34 posts categorized "Film"

2011 Year in Review: Foundations Bet Big on New Initiatives

December 30, 2011

Global, public-private, collaboration, thinking big -- these were some of the themes in play as foundations sought to boost their impact while addressing some of the most pressing challenges at home and abroad in 2011.

In the field of international development, the Chevron-sponsored Niger Delta Partnership Initiative Foundation and USAID pledged $50 million in February to support programs that promote economic development, improve the capacity of government and civil society institutions, and help reduce conflict in the oil-rich Niger Delta region. A month later, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation announced a five-year, $50 million commitment to help improve water conditions for more than one million people in sub-Saharan Africa and areas of India and Mexico -- a commitment that included a grant to the Foundation Center to build an online portal to serve as a central hub for information about water-related issues. In July, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation stepped up its own commitment to WASH issues by awarding grants totaling $41 million in support of efforts to increase access to affordable long-term sanitation solutions for millions of people in the developing world. And in October, George Soros and the Open Society Foundations pledged $27.4 million to the Millennium Villages Project to boost development in villages across rural sub-Saharan Africa.

Closer to home, a number of foundations announced major initiatives benefitting underserved communities and vulnerable populations. In April, the Home Depot Foundation launched a three-year, $30 million initiative to address veterans' housing issues; in May, the New York City-based NoVo Foundation announced a ten-year, $80 million initiative to strengthen the movement to end violence against women and girls; and in July, the California Endowment announced the creation of a $200 million public-private loan fund, the California FreshWorks Fund, to support efforts to increase access to healthy and affordable food in underserved communities.

Filmmakers and performing artists also were beneficiaries of bold thinking on the part of foundations in 2011. In January, the New York City-based Ford Foundation committed $50 million over five years to help identify and support a new generation of documentary filmmakers; in February, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland, announced a $60 million documentary film initiative of its own; and in October, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation announced a ten-year, $50 million commitment to support more than two hundred individual artists in the field of jazz, theater, and contemporary dance.

Finally, in the area of health and health care, in September the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation's largest healthcare philanthropy, announced the launch of a three-year, $100 million "impact" fund to help its grantees leverage additional funding from multiple sources and share solutions that actually improve health and health care for all Americans. As part of the effort, RWJF awarded $10 million to NCB Capital Impact, a national Community Development Finance Institution (and the program administrator for the California Endowment's FreshWorks Fund), to create a low-interest credit facility that will support the development of Green House nursing homes over the next ten years.

"Our goal with this initiative is to go beyond traditional grantmaking, to drive social change, achieve measurable impact, and collaborate with partners who can help us achieve our mission," said RWJF president and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey. "This commitment allows us to better leverage our funding and spread innovative models, like the Green House Project."

Related Links

Ford Foundation Announces $50 Million for Documentary Film Initiative (1/19/11)

HHMI Launches Documentary Film Unit (2/08/11)

Chevron, USAID Pledge $50 Million to Improve Living Standards in Nigeria (2/21/11)

Hilton Foundation Commits $50 Million to Help Improve Global Water Conditions (3/23/11)

Home Depot Foundation Launches $30 Million Initiative to Address Veterans' Housing Issues (4/14/11)

NoVo Foundation Establishes $80 Million Initiative to End Violence Against Women and Girls (5/20/11)

Latin American Water Funds Launched With $27 Million in Funding (6/15/11)

Gates Foundation Announces $42 Million to Address Global Sanitation Issues (7/20/11)

California Endowment Announces $200 Million Public-Private Loan Fund (7/22/11)

Rockefeller Foundation, Partners Launch Initiative on Role of Philanthropy in International Development (8/10/11)

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Establishes $100 Million Impact Capital Fund (9/12/11)

Soros Pledges $27.4 Million to Aid Development in Rural Africa (10/04/11)

Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Commits $50 Million to Support Individual Artists (10/21/11)

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.

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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.

