. With support from Cheltenham Township and the Conservancy of Montgomery County, the La Mott Community Garden Group is attempting to save the garden and has requested that Temple donate the garden to the community under a land trust agreement or set a fair market price for the property so it can be purchased by the community. Both options have been rejected by the university, and negotiations are at a standstill as gardening season approaches.

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Documentary Film and Gentrification

April 07, 2014

(Kathryn Pyle is a documentary filmmaker and a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her previous post, she wrote about the promise and failure of humanitarian aid in Haiti.)

Urban_gentrificationThe phenomenon of gentrification – how it gets started, who benefits, and who loses – is a longstanding concern in cities across the country.

But the term describes only the most visible and disturbing face of urban change: the crowding out of lower-income residents from a suddenly "hot" neighborhood by more affluent newcomers. At a time of growing income inequality in the U.S., it's an image that has captured the attention of the media and, increasingly, is sparking public indignation.

Writing in the New York Times ("Cities Helping Residents Resist the New Gentry"), Timothy Williams observes that "the arrival of newcomers to formerly working-class areas…is distinct from previous influxes over the past thirty years" because new arrivals tend to want to live in newer housing, and the condos and loft spaces built to satisfy that demand not only are too expensive for long-time residents but also add to the density of a neighborhood while reducing the ratio of older residents to new arrivals. Williams' article goes on to discuss measures that have been adopted by cities to mitigate the impact of gentrification on longtime homeowners, while a Times article ("Gentrifying Into the Shelters") by Ginia Bellafante notes that creating and maintaining affordable housing for low-income renters in gentrifying neighborhoods requires an altogether different set of measures.

The topic hasn't escaped the notice of documentary filmmakers. Told in different styles and about different places, films such as Gut Renovation (2012), Third Ward TX (2007), and We Will Not Be Moved (1980) identify common elements in the gentrification process -- foremost among them real estate speculation and private housing development, in many cases encouraged by tax breaks and rezoning policies.  

Su Friedrich's Gut Renovation is a very personal account of that process as it unfolded in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, and how that process is displacing the local artist community – of which she is a member. It begins, in 2005, when Friedrich notices the first high-rise condo going up down the street and ends, five years later, with her own building's demolition to make way for the umpteenth luxe condo project in the neighborhood. Needless to say, the redevelopment of Williamsburg continues unabated, affecting the neighborhood’s long-term population of Poles, Italians, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans and irrevocably changing the very thing that attracted artists to the neighborhood in the first place.

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‘Fatal Assistance’: The Promise and Failure of Humanitarian Aid in Haiti

February 20, 2014

(Kathryn Pyle is a documentary filmmaker and a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her previous post, she wrote about the documentary Shored Up, winner of the 2014 Hilton Worldwide LightStay Sustainability Fund & Award.)

Fatal_assistance_posterThe magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, killed more than 200,000 Haitians, injured over 300,000 people, and left some 1.5 million Haitians homeless. It also devastated the capital city of Port-au-Prince, destroying buildings and wiping out large swaths of the city's infrastructure. As in most natural disasters, it was the poor, living in the most vulnerable areas, who were most affected – and Haiti was already the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

The international response was immediate and unprecedented: ultimately, $14 billion was pledged for relief and recovery efforts by donor countries, bilateral and multilateral agencies, individuals, and foundations and corporations. The total amount actually disbursed was considerably less but still significant for a country with a population of only ten million.

Four years later, the clamor that arose almost immediately over how the aid was being disbursed, continues. In an editorial last month marking the fourth anniversary of the earthquake, the New York Times declared that despite the outpouring of support (and notwithstanding certain achievements), "Haiti is a fragile, largely forgotten country" where more than 170,000 people still live in temporary shelters.

A major criticism of the response has been the lack of direct support for, and meaningful consultation with, Haitians. According to the Guardian, of the $9 billion spent in Haiti by January 2013, 94 percent was funneled through donors' own entities, the United Nations, international NGOs, and private contractors. Reports since then confirm that only 5 percent of the money pledged for relief and recovery efforts in the country reached Haitian organizations.

