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A Q&A With Orlando Bagwell, Director, JustFilms Initiative (Part 2)

October 06, 2011

Orlando_bagwell This week, the Ford Foundation officially launches JustFilms, a new initiative designed to expand support for social issue documentary films. Announced last winter at the Sundance Film Festival, JustFilms will provide $50 million over the next five years to fund the creation of social issue docs and help build effective audience engagement programs around them.

In August, frequent PhilanTopic contributor Kathryn Pyle spoke with the initiative's director, Orlando Bagwell, about the new effort and how it relates to Ford's broader agenda, as well as his twenty-five-year career as a documentary filmmaker.

In part two of the interview, below, Pyle talks with Bagwell about key features of the initiative, including its partnerships with the Sundance Institute, ITVS, and the Tribeca Film Institute, as well as the audience engagement strategies it hopes to pursue. To read part one, click here.

Kathryn Pyle: JustFilms will be carrying out its program in a number of interesting ways. One is working with external partners, including the Sundance Institute, Independent Television Service, and the Tribeca Film Institute. Why those three organizations?

Orlando Bagwell: Those three organizations are our signature partners, and about a third of our funds will go to them. The Sundance Institute is a major influence in the documentary field, and not only because of the Sundance Film Festival. We really believe in their workshops, and that's a part of what JustFilms is supporting: the various labs they offer to grantees in script writing, producing, directing, editing, and composing. The workshops really improve the skills of filmmakers and improve the films they bring to the workshop. It's a model we want to replicate in other places.

Another part of that partnership, and a feature of our partnership with ITVS as well, is the ability of these organizations to reach out to filmmakers we wouldn't normally have access to. As a foundation, we're interested in how we can bring more voices to the conversation around issues that are important to us. And I mean the global conversation. We're well aware that most of the filmmakers who are making films about issues that are important to us are from Europe and the United States. But if we're talking about global issues that affect all of us, that conversation has to be broader.

Our strength as a foundation is that we have deep relationships in other parts of the world, and we want to take advantage of those relationships. We want to be in places where we can have those conversations with people and something is triggered and they say, "Well, I can make a story about that." Yes, it's a filmmaker's story, but if it's done well it can engage the public and bring all sorts of people to the issue. Especially this year, the first year of the initiative, we want to design a way to raise up the voices of storytellers in the global South to comment on the rest of the world, not just their own countries or regions. That's going to take time, but we're committed to building that kind of expertise and that kind of storytelling.

However, we don't feel that all the best ideas come through our office, so with Sundance and ITVS we can fund films that we might otherwise miss and see projects that we wouldn't otherwise see. For instance, although the majority of Sundance Institute's funds go to U.S. filmmakers, maybe 40 percent goes to filmmakers overseas. With ITVS, we were actually the initial funder for the International Media Development Fund, which supports filmmakers in other parts of the world and brings their content to the United States. It's a way to encourage more stories from the rest of the world. We supported both Sundance and ITVS prior to JustFilms, so we're continuing those relationships, but we're looking to help them expand programs that are important to us.

The Tribeca Film Institute is a new partner of ours, and our support for them is for a transmedia fund. The fund is a way to think about how documentary film finds its way into the much larger digital storytelling space. How do you begin to think about the many different ways in which documentary film gets translated into new products? The majority of products will come out of the films themselves, but there might be new ones that are related to the film but are not necessarily part of the film, for example, a game based on the film. But, again, all this is tied to a clear sense of what the outcomes are that you're looking for. Whatever we're creating as a transmedia strategy is really aligned to certain outcomes that are part of an earlier filmmaking strategy.

KP: So the partnership with Tribeca will be exclusively transmedia work, in contrast to your support for ITVS and Sundance?

OB: Yes, it's a transmedia fund that will be managed by Tribeca. It really comes out of our early work with the Bay Area Video Coalition and their Producers Institute for New Media Technologies. In our conversations with Tribeca, we learned that this kind of capacity-building is something they wanted to do as well. It will create a space that's as much impact-focused as it is focused on thinking through the implications of new media and technology for filmmakers.