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Community Engagement and Social Justice Documentaries

July 08, 2011

(Kathryn Pyle is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her last post, she wrote about Film and the "Dirty War.")

Crime_after_crime Crime After Crime is a new documentary that describes a fault line in our justice system -- and is actively engaged, as a larger project, in trying to change it. The film was one of two to receive the Henry Hampton Award at the Council on Foundations' Film and Video Festival, presented in collaboration with Grantmakers in Film + Electronic Media, at the council's recent annual meeting in Philadelphia.

Deborah Peagler, the subject of Crime After Crime, was brutally abused by her boyfriend over a number of years, beginning when she was 15; fearing for the lives of her children and herself, and with no recourse to legal remedies, Peagler turned to friends and family for protection and was implicated in his subsequent murder. Eventually, she was sentenced to 25 years-to-life in prison. (It's estimated that as many as four thousand women are currently in prison for killing their abusers.)

At the time of Peagler's conviction, in 1983, domestic violence wasn't recognized as a mitigating factor in the prosecution of victims who commit crimes against their abusers. Twenty years later, thanks to the efforts of a coalition of women's organizations, including a group of women inmates, things have changed. According to Marisa F. González, coordinator of the California Habeas Project, which recruits, trains, and assigns pro-bono lawyers to cases: "In 1989, a group of women at the California Institution for Women got together to found Convicted Women Against Abuse, the first prisoner-led support group for battered women in the country. Advocates in the anti-domestic violence movement heard about the group's efforts and began recruiting lawyers to help each woman file an individual clemency petition, giving details and evidence about the abuse she had experienced and its relevance to her criminal conviction."

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Film and the 'Dirty War'

June 23, 2011

(Kathryn Pyle is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her previous post, she wrote about the Film and Video Festival at this year's Council on Foundations conference.)

TheDisappeared How would you like your new Web site to get 40,000 visits within two weeks of launch?

That's been the experience of Memoria Abierta, a Buenos Aires-based nongovernmental organization that is working to preserve the historic memory of the 1976-1983 military dictatorship in Argentina and the so-called "dirty war" it waged against its political opponents. Earlier this month the organization published an online catalogue of films about the dictatorship, and the response has been overwhelming. Most visitors to the site have been from Argentina, but La Dictadura en el Cine ("The Dictatorship in the Movies") is open to any Spanish-speaker who wants to learn not just about what happened in Argentina but also how the terrible events of those years relate to similar situations elsewhere. Indeed, as post-conflict societies increasingly look to international courts for justice and search for local approaches to conflict resolution, knowledge about what happened in Argentina can be a crucial tool.

"We’ve wanted to do this project since we were founded more than a decade ago," Patricia Valdez, the director of Memoria Abierta, a coalition of four human rights groups working on various aspects of the junta's legacy, recently told me. "We knew there were a lot of films made about the history, both fiction and documentaries: we identified four hundred and fifty for the catalogue. And they continue to be made -- we found thirty-two new ones produced just last year! We also knew there was great demand to see these films and that many of them were not available." All the films in the catalogue can be viewed onsite at the organization's offices in Buenos Aires.

With funding from the Dutch embassy (as part of its efforts to encourage human rights programs in Argentina that promote transparency and accountability), the project finally got some traction last year. Two researchers (with assistance from other consultants and advisors) worked for over a year to identify films and track down copies. Films were selected on the basis of two criteria: that they dealt with the dictatorship, however obliquely; and that they had been publicly screened in a festival, a commercial theater, and/or a community center. The vast majority were made in Argentina, including many, like The Official Story, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1986, the first Latin American film to ever receive that honor, that are well known internationally.

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Council on Foundation’s Film and Video Festival

April 07, 2011

(Kathryn Pyle is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her previous post, she wrote about memory as an instrument of peace.)

