Funder FAQ: The Fund for Jewish Documentary Filmmaking

What is the National Foundation for Jewish Culture?
The National Foundation for Jewish Culture (NFJC) is the central cultural agency of the American Jewish community. The NFJC works with artists, scholars, cultural institutions, and community agencies to enhance the quality of Jewish life in America. We just celebrated our fortieth anniversary in September.

When and why did the foundation come into being?
NFJC, which funds many projects beyond documentary film and video, was founded in 1960 by the Council of Jewish Federations to address the lack of attention to the arts in the organized Jewish community.

The driving philosophy behind NFJC is…?
a commitment to fostering a dynamic Jewish identity in a multicultural society. Our programs and services promote Jewish creative renewal and the preservation of the Jewish cultural heritage.

What is the Fund for Jewish Documentary Filmmaking’s relation to the NFJC? When and why was the fund established?
The Fund for Jewish Documentary Filmmaking is an NFJC initiative, established in 1996 with seed money from the Righteous Persons Foundation. The fund is designed to support the making of original documentary films and videos by American documentarians that promote thoughtful consideration of Jewish history, culture, identity, and contemporary issues among diverse public audiences.

The driving philosophy behind the fund is…?
film and video have the power to re-shape our thinking, sense of community, and understanding of others and ourselves. The fund supports works that address significant subjects, offer fresh, challenging perspectives, engage audiences across cultural lines, and influence the way various publics understand and interpret Jewish experience and concerns.

What types of documentaries does the fund seek?
Preference is given to documentary films and videos that address significant issues relating to the American Jewish experience. Representative issues and themes have included: American Jewish memory and identity, past and present; emergent forms of Jewish creativity and culture; historical cultures and ethnic backgrounds of American Jewry; changing patterns of Jewish civilization in America; European Jewry, the Holocaust, and American responses; Israel-America relations and cultural interchange.

Name some of the best known titles and/or artists you have funded. What have been some of the paths of those projects?
Our most successful recent film was Aviva Kempner’s The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, which we awarded a $40,000 grant in 1996 and which has, since its debut at the Hamptons Film Festival in 1998, been featured in the New York Times and on NPR, and played all over the country and abroad—at the Berlin Jewish Film Festival, Jerusalem Film Festival, and for an extended run at the Film Forum in New York City, to mention a few. [Ed.: And taking over $2 million at the box office by early fall.]

Other successes include (screenings and awards not complete): Menachem Daum & Oren Rudavsky’s A Life Apart: Hasidism in America: PBS broadcast; Joseph Dorman’s Arguing the World: PBS, Film Forum, Peabody Award; Judith Helfand’s A Healthy Baby Girl: Margaret Mead Film Festival, Sundance, P.O.V.; Alan Snitow & Deborah Kaufman’s Blacks & Jews: Sundance Film Festival, Human Rights Watch Film Festival, PBS, UK, Vienna; Elizabeth Rodgers and Robby Henson’s Exodus, 1947: PBS; and Alisa Lebow & Cynthia Madansky’s Treyf: Sundance Channel, the Jerusalem Film Festival, Chicago Film Festival, and the New York Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

How has the funding climate for independent media changed since the fund’s inception?
In conjunction with the various regional Jewish film festivals, our national fund has stimulated a new attention to and appreciation for documentary film and video within the organized Jewish community. As a result, individual philanthropists and foundations who were not previously involved in funding documentaries are now showing a new level of interest.

What percentage of the fund’s overall budget goes towards individual film or video projects?
No less than 85% goes directly to the support of documentary film and video. A fundraising campaign is now underway to complete a $4 million endowment in response to a challenge grant from the Righteous Persons Foundation. $2,225,000 has been raised to date.

How many media awards are given out per year?
The fund awards four to six grants each year.

What is the total dollar amount awarded annually?
Total funding each year depends on the money available to us, but usually averages around $150,000.

What is the average size of a grant?
The fund gives up to $50,000 each in support of films and videos or no more than 50% of the total budget of the film. Typically, films are awarded between $25,000 and $50,000 each.

How many applications do you get on average per year?
We receive approximately 85 applications a year, and the number is steadily growing. Around 12 of these films usually make it to a final cut, at which point there is a second screening and review process, and four to six projects are chosen for financial support.

What are the restrictions on applicants’ qualifications?
The only stipulations regarding the applicant are that they be an American citizen. They need not be Jewish, and they cannot be first-time filmmakers. We require that applicants submit a previous work as part of the application procedure.

