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How This Filmmaking Grant Fostered the Doc Scene for 10 Years — and Won’t Stop Anytime Soon

The tenth annual Garrett Scott Documentary Grant screened its latest works-in-progress at the Film Society of Lincoln Center Wednesday.

The Garrett Scott Documentary Development Grant’s Ian Olds, Esther Robinson, Rachael Rakes and Thom Powers.

Graham Winfrey

As a first-time filmmaker, there’s nothing scarier than showing a work-in-progress to a general audience in a packed theater. But that’s exactly what two emerging documentary directors had to do recently—and they’re part of a longstanding tradition.

On Wednesday, the latest winners of the Garrett Scott Documentary Development Grant came to New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center for a sneak peak of their works-in-progress, both of which recently screened for an audience of 400 at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. This year’s winners, Matt Yoka and Jonathan Olshefski, are shining a light on two fascinating stories that might not reach a wide audience without the support of the Garrett Scott grant.

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Yoka’s documentary “Whirlybird” focuses on the life of transgender helicopter pilot and reporter Zoe Tur. A pioneer of helicopter reporting, Tur has logged more than 10,000 flight hours covering news events in Los Angeles ranging from the riots of 1992 to the O.J. Simpson Ford Bronco chase of 1994. The film tells the story of Tur’s transition from a man to a woman while simultaneously capturing the identity and evolution of Los Angeles, as seen from Tur’s unique vantage point in the sky.

“I would almost compare it to ‘Senna’ in that it’s an archive-based film, but it’s a little but more like ‘Grizzly Man’ in the sense that it’s a personal archive,” Yoka told IndieWire. The film combines intimate interviews with Tur and people who know her with some of the most captivating aerial footage of Los Angeles every captured on video. A music video director and frequent collaborator with musician Ty Segall, Yoka also directs TV episodes for the Viceland Network and VICE, where he has worked for six years.

Olshefski’s film, “Quest: The Fury and the Sound,” is a documentary 10 years in the making that follows the Raineys, a family in inner city Philadelphia that runs a music studio in their home.  Though the Raineys’ studio was created to help members of their community express their creativity and stay out of trouble, during the filming of the documentary, trouble finds the family in the form of random local violence. At the center of the story is Chris “Quest” Rainey, who invites Olshefski and his camera into his home while working to keep his family together in the face of tragedy.

“It started off as a photo project in 2006, and we felt like cinema was a better media for conveying the complexity of these subjects,” Olshefski said at the screening Wednesday. A former photography instructor, Olshefski has been an associate professor of radio, television and film at Rowan University since 2011.

READ MORE: Making Sense of Sundance Documentaries – Thom Powers on the Sundance Market, Sales, Distribution, Pickups on Docus

Among the challenges facing Yoka and Olshefski are the intensely personal nature of both their stories, which can make it hard to secure funding and other resources from a documentary filmmaking perspective. This is one of the reasons the Garrett Scott Documentary Development Grant is so crucial for both directors.

Now in its tenth year, the program provides first-time feature documentary filmmakers with airfare, lodging, and an all-access pass to the Full Frame festival, where they can network with industry professionals that can help bring their documentary projects to completion. On top of getting feedback from a festival audience that sees a 10-minute sample of their films, the filmmakers get one-on-one meetings with mentors including agents, directors, producers and distributors.

Previous winners of the grant include Robin Hessman’s “My Perestroika,” which was nominated for the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and Jason Osder’s “Let the Fire Burn,” which was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2013 Gotham Independent Film Awards. More recent recipients of the grant include James Demo’s documentary “The Peacemaker,” about Irish peace negotiator Padraig O’Malley, which played last month at Canada’s Hot Docs festival, and “(T)error,” the 2015 film from directors Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe about an active FBI counterterrorism sting operation.

Thom Powers, who programs the documentary section of the Toronto International Film Festival, helped established the grant in 2007 following the death of documentary filmmaker Garrett Scott, who died suddenly two days before winning the Truer Than Fiction Award at the 2006 Independent Spirit Awards for the documentary “Occupation: Dreamland.”

“It began as something to honor our friend, and 10 years later it’s grown into something else,” Powers told IndieWire. “It’s represented by the 24 filmmakers who have passed through it.”

While providing filmmakers with financing is key part of the grant, Powers said that what sets the program apart from similar grants is the emphasis on mentorship.

“We’re the kind of grant that is trying to match-make,” he said, adding that filmmakers today need more than money. “They need good counsel, and that’s really what we’re trying to provide.”

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