Cof_logo Attendees at this year's Council on Foundations conference (April 10–12) in Philadelphia will have the opportunity to view some excellent documentary films during the conference's Film and Video Festival. Held in cooperation with Grantmakers in Film + Electronic Media (GFEM), the festival is a regular feature at the annual CoF conference and this year will feature a number of special screenings co-sponsored by council affinity groups like the International Human Rights Funders Group and Funders Together to End Homelessness. There will also be a presentation for funders on how to use short videos and other media to educate the public and explore community issues.

As I described in a previous post, documentary films are growing in popularity, both at festivals and via television and the Internet. Indeed, grantmakers and nongovernmental organizations increasingly grasp the potential of documentary films to tell their stories and advance their priorities -- not only in terms of traditional "public relations," but by conveying with deep-felt passion a subject or story that aligns with their own interests.

The Council on Foundations recognized the importance of film and video early on, launching a film and video festival ("in a closet," as Phil Hallen, formerly of the Falk Foundation, puts it) at an annual conference in the late 1960s. Today, the festival, a regular feature of the conference since then, is a juried exhibition of a dozen films with its own on-site screening room; conference participants can also borrow a DVD of any film to watch on their hotel television sets or their laptops.

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Latin Side of the Doc (Part Two)

December 11, 2010

(Kathryn Pyle is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. Click here for the first installment of her two-part post.)

Latin_doc An all-day "webdoc" workshop at Latin Side of the Doc led by Hugues Sweeney, an advisor for digital programming at the National Film Board of Canada, stressed the possibilities of interactive documentaries. "Twenty percent of our shows are now interactive," Sweeney told those in attendance. "For documentaries, the Web can be more than just a dissemination avenue; it represents a merger of the traditional documentary form and a new interactive model." Indeed, the NFB Web site encourages people to "enjoy documentaries, animations, alternative dramas and interactive productions on the Web, on your personalized home page, or on your iPhone."

Various interactive sites were highlighted during the workshop, including the delightful Save the Words site developed by Oxford Dictionaries. With hundreds of words dropping out of regular usage each year, the site is an advocacy project that aims to save words "that once led meaningful lives," while challenging people to rebuild our shrinking vocabularies. (I guarantee that if you’re reading this, you’ll be hooked by the site.)

World Without Oil, described as a serious game designed to change the world, allows game players to create the "documentary" through e-mails, blog posts, Twitter, videos, and other social media channels. "The public is actively involved and implicated in the work through the act of influencing it," said Sweeney.

Hubert Fiasse, a filmmaker from Brussels, was particularly interested in the NFB workshop because Quizas, his small production company, is planning its first venture into a documentary made specifically for the Web. "It's complicated," Fiasse told me, "and very different than a traditional documentary. We're working with an IT person who has experience building Web sites, while we bring the content side."

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Latin Side of the Doc (Part One)

December 09, 2010

(Kathryn Pyle is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her last post, she wrote about the Art of Memory.)

Latin_doc Documentary film producers from Latin America and Europe gathered last week in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for the second annual "Latin Side of the Doc," a four-day meet-up where independent filmmakers "pitch" their projects to European and North American broadcasters, distributors, and funders.  About 175 films -- all in the initial stages of development -- were presented, and I was there.

The documentaries are a window into the great and small issues of the region. Like the story from Bolivia of a member of the indigenous Aymara community who, when young, was forbidden by the government to learn Spanish, and his grandson, the filmmaker, who speaks Spanish but has never learned Aymara. The film promises to be a universal story of family and identity but also a particularly Latin American story of discrimination and assimilation.

"There is enormous talent and great ideas for documentaries in Latin America," said Yves Jeanneau, a French film producer who, with the help of Argentine partner INCAA (National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts), launched the event last year. Latin Side of the Doc is the latest iteration, along with Asian Side of the Doc (also in its second year), of Sunny Side of the Doc, which Jeanneau created twenty-three years ago in La Rochelle, France.

