On Nov. 12 of this year, Impact Partners executive director and documentary producer Dan Cogan wrote a powerful call to action on Facebook. “The last 4 days have been a horror. The next 4 years will be worse,” he wrote. “And yet my pulse is quickening, because there is so much to be done, and we, the documentary film community, are in pole position to make a huge difference.”
Over 400 documentary filmmakers, producers and executives “liked” Cogan’s message—including Oscar-nominated directors Barbara Kopple, Matt Heineman, Heidi Ewing, Amy Berg and Lucy Walker—and over 40 individuals added comments.
But despite Cogan’s passionate and inspiring plea, the Facebook post also brought up some soul-searching within the documentary community: How do you make a difference if your work is only seen and discussed within the progressive “bubbles” of social media and urban centers? How do you avoid — as suggested by executives such as Jason Spingarn-Koff, Director of Original Documentary Programming at Netflix, and Molly Thompson, Senior VP at A&E IndieFilms — merely “preaching to the choir”?
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Several documentary producers, filmmakers and organizers appear to be shifting their energies to do just that.
Cogan, for one, told IndieWire there are a number of ways the documentary community is already switching gears after Trump’s Electoral College victory. “In all my conversations recently, documentary filmmakers and industry people are saying, ‘How do I understand these people so different from me better, and how do I create an honest picture of their world and give them a voice? Not ‘How do we shut these people down?’ If people are feeling disempowered, how can I empower them?”
At Impact Partners, Cogan said they are being “very vigilant” about their next round of documentaries “speaking to this cultural moment,” he said. That’s taking shape in two different ways, according to Cogan: “Doubling down on investigative films about Washington, as fulltime journalists working in America are collapsing” as well as films about and by the disenfranchised communities who voted for Trump to “make them feel part of the conversation.”
Some organizations already have programs in the works to reach that goal.
Solidarity and Storytelling
“I’ve been on the phone nonstop talking to folks in urban and rural America, trying to figure out the best way to respond to the new post-election reality,” said Wendy Levy, Executive Director of The Alliance (formerly known as the National Alliance for Media Arts + Culture). “We must do the work of forging bonds based on respect and shared humanity—right now,” Levy continued.
Towards that end, The Alliance is planning to add two new initiatives to its slate of programming for next year: “Down Home Story Revivals,” a community-based social event that combines music, food, a film screening, and a town-hall style Q&A session, and “Across The Tracks,” a joint urban-rural creative lab in partnership with Appalachian media center Appalshop and the California-based RYSE Youth Center, where 10 youth artists from each of the organizations will work independently and then together on group projects.
In addition to the new pilot programs, The Alliance also intends to push forward on its HatchLab program, which similar to the “Across The Tracks” initiative, will pair storytellers from different sides of the political spectrum to come together and “find new ways for solidarity and collaboration, and use film and stories as a catalyst for conversation,” she said.
While Levy had initially proposed cities like Philadelphia, Chicago and New Orleans as HatchLab sites, she’s now thinking the program should include “the rustbelt” and other places outside of left-leaning centers.
Similarly, the Southern Documentary Fund is launching a new program with the working title, “The Civic Media Incubator,” which pairs experienced filmmakers with one-time filmmakers or local citizens with stories to tell. According to the Fund’s Naomi Walker, formerly of ITVS, the program will begin with a public event where people will share their stories, and then work together with storytellers in a variety of ways to get those stories told. Starting in North Carolina’s Research Triangle—Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill—the initiative, Walker says, is like a “Get to know your neighbors thing.”
But, of course, it’s more complex than that. “If we can get people more engaged in the making of documentaries and make them aware that they have stories to share, we can begin to get people more civically engaged,” said Walker.
Other funders are also following suit. Last week, in response to the current political climate, The Fledgling Fund—supporters of social issue documentaries such as “The Square,” “The Bully Project,” and “Strong Island”—announced the launch of a Special Fund for Rapid Story Deployment, comprised of grants ranging from $2,500-$10,000 to support short films and other visual stories that can be completed and make an impact quickly. “Visual stories are more urgent than ever and we believe they need to be deployed quickly, in a range of formats, to help amplify the work of individual leaders, nonprofits and movements,” the organization wrote in an email.
