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Guest Post: Labor of Love: How Women are Changing Documentaries

Guest Post: Labor of Love: How Women are Changing Documentaries

In 2010, I finished my first feature documentary, Living Downstream. Based on the book by ecologist and cancer survivor, Sandra Steingraber, the film follows Steingraber as she tries to ring the alarm bell about cancer and its environmental links. By the time the film was done, I had spent four intensive years bringing it into the world. Since then, I’ve spent another two-and-a-half years working to get it out to the world.

It’s been a slog. It’s been a scramble. It’s been a privilege.

I became a documentary filmmaker because I wanted to make films. I wanted to make change. When I first entered the Canadian documentary industry over a decade ago, I saw many filmmakers doing what you would expect: making films. Many also wanted to make change. Presumably, they felt their role was to create compelling films and then invite others to watch and use them. These filmmakers would work for a year or two on a film and then, after riding the festival circuit and publicizing the film’s broadcast, return to their desks and begin preproduction on the next one. (Of course, historically, there have always been filmmakers who have worked to engage more deeply with communities and audiences. Look at the National Film Board of Canada’s Challenge for Change Program and the women filmmaker’s Studio D.

Today, documentary-making is changing. More filmmakers are spending more time on the distribution of their social issues films, sometimes devoting years to getting their work out into the world. This is one place in the industry where women are blazing the trail.

In fact, women are leaders in the fiscal world of change-making documentaries. All the financing for my film and the subsequent outreach came from women-helmed funds in Canada and the US (with the notable exception of provincial and federal arts councils). Many of the most notable funding sources for social issues filmmaking like Sundance Institute’s Documentary Fund, Chicken and Egg Pictures, and the Fledgling Fund are all headed by women.

Living Downstream has been described as a feminist film. That makes sense—since it’s about a feminist, and was made by a feminist. However, most of my crewmembers were men, which is still typical in an industry where women are underrepresented. Conversely, women are overrepresented in the area environmental health. And they are overrepresented in the professions most useful to outreach work (copy editors, community organizers, publicists, outreach coordinators, educational distributors). As a result, since the film’s completion, most of my interactions have been with women.

So why are filmmakers—both women and men alike—taking on the additional tasks of outreach and distribution?

Because (1) television license fees and government investments in documentary are shrinking and we’re looking to make more revenue on the other end, (2) broadcast television is dying and we still want to put our films in front of audiences, and (3) there is a public hunger for this work and our films can make greater change when we give them a bit of a push.

There’s also another reason why I haven’t moved on to my next film yet. I’m just not finished with this one. Living Downstream is still screening at festivals. It’s scheduled to air on US television later this fall. Nonprofit organizations and educational institutions are using it widely. Audiences (made up of mostly women) are watching. The film is still going strong, so I’m still working on it. Conversely, part of the reason why the film is still going strong is because I’m still working on it.

This has been exhausting, rewarding, and a labor of love. I’m a filmmaker. But it’s been a long time since I made a film. Right now, maybe you could call me an audiencemaker. In any case, outreach and audience engagement are quickly becoming part of the work of filmmakers. They’re definitely part of the work of this filmmaker.


Chanda Chevannes is a Canadian documentary filmmaker and a member of the Documentary Organization of Canada. Her award-winning documentary, Living Downstream, will screen as part of Mountainfilm in New York at The Film Society of Lincoln Center in Manhattan on October 20th.  It will also air in the US on Outside TV in November, it will available on DVD in late 2012.

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