In recent years, Sunny Side of the Doc has attracted over two thousand participants from more than fifty countries and has begun to feature a panel on foundation support for documentaries. Indeed, some corporate foundations in Europe are supporting documentaries that explore themes, like the environment, that align with the parent corporation's interests, while others are becoming more aware of the power of documentaries to educate the public about specific issue areas.

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A 'Flip' Chat With...Lesley Chilcott, Producer, 'Waiting for Superman'

November 19, 2010

(This is the eleventh in our series of conversations with thought leaders in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. You can check out other videos in the series here, including our chat with Kate Robinson, producer of "Saving Philanthropy," which is scheduled for release in the spring of 2011.)

With more and more documentary films finding an audience among the general public, a growing number of funders and nonprofit leaders have begun to ask whether film can be used to raise real money for their causes. According to the panelists at a Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising panel discussion ("Film it. Fundraise. Repeat") I attended earlier this week, the answer to that question is an emphatic yes.

Part of the center's Philanthropy 3.0 speaker series, the event featured Lesley Chilcott, producer of the new ed reform documentary Waiting for 'Superman'; Yvette Alberdingk Thijm, executive director of Witness.org, a nonprofit that uses video to expose human rights abuses; Asi Burak, co-president of Games for Change and co-founder of the ImpactGames; Chris Kazi Rolle, co-founder and creator of The Hip Hop Project, which highlights Rolle's journey from poverty to entertainment success; and Kaoru Tozaki Wang, a first-time filmmaker.

Led by moderator Marcia Stepanek, founding editor-in-chief of ContributeMedia, the panelists described how social issue documentaries can be used not only to highlight an issue, but to start a movement. Indeed, in the case of Waiting for 'Superman', that's exactly what Chilcott and director David Guggenheim have done.

During her presentation, Chilcott explained that before the film was released, the "Superman" team reached out to communities across the country, encouraging them to mount "pledge to see the film" campaigns. The team also partnered with DonorsChoose.org, which pledged $5 toward a classroom project of a donor's choice for the first 50,000 people who took the pledge; First Book, which promised to donate 250,000 new books to schools and programs in low-income communities; and NewSchools Venture Fund, which committed to invest $5 million in innovative education organizations if 150,000 people took the pledge. To date, more than 261,000 people have pledged to see the film.

After the event, I had the opportunity to speak with Chilcott about the film and the state of education reform in the United States. During our chat, Chilcott also explained why she believes the film has struck a nerve and what she and the "Superman" team are doing to keep the issue of education reform in the spotlight.


(If you're reading this in an e-mail, click here.)

(Running time: 4 minutes, 12 seconds)

What do you think? Have you seen Waiting for "Superman"? Did you like it? Hate it? Are you optimistic about future of public education in the U.S.? And if you're a filmmaker, what advice would you give others interested in producing social issue documentaries?

-- Regina Mahone

Muslim Voices of Philadelphia

September 08, 2010

(Kathryn Pyle is a frequent contributor to PhilanTopic. In her last post, she wrote about civil rights documentaries.)

"Muslim Americans feel so muted today, drowned out by the hysteria in the mainstream media," lamented Moein Khawaja, director of the Philadelphia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), at a special iftar, or meal breaking the Ramadan fast, last week. "We're only about six million people in the U.S., and for the past nine years we've been on the defensive. We have to be proactive and produce our own media that's more representative of our experiences: media that's more positive; that shows the multitude of Islamic voices."

New_africa_center Just such an opportunity has been created in Philadelphia, thanks in part to a planning grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and an intern secured through the Samuel S. Fels Fund's annual summer program linking graduate students with community groups. Muslim Voices of Philadelphia, launched at that recent iftar, is a collaborative media project hosted by the Scribe Video Center, a nonprofit organization that works with individuals and groups without know-how or means to tell their stories in video, radio, and new media. The project will produce ten videos over the next two years, with participants from local Muslim organizations shaping the aims and content, learning the necessary skills, and actually making the films.