Fatal Assistance, a new documentary by Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck, provides a personal account of what happened in the weeks and months after the quake struck and, at the same time, is a plea for a more effective approach to humanitarian assistance in developing countries. Completed in 2013, the film premiered last year at Berlinale, the Berlin international film festival, and has been shown as part of the 2014 Human Rights Film Festival screening in cities across the U.S.

When the earthquake struck, Peck, like many other Haitians living abroad, returned home to help. "Those first weeks were a time of solidarity and connection," he told me. "Everybody slept outside. The Haitians were organizing everything."

That changed when the international relief groups arrived.

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‘Shored Up’ and the Hilton Worldwide LightStay Sustainability Fund & Award

January 22, 2014

(Kathryn Pyle is a documentary filmmaker and a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. To view her latest effort, a short doc titled Apple Forecast: Immigration Reform, click here.)

Shored_up_posterShored Up, a documentary about rising sea levels, received the Hilton Worldwide LightStay Sustainability Fund & Award for feature documentary this week at the Sundance Film Festival. Philadelphia-based director Ben Kalina accepted the award, which was established in 2011 as part of a three-year agreement between Hilton Worldwide and the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, at a ceremony in Park City, Utah, the festival site.

The award includes a $25,000 grant for creative marketing and audience-building. Finished in May 2013, Shored Up won in the completed documentary category; one other feature film in production received the same level of support, while three shorter films received $5,000 each. The winning films will be offered on Hilton Worldwide's in-room channels at 3,800 hotels in 88 countries, as well as on the hotel chain’s various Web properties.

Shored Up is the first feature-length film to explore the impact of rising sea levels on coastal communities in the U.S. – The Island President, a documentary on the same theme set in the Maldives, won the award in 2012 -- and as such is an important contribution to policy debates about this critical  issue. The project also is a model of how foundations can advance their priorities through social issue documentaries and partnerships with community groups.

Prior to making Shored Up, Kalina, who became interested in human efforts to engineer dynamic, natural systems after reading John McPhee's The Control of Nature, worked as associate producer on two films about the environmental impact of current development and economic policies: Two Square Miles and A Sea Change, the latter based on Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2006 New Yorker article "The Darkening Sea," which explored the impact of rising global carbon emissions on ocean chemistry.

"I thought of the barrier islands: a pile of sand in the ocean that we're trying to hold in place," says Kalina. "This film deals with adaptation to climate change as opposed to how do we stop climate change. It lends itself to people talking about things that are local and regional, places where people can actually create change – in local land use decisions, development policies and environmental regulations."

Shot before and after Superstorm Sandy, Shored Up features two barrier island communities – Long Beach Island, New Jersey, and the Outer Banks of North Carolina – as they struggle to address beach erosion. The arguments advanced in favor of beach preservation are thrown into sharp relief when the film crew returns to LBI after Sandy to explore the devastating impact of the 2012 storm on the Jersey Shore.

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Lincoln Died for Our Sins

August 26, 2013

On August 28, 1963, America witnessed what was arguably the greatest demonstration for racial justice in the history of the country. Half a century after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the looming question of racial equality in America remains.

In the lead-up to the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, PhilanTopic is publishing a ten-part series, sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, in which some of America's most important writers explore our race issues, past and present.

In the ninth installment of that series (click here for the eighth, "The New White Negro," by Isabell Sawhill), Jelani Cobb, director of the Institute for African American Studies at the University of Connecticut and author of The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress, examines the themes that, over the last century and a half, have made our sixteenth president "a Rorschach test of sorts" and how those themes are bound to and illuminate questions of racial reconciliation and progress in America. The essay below first appeared in the Washington Monthly and is reprinted here with the permission of that publication.

Lincoln_MemorialThe opening scene of Steven Spielberg's cinemythic portrait of the sixteenth president features President Abraham Lincoln seated on a stage, half cloaked in darkness, and observing the Union forces he is sending into battle. It's an apt metaphor for the man himself -- both visible and obscure, inside the tempest yet somehow above the fray. Lincoln was released in early November 2012, just in time to shape our discussions of January 1, 2013, the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet with its themes of redemption and sacrifice, Spielberg's film could seem less suited for an anniversary celebration than an annual one. Here is a vision of a lone man, tested by betrayal, besieged by enemies whom he regards without malice, a man who is killed for his convictions only to be resurrected as a moral exemplar. Spielberg's Lincoln is perhaps less fitted to January 1 than it is to the holiday that precedes it by a week.