KP: Will you be expanding the partners beyond Sundance, Tribeca, and ITVS?

OB: We're in negotiations with other groups that can complement those three signature partners. Groups that can provide emergency grants, smaller grants, grants that seed ideas, that help engage filmmakers with audiences. We’ll be looking for organizations that can do some of that work with us. We're also creating partnerships to support shorter films and different film genres. And because we realize that when you validate a young filmmaker as a filmmaker, you're often launching them into a career, we're thinking about at a small kind of award to acknowledge the work of next-generation filmmakers as a way of saying, "Yeah, we're looking at you, and we think you're the real deal. Keep it up." So we're considering re-granting through other organizations, on a modest scale, that are doing that kind of work.

KP: In addition to working through partner organizations, JustFilms will provide direct support for films. What's the process for identifying those films?

OB: JustFilms includes a fund that's intended to complement the Ford Foundation's ongoing work in different areas and enables program officers here to think about the potential of films and media with respect to the issues they are dealing with. For instance, I was talking with a colleague in the criminal justice area about the alarming incarceration statistics in the United States. So we began looking at projects we could work on together that would fit with the multi-level approach she's taking in her work. This year we'll launch this new component with three films currently in production. One, by Eugene Jarecki, is about the growth of the prison industry and how it evolved from a correctional system into an industry. The second film came about because we were looking for a film that could humanize an incarcerated person, and we found an interesting film about an artist and her project with an inmate who's been in solitary confinement for a long time; it's called Herman's House, by Angad Bhalla. And the third film, Gideon's Army, by Dawn Porter, is about public defenders. What does it mean to be a public defender in an environment characterized by high incarceration rates? What kinds of impediments keep them from being effective? Do we believe that public defenders could be like a new Peace Corps? The biggest obstacle for young lawyers who want to be public defenders are their student loans! How do you begin to address that? You don't want to lose people who are committed to this work, so we need to bring those issues to light.

These three films are part of a cluster and represent the first piece in our collaboration. Now we're thinking about the public engagement piece; what are some of the outcomes we're looking for and how do they fit into my colleague's broader strategy?

KP: Are you funding an organization that will work with all three filmmakers on audience engagement strategies? Or do you expect each filmmaker to develop that on his or her own?

OB: No, we’ll work with an organization, Active Voice, to think about the strategic plan that's going to drive the public engagement work. Each film might have a very specific kind of group working with them -- aligning it around a very clear strategy for intervening in prisons, for instance. The issue of prisons as job creators in small towns and communities around the country is a complicated one, and how you engage people with different things at stake in the prison-as-industry debate requires a lot of sensitivity and expertise.

KP: So one of the key features of the JustFilms initiative will be the focus on partner organizations, and a second will be the work done inside Ford to integrate a documentary film strategy into specific program areas, with an underlying theme of expanding support for filmmakers outside the U.S.?

OB: Yes. But we realize that certain projects don't fit into existing foundation initiatives, so the last piece is an open fund to support documentary films that have a social justice theme. In fact, a third of our resources will be dedicated to that fund. The announcement that Ford was making this level of commitment in the documentary field is significant, and it's not just significant because of the money, but because it acknowledges the importance of nonfiction storytelling/films in the larger public discourse and the arena of ideas.

There were two headlines that came out of Sundance last winter when we announced JustFilms. One was Ford's five-year commitment to the initiative. And the other was Oprah saying that she was going to do for documentaries what she did for books. I think the two statements say something about the public's desire for real stories, independently told stories, as well as the generally sorry state of public discourse at this particular moment. They also say something about trust, or the lack thereof. It's not that people trust everything they see or hear in a documentary film. But I think they understand that most documentaries are a reflection of an independent voice and sensibility. And that makes them an important part of the larger conversation that is happening at any given moment. In an increasingly complicated world, we need those voices and that sensibility.

-- Kathryn Pyle

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