While the Muslim Voices project may be its newest activity, Scribe boasts a 27-year history of building media capacity among minority communities. The center offers a roster of classes, open to everyone, and also works with selected projects proposed and implemented by community groups. In the latter case, Scribe provides the training, equipment, and advisors needed to shepherd the projects from idea to screening. Hundreds of videos have been created over the years, recording a variety of places and programs and, just as importantly, capturing the memories and spirit embodied in neighborhoods, buildings, and public spaces: from an animation-enhanced hip-hop music-ed short about a bicycle shop in West Philadelphia that teaches local kids how to repair bikes to more traditional documentaries about a cemetery, a community garden, a swim club, and everything in between. The aim is to help organizations produce media for their own archives, educational purposes, and/or for broadcast via public television, community cable channels, and public screenings at traditional venues and outdoor events.

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Back to School With Superman and Friends

September 02, 2010

(Laura Cronin is director of the New York City-based Toshiba America Foundation. In her last post, she chatted with Boston College Law School professor Ray Madoff.)

Need_you Later this month, Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim will release a new documentary, Waiting for Superman, that aims to bring the contentious education reform debate to a broader public.

The filmmaker and his foundation backers are also using social media to invite viewers into the discussion. The Web site created for the film's launch features a clever tie-in with DonorsChoose, an online giving platform, that enables people who pledge to see the film to direct $5 to a classroom project of their choice. The site also calls viewers to action by urging them to write to their governor, state representatives, etc.

But while you're waiting for Superman to come to a theater near you (it opens September 24), don't overlook another foundation-funded peek behind the classroom door: Testing Teachers, a new radio documentary from American Radio Works that aired last week and is now available online as a podcast, radio stream, or in transcript form.

For me, the most compelling segment of the hour-long documentary, which was funded by the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation, is the description of reform efforts in Chattanooga, Tennessee, that've been spearheaded by the locally based Benwood and Public Education foundations. Among other things, the segment introduces us to Joe Curtis, a master teacher at a local elementary school, and gives us a glimpse of the many factors that get in the way of good teaching.

Kids all over the country will be heading back to school next week. Many of those schools and the teachers in them are excellent; too many others are not. We owe it to our kids to do better. So this Labor Day weekend, take an hour to listen to Testing Teachers and hear what some foundations and education reformers have learned about good teaching and what they are doing to boost teacher effectiveness, in their districts and across the nation.

-- Laura Cronin

A 'Flip' Chat With...Terry Lawler, Executive Director, New York Women in Film & Television

August 13, 2010

(This is the fifth in our series of "Flip" chats with thought leaders in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. You can find others here, including the previous one with Ben Esner of the Brooklyn Community Foundation.)

Last week a sold-out audience filled the Foundation Center's training annex to hear Terry Lawler, executive director of New York Women in Film & Television, lead a panel discussion on the subject of raising money for independent films. Lawler was joined on the panel by Randall Dottin, film director and faculty at New York Film Academy; Matthew Seig, media specialist with the New York Foundation for the Arts; and Angela Tucker, director of production at Arts Engine. (For more information about the event, check out my colleague Susan Shiroma's post at the Philanthropy Front and Center – New York blog.)

Before the event, I had a chance to chat with Lawler about the state of independent filmmaking in the U.S. Because my knowledge of independent film is limited to old home movies shot by my grandfather, I was pleasantly surprised to learn how independent filmmakers today are working to link their messages with the programs and interests of various foundations. Lawler also pointed out that social media increasingly is both a proving ground and fundraising tool for independent filmmakers. And she ended our chat by reminding PND readers that independent film, as a career, is no picnic. As Lawler puts it, you've got to be someone who can take "no" for an answer and yet not take "no" for an answer!

If you're reading this in an e-mail, click here.

(Total running time: 5 minutes, 9 seconds)

-- Emily Robbins

Civil Rights Documentaries

February 02, 2010

(Kathryn Pyle is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. She wrote about social issue documentaries in an earlier post.)

