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Should Documentary Filmmakers Expect to Really Speak to Power?

Photo of Bryce J. Renninger By Bryce J. Renninger | Indiewire September 16, 2013 at 5:02PM

When IFP announced that ITVS's Claire Aguilar, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, the filmmakers behind "Citizen Koch," and Mette Hoffman Meyer, an executive who works in Danish television and who executive produced Alex Gibney's "Park Avenue" as a part of the multinational programming initiative "Why Poverty?," would all be gathering to talk about films that speak to power, it was obvious what they were trying to do.
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Tia Lessin, "Trouble the Water" subject Scott Rogers, and Carl Deal at Sundance 2008.  The "Trouble the Water" filmmakers would go on to make "Citizen Koch," which debuted at Sundance 2013.
Brian Brooks Tia Lessin, "Trouble the Water" subject Scott Rogers, and Carl Deal at Sundance 2008. The "Trouble the Water" filmmakers would go on to make "Citizen Koch," which debuted at Sundance 2013.

When IFP announced that ITVS's Claire Aguilar, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, the filmmakers behind "Citizen Koch," and Mette Hoffman Meyer, an executive who works in Danish television and who executive produced Alex Gibney's "Park Avenue" as a part of the multinational programming initiative "Why Poverty?," would all be gathering to talk about films that speak to power, it was obvious what they were trying to do.

The panel was perfectly framed to respond to the recent New Yorker article by Jane Mayer that detailed the ways that public broadcasting may be in danger of being bought off by certain private funders.

The funding promised to Lessin and Deal for "Citizen Koch" from ITVS, a documentary production company that gets funded primarily from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, was famously taken from them when they revealed the title for their film would reference David Koch, the billionaire funder of conservative political causes who also supports arts and culture like PBS affiliates WNET and WGBH.  As reported in the New Yorker, the revoking of the "Citizen Koch" ITVS money came after PBS affiliate WNET was especially worried about what the film had to say about Koch and other wealthy funders and aired a special discussion after the Independent Lens broadcast of "Park Avenue," to which the filmmakers were not invited.

When it happened today, the panel also featured "The House I Live In" filmmaker Eugene Jarecki and one half of the "Detropia" filmmaking team, Rachel Grady.  It proved to be one of the most lively panels IFP may ever see.  There were some raised voices, there was some disappointment.  Here are 10 moments from the panel to help you get a gist of what happened:

1.  The panel went over the details that were the core of the New Yorker article for the few in the room who hadn't read it.

2.  Meyer reminded the audience that "Park Avenue" was one of eight from around the world that were part of the "Why Poverty?" series.  Throughout the panel, she reminded the audience that the series was from around the world, in all developed nations excluding China and Russia.  She also pointed out that in the United States, the entire series was relegated to PBS World (two films, including "Park Avenue" were broadcast on PBS), and was not shown on the core channel.   Meyer said, "We had hoped that 'Why Poverty?' would provoke a big debate, here as it was in many places."  But she was disappointed that the American partner for the program was not more excited about the project.  When the films broadcast on PBS, they didn't include the "Why Poverty?" branding.

Citizen Koch

3.  Deal and Lessin were clearly disappointed in the ITVS situation.  Said Lessin, "There are 100 ways to title a film."  They ended up keeping the title "precisely because David Koch was exercising influence.  It was outrageous that David Koch was exerting this power, and it was crazy that they were turning to us and making these demands.  PBS forces you to reveal all your funders to them.  They scrutinize each funder, because they want to make sure there's no interested parties funding the film.  [With the New Yorker article,] we found out so much more than we even suspected."

4.  Lessin pointed out that in Meyer's home country of Denmark, broadcasters' up-front licensing fees make up for 90% of documentary funding.  Following a line of questioning that pushed for public funding of films with a populist message, Aguilar was asked how much of ITVS's funding comes from the American taxpayers via the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, to which she responded it was 80%, and that both public and private funding was decreasing.  Adding, "It used to be 100% publicly funded."