Do you fund projects at various stages of production? Can individuals come back to the fund these various stages?
At the moment, we only offer completion funds. We require that an applicant submit a 10- to 12-minute review sample of the work-in-progress. Sometimes we send applications back to filmmakers with a note encouraging them to re-apply the following year.

As the fund develops, the NFJC intends to provide grant recipients with opportunities for dialogue with artists, intellectuals, and cultural leaders; for assistance in marketing, promotion, and distribution; and for support in seeking matching funds.

Explain your funding cycle and deadlines.
We offer one round of funding a year. Applications are sent out to our mailing list of 1,300 filmmakers in January and our deadline is in April. (For those interested, a copy of last year’s application is available on our website: The screening and decision-making process is very thorough, and we usually notify all of our applicants by the end of August as to whether they have received funding or not.

Are there time frame restrictions within which the funds must be used? Can the same individual apply for funds two years in a row?
We like to see the project completed within the year. Applicants may not submit proposals for the same project more than two times.

Who are the program officers?
The two people in charge of this program are Kim Bistrong, Associate Program Director of Grants and Awards, and Avi Y. Decter, Film Fund Coordinator.

Who makes the awards decisions? Name a few of your past panelists.
There are a number of steps in the decision-making process. Each year, staff members and a panel of filmmakers review all of the applications submitted and recommend those films they feel merit further consideration to the fund’s panel of artistic advisors. Scholars in many disciplines within the field of Jewish Studies also review the written portions of the applications.

The fund’s panel, comprising filmmakers, critics, scholars, distributors, and film festival directors, meets to review those films chosen for the final round. Past panelists include Ken Turan, Annette Insdorf, Michael Renov, Larry Kardish, Aviva Kempner, Arnold Schwartzman, Stuart Klawans, Alan Berliner, Greg Laemmle, William Nichols, Ellen Schneider, and Sharon Pucker Rivo.

Talk about the review process.
When looking at sample films and videos, we look first and foremost for the significance of the work to Jewish cultural identity, specifically American Jewish identity, and for the intellectual and artistic approach to the subject. We evaluate films also according to their potential to reach out to other audiences (non-Jewish) and their potential for television programming and film festival screenings.

We evaluate the production quality of the work submitted—camera work, creative and intelligent use of archival footage—and mostly, we look at strong subjects (interviewees that are interesting to listen to and an image track that is interesting to look at). We look for originality in the subject matter and in the approach to the subject.

What advice do you have for media artists in putting forth a strong application?
A strong application requires that the written portion be given as much attention and importance as the visual. We look for intellectual coherency and scholarship. We are always happy to see that, especially when dealing with specific historic subject matter, consultants and advisors are used. Also, we advise against a presentation of 10 minutes worth of one interview. We want to see production expertise in these 10 minutes, i.e., stylistic approaches, counter arguments, etc.

What is the most common mistake applicants make?
We often receive incomplete applications. Applicants who want to be considered seriously need to submit complete applications with budget information.

Another common mistake is for filmmakers to submit tapes that are not cued to the 10 minutes they want reviewed. Don’t assume that the whole tape will be watched. There have been occasions when the screeners have looked at something and, believing that it did not have a strong Jewish component, have ruled it out, only to discover later that the film was actually very compelling.

What would people most be surprised to learn about the fund and/or its founders?
That the NFJC is the only Jewish agency dedicated solely to the support of the arts and that the Fund for Jewish Documentary Filmmaking is the only Jewish film fund out there. Also, that we don’t require our filmmakers to be Jewish.

In addition, I think filmmakers are surprised at our attention towards the content of the films submitted. There are films submitted to us that are stylistically unsophisticated, but the subject matter is so compelling and so important for enhancing our understanding of ourselves and history that we fund them. We always invite new approaches to documentary films and videos.

Other foundations or grantmaking organizations you admire.
The Righteous Persons Foundation, the Nathan I. Cummings Foundation, Lucius N. Littauer Foundation, the Dorot Foundation, Paul Robeson Fund for Independent Media, the Abraham Fund, the Ford Foundation, the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation, the Jeremiah Kaplan Family Foundation, and the Jerome Foundation.

Famous last words:
The NFJC is proud to be serving as the chief catalyst for independent filmmakers who are interested in documenting the American Jewish experience.

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