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Oscar Winner Ross Kauffman and Kief Davidson Reveal the Challenges of Balancing Brand With Story at NYFF Convergence

Oscar Winner Ross Kauffman and Kief Davidson Reveal the Challenges of Balancing Brand With Story at NYFF Convergence

READ MORE: The 2015 Indiewire NYFF Bible: All the Reviews, Interviews and News Posted During The Festival

After the NYFF world premiere of their three new short documentaries, Oscar-winning documentary director Ross Kauffman (“Born Into Brothels”) and Oscar nominee Kief Davidson (“Open Heart”) participated in a panel discussion moderated by Bob Garfield, host of NPR’s “On The Media,” and featuring Marjorie Schussel, Toyota Integrated Brand Communications Director — Oscar-nominated filmmaker Steve James (“Life Itself”) was not able to attend the panel, but his film “116 Innovators” did premiere. The panel explored how content marketing campaigns are marrying creative freedom with meaningful brand communications to tell stories that matter. The films were all received very well, with the overall audience agreement that they felt more like documentaries than commercials. 

From the beginning, the directors were asked questions on the differences between working on these short films versus feature documentaries. According to Kauffman, both formats are still about telling stories and about people’s emotions. In “Coming Home,” Kauffman worked with the volunteers at St. Bernard Project to tell the story of an elderly resident getting her home repaired after the devastation of Katrina. Davidson noted that both formats are not that different, however it is more challenging to create a meaningful short story. For “Saving Sight,” Davidson worked with the eye clinic at Harbor-UCLA hospital to tell the story of how Liseth, a patient, got her sight back.

When asked how these films are different than TV commercials, Davidson responded that there is more time to find the characters in this format, whereas commercials make everything move faster. He was able to take more time to find the story that he needed to tell, which became Liseth’s story. Kauffman talked about how trust is a huge part of the job for any film project; people must trust the director in order to be able to give their emotions on screen. Bernadine Amar, a homeowner, had to trust Kauffman with her story and her emotions on camera. 

Garfield asked the directors how they managed to balance the commercial aspect, documentary aspect and sponsor’s name in the films. Kauffman admitted that finding out that a corporation does something good actually makes it easier and more inspiring to make a film — every film is a balancing act, not just this film, and they were all on the same page that the message was good and positive for this film. Davidson said that he felt a responsibility to make it, and the passionate people working at the hospital inspired him to make the film. Both films seamlessly showed how Toyota helped these people, without much obvious brand marketing. 

When asked what other offers they have received from other corporations to make films, both directors admitted that they have gotten offers and had taken some and refused others. The filmmakers were asked what goes through their heads when a company shows up for a documentary. Davidson responded that he looks at the opportunity as a way to develop his own credit and to elevate his documentary style, not as selling out. Davidson’s cinematography in “Saving Sight” is very artistic, and he really cared about how true the camera-work felt to Liseth, whose eyesight served as the basis for the film’s cinematography. 

The directors were also asked where Toyota stood on a scale from evil companies to Oscar. Davidson said that he didn’t see it that way, he takes different jobs for different reasons, sometimes one needs to get away from the dark stories and do some lighter stuff. Davidson’s Oscar-nominated film “Open Heart,” where he followed the stories of eight gravely ill Rwandan children receiving life-saving heart surgery, was certainly a darker film than “Saving Sight.”

Kauffman compared the Toyota process to other commercial processes, saying that for some, the director films and then the client handles everything else, but for “Coming Home,” everyone was working together to tell the stories and the Toyota message. 

Garfield ended by questioning the directors on whether they gain or lose stature with their colleagues when making films like these. Kauffman admitted that unfortunately he can’t read people’s minds, but when he sees his colleagues’ films, he looks for their quality not whether or not they’re commercial; he further noted that he is not an activist, he is a filmmaker, and his goal is to not add more crap to the world. “Coming Home” is definitely a film that does not add more crap to the world.

Davidson answered by saying he is first and foremost a filmmaker and he is interested in telling many different kinds of stories, when his colleagues find out about “Saving Sight” they are interested in learning more information and what it is about. 

To watch the three short documentaries visit the Toyota Effect website. Development, distribution and promotion of the three films was done by Cinelan in partnership with 360i. For more information on Cinelan visit their website, and visit 360i’s website for more information on their company. 

READ MORE: NYFF: Laura Poitras Launches ‘Asylum’ and ‘Field of Vision’ Segments (VIDEO)

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