As those of us involved in independent film know well, the ecosystem for creating this work is tenuous at best. There are possibly a dozen organizations in the U.S. whose endorsements are able to truly catalyze a film’s success. Filmmakers work incredibly hard and we each find our ways to get the project done. But even for more experienced filmmakers, starting a new project can mean crafting a patchwork quilt of small grants, a residency, maybe a Kickstarter campaign. And all of us look to the same gatekeepers for that first, elusive yes.
For 20 years, the Tribeca Film Institute (TFI) provided one of those crucial entry points through the gate. This is why, like many in the independent film community, I was disappointed and saddened by the recent announcement of the TFI “pause.” It is exceedingly rare for a nonprofit to return from a pause like this, so as both a producer who has received support from their programs and a former program director of a nonfiction fund for artists, I worry about the impact this transition away from artist support will have on filmmakers and the U.S. independent film industry at large.
Though many artist support organizations try to elevate marginalized voices, the TFI staff took this mission on with laser focus. The Tribeca All Access program provided necessary grant support, visibility and mentorship to diverse makers from across the spectrum. Their international work, particularly in Latin America, brought vital voices to the fore. In the VR world, their Interactive Department prioritized makers of color and women in what is often a dominantly white, male space. Additionally, TFI staff showed real leadership by prioritizing artists who were not already endorsed by other institutions, drawing new talent into the circle of support.
I speak from experience. The support TFI provided to a documentary I produced called “Truth or Consequences,” directed by Hannah Jayanti, significantly propelled our work forward. “Truth or Consequences” is both soulful and experimental, and is not, by any stretch, Netflix fare. We knew that the financing and distribution path for this project would be a challenge, and require funding from organizations that championed creative risk.
For us, the real breakthrough came when we received support from TFI.
It started with the TFI/Camden Retreat — a five-day intensive residency where a group of filmmakers commune with creative mentors in an exercise of helping each project finish and each filmmaker thrive. Later, a Tribeca All Access grant enabled us to advance crucial work in the edit. Finally, participation in the TFI Network provided access to dozens of meetings that would have taken years to organize ourselves. It was there where we met our executive producer, and where Hannah connected with Sundance Institute staff who later supported the project.
Along the way came the mentorship, strategic advice, and advocacy of the TFI staff. We had new teammates who deeply cared about us and our film and were with us every step of the way.
I’m not exaggerating to say that TFI’s endorsement radically propelled our work. It made it possible to do this work at all. It allowed Hannah — a young, female, multi-racial, experimental filmmaker — to step into what will be a long, visionary career. Now multiply our experience by over a thousand, and you begin to see how this makes a difference more broadly in the field.
Funding for artist support is hard to come by, even harder in an economic downturn. With the Tribeca leg removed from an already rocky table, more independents will struggle or, tragically, be forced out of the field. In this horrific moment when many in our community are experiencing personal grief and financial calamity, particularly those makers of color who are exponentially more affected by the COVID-19 virus and traumatized by the racialized police violence epidemic in our land, the loss of one of our central pillars of support only adds to our vulnerability. And it begs the question: Are there more casualties to come?
In the spirit of acknowledging this vulnerability, I want to recognize the tireless work of TFI’s staff particularly — Jose Rodriguez, Michelle Hamada, Bryce Norbitz, Caitlin Mae Burke, Liza Truschel, Chloe Gbai, and Monika Navarro. Your legacy is a body of storytelling from voices we desperately need to hear from. Your work meant something. Thank you.
To the leadership at Tribeca, you note that this is a pause for reevaluation, and you are “more committed than ever to supporting storytellers.” As you reflect on how your future support will take shape, please tilt toward a model of artist advocacy and care. Many of your sister institutions — Sundance, Field of Vision, Creative Capital, to name a few — have boldly taken this moment to double down on investing resources and funding into the artists they serve. Solutions are sometimes imperfect and funding is tight, but I am buoyed by those who are making the survival of independent filmmakers central to their work during one of the most difficult and uncertain times in recent memory.
You, too, could do the same. You could choose to be a true ally to the storytellers whose work you depend on to develop your curatorial brand by using your power to substantially contribute to their survival and growth. Film festivals are simply not enough and are not a full expression of support to the storytellers themselves (the cancellation of prize money this year was particularly surprising in this regard).
Artist development is an investment in a long game. It is messy and imprecise work. It takes the dedication of countless hours, active caretaking and tenacious hope to do it well. There are few metrics that will tell you this is a “cost effective” pursuit.
But without it, we lose out on the tremendous work of artists like Rachel Lears (“Knock Down the House”), Farihah Zaman and Jeff Reichert (“This Time Next Year”), Sabaah Foyalan (“Whose Streets?”), Elegance Bratton (“Buck”), Loira Limbal (“Through the Night”), Cecilia Aldarondo (“Landfall”), David Osit (“Mayor”), and Hannah Jayanti, just to name a handful of the independent filmmakers to emerge from your programs. In the absence of support institutions, their pathways become more difficult or perhaps erased. These are the artists who help us make sense of our moment. One thing we can learn from what’s happening on the streets across the country right now is that we must elevate and amplify the voices of diverse filmmakers in a media landscape that continually silences these perspectives to the detriment of our culture and our democracy. We need them. And they need your help.
Finally, to the independent filmmakers I care for so deeply: We must build what they abandoned and give it stronger walls. As we seek the validation of a small number of gatekeepers, we must begin to build new networks that can help us climb the ladders together. I am not sure what this looks like, and I know it requires resources that don’t feel within reach. But we can’t continually look outside ourselves for the answers. As Hannah always reminds me, “We need to think deeply about what’s not working and imagine the world we want to create!”
None of us has the answers on our own. Reach out to colleagues and friends and start imagining what’s next. The Documentary Producers Alliance and the Brown Girls Doc Mafia are two models demonstrating how collectivizing can bring leadership, and leadership can inspire action and change. I remember a time when media arts organizations provided hands on support to artists in places like Minneapolis, Seattle, Boston, cities outside the big hubs. Should these centers return? The Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF), a national collective of independent filmmakers, worked on a number of initiatives to benefit independents — most notably winning the fight to create ITVS. These models can inspire us, but my suspicion is we need something new and responsive to this moment we’re in. I am seeing the seeds of these ideas beginning to sprout in the Indie Film + Media Arts Field calls coordinated by NEA and Sundance. I hope they are happening even more broadly than that. The community needs to organize and determine this path for itself.
We have power and vision, and we’re scrappy as hell. What can we do with that power, together?
Sara Archambault is a Creative Producer dedicated to the craft of artful nonfiction storytelling. Past credits include Sundance-supported “Street Fighting Men” (First Run Features 2020 release), award-winning short “Community Patrol” (Big Sky, T/F 2018) and “Truth or Consequences” (Rotterdam 2020). Sara served a 10-year tenure as Program Director at the LEF Foundation and Founder/Head Programmer of the award-winning film series The DocYard. She is a 2020 Impact Partners Producing Fellow.