In fairness, this narrative of Lincoln's Civil War, equal parts cavalry and Calvary, did not originate with Spielberg. The legend of the Great Emancipator began even as Lincoln lay dying in a boarding house across from Ford's Theater that night in April 1865. (In the same way that JFK's mythic standing as a civil rights stalwart was born at Dealey Plaza in November 1963.) In the wake of his assassination, Lincoln the controversial and beleaguered president was remade into Lincoln the Savior, an American Christ-figure who carried the nation's sins. Pulling off this transformation, this historical alchemy, has required that we as a nation redact the messier parts of Lincoln's story in favor of an untainted, morally unconflicted commander-in-chief who was untouched by the biases of the day and unyielding in his opposition to slavery. We have little use for tainted Christs. Through Lincoln, the Union was "saved" in more than one sense of the word.

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'Latin Side of the Docs' in Mexico City

November 27, 2012

(Kathryn Pyle recently marked her fourth anniversary as a PhilanTopic contributor. In her last post, she wrote about Reportero, a new documentary by Bernardo Ruiz about embattled investigative journalists assigned to cover the drug wars in Mexico.)

LSD-MexicoCityLatin Side of the Docs, an annual marketplace and producers forum for documentary filmmakers, came to Mexico City earlier this month, attracting more than two hundred and fifty filmmakers and fifty industry representatives.

Filmmakers, broadcasters, and film distributors, most of them from Latin America, converged on the Spanish Cultural Center in the historic center of the city for the event. The center, which offers a variety of programs in a modern light-filled building, is located just behind the colonial-era Metropolitan Cathedral and ruins of Aztec pyramids bordering the Zócalo, the huge open plaza at the heart of the old city built by the Spaniards.

The three-day event was organized by DocsDF, a documentary film festival founded seven years ago in Mexico City, in collaboration with Sunny Side of the Docs, a longstanding international event/forum that matches documentary filmmakers seeking funds with broadcasters and distributors seeking good films. The organizers of Sunny Side now help stage similar events in Asia and, for the past four years, in Latin America -- the first three in Buenos Aires and now this year in Mexico City. Inti Cordera, a founder and the executive director of DocsDF, and Yves Jeanneau, a French filmmaker who created Sunny Side of the Docs, share a commitment. As Cordera put it, "We believe that documentary film is important and necessary, not just in terms of cinematic quality but also for the messages delivered."

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Social Impact Documentaries: 'Reportero'

September 10, 2012

(Kathryn Pyle recently marked her fourth anniversary as a PhilanTopic contributor. In her last post, she returned to the subject of her very first post, the Adams County Library system in a rural part of south-central Pennsylvania, to check on its progress in improving services for the growing Latino population in the area.)

Reportero_posterAs the audience for social issue documentary films grows, the intersection between a film and its impact is of increasing concern to media funders, media organizations, and filmmakers themselves. There is general agreement that documentary films are an important source of information and opinion in our corporate-dominated media landscape and that they often provide the in-depth analysis of complex issues lacking in most mainstream media coverage. But how one measures the impact of individual films or the field as a whole is still very much a work in progress. As in other spheres, grantmakers are interested not just in the quality of the project (the film, in this case) but also in the results it leads to. And nongovernmental organizations, most of which are still learning how to best use the documentary format, are looking for models.

Two sessions at the annual "Funders Conversation" hosted by Media Impact Funders earlier this summer addressed these concerns. Indeed, the recent rebranding of the organization, which had been known since its inception as Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media (GFEM), is testament to the trend.

"Very few of our members define themselves as film funders," explained MIF executive director Vince Stehle in a conversation at the affinity group's new office in Philadelphia. "Documentary film will continue to be as important, if not more so, than it's ever been. But it's only one feature of the media landscape, along with journalism, public media, community media, social media, and technology. MIF reflects all those communitiess as they work to achieve positive social impact. And we support the growing interest in measuring impact and understanding engagement."

One session, on "Documentary Film Impact and Outreach," focused on partnerships between filmmakers and Facing History and Ourselves, an international organization founded in 1976 that uses film to combat racism, anti-Semitism, and prejudice. In partnership with Skylight Pictures (also a presenter at the session), the organization developed three video models and a study guide (available online) based on the Skylight film The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court.

