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The Unstoppable Future

By Marcia Smith

Editor's Note: The following is a keynote address that Marcia Smith of Firelight Media delivered at IDA's Getting Real conference last September.

Thank you to Simon Kilmurry, Ken Jacobson and other colleagues at IDA for the chance to talk to the tribe on the last day of what's been an inspiring and illuminating conference that has allowed us to deepen connections with each other—and have some great parties. It's not every day that filmmakers can get together in this kind of atmosphere, so this is a very special opportunity, and there's a real thirst for this kind of gathering. Looking to this last day to bring it all home in a furious exchange of cell phone numbers and business cards, let's let new connections made at this year's Getting Real be as fruitful as those that have come before.

I've been chewing on Grace Lee's keynote for days now, because I think it set such a great tone for the conference. Firelight Media, which I started with my partner, Stanley Nelson, is 16 years old next week. I'm going to talk a little bit about what we do and why we do it, and then put out a few ideas for what we can do together to bring the documentary field more in line with how the country looks.

We started Firelight as a way to build a sustainable living around documentary film. It has evolved into an organization that does three things: we produce films—most recently, Stanley's film The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution; we build impact campaigns around our own films, and we have selected others; and we have had, for the last seven years, a creative support program that we call the Documentary Lab. With the support of our partners at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Wyncote Foundation and others, we have been able to expand the Lab to serve up to 20 emerging filmmakers at a time—filmmakers who live and work across the United States from New York to Hawaii; filmmakers who are Native American, African American, Latino, Asian American, Pacific Islander, Muslim. Some have been people with disabilities and some have identified as LGBT. Lab fellows are with us for about 18 months, during which time we convene for dinner with industry players; we gather for three two-and-a-half-day retreats that focus on the creative process or the business of nonfiction film; and we match the fellows with mentors who are more experienced producers, or sometimes with an editor or a writer. We offer grants on a competitive basis to filmmakers in the Lab through a mechanism we call the Next Step Fund. Every filmmaker in the Lab gets a consultation on impact and engagement with the wonderful Sonya Childress. Aside from these formal aspects of the Lab, we do a lot of other smaller, less formal things—making introductions, giving feedback on proposals, marriage counseling, and partner-conversation facilitation. Our VP and lab director, Loira Limbal, should be certified at this point. But one of the biggest things we do, which is not easily captured in metrics but is really critical, is build community.

I've said that when Stanley and I started Firelight, we were trying to develop an organization that would allow us to build some sustainability around documentary film. Stanley's experience at that point was very typical of filmmakers of color then and now: He'd done several films, and they'd won several awards. The film Stanley had done before we started Firelight, The Black Press: Soldiers without Swords, in 1999, was the first I worked on and the first [that we screened] at Sundance—but, as many of you can relate, it took six years. So we wanted to quicken that pace. And we also had, and continue to have, an explicit commitment to hiring people of color.

What we started to find was that people of color struggling to make films would seek us out for advice. Sometimes they were interns or associate producers on our projects; sometimes they would come to a screening, or literally come in off the street, looking for a way in, a pathway, some tools to help them get on their way to making their vision for a film a reality. I'm saying this not because there was anything special about us; there wasn't. We did have two qualities that I think made it easier for emerging makers to approach us: (1) we looked more like them, and (2) we made it clear that we were open to them.

So in a very real way, the Documentary Lab was built around this experience of being open, and trying to respond, to the needs expressed to us. We knew how hard it was to get a foothold in this field. We knew that very often, filmmakers of color were not successfully competing for funding—either because they didn't understand the language of philanthropy or they didn't have the networks or information to go after the money. We knew that even when filmmakers got a little bit of support, from ITVS's DDF [Diversity Development Fund], or from one of the Minority Consortia, which exist to provide access to people of color, the money alone was not enough—and projects would get stalled. So we built the activities of the Lab around what we heard and understood of the experiences of emerging filmmakers of color.

We also knew there were not many other places for them to go. There's a long history of people of color advocating for more access to industry jobs—primarily on the dramatic entertainment side of the business. In 1942, the NAACP held a series of meetings with film studios seeking "an end to Hollywood's traditional portrayal of Negroes as superstitiously fearful of spooks." In 1963, the NAACP and several craft unions agreed on a plan for Hollywood producers that "one Negro be added to each crew in the picture industry."

As domestic civil rights movements heated up in the 1960s and '70s, the industry came under greater pressure to provide points of access and give power to a more diverse range of voices. Networks and studios started "minority training programs." As those programs rose under pressure from the movement, they died out when the movement waned, and very few industry programs continue to exist at any scale.

