The panel discussions at Sheffield Doc/Fest earlier this year included a 90-minute session on the ethically fraught territory of documentary fundraising. "Fund Your Doc, but at What Price?" was moderated by Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, and included Mette Hoffman Meyer of Denmark's DR TV, critic Jennifer Merin, the BBC's Nick Fraser, and Alex Connock, from Shine UK.
"All art is propaganda," Fraser reminded the audience, echoing George Orwell. Still, even shades of grey can create stark contrasts, and for filmmakers serious about keeping their work firmly outside the category of branded content, it is worth drawing distinctions.
Though the group spent much time lamenting the often-unavoidable compromises in objectivity that come with accepting money from corporations, NGOs, charities, and other potentially slanted sources, from generalized frustration and discontent there emerged a number of insights useful to documentarians eager to fund their films without selling their souls:
1. Before speaking with potential funders, know exactly what you want and understand your long-term objectives.
2. Be wary of funders seemingly more interested in confirming a presumption than investigating an argument or a set of conditions. There should be no true conclusion to a story in a documentary, Merin told the audience, as documentaries concern themselves with situations that continue to exist and develop beyond the lens.
3. Agree ahead of time with investors to the terms of their contributions, so that their is no confusion later about their right to influence or edit your content. Be sure when accepting money that it has no strings attached. That might seem like a quixotic ideal, but Fraser insisted that it was still realistic and that filmmakers ought to strive to achieve it.
4. Merin offered a standard she said her friend, the filmmaker Anne Aghion uses. Aghion, she said, never accepts majority funding from any one entity. That way she can never be accused of having been influenced unduly by any single corporation, NGO, charity, or individual.
5. Be brutal with yourself about when what you are doing or accepting moves you toward propaganda. Be unwilling to cut yourself slack when you feel yourself being nudged by financiers to achieve an agenda in which you do not believe.
6. On the other hand, if you do your research and establish your parameters of independence and objectivity ahead of time, and a potential backer remains interested, go for it. "If the company is mysteriously benign and is gonna give you the cash, fine," Fraser said.
7. If at all possible, work with public broadcasters, like the BBC or PBS. "I can tell you with my hand on my heart," said Fraser, "they are just about as independent as you can get under the circumstances."
Watch the whole panel here: