Has the Drive to Fund “Social Issue” Docs Affected Their Form?

A still from the provocative documentary Cooking History.

Over the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure of attending a number of film festivals and conferences, some with a press pass blogging for The Independent, some as a filmmaker; and each time I watch films, attend panel discussions, and most importantly, speak to documentary filmmakers to learn about their creative practice and the realities of producing.

In reviewing my notes from the following events: New York Women in Film and Television’s Fundraising and Financing for Independent Documentary Films: An Intensive Seminar, Silverdocs Festival and Conference, Margaret Mead Festival and the Independent Filmmaker Conference, what has become increasingly interesting to me is the intersection between storytelling style, subject choice, funding streams, and distribution outlets. While many people are discussing the changes in funding and distribution, I haven’t heard much attention given to the ways in which these considerations affect the film’s final product. I attempt here to explore a few different models of funding, the stories that are made in those models, and the potential we have to learn from one another’s practices on a global level.

Documentary Funding Trends in the US

The fundraising panels I’ve attended recently are heavily geared toward social issue documentaries, although it was suggested that we are at the “peak” of funding for these kinds of stories, and therefore they may be in decline. At Silverdocs, filmmaker Pam Yates spoke about how the paradigm of doc distribution, especially geared towards theatrical release, has completely changed. “We must conceive of the film with outreach in mind,” she explained. While some funders urge filmmakers to “hide” their agendas in character stories, there seems to be an overarching, possibly more pressing need for clear, measurable objectives. People talk about “story leading to action,” “turning movies into movements,” and “partnership building.”

The days of receiving one or just a few checks to make a documentary in America are long gone. Peter Broderick speaks of today’s fundraising as “incremental piecing together from grants and individuals.” The job of the filmmaker, in turn becomes, to a very high degree, networker and fundraiser. In order to raise seed money, filmmakers are encouraged to articulate a clear outreach plan before shooting a single frame.

Conversations with American filmmakers about fundraising seem to boil down to director Mitch Teplisky’s thought that “it’s all about having subscribers.” We pay a monthly fee to Constant Contact and tell everyone we know about the process of filmmaking, ask for donations of any amount, throw fundraising parties, and see ourselves as part of a community. Of course, this funding usually comes through as tax-deductible donations. (That’s true even here at The Independent.) I once heard a former head of the National Endowment for the Arts state that there is much higher funding for the arts in the United States, in the form of the tax-deduction, than in any other country.

While not all films that are made in this US model forward a social issue, they usually focus on a core constituency of people who have a deep commitment to the issue or topic being explored. The filmmaker holds testing/focus groups because, as Broderick stated, “No product benefits from being cloistered.”

Challenging the Central Funding Model in the US

I’ve heard two American filmmakers on panels challenge these models of fundraising, and the impact they have on the creative process. Filmmaker R.J. Cutler, speaking about the art of documentary at the IFP conference, said, “There is tremendous support for films that DO good. I hope we can encourage the funding community to support films that ARE good.” At Silverdocs, filmmaker Joe Berlinger spoke about how he chose not to partner with organizations working on issues covered in his film Crude because he felt that he needed to maintain a neutral position on subjects, which would lead to more satisfying storytelling.

International Documentary Funding… and How it Affects Form

The conversations I’ve had with European and Canadian directors, however, have been extremely different. Often times, when I’ve asked about fundraising and budgets, they haven’t known all the answers, because for the most part, their producers handle the budgets. The US tendency for filmmakers to be both director and producer seems very rare in Europe, and a little more common in Canada.

At Silverdocs, I saw Moritz Siebert’s evocative, poetic film Long Distance, about an Ethiopian runner living in New York. The film was funded entirely by his film school in Germany, and his tuition was funded by the government. This also meant, however, that his film was owned by the film school, and he didn’t have ownership to sell it. His school handled all aspects of his festival presence, including making the copy of the tape which was shown, which had errors on the audio track. In conversation, I mentioned how Americans were often hosting community screenings and selling films to individual buyers and universities; he said he thought that the German model would do very well to incorporate more of that community awareness.

Renzo Marten’s Episode 3 – ‘ENJOY POVERTY’, a provocative film about poverty in the Congo, received all of its funding from the Dutch government. Called an “absurdist satire” on Silverdoc’s website, this is a deeply-layered philosophical exploration of how the West benefits off the poverty of the Congo, and has fostered poverty as an economic tool. In the film, Marten portrays himself as a cold, heartless character…an anti-hero, bringing an art piece into remote villages encouraging people to “enjoy poverty.” Although many people have found this film offensive, I contrasted it to other American and Canadian films I’ve seen, which highlight a male filmmaker character exploring a topic, and how those stories usually function by making the lead character a hero we trust implicitly. But feeling our deep distrust of Marten, we are able to see more clearly our own complicity. I considered it a kind of documentary storytelling I hadn’t seen before, and an evolution of the genre.