5.  When the conversation turned to Jarecki, he was angry, but his disappointment with the panel wasn't immediately clear (more on that later).  He started off by telling the audience that he knew his film about the drug war, "The House I Live In," wasn't a "Friday night feel good film," but he didn't realize that he'd be a part of a genre of filmmaking that "speaks gently in dulcet tones about how painful what [we're] doing is."  In other words, he went on to say, documentary filmmakers only fail when they vie for competition with broadcasters who are profiting from Citizens United and deregulation.  What should documentary filmmakers be doing when they speak to power?  It wasn't totally clear, but he did allude to Ted Kacinsky's critique of the media and imply that documentary filmmakers need to be more serious about the duty of speaking for the powerless.  But in a long speech at the end of the panel, he became more clear on his points.  More on that in a bit...

6.  Speaking of her own experience with co-director Heidi Ewing, Grady said that she garnered support for "Detropia" by using Kickstarter and their Twitter followings to engage hundreds of thousands of people, who were all ready to see the film by the time it premiered on PBS.  Addressing the need to make documentary filmmaking a viable career, she said "You don't get paid for this part, but you need to keep up the engagement for a few years after [a film is initially released]."

Director Eugene Jarecki speaks during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival
Source: Jemal Countess/Getty Images North America Director Eugene Jarecki speaks during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival

7. Public broadcasting's responsibility in telling stories that speak to power was questioned by Deal ("350,000 signatures came together saying they wanted our film to be seen.  How do we get our film seen?  Everyone here except for us had their PBS broadcast") and Meyer ("You're fooling yourself with this -- Kickstarter's fine, social engagement... but you don't have the momentum of a big public broadcaster in America").  Grady told Lessin and deal, "What happened to your film is exactly what your film is about.  It's a perfect example of form and function."  Then something weird happened.  Grady was proposing that the "Citizen Koch" filmmakers didn't have to go through public broadcasting.  Deal and Lessin, though, are dead set on fighting the system to make sure that filmmakers have access to public moneys for films that challenge the status quo.  

8.  And when Jarecki realized this is what they were intent on doing, he let the panel know that "I think this discussion is self-centered and stupid."  Referring to the NSA as "the largest issue of our time," and going on to say that "Laura Poitras is running for her life in Berlin," he continued:  "Democracy is under siege... When you talk about a community of filmmakers -- i could give a shit."  He went on to explain that there's a difference between "nice rich people [the kind of people that fund his and others' films] vs. evil rich people [people like David Koch]."  He went on to characterize Deal and Lessin's complaints about Koch and ITVS as "convenient,"  saying it's a case when a public institution bows to power.  "There's nothing unique about this... We're in a situation where we have a fight to reflect truthfully about the world where universal deceit is the norm, and more liberally funded thanks to Citizens United.  I'm both dismayed everyday and more inspired everyday."  He ended his first long speech by saying that the Julian Assanges and the Edward Snowdens of the world were the ones truly speaking for the powerless in the world.

9.  An acquisitions representative from PBS, Kathryn Lo, got up to respond to the panel at the end, telling the audience that Deal and Lessin have not yet submitted their film to PBS.  Lo reminded the audience that PBS had screened "Detropia," "Park Avenue" and "The House I Live In."  Lo's accusation provoked a counter accusation from Lessin:  Lo, according to Lessin, was lying.  It does seem strange that Lo would claim that Deal and Lessin would need to formally apply to PBS after the case became so public, and the ITVS deal would have normally put them on PBS's radar.

10.  Jarecki ended by complimenting the slate of American talent up on the stage, who have managed to make the work they have in the face of a particular funding environment (against the not very good BBC-funded docs).  "It's not a business," he continued, though he told Lessin and Deal that he'd be publicizing the ITVS snub much more fervently than they were.  "You find me a little sensitive about shop talk.  This isn't Laura Poitras running for her life in Berlin.  Simply by dint of her sacrificing so much of herself to get [the Snowden leaks] out there, it is a story that will karmically benefit them and their film."

This article is related to: Eugene Jarecki, Citizen Koch, The House I Live In, Carl Deal, Tia Lessin, ITVS, Filmmaker Toolkit: Documentaries, Independent Film Week , IFP





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