Another session, "Measuring Media and Philanthropy," reported on a new initiative led by the Foundation Center's GrantCraft project and GuideStar to track and map funding for media. The session also described an inquiry into measures of engagement with, and the impact of, grantmaker-funded media projects headed by Jessica Clark of AIRmedia.

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Emoti-Con!: Digital Learning Comes to NYC

July 12, 2012

(Laura Cronin is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her last post, she chatted with Kimberleigh Smith, board president of the New York City-based Paul Rapoport Foundation, about the foundation's decision to spend down by 2015 and what the foundation is doing to help grantees navigate that transition.)

Elearning_imageWhat if a bunch of nonprofits and funders found ways to work together on new projects that furthered their respective missions while also creating outcomes that were larger than the sum of the new parts?

Productive collaboration among organizations is one of those textbook goals that funders love to promote. Many an executive director has heard from a major funder about some like-minded nonprofit she should find a way to work with, sometime in the future. But too often, such suggestions lead to circular conversations, mission drift, and/or wheel spinning.

Lately, however, several New York City nonprofits have discovered that young people's interests are a key that can unlock the secrets of successful, mission-driven collaboration.

Hive Learning Network NYC is a coalition of youth-serving organizations that encourages young people to explore their interests and further their learning through the use of digital media and technology. Fueled by grants from the New York Community Trust, MacArthur Foundation, and others, students from all five boroughs participate in a lively system of out-of-school time (OST) programs that use digital tools to help them dig deeper into subjects they're passionate about, from science and art to creative writing and filmmaking.

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Justice Matters | Filmfest DC

April 18, 2012

(Kathryn Pyle is a frequent contributor to PhilanTopic. In January, she blogged about the lessons a new generation of activists can learn from the civil rights documentary Freedom Riders.)

Filmfest_dcHow do you tell a new story about the Palestinian conflict, one that touches audiences in a different way, goes beyond the nightly news images, and sparks new ideas and discussion?

For filmmaker Emad Burnat, co-director of 5 Broken Cameras, which is being shown as part of the Justice Matters series at Filmfest DC in Washington this week, the answer was personal. "There have been many films made about Palestine, but the filmmakers didn't live the situation, didn't know the reality. I live there; and I was always filming. My cameras were part of the non-violent resistance that my village, Bil'in, mounted against the Israeli occupation of our lands. I used my camera to protect myself and my friends and the other villagers. And when it came to shaping a story out of the seven hundred hours I'd filmed over seven years, I realized that it had to be my story; the story of my own experience."

That personal connection has struck a chord: 5 Broken Cameras premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) last fall; showed at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it won the World Cinema Directing Award for documentaries; and has gone on to screen at numerous festivals and win many more prizes. This summer it will be featured in several Israeli festivals and on Israeli television and will open in the U.S. as well.

Burnat, who had been a farmer, got a camera to film his new baby in 2005 and then turned it on the conflict in his village, sharing his extraordinary footage with international news agencies. He met his co-director, Guy Davidi, an Israeli there to film a documentary, and together, with support from the Global Perspectives Project of the International Television Service (ITVS) and IDFA's Jan Vrijman Fund, they created 5 Broken Cameras.

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Geena Davis Institute Asks: Where Are the Good Roles for Women?

February 24, 2012

(Laura Cronin is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her last post, she wrote about the Wikimedia Foundation's first Public Policy Initiative.)

Seejane_250As we get ready for the Academy Awards on Sunday, it's interesting to think about the relationship of pop and celebrity culture to social change.

The average foundation manager working to move the needle for a cause can only envy the ways in which celebrities are able to generate attention for their favorite issues. A short speech from a prominent figure on the red carpet is a surefire route to getting your cause trending on Twitter.

This year's Academy Award-nominated films are packed with issues that foundation and nonprofit people are concerned about: inequality, children and families, race, gender, sexual violence, politics. And I'm not just talking about documentaries.