FreedomRidersposter_72 The next few years will see the fiftieth anniversary of a number of watershed events in the civil rights movement. Two documentary films just released remind us of those troubled but stirring times.

Freedom Riders, which premiered last week at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, captures what director Stanley Nelson calls the real beginning of the civil rights movement. "Before the freedom riders," Nelson told attendees after the packed screening, "there were isolated actions to break segregation laws in the South, but the freedom riders brought people together from all over the country -- black and white, old and young."

Thirteen young people -- seven African Americans and six whites -- boarded two commercial buses, a Greyhound and a Trailways, in May 1961, in a protest organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). They were headed from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, and hoped to pressure authorities in the deep South into upholding federal anti-segregation laws as they applied to public facilities. Many of the riders would be severely beaten, while others were jailed at Mississippi's infamous Parchman Farm prison. Facing mounting international criticism, the Kennedy administration eventually would call out the National Guard to protect the riders from violent mobs in Alabama and Mississippi.

By summer's end, the number of freedom riders would swell to over four hundred and their courage and persistence would finally bear fruit when the Interstate Commerce Commission, in September, stepped in to enforce existing federal laws against segregation in interstate bus travel, handing a hard-won victory to the movement.

"The message of [the film]," said Nelson, "is the power of individuals to make change." The film also highlights the leadership role of a number of women during those terrible weeks, most notably Diane Nash. Nash, a student at Fisk University in Nashville and one of the founders, in 1960, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), picked up the gauntlet when, battered and frightened, the original group of freedom riders could not continue. Refusing to heed a Kennedy aide's pleas for a "cooling off" period, Nash took responsibility for the protest and led a group of riders from Birmingham, Alabama, to their final destination in Jackson, Mississippi.

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Social Issue Documentaries

October 28, 2009

(Kathryn Pyle is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her last post, she wrote about the annual Robert Flaherty Film Seminar.)

Docfilm_bwcamera The audience for documentary films is bigger than ever, as evidenced by the increasing number of documentary festivals and broadcast venues, both public TV and cable, as well as streaming and Video on Demand (VOD). And the opportunities to see documentaries are matched by the variety of documentaries available -- from expository to impressionistic, right wing to progressive, local to global, short to very long.

As the field has grown, more funders are considering whether and how they can connect their priorities to documentary films and, indeed, the broader field of media. At the same time, nongovernmental organizations are considering how to use documentaries beyond the traditional "public relations" or "lesson" formats. Confronted by an explosion of social media sites (Twitter, YouTube, Facebook) and the proliferation of "screens" (laptops, netbooks, smartphones), groups are experimenting with technology to see what makes sense for their message and their constituency.

Documentary filmmakers and distributors are challenged to keep up. The familiar venues of the past are not necessarily the best ones today. For example, theatrical release, even in "art houses," works only for films that can attract a broad audience -- An Inconvenient Truth and Fahrenheit 9/11 are anomalies in terms of number of tickets sold and box-office revenues. Which is not to say that a good documentary film without an Al Gore cannot find an audience; it just might be an audience that would rather watch the film on their preferred personal screen rather than in a movie theater.

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TED on Sunday: Elizabeth Gilbert on Creativity

August 23, 2009

In this funny and inspirational talk, writer Elizabeth Gilbert (The Last American Man, Eat, Pray Love) considers the creative act and wonders why it is logical or okay "that anyone should be afraid to do the work they were put on this earth to do?" Ranging widely from ancient Greece and Rome through the Renaissance to hipster songwriter/performer Tom Waits stuck in traffic on a Los Angeles freeway, Gilbert argues convincingly that the secret to creativity is showing up to do your job and accepting the idea that the extraordinary nature of your best work didn't come from you; it was given to you. (Filmed: February 2009; Running time: 19:29)

Liked this talk? Try one of these:

And for those who can't get enough of TED, check out Jim Simpson's post about a cool hidden feature of most TED Talks.

-- Mitch Nauffts

Quote of the Week

  • "[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance...."

    — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States

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