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'Traces of the Trade' and Philanthropy, Part 1

August 19, 2008

(Kathryn Pyle was senior representative for Central America/Mexico at the Inter-American Foundation; executive director of the Samuel S. Fels Fund; and co-founder of Delaware Valley Grantmakers. Currently, she is producing a documentary film about the post-conflict period in El Salvador. Her first post for PhilanTopic described how a small donation expanded library services to Latinos in a rural Pennsylvania county.)

Tot Five hundred people filled an auditorium at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., this spring to accompany an extraordinary family on an extraordinary journey. The event was a special screening of Traces of the Trade, a feature-length documentary since shown on PBS’ POV program that is now making the rounds of film festivals and community centers. The documentary records ten descendants of a New England slave trader as they discover the details of the trade, confront what the legacy means for them personally, and take steps to make things right. Their moral dilemma, of course, is the dilemma of our nation, as we consider the great task still remaining before us.

The event was part of the Council on Foundations' annual gathering and was a council first in terms of public profile: the film was followed by a panel discussion hosted by Judy Woodruff, the PBS Newshour journalist, and Charles Olgletree of Harvard Law School. Former council president and ambassador to South Africa James Joseph was joined by several other panel members, all experts in related fields, for comments, and the audience of funders and invited community representatives continued a conversation with the panel and the filmmakers.

But the screening was only the most public of a long-standing program that has brought funders to media and media to funders. The council's annual Film and Video Festival (F&VF) showcases works supported by the council's own members -– private and corporate foundations. With financing from more than thirty private foundations, religious groups, public broadcasting and government arts agencies, plus many individuals, Traces of the Trade was an apt choice for this special event. It also put the festival itself, and the organizations behind it, in the spotlight.

Organized by an informal group of cinephiles headed by Phil Hallen, then president of the Falk Foundation in Pittsburgh, the festival began as a sidebar to the council's first-ever annual conference and has been part of the annual gathering for forty-one years.

"I loved film, and my board saw it as an extension of our grants for academic publications; as another way to communicate ideas, particularly related to civil rights. We supported more than one hundred documentaries,” says Phil, who is now retired and president emeritus of the foundation.

"In 1968 or so I was on the program committee for the council conference in Kansas City and I said, 'Let's show some films!' We identified a handful that foundations had supported, found a closet and a projector, and about three or four people wandered in for each showing."

Within a few years it was a formal part of the conference, with Karen Menichelli at the Benton Foundation, which focuses on media, taking the lead. Hallen added, "Once we tied the festival to the themes of the conference and linked the films to the sessions, people could more easily see the power of the medium. It really took off then."

Along the way, a curator was hired to professionalize the program and sift through the increasing number of films supported by the council's members: Linda Blackaby, now the director of programming at the San Francisco Film Society, was the first, followed by Pat Aufderheide, director of the Center for Social Media at American University. For the past few years, curators (all with previous festival experience) have been invited to serve for one or two years; they help produce the festival catalog that describes the films and includes comments from the funders on why they supported them. The festival is now a multifaceted, multi-site forum on the social impact of media, with awards for exceptional films and peer support for funders who recognize their importance.

An affinity group was formed out of the initiative. (Affinity groups are a sort of subsidiary structure of the council, giving members a forum for their special interests.) Grantmakers in Film, Video & Television began on a volunteer basis in 1984; reflecting changes in technology and media behavior over the past decade, it's now called Grantmakers in Film & Electronic Media (GFEM). It was formally incorporated two years ago, has forty-five members (nine hundred funders get e-communications) and a staff of four, and is headed by former MacArthur Foundation program officer Alyce Myatt.

GFEM works with the Council on Foundations' Evelyn Gibson (Director, Awards Programs) to organize what's now the formal council program: the Film and Video Festival is not only part of the council's annual conference for all members but also its annual conference for community foundations and that for family foundations as well.

"Foundations and corporate giving programs support media to bring about change, to tell stories that otherwise wouldn't be told," says Gibson. "The council sees the festival is a venue to disseminate those stories; it's another way to help our members do their work."

This year, in addition to the Traces of the Trade event, the F&VF screened thirteen films produced recently with council members' support; three were followed by discussions with the filmmakers. About fifty people attend each screening; thousands see the films over the course of the three annual conferences. In past years, when the council meeting could be contained in just one hotel, the festival was available in a special screening room as well as in-room via the local TV cable; this year, with over three thousand people attending the main conference, the required multiple hotels make in-room prohibitive.

Two films received a Henry Hampton Award, named after the visionary executive producer of Eyes on the Prize; the award recognizes projects of particular quality and social merit. This year's winners were Made in L.A., about sweatshops in the U.S., and Salud, about the Cuban community-based health care model. Other GFEM programs included a session, selected as part of the council's official program, on the changing nature of media and its role in strengthening or weakening democracy.

(Film/video works are submitted by council members in June for consideration at the next year's council meeting -- more information, including "Ten Reasons Why Funders Fund Media," is available at www.fundfilm.org.)

Aside from the council's activities, GFEM offers a variety of member services related to its aim to be "a resource for grantmakers who fund media content, infrastructure, and policy and who employ media to further their program goals." The members are a diverse mix of staff and board of private and corporate foundations and media organizations who agree that "electronic media is a vital form of human expression, communication and creativity, and plays a key role in building public will and shaping civil society."

As noted by David Haas, GFEM chair, membership in the affinity group and interest among funders in general has grown dramatically over the years as funders have become more media savvy. "Compelling social issue documentary films and media projects can tell a story in a unique way, addressing issues that foundations care about."

What in particular about Traces of the Trade appealed to the festival committee as they planned the Newseum event? As I'll discuss in my next post, part of the answer lies in the subject matter itself, and part in the producers' eagerness to disseminate the film beyond the normal documentary channels.

-- Kathryn Pyle

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