Unfortunately, good roles for strong women are rare. That depressing fact turned Oscar (The Accidental Tourist) and Golden Globe (Commander in Chief) winner Geena Davis into an advocate. Watching television and movies with her young daughter a decade ago, Davis became concerned about the representation of women in most children's media. In 2004, the actress founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media and commissioned a study by Dr. Stacy Smith of the USC Annenberg School of Communications & Journalism which found a huge, 3:1 gender gap in roles for men and women. The study also concluded that even G-rated films transmit negative messages about girls -- messages which not only affect children in the U.S. but, given Hollywood's global reach, are exported to the rest of the world. The institute raises money for research, advocates for change, and develops educational materials that schools can use to help children think beyond stereotypes, including a recently piloted video learning series about gender and the workplace called Guess Who?

It also believes that pop culture is not just a mirror of our world but a driver of attitudes, and that positive gender portrayals break down stereotypes and broaden children's aspirations. According to the institute's executive director, Madeline Di Nonno, what children see on a screen truly matters. It shapes their emotional and social development and their beliefs. The more they see female characters who are hyper-sexualized, sidelined, or not present at all, the more boys and girls will think that's the way it's supposed to be.

So whether you stay up all night with Billy Crystal to see who gets to bring home a golden statue or turn in early, the Geena Davis Institute hopes you'll spend a few minutes thinking about how women and girls are portrayed on the silver screen.

-- Laura Cronin

'Freedom Riders': Lessons for a New Generation

January 10, 2012

(Kathryn Pyle is a frequent contributor to PhilanTopic. In October, she spoke with Orlando Bagwell, director of the Ford Foundation's recently launched JustFilms initiative. She first blogged about Freedom Riders in February of 2010.)

FreedomRidersposter_72Writing from the 2010 Sundance Film Festival about the civil rights movement as captured in documentary films, I highlighted Freedom Riders, a documentary directed by Stanley Nelson that premiered at the festival. The film tells the story of the hundreds of courageous people, most of them young, who participated in the 1961 "freedom rides" that helped end segregation in the South.

Freedom Riders aired on PBS this past May; the film went on to earn three Emmy Awards and the New York Times, calling it "beautifully constructed," selected it as one of the ten best programs of the year. The broadcast was preceded by a ten-day reenactment of the original 1961 campaign that was organized by American Experience, the PBS program which had commissioned and broadcast the film. "Get on the Bus" brought together forty college students from around the country to reenact the rides -- from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans -- and interact along the way with some of the original freedom riders, various historians of the period, and community activists. As they made their way south, the kids shared their experience via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media tools.

"The re-creation campaign had high visibility and great partnerships with state humanities councils, colleges and universities, and museums around the country," says Sonya Childress, community engagement specialist at Firelight Media, the nonprofit partner of Firelight Films, Nelson's for-profit production company. The former organizes audience outreach programs -- a letter-writing campaign for Nelson's film The Murder of Emmett Till helped reopen a criminal investigation into that 1955 case -- and supports emerging documentarians through a producers' lab.

" 'Get on the Bus' was very successful," Childress adds, "but we at Firelight wanted to do something different. We saw our job as bringing the film to a different audience -- particularly youth, and including African-Americans, but people who weren't necessarily connected to the civil rights movement. In targeting youth groups, we immediately thought of the Dream Act, because the story of Freedom Riders is a story about multi-ethnic organizing. We wanted to reach people working on immigration reform who do not see the civil rights movement as part of their history or as relevant to their activism. And we wanted to help them use the film in their own campaigns."

Atlantic Philanthropies, the Open Society Foundations (through its Campaign for Black Male Achievement), and the National Black Programming Consortium were approached and ultimately funded the Firelight Media project.

"Many funders could have said the freedom ride reenactment was sufficient as an audience engagement component," notes Childress. "But these three organizations saw value in bringing the history to a new community. They understood that Firelight Films makes historical documentaries, but that we want to show that the lessons of the past can be dissected and discussed and applied to today. Also, the funders recognized that, being an independent entity, Firelight Media had the latitude to work with a wider variety of community groups than had been involved in 'Get on the Bus', and that was seen as a complement to the American Experience project."

Engaging foundations that are not "media" funders is a new strategy for many documentary filmmakers; the challenge is in helping private and corporate foundations see that film can further their grantmaking priorities, and that there are many points of entry for support beyond a film's production phase.

