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POC Documentary Filmmakers Are Struggling to Find Support During the Pandemic

Filmmakers of color often don't have it easy, but the last few weeks have made a tough road even harder.

Stanley Nelson, Marcia Smith

Stanley Nelson and Marcia Smith

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for International Documentary Association

The pandemic has brought the film industry to a standstill, leaving many director uncertain when they can get back to work. The last few weeks have been particularly hard for filmmakers from marginalized communities, especially those from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds.

No one probably knows this struggle better than award-winning documentarian Stanley Nelson (“The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” “Freedom Riders”) and writer-producer Marcia Smith. The pair, who co-founded Harlem-based non-profit Firelight Media have been conducting outreach within their creative community. Using surveys and focus groups, the organization has been evaluating how filmmakers of color can move forward in an even more unstable economic environment than they are accustomed to.

“We did a survey and held several one-on-one conversations, with the purpose of trying to get a handle on how they were dealing with the current situation, what they thought of the future, and how we could play a role,” said Smith. “Much of the response was concern about access to emergency funds because a lot of independent filmmakers earn their living by working non-film related jobs, and now they’ve lost those jobs.”

Firelight’s services are in-demand now more than ever. These include one-on-one financial consultations with filmmakers, and webinars on how to receive funds via the CARES Act, which contains $376 billion in relief for workers and small businesses. The webinars alone have drawn over 2,600 filmmakers so far.

“It’s been stunning to us, because we didn’t really understand that there was that kind of demand out there,” said Smith. “Many of them are 1099 workers who do not have banking relationships, and don’t know about LLCs. So we provide hands on assistance to help them take advantage of these SBA funds. And we recently started connecting filmmakers with bookkeepers, because one of the common needs that has emerged in the process is that people don’t have their records in very good order.”

Given that people of color are experiencing more serious illnesses and death due to COVID-19, as philanthropic resources are stretching to a maximum, many filmmakers in the Firelight network have been directly affected. Veteran documentarian Byron Hurt, who has lost family members to COVID-19, been seeking completion funds for his documentary on the culture of hazing in America when the pandemic broke out. Now, he said, the situation has made it even more difficult for him to get the money he needs.

Byron Hurt.

Byron Hurt (far right)

Byron Hurt

“One thing that I’ve seen happen is that funding organizations are reallocating resources to fit the needs of the filmmaking community,” Hurt said. “But most organizations have limited funding. So, if they’re funding artists to help them survive, or they’re suddenly shifting their funding to support films that directly address COVID-19-related issues, then that’s going to have an impact on filmmakers whose subjects are not really aligned with that. This is one of the ways that it impacts filmmakers like me.”

A public speaker who has benefited from relief funds and loans, Hurt is now concerned that the pandemic will put his main source of income in jeopardy, when schools are set to open in the fall.

“In the short term, I’m okay, but I think time will tell if filmmakers of color have had an equitable share in some of the available resources,” he said. “I’m part of a filmmaking community that is in limbo. There are a lot of questions that we are grappling with right now. But what I do know is that filmmakers of color need to document the impact that COVID-19 is having on their communities, because I don’t know if anyone else will.”

Cecilia Aldarondo’s feature length documentary, “Landfall,” on the aftermath of Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico in 2017, was set to premiere at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. The festival was postponed due to the pandemic, leaving her film in a state of arrested distribution.

“It’s incredibly paradoxical and frustrating to me to have made a film that’s actually deeply relevant to this moment, that may not find a home,” Aldarondo said.

She lamented what she sees as an industry more concerned with the plight of the larger players. “Where is the voice of the independent filmmaker in this moment, especially independent filmmakers of color? I’ve been seeing a lot of press, approaching this crisis from the center of power, whether it’s big studios or big streamers, and not necessarily asking what we are dealing with,” she said. “I worry that indie filmmakers will just disappear from the landscape. And people of color often get hit first and hardest.”

Cecilia Aldarondo

Cecilia Aldarondo

Flora Hanitijo

Aldarondo is employed as a full-time professor at Williams College, in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Currently on sabbatical, she expects to be teaching again in the fall. However, her income means that she’s not eligible for much of the emergency relief that other filmmakers have been able to take advantage of. Additionally, she’s concerned about the financial wellbeing of her collaborators and fellow filmmakers.

“I don’t make films alone, and the people I collaborate with currently have little to no income,” she said. “I had hoped to apply for government relief to keep my team and our projects afloat, but because of my teaching job, I’m ineligible. My model for filmmaking – in which my teaching ‘hustle’ keeps me in the game – is backfiring. So I experience an entire indie film ecosystem at risk, not just individuals.”

Loira Limbal’s feature documentary “Through the Night,” about a 24-hour day care facility in New Rochelle, NY, was also scheduled to premiere at Tribeca last month. Limbal’s mother and sister were both sick with COVID-19, although they are currently recovering.

A single mother with two children, Limbal said she was most concerned about the disastrous effects of COVID-19 on her immediate community, including her film’s protagonists: a pediatric ER nurse, an employee at a grocery store supplier, and an owner of a daycare center that continues to care for the children of essential workers in the midst of this pandemic. “I started working on this film 4 years ago. It is really hard to grapple with the fact that these women, routinely overlooked by the mainstream, are all of a sudden deemed essential.”

“I’m black, from an immigrant family and a New Yorker, and I grew up poor, and the people that are being killed by this thing, or are getting sick, or losing their jobs, are literally my mother, my sister, my neighbors, and the people in my film,” said Limbal, a full-time employee at Firelight. “I’m a sole provider to two kids, which means I need a job and health insurance and I’m thankful to have income in this moment. That said, every time I join an ‘industry conversation,’ there is this unspoken assumption that people are not contracting COVID-19, dying, or mourning a loved one. Which is a reminder of just how much the industry is not at all reflective of me and my community. Even within the documentary film community. All of the people that I know are being literally crushed by this thing. And it seems like no one really cares. We are not all in the same boat.”

For Limbal, it’s not just a matter of how she will now get her film out, but how she can ensure that its target audience — African American and Latina women, as well as single mothers and caregivers — is able to see it. That has left her pondering questions of accessibility, privilege and communal resources.

“It’s one thing if your film is on Netflix, and has had the benefit of marketing dollars behind it, but if you have a small, independent film that nobody has really heard about, it’s such a heavy lift to get people to see it, especially single mothers and people of color who may not have the option or luxury of sitting down to watch a feature film and then join a panel conversation as an edifying, cultural event, during a pandemic,” she said.

Loira Limbal

Loira Limbal

Erin Patrice O’Brien

All of that has led Firelight Media to up its game. In March, the organization announced The William Greaves Fund, which will comprise of seven to 10 grants of up to $25,000 annually, for filmmakers from racially and ethnically underrepresented communities.

“One thing we’re finding is that most independent filmmakers are just that, they’re independent, and they don’t have a huge support network, especially filmmakers of color,” Nelson said. “So when you tell them that there’s money available from the SBA, they’re confused on what to do. And while you’re helping them try to figure out their situation, the money’s all gone before they can even submit an application.”

Nelson agrees that disasters like the one the country is currently experiencing often lay bare the question of whose lives matter more, and which lives are more at-risk and expendable.

“The important thing we have is community, and I think communities of color know this, so we have to take care of one another because the people at the top aren’t necessarily looking out for us,” he said. “That’s not necessarily going to put food in our mouths or money in the bank, but what it can mean is that we know who are friends are, and we know who our community is.”

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