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Privilege and Pandemic: How COVID-19 Reveals the Documentary Sustainability Crisis

After a cancelled festival premiere, Hillary Bachelder reflects on how COVID-19 has exposed the economic reality of nonfiction filmmaking.

Myya Jones wages a write-in campaign for Mayor of Detroit in "Represent"

Myya Jones wages a write-in campaign for Mayor of Detroit in “Represent”

Hillary Bachelder

[Editor’s note: Hillary Bachelder is the director, cinematographer, editor of “Represent,” and the founder of Backbone Films in Chicago. She is the former director of production at Kartemquin Films and earned both editing and production credits on more than a dozen of the company’s critically acclaimed films and series, including the Emmy-award-winning “Trials of Muhammad Ali” and POV’s “Raising Bertie.” Her recent work includes a four-part New York Times video series about the rise of police body cameras, which won an Edward R. Murrow award.]

Two weeks ago, we got the news that the Cleveland International Film Festival — and the premiere of “Represent,” my first feature-length documentary — was called off.

As COVID-19 cancellations and quarantines sweep the globe, Cleveland wasn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last. SXSW pulled the plug, and Full Frame made its public announcement just 15 minutes after Cleveland’s. Soon after it was CPH:Dox and Tribeca, then movie theaters around the country. Our team has already gotten notifications that other festivals are postponing lineup announcements and rescheduling their programs for later this summer and fall. We have become an “Unofficial Selection” of ghost festivals.

As we scramble to cancel flights, haggle with Airbnb hosts, and pull together a festival-run contingency plan, this moment has provided an illuminating reflection on privilege. Global pandemics and natural disasters tend to reveal a person’s economic and social capital, or the lack thereof. Some facets of the population can shrug off these events as an inconvenience, while for others it spells catastrophe. And I believe as this particular global crisis ripples through our industry, the impacts on those independent filmmakers struggling at the margins could be felt for a long time to come.

Voices within the documentary field have been talking about career sustainability for some time now. I’ve personally felt many of the pain points that come up time and time again in these conversations: Making my first feature-length documentary has required three years of unpaid or underpaid labor, tens of thousands of hours of travel, and the constant prioritization of its needs above my own and those closest to me. And yet I’ve often said that I’m lucky to be able to do this — not because I’m “living the dream,” but because I possess so many unspoken privileges, without which this endeavor would have simply ceased to be.

Now, with this last hurdle to the finish line, it’s clearer than ever that sustainability is a dream only barely attainable for those with of us with considerable advantages — and even for those lucky few, the scales can be easily, and possibly irrevocably, tipped.

Hillary Bachelder

Hillary Bachelder

For context: I am a 28-year-old white, straight, cisgender, college-educated female, and there’s a lot that allows for a person like me to take the leap into a “passion project” like this while another cannot. A by-no-means-complete list: I am not a parent, or a caregiver. A small inheritance from my grandmother means I’m no longer paying student loans. I have a supportive partner, an affordable apartment, no medical debt, credit that lets me pay down camera gear at a reasonable rate, and a network of friends and family that could afford to contribute to crowdfunding efforts at critical moments for the film.

Even with these considerable advantages, I’ve stumbled to the finish line desperately burnt out and completely broke. After three years, I’m reeling from the emotional impact of this constant financial instability: the ever-present anxiety, the scarcity mindset, the shame. It’s hard to admit publicly, but there’s so much heartbreak and exhaustion that will take real time to heal. And I know I’m not alone.

That being said, I’m cautiously hopeful for the future of “Represent.” The film follows three everyday women who ran for local office in their communities, on both sides of the aisle. In a national election year, their stories feel very much of the cultural and political zeitgeist. Yes, losing a festival run is a significant blow: As many filmmakers can attest, festivals are the best opportunity to sell your film, to drum up reviews, and to build that ever-fickle “buzz.” However, we are luckier than most to have already secured a national broadcast in the lead up to the election this fall. We’ll have to hustle harder to make up for lost exposure in the meantime, but with the right support and a little more luck, it’s possible.

"Represent"

“Represent”

Hillary Bachelder

I’m less optimistic about my own future. COVID-19 has wiped out freelancing gigs on my calendar this month — jobs I’ve relied on to pay my bills when “Represent” so often has not. And any hopes I had for this film to springboard into other opportunities are seriously threatened by losing our festival run. This industry is driven by personal relationships, and for a first-time filmmaker, festivals are the place to grow my network of other directors and producers, funders, distributors, and sales agents. Without this, I’m faced with approaching my next project from the same position I started my last. And for all my privilege, I just can’t make it through another film like this one. This was a labor of love only realized through enormous personal sacrifice. I can’t forego family, friends, and personal well-being for more years of unpaid, unpredictable, 13-hour shoot days. I can’t continue to pour myself into a career with no safety net.

So as our industry looks to a post-COVID-19 future, I hope that we can frame our response through two distinct lenses. First, there’s much that can be done to support the release of affected films festivals and digital platforms can still find a way to showcase important work this spring and summer, and press outlets can commit to still reviewing these documentaries, even without the customary premiere glitz and glamour.

But secondly, and more urgently, this moment requires immediate and empathetic championing of independent filmmakers. We need to think creatively about support systems, both for the next couple of months, and into the foreseeable future — whether it’s healthcare options, child care assistance, or access to low-interest loans. There are too many of us who teeter atop a tenuously constructed Jenga tower of a career, for whom yanking out this latest block will be the one to send us toppling. There are even more who weren’t dealt the demographic advantages to make it this far.

Hillary Bachelder

Hillary Bachelder

To skate the margins of sustainability, then, is itself a privilege. And for an industry that professes its commitment to equity, social justice, and inclusion, this pandemic may be our greatest test. Who thrives and who survives when this is all over? And whose voices do we risk losing along the way?

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