Staying and Going Local
David Wilson, co-founder of the True/False Film Festival in Missouri (where Trump won over 58% of the vote), said his event is uniquely situated to the post-11/9 task at hand. “There’s probably more Trump voters who go to True/False than any other film festival,” he says. “Given that, I see the festival continuing to welcome people of all of political beliefs who want to be more media literate and want to have a rational debate.”
As a prime example, Wilson noted the festival’s partnership with the Crossing, a 4,000-member Evangelical Presbyterian church in the area, which supports the Festival’s True Life Fund and screens films for its parishioners. “Individually, they might disagree with me, but the Church has reaffirmed its interest in engaging with us in a fruitful discussion,” Wilson said. “And I think that partnership is something that we can build on and expand.”
Other bigger U.S. film festivals are looking to follow True/False’s model for engagement beyond the bubble, seeking out Wilson to share his strategies and how they might play out in other American cities.
The Sundance Institute’s Executive Director Keri Putnam said she was inspired by True/False’s work with the Crossing. Though Sundance hasn’t announced any new initiatives to help the organization reach outside its base, Putnam added, “we’re deeply thinking about it, what form it might take and how we would put it into action.”
But for six years, the Sundance Institute already had a program devoted to outreach and exhibition. Called Film Forward, the initiative brought various Sundance films to cities and countries for screenings and discussions. “We found it to be a powerful idea,” said Putnam.
But she also acknowledged its limits. “It’s fair to say that we may not have met the challenge of finding a new audience,” she admitted. Taking place in urban centers (for example, 2016 screenings included Hilary Clinton strongholds in typically conservative states such as Denver, Colorado; Omaha, Nebraska; and Atlanta, Georgia), Putnam said they were effectively reaching young and artistic minded people outside of the coasts. “But were we really reaching into other communities?” she asked.
With Film Forward ending, the Institute is now emphasizing its Ignite program, which is aimed specifically at engaging with millennials ages 18-24 by giving them the chance to see films at Sundance; to participate in a development workshop for aspiring filmmakers; and take part in a touring showcase, which combines exhibition and discussion.
A focus on the younger generation is also one of the key components of Appalshop, the nearly 50-year-old media organization based in Whitesburg, Kentucky (situated in a county where 80% of the people voted for Trump.) Kate Fowler, the new director of the Appalachian Media Institute, said they’re concentrating on “putting cameras into the hands of members of the community” with a drop-in media center for youths, weekly and summer workshops, such as The Alliance-supported “Across the Tracks” program, and other ongoing community arts projects.
“I keep going back to the importance of very local community centers of power that are outside of the larger government,” said Fowler, “where people can come together and design what they want for their community.”
The trouble facing Appalshop and other media centers, however, is that federal and state funding for the arts is likely going to be cut or rerouted. The newly organized Kentucky Arts Council, for example, is focusing less on fostering artistic and cultural production and more on education, workforce and economic development.
But Fowler is staying optimistic. “We see our path forward through partnerships, mutual investment and collaboration with our partnering organization in order to address the rural-urban divide that became so clear during the recent election,” she said.
Whose Marginalized Group?
One potential consequence of more docs about rural disenfranchisement may be a decreased emphasis on traditionally marginalized groups, which has traditionally been a major subject for nonfiction filmmaking. At the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, for example, a handful of highly anticipated projects are connected to the black experience and racial injustice, including “Tell Them We Are Rising,” “Whose Streets?,” “The Force,” “Quest,” “Strong Island” and “STEP.”
While that could change in the near future, “we can’t swing too far,” said Impact Partners’ Dan Cogan, “because it’s not like people of color, women, and the LGBT community are all of a sudden less important.”
On the contrary, argues Sonya Childress, Firelight Media’s Director of Partnerships and Engagement, “There is an even greater need to disrupt the harmful narratives that came out this election around communities of color and the number of other communities that were targeted,” Childress said. “We understand how some filmmakers are shifting, but we are not shifting.”
For Firelight, which produced “Tell Them We Are Rising” and supported “Whose Streets?” and “The Force,” Childress explained that it’s also about telling stories that show the intersectional nature of our communities. “How do you show the backlash against Muslims hurts African Americans, or the backlash against gay rights hurts Latinos? So it’s not only important to focus on stories about increased danger under the Trump administration, but how these people are interconnected.”
With Trump’s first days in office looming, there is a sense of urgency for Firelight and other documentary filmmakers and groups.