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A Q&A With Orlando Bagwell, Director, JustFilms Initiative (Part 1)

October 04, 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, which includes serving as a lead producer for the award-winning Eyes on the Prize series, four Emmy Awards, three George Peabody Awards, and the 1994 New York Film Festival Grand Prize.

Bagwell joined the Ford Foundation in 2004 as a program officer focused primarily on support for public media and subsequently led the foundation's Global Perspectives in a Digital Age, Advancing Public Service Media initiative. He later served as director of the foundation's Freedom of Expression unit before being tapped in 2010 to establish and lead the JustFilms initiative.

Kathryn Pyle: I came across a piece by Pat Aufderheide of the Center for Social Media in which she quoted you as telling a new cohort of Public Media Corps fellows and their mentors that "story is essential in public media," but that in light of today's technology "you can and must go beyond the making of stories, to connect people to each other; to have the kinds of conversations they need to have." I thought that was an apt quote in terms of JustFilms' mission and your own career as a filmmaker involved in projects that got people talking to each other. Can you explain the convergence between stories well told and what we are now calling "audience engagement"?

Orlando Bagwell: My first involvement with public television was with Eyes on the Prize and Blackside, Henry Hampton's production company. As a young filmmaker I'd done small independent films, but nothing on that scale. I was consumed in many ways by the challenge to produce on that level and to take on a history that included so many people with a vested interest in how it was told and represented. Public television was the only space at the time where something like Eyes on the Prize could be incubated, and I think all of us who were producers on the series were kind of overwhelmed by the challenge.

The interesting thing was that we had no idea how people would respond to it -- and it turned out to be an immediate response. When it first came on the air, I was in China shooting a film. I got a call from the States and was told, "Your phone is ringing off the hook!" That really was an indication of how hungry people were for the kind of storytelling we were doing and the way that storytelling spoke to such a large cross-section of America. It wasn't just a story for the African-American community or the news media or civil rights activists. It was a series that engaged everyone, and it quickly became a part of history itself, which is how Henry had planned it. It was meant to be an American moment that people had a stake in.

At the same time, the response also made us realize we had an opportunity to engage in a conversation that we hadn't really anticipated. People immediately began to ask, "How do I use this? What do I do with this? How can it be a part of learning in the classroom?" But they were also asking how we were going to be involved in facilitating the conversation that was taking place around the series. And this was twenty years after the civil rights movement.

We realized we had missed something in the process of making the program: that films had the potential to have enormous impact and that somehow, in some way, the process of thinking about what a film could do, what it could mean, needed to be embedded in the film from the beginning. The immediate question was how do we facilitate and engage a conversation about Eyes on the Prize that would bring unlikely people into a room to share not only their own thoughts about the movement but what that history means today.

My experience with Eyes on the Prize really influenced how I approached films from then on. If you look at the programs I did through PBS after that, especially the series work, you'll see a really strong outreach and public engagement piece.

One of the core funders of Eyes on the Prize was the Ford Foundation, and Andrea Taylor, who managed the media program at Ford at the time, was very much present at Blackside as we were moving the series through production. She recognized that there was something going on, something that represented another piece of what documentaries could be in people's lives, the engagement end of it. And she challenged us to think critically about what materials and tools were needed to work with that aspect and how to organize it. That made an impression on all of us as filmmakers.

Over the years, Ford not only supported a lot of my film projects but also supported the engagement piece. I looked for other funders who had an interest -- not just in the production side but in the larger public conversation and how a film could reach beyond an expected audience. So when I came to the foundation in 2004, I arrived not only with a clear sense of the power of storytelling to impact people's lives, but also with a real commitment to take advantage of that, to bring people together to engage in a conversation rather than letting them remain in their separate spaces. I want people who have very different positions on an issue, people who in fact have a stake in the stories, to reconsider their relationship with the issue and with other people. That is the real opportunity.

Of course, by 2004 the whole landscape had changed in terms of how you did outreach. You were still able to convene people in an analog way -- through television -- but you also had new digital platforms, and that's a big part of what my Ford colleagues and I think about today.

KP: Clearly, there is more interest on the part of both funders and audience in documentaries, and one explanation is that there are fewer resources and less space for in-depth coverage of complex topics in the media.

OB: Part of the change is that documentaries are much more available now. People can watch them at their leisure. Being able to find the films you want to see, for example the online services offered by PBS and others where you can download or stream films, allows people to come to documentaries on their own terms. You don't have to tune in at a certain time to see it; you don't have to go to a movie theater an hour away.

There's also just greater interest in independent documentaries -- and I say independent because I think there continues to be a very strong collection of documentaries that exist in the television space; HBO's a good example. These are documentaries that are pretty diverse in terms of what they talk about and how they're done. But they're not all "independent" in terms of their financing. And because we've been exposed to more and more documentaries, I think the public is developing an appreciation for and more confidence in the independent voice.

