What is the Open Society Institute and what is your relationship to it?
The Soros Documentary Fund (SDF) is a program of the Open Society Institute (OSI). It is one of many programs that operate under OSI and are funded by philanthropist George Soros. OSI is a private operating and grantmaking foundation that seeks to promote the development and maintenance of open societies around the world by supporting a range of programs in the areas of educational, social, and legal reform and by encouraging alternative approaches to complex and often controversial issues.
Established in 1993 and based in New York City, OSI is part of the Soros foundations network, an informal network of organizations created by George Soros that operate in over 30 countries around the world, principally in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, but also in Guatemala, Haiti, Mongolia, Southern Africa, and the United States.
The Soros Documentary Fund is an OSI program that supports the production and distribution of documentary films and videos dealing with significant contemporary human rights, social justice, civil liberties, and freedom of expression issues. Priority is given to projects addressing contemporary issues.
How does documentary filmmaking fit into the family of OSI’s programs and initiatives?
Among the goals of this program is to raise public consciousness about human rights abuses and restrictions of civil liberties, to engage citizens in debate about these issues, and to give voice to diverse speech—all which are crucial to an open society. SDF started awarding grants in 1996 because the visual medium of film and video has enormous potential for effecting social change, increasing awareness and debate on significant human rights issues.
The driving philosophy behind Soros is…?
the concept of an open society, which we define as a society based on the recognition that nobody has a monopoly on the truth, that different people have different views and interests, and that there is a need for institutions to protect the rights of all people to allow them to live together in peace. The term “open society” was popularized by the Vienese philosopher Karl Popper [best known for his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies], and his work has deeply influenced George Soros.
How many media awards are given out each year?
There is no quota on the number of grants we give per year. So far, since the start of the program, we’ve given an average of 50 grants per year.
What is the average size of a grant? Are the same amounts given year after year, or does that depend on your resources?
The seed grants range from $10,000-$15,000. Production/postproduction grants range up to $50,000, average $25,000-$30,000. These amounts have remained the same for the past three years and will remain at least until next year.
What are the restrictions on applicants’ qualifications (e.g., ethnicity, geography, medium)?
SDF accepts applications from filmmakers in the U.S. and from around the world. Projects must be documentaries on film or video. Applicants must have creative and budgetary control over the proposed documentary.
Does Soros fund projects at various stages of production (e.g., script, development, production, distribution, etc.)?
SDF is structured with two levels of support: seed grants and production/postproduction grants. Seed grants are awarded to filmmakers with projects that are in the development or research status. Production/postproduction grants are for projects that have already started production (a work-in-progress sample is required for this application), and grant funds should be used for further production or postproduction.
What is the time frame within which the funds must be used?
There is no exact time frame. However, there are requirements on reporting on how monies are used—usually an interim report six months after the award date, and a final report one year after.
How many artists have you funded since your inception? What has been the path of some of those projects?
Approximately 160 grants have been awarded to date. Of those grantees, about 50 have completed the films they received grant money for. Many have experienced wide distribution in the U.S. and abroad, through television broadcast, film festivals, and theatrical release.
For example, 1996 grantee Arthur Dong for Licensed to Kill (Sundance premiere, PBS broadcast, theatrical run at Film Forum) and Dariusz Jablonksi for Photographer (Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival, also a run at Film Forum, many festivals internationally). Among other Soros projects are South, by Chantal Akerman; School Prayer: A Community at War, by Slawomir Grunberg and Ben Crane; Punitive Damage, by Annie Goldson; Calling the Ghosts: War Crimes against Women, by Mandy Jacobson.
In late 1997, to help ensure that SDF documentaries reach their largest possible intended audience with maximum potential impact on the human rights issue concerned, the program introduced an additional grant opportunity to support the promotion and marketing of grantees’ projects. Filmmakers are eligible for a modest promotion/marketing grant when they have completed their documentaries and have satisfied all terms of their first grant.
Do you offer grantees any additional support on their projects either in the production or distribution phases?
Yes. Seed grantees can submit another application when they are in production or postproduction. Seed grantees and Production/postproduction grantees can submit proposals for the promotion/marketing of their films upon completion. These funds can be used for various costs related to the distribution of the film, such as subtitling/translations, duplications, accompanying study guides, duplications, posters, etc. The only expenses this grant will not cover is transfer to film and debt from production.
Explain your funding cycle and deadlines.
We accept applications on an on-going basis. In other words, we have no deadlines. The initial round of review is done within four to six weeks of receipt of a complete application. At that point, applicants will be notified whether their projects have been declined or accepted for final review by our Advisory Board. If a project is accepted and the application is complete, it will be placed on the next available Board docket. The Board meets four to five times a year. So, the overall turn around time (if a project is accepted) can range from three to six months.
Who are your program officers or administrators?
Diane Weyermann is the director, I [Kyoko Inouye] am the program officer, and Laura Newmark is the program assistant.
Who makes the awards decisions?
Our Advisory Board makes the final award decisions. The Board is a panel composed of prominent film and human rights experts that rotates members annually. Past and present members include Karen Cooper, David Gelber, Rajko Grlic, Steven Haft, Jytte Jensen, Francis Megahy, and Ren Weschler.
What advice do you have for media artists in putting forth a strong application?
We receive many applications for projects clearly outside the scope of our guidelines. Very simply, please read the guidelines carefully. Potential applicants should research a bit and look into our priorities and the types of projects we’ve supported. If there are any questions about the appropriateness of a project, applicants can call and inquire. Also, please be sure that the ideas and treatment of the subject matter are clear, and that all required materials are submitted.