The Media Impact Funders team was pleased to be able to return to Park City, Utah, to attend the Sundance Film Festival this month, viewing powerful documentary films and reconnecting with film funders who have not had a chance to convene in person since before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was exhilarating to learn and share with key funders and we were especially fortunate to hear from Carrie Lozano, Director of Documentary Film and Artist Programs at the Sundance Institute.
Carrie shared with us the process and purpose of the documentary film program at Sundance and made clear that there is a clear distinction between the institute and the Sundance Film Festival, where selection criteria and decision-making is isolated from the activities of the institute’s programs. So there is no guarantee that a film supported by grants and services at Sundance will make it onto the roster of films in the festival. That being said, she was pleased to note that several films featured in the current festival were nurtured with support from the institute.
In her remarks to our gathering of film funders in Park City, Carrie acknowledged that we are living through a challenging moment for the field of documentary filmmakers, in the wake of seismic shifts in the film industry, with hundreds of cinemas shutting down during the pandemic and major disruptions and cutbacks among major streaming services and television networks. Just before the onset of the pandemic, there was a growing sense that filmmakers were experiencing a golden age of documentary film. But that seems an illusion in retrospect.
As she noted in a recent speech she made to the San Francisco Film Festival’s Doc Days program, “While many of us always felt uneasy about the ‘Golden Age of Documentary’ narrative, it still portended a lot of positive things that I hoped would last and grow,” she said. “It seemed like it would put more filmmakers on a path to reach global audiences, to be sustainable, and to have thriving careers. For some this is true, but too many are struggling to sustain themselves and their artistic work. If the bubble hasn’t burst entirely on the nonfiction side, it’s definitely deflated.”
In her SFFILM keynote speech, Carrie noted the similarities between the documentary film field and the world of investigative reporting, informed by her earlier experience with the Investigative Reporting Program (IRP) at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. And she suggested that lessons from her earlier work might be valuable for documentary filmmakers and film funders. The key insight is that effective collaboration can be an important strategy in navigating difficult times in a period of retrenchment.
More than a decade ago, the IRP led a largescale collaboration among different media organizations, covering a wide range of formats, on an investigative series focusing on the uneven and inequitable way that deaths are investigated by authorities in communities across the nation. The collaboration included Berkeley’s IRP, PBS Frontline, NPR, ProPublica and California Watch. And it was Carrie’s job to document lessons learned from the innovative project to identify best practices for the field, under a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. (Carrie recently reminded us that MIF Executive Director Vince Stehle had actually managed the grantmaking process behind that grant, while Vince was serving as a consultant to the foundation.)
Looking back on that effort, Carrie suggests that documentary filmmakers and funders should look for ways to work together effectively, learning from the experience of the nonprofit news field. As she told the San Francisco audience last November, “We should be convening ‘the crisis of independent film’ conferences and using our vast well of creativity and organizing prowess to think beyond outside-the-box, and we should find ways to experiment and fail together.”
We then heard from Jon-Sesrie Goff, Creativity and Free Expression Program Officer at the Ford Foundation, who talked about the evolution of the foundation’s documentary film program, JustFilms. After a bit of restructuring, the program is now a part of Ford’s Creativity and Expression Program, and is one of the largest in the world. In 2022 alone, the Ford Foundation invested over $4 million to support social justice film projects.
Goff told us that Ford supported six films that premiered at Sundance this year, including “Bad Press,” ($225k), “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovani Project,” ($300+k), “Going Varsity in Mariachi,” ($100k), “Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV,” ($100k), “The Tuba Thieves,” ($150k), and “Invisible Beauty,” ($100k).
“I’m pointing out these amounts because there are a lot of misconceptions about who Ford supports, Goff said. “It’s usually believed that our investments are either in early stage filmmakers or diverse filmmakers, but we run the entire gamut. When we talk about the tentacles of JustFilms throughout the sector, it’s a much broader story.”
MIF Communications Director Nina Sachdev moderated the last two segments of the meeting, starting with Megan Gelstein, Catapult Film Fund’s Co-Director and Chief Program Officer. Catapult is one of the most well-known early stage documentary film funders, often times the very first funder of the project.
“It’s a very special time to come on to a project,” Megan said. “We do come in very early and we stay with those projects as they make their way out into the world.”
Megan pointed out that in the beginning stages of a film, filmmakers often don’t know what story it is they’re trying to tell. For example, with “Crip Camp”—which chronicles the beginning of the disability rights movement through the experiences at a summer camp for disabled teens—all filmmaker Jim LeBrecht had in the beginning was home movies showing him and his friends hanging out at their summer camp.
“That’s why we aren’t looking for filmmakers that have everything buttoned up,” Megan said. “You can’t always see what a film will be.”
Nina then led a discussion about director Nancy Schwartzman’s new film “Victim/Suspect,” which follows Rae de Leon, a reporter and producer with Reveal and the Center for Investigative Reporting, as she uncovers a nationwide pattern of women who report sexual assault to the police but are then charged with making a false report and sometimes even imprisoned as a result. As the director of “Roll, Red, Roll”—an intense examination of rape culture through the lens of a high school sexual assault—Nancy is an expert in showing us how rape culture excuses, normalizes and tolerates sexual violence. Though Nancy could not attend the discussion, Nina engaged in dialogue with Rae and Amanda Pike, Director of TV and Documentary Programs at Reveal.
Watch the Meet the Artist video with Nancy Schwartzman:
What Rae uncovers in her investigation only reinforces what we’ve long known about victim-blaming: It’s not only deeply entrenched in our society, but in the very systems that were designed to protect the most vulnerable among us.
As Nancy says in the Meet the Artist video, “Victim/Suspect” is a love letter to investigative journalism. Media funders are increasingly interested in the intersection of investigative reporting and documentary film, and that connection should serve as a call to continue finding creative ways to connect these two powerful modes of storytelling.
Media Impact Funders is hosting a follow-up discussion for film funders from 1-2:15 p.m. ET on Thursday, March 9. Register now for the online meeting.