KP: There seem to be more foundations and corporate funders supporting different pieces of documentary filmmaking and audience engagement today. What has been your experience, as a grantmaker, in terms of finding partners who share your vision with respect to social issue documentaries? How do you see that landscape changing in terms of other funders and filmmakers, many of whom have been trained to make films and not to think about how they're going to be used to engage an audience around an issue? And where are nongovernmental organizations in the equation?

OB: One of the big growth areas in the philanthropic sector related to documentary films is grantmakers who have a very particular expertise in public engagement. There are grantmakers who are very much tied to what might be called the traditional public broadcasting model. They recognize the value of PBS affiliates as vehicles for convening local audiences and drawing them in to activities such as public screenings. Then, after the screenings, they organize conversations around the film and suggest ways that people can become involved in the issue, creating a network of audience members in the process.

There are also new organizations, NGOs, using social networking tools to explore not only how to amplify issues raised in conversations sparked by a film, but also how to use technology to convene people in a virtual space in order to have those conversation. You have projects created by organizations like Cause & Affect, which is handling The Bully Project, a documentary film that's part of an advocacy and education program. [Ed note: The film is funded by the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust and the Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention, among other groups.] These organizations and others like them are exploring how to use new technology to change the language and conversation around particular issues and how to use films to help make that change.

The challenge for filmmakers is finding an NGO partner interested in using film to drive impact. And I'm of two minds on this. I believe in the impact, but I also believe in the purity of the work. I recognize that making films is really hard work. And I see filmmakers being pulled in lots of different directions. It's really hard to raise money to finish a film, and at the end of the day that's the core piece that's going to allow all these other things we've been talking about to happen.

We want to organize JustFilms so that filmmakers do what they do best, which is to tell stories. That's why we're going to continue to give direct support for making films. But at the same time there's got to be a clear audience-engagement strategy. What are the outcomes you're looking for? What are the key measures of success in year one with respect to the media? How about year two? What kinds of policy changes are you hoping to effect? What about behavioral changes? How can the film make an impact in the public space?

You want that product -- the documentary -- to be as strong as possible, because that's the lead piece of the larger project in a sense; that's the door that opens other doors. The key part of any public engagement effort is that you have a clear strategy in terms of the kinds of outcomes you're looking for. It doesn't mean they might not change, but you've got to be clear about them in order to know whether they should change.

Your best bet is the analog approach I talked about before, the traditional public broadcasting model, where you're trying to bring people together and create a core to get to the next piece. You want to build a cadre of people who are going to be activists on the ground doing things you know need to be done. At the same time, maybe your online effort is being driven by an outcome related to policy change or public support around a referendum that could have a real impact on your issue. At the core of the process, these questions all help the filmmaker to make the critical decisions about who they work with and at what stage they begin to incorporate different approaches to public engagement.

KP: You seem to be describing a continuum of sorts. At one end are documentaries about important issues that simply describe the issue of concern but without advocating for any change. Moving along the continuum, you might have the same film that with the right support from a local television station, a network, or an NGO could be a catalyst for the advocacy piece. And even further along are films that begin with a social change agenda. How will JustFilms work with filmmakers to move them along that continuum?

OB: One way to support that process is the Good Pitch, which is a forum for filmmakers where they can present their film to a group of funders, issue experts, and activists who understand that it's all about the larger project -- namely, connecting audiences to the film's message. The discussion then is about the value and potential of the project to drive change and about what partnerships are needed to create the desired impact. Whether the films are in production or are finished, in that moment you begin to get a sense of how people outside the film see the work. Often the conversation comes around to ways the film could have impact or reach audiences the filmmaker hadn't imagined. Of course, it also takes time from the making of the film because the filmmaker has to invest two weeks of his or her time to prepare for the event!

KP: I understand that with support from Ford as well as the Tides Foundation, the Fledgling Fund, Chicken & Egg Pictures, Impact Partners, the CrossCurrents Foundation, and the Wyncote Foundation, there are three Good Pitch events scheduled this year. What, in your mind, is the right balance between support for the films and support for finding and building audiences that are then moved to take action? What’s a good model for enabling both?

OB: Within the Ford Foundation, I can collaborate with people who have expertise in different issue areas, so a lot of my internal work is aligning storytelling with a social change strategy. We can invest in that first-stage strategy consideration, defining the outcomes that we might be looking for. But we don't want to move further in terms of the outreach funding, because in the philanthropic world there are very few of us who really support film production, and support it from a storytelling point of view. In other words, it’s not the issue we’re interested in primarily, it's the product itself -- the film plus the engagement and how they fit in the social change equation.

Outside Ford, there are many funders who will support the use of the film because they have a vested interest in an issue. We see our role as helping to identify those partners. But the way to bring them in is to have a clear strategy for what you want to do with your film. That's important....

(Click here for part two.)

-- Kathryn Pyle

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