My favorite film at Silverdocs was Long Distance Love about a young, newly married, Muslim couple living in Kyrgyzstan. The young man heads to Moscow — 77 hours on the train — to find work. The film shows the pain of separation and slowly reveals the ways in which this young man was manipulated by placement agencies, employers, and the Russian police.

Magnus Gertten and Elin Jonsson from Sweden were very generous is sharing their stories in making the film. There was something to the form that I couldn’t put my finger on, but it seemed to have a kind of emotional intimacy that I have never seen in documentary before. As I learned more, I began to understand that they, and a few other European filmmakers, were using a documentary approach that inherently challenges the cinéma vérité mold. Gertten and Jonsson knew they wanted to make a film about a young couple from a certain part of the world who went to Moscow to work.

Jonsson had traveled extensively in the region, and having a journalism background, understood the socio/political/economic issues at hand. So with funding from Swedish, Finnish and Nordic TV funds, they “cast” the couple, meeting 60 couples before choosing the one in the film.

Some of the footage was vérité style, but the strongest scenes were ones in which the directors created situations in which the couple would discuss certain topics. Jonsson spoke of the subjects…the subjects called it therapy. In the US this might be considered some form of manipulation, but what I began to see was that as the filmmakers maintained more control, creating very specific circumstances for the subjects to respond to, the people seemed to reveal a depth of emotion that felt very different than in cinéma vérité. In being extremely present, the filmmakers created a “container” for the subjects.

At this year’s Margaret Mead festival, I was most impressed with Slovakia’s Péter Kerekes Cooking History. Shot in Austria, Bosnia, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Israel, Russia, Serbia, and Slovakia, this film introduced the men and women who have cooked for the armies of Europe in the 20th Century. Kerekes produced the film along with one producer from Czech and one from Austria. With producing partners from 3 nations, they would have access to both state funding and European Union funds for joint projects. Because of this arrangement, they were able to qualify for a European Union documentary research grant of € 30,000 (over $44,000).

Kerekes explained that if they had not been able to secure funding while in the research stage, that would have been fine with the funders — they could just walk away from the project. They raised production funds from each of their country’s Minister of Culture or film fund, and pre-sold the film to YLE, the Finnish TV station. There was also distribution funds available from the European Union and the Austrian government for things such as prints for festivals. The overall budget for the film, more than five years in the making, exceeded €800,000 (about $1.8 million). The only stipulation most of the nations’ funds have is that you must spend the money in their countries. So, he explained, they did most of their postproduction in Austria, which was much more expensive than it would have been in Slovakia, because the Austrian funding dictated it.

Kerekes joked that it is pretty clever: filmmakers make films on taxpayer money, and then they are able to sell the film to publicly funded broadcasters and keep the money. He explained that technically, you have to pay back film costs, but if you count your expenses, you don’t have to, so he doesn’t know anyone who actually pays it back.

Kerekes’s film had some similarities to Long Distance Love in that it also began with a concept and then found characters to explore the concept. Kerekes worked with the different chefs (an old German man who baked bread in World War II, an old Russian woman who baked pancakes in World War II, for example) to co-create unique scenes in which he would film them. In fashioning somewhat odd environments (a German man who survived a submarine accident cooks pork schnitzel while the tide comes in and the pork floats off to sea), Kerekes believes that the characters are encouraged to be more themselves.

As Raffaele Brunetti, the Italian director of the film Hair India explained at the closing night film of the Mead, the difference between reportage and documentary is that reportage gives answers, while documentary gives questions. His film follows the bizarre trade of hair as religious Indians make pilgrimages to the south to offer their hair at the temple, the temple auctions it off, then an Italian company buys it and sells it to wealthy women in India and around the world as hair extensions. What could have been a scathing attack on the consumer class instead became a rich exploration of human culture, contrasting the fast-talking Italian businessmen with the empty heart of a Bombay fashion magazine editor with hair extensions and the devotion of the poor and beautiful pilgrims. As Brunetti told us, “The deeper I go, the more difficult it is to find positions.”

About :

Randi Cecchine is an independent documentary shooter/editor/producer, freelancer, and sometime educator living in New York. She has a BA from Hampshire College and an MFA in Media Arts Production from The College of Staten Island. She is currently self distributing her DVD Scrambled: A Journey Through Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, which explores a complicated but common women’s health condition through personal narrative and interviews with experts from diverse fields. She is raising funds to complete the editing of a feature documentary about a radical political performance troupe the Missile Dick Chicks.