At the same time, as foundations become more engaged in distribution there is more concern around evaluation of the project's goals. In Social Justice Documentary: Designing for Impact, a new Ford Foundation-supported publication from the Center for Social Media, Jessica Clark and Barbara Abrash put it this way:

In an environment of information overload and polarized sparring, social issue documentaries provide quality content that can be used to engage members of the public as citizens rather than merely media consumers. As a result, they have gained in visibility, influence and number over the past decade.

But despite the box-office and critical success of high-profile examples such as An Inconvenient Truth or Supersize Me, the social impacts of such expensive, long- range projects have been hit-or-miss. As a result, investors and filmmakers are asking tough questions about how best to plan for and assess the impact of such films and related engagement strategies, and to create models and standards for a dynamic field....

The report proposes a systemic approach based on early and continuous community participation that combines quantitative and qualitative indicators and continuous feedback into the evaluation design. The best indicators measure "evidence of [the film's] quality, increased public awareness, meaningful partnerships, increased public engagement, and collective action."

Firelight Media's plan for Freedom Riders incorporated many of those elements, though as noted by the Center for Social Media report, each documentary project is distinct.

Firelight began by convening a small group of civic organizations to help develop ideas for a year-long project; by the time Freedom Riders was broadcast, the project was ready to go. (An agreement with American Experience required that the Firelight project not overlap with "Get on the Bus," which took place immediately before the film aired.)

Sixteen community-based organizations and student groups -- some national and some local -- were selected as formal partners. Seven of the smallest groups received stipends to carry out their activities. All agreed to screen the film and use an online guide, United in Courage (available on the Firelight Media site), to help plan events and facilitate discussions. Their experiences are being disseminated via an e-news broadcast to other partners, funders and filmmakers, and through Firelight Media’s newsletter; in effect, the partners provide ongoing feedback as a way to strengthen the project.

The groups include established organizations like the NAACP, which is bringing some of the original freedom riders to college campuses in the South for screenings and conversations. Puente Arizona has invited some of the freedom riders to discuss immigration reform strategies with members of the migrant communities with which it works. At a workshop on audience engagement earlier this fall in San Francisco, another partner, Bay Area-based Youth Speaks, described using the film at its annual Brave New Voices event, which brings young poets and youth development organizations together: five hundred spoken-word artists attended the screening and a subsequent conversation, later broadcast on Pacifica Radio, with two freedom riders. And New York City-based Brotherhood/Sister Sol showed the film in New York and Ghana and trained youth facilitators to lead post-screening talks. (A complete list of partners and their plans can be found on the "United in Courage" site.)

Recognizing that short films can be useful for community organizing and in educational settings, especially those involving children, Firelight Media produced a twenty-minute version of the film (available only to project partners) and also commissioned three ten-minute films on key issues in the current immigration policy debate. Immigration: Beyond the Headlines was supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and can be viewed on the Firelight Media site. Though apprehensive at first that the films would be seen as standalone media, Firelight staff now consider them to be useful vehicles for driving interested viewers to the longer and more comprehensive film.

Today, halfway through the year-long audience engagement effort, Firelight's independent evaluator is tracking how the full-length documentary is being used and the kind of impact it is having through pre- and post-screening interviews with various partners. The partners also submit formal reports on how they are using the film to enhance their work, in the process creating a repository of "best practices."

"Community organizations have varying levels of comfort with documentary films that are not 'advocacy' films, that are not prescriptive in terms of what to do about a particular issue," says Childress. "Freedom Riders is not a 'call to action'; it's an occasion for reflection. We're interested in knowing how community groups navigate that, how they challenge themselves and how they incorporate films into their programs. We want to know how this particular story resonates, especially within the immigrant rights movement that's looking for stories and trying to build relationships with other movements. The big question for us is: Can historical documentaries move the meter; can this content help people understand the current world?"

The anecdotal evidence is encouraging. Last month, as reported by the Montgomery Advertiser, "Two Freedom Riders who risked their lives to integrate Montgomery's bus station 50 years ago are back in the Capital City with a new cause: repealing Alabama's immigration law. The Rev. C.T. Vivian and Catherine Burks-Brooks joined a rally on the Capitol steps and a children’s march to the governor's mansion."

Some of the Firelight project's results to date are posted on its Web site in the form of testimony from the partners. We'll check back at the end of the year to see what lessons were learned and how they can inform the marriage between documentary film and community activism.

-- Kathryn Pyle

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    The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)

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