For many of us across ethnicities who came up in the documentary field, however, our roots were in activism. And here I refer you to Renee Tajima-Peña's excellent article in IDA's Documentary magazine, "#DocsSoWhite: A Personal Reflection"; it's a must-read. Renee catalogues some of the many organizations, like Third World Newsreel, Visual Communications and the Scribe Video Center, that arose from communities, and, she says, "were fueled by a shared ethos of self-determination and representation….and were concerned not only with documenting culture, but with building it."

I'm sure many of us, just as we have been horrified by the discourse as it plays out in what passes for "news," have been heartened by the growing resistance to that discourse, the movement for Black lives, and the opposition to Islamophobia and other forms of resistance. If past is precedent, the growing movement will lead to an upsurge of interest in our field. The documentary form will attract more and more young people of color and emerging artists who will expand the form and bring a hunger to craft new and vital stories. The question is whether our field will be ready to include them. Every field and institution with power in the US will have to grapple in the coming years—the next decade especially—with whether it will adapt to what we are now calling "the unstoppable future." The willingness of our institutions to bring diverse people and points of view out of the margins will determine whether they continue to be relevant—even whether they continue to exist.

Marcia Smith with filmmaker Sonia Kennebeck (National Bird) at Getting Real '16. Photo: Susan Yin

There are a few concrete things I think our field can do to set the groundwork.

First, festivals and conferences can create spaces for filmmakers of color to caucus and collaborate, like IDA did this week by making space for Asian American filmmakers to gather. This is a very important mechanism for emerging makers to get connected.

Second, festivals, because they still matter to building careers and audiences, can deliberately program work by diverse filmmakers and reach out to diverse audiences. We know that people of color are hungry for documentary content that reflects their experiences. Serve them.

Third, we need to keep asking hard questions to ourselves and each other about who should be telling what stories. This is an old discussion, but it still matters. Loira, who runs our Lab, gets at least one call or email a week from a white filmmaker looking for a person of color to come on a project as an AP—after the film is shot. This simply will not do. For some of us, asking hard questions may mean deciding not to do a project even if you think it would be a great film. For others, it may mean not funding a film even if it's done by an important filmmaker.

Fourth, we need to assemble more data on access to funding and distribution. How is the field as a whole doing with regard to inclusion? What are the experiences of filmmakers of color, and how do they differ from those of white filmmakers? There are many things we can count and track over time, from who applies for grants and who receives them, to who gets broadcast slots. The issue here is that the field of independent documentary film is by definition decentralized. While a number of companies, foundations and festivals have their own data, they are not aggregated; the entertainment and news industries actually have much better numbers than the doc field. So we don't have a full picture. There are several research projects incubated here by IDA, and those should be supported and expanded. Numbers will not tell the whole story, but will give us a basis for discussion. By counting things, we signal that they are important.

Fifth, support and invest in organizations led by people of color. Third World Newsreel has played an essential role in building the community of diverse documentarians. Some older groups still exist, others have withered away, but there are and will surely be more new ones. Of course it is important that mainstream documentary organizations have diversity programs, but I'd argue that organizations that have diversity at the heart of their mission are critically important to building the pipeline by offering both training and the community-building that is so important for long-term success.

Sixth, hire people. If you're a filmmaker, make it a point to hire a diverse crew. If you are taking on a subject related to people of color, you've really got to have a strong partner with some creative input. But regardless of your subject, hire a diverse crew—and I don't mean just interns. Working in the field is how we all learn to work in the field. Again, not many people of color are coming to documentary out of film school. And I'm always struck in particular by how homogenous the full range of jobs in our field are—not just directors and producers, but assistant editors, archival researchers, sound people, color-correction people. So make a commitment to hiring with inclusion in mind. Make yourself open to people who are not like you, mentor them, and give them a chance to fail as they're finding their way.

These are just some ideas, and I know that the more we talk, the more we understand the changing nature of the industry and keep art, sustainability and diversity at the front of our thinking, the more ideas we will generate together.

The last thing I'll say is this: It's evident at this point that inclusion is an urgent proposition for the country and for democracy. It's not a matter of being nicer or fairer; it's a matter of whether the country will unravel. We have a major party candidate for president who is an unabashed racist, an unrepentant sexist, who says what we all know he says about Latinos and Muslims. And he's nearly even in the polls—not in spite of those views, but because of them. What does that say about where we are as a country? For one, it tells me that we have to do better at telling all of our stories. In a real sense, it is on us—all of us—in the independent doc field to let the public know, in the words of Grace Lee, quoting Grace Lee Boggs, what time it is on the clock of the world.


Marcia Smith is president and co-founder of Firelight Media and Firelight Films, which produce documentary films, support emerging artists through a Documentary Lab, and activate audiences through impact and engagement strategies.