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The Truth about Nonfiction: Independent Film Week's Focus on Docs

By Michael Galinsky

IFP's Independent Film Week, which ran September 17 through 20 in New York City, had a strong focus on narrative filmmaking, but the programmers saved the best for last, devoting the final day to a wide range of discussions about documentary.

The party kicked off with a conversation with Orlando Bagwell, director of the JustFilms initiative at the Ford Foundation; Jess Search, chief executive of the London-based BRITDOC Foundation, moderated the conversation. Bagwell began by walking us through his journey from teacher to filmmaker to film-funder. 


Orlando Bagwell, speaking at IFP's Independent Film Week. Photo: Phil Stearns


After college, while working as a substitute teacher in Boston during the dark days of that city's heightened tension surrounding integration, he was savagely beaten by a mob while on his way to school. He was rescued by a city bus whose driver broke up the crowd and hollered for him to get in. In the stark reality of that moment, Bagwell realized that he longer wanted to teach. This was not because he was afraid of going back to the site of his beating, he told us, but instead because in that fraught and surreal moment, he realized that what he really wanted to do was tell stories.

In 2003, after an intense 20-year run of making films, Bagwell decided to step back and take stock of rapidly changing production and distribution realities. It was at this point that he stumbled into a position at the Ford Foundation, where he developed the JustFilms initiative. "We are at this rare moment where there is a greater sense of the real need for partnership and a recognition that if done well, we can make dramatic stories, create an opening to get different people together and create new networks," he asserted.  "We do it casually online, but when we congregate together to experience something together, what do you do with it?  What do you do with each opportunity that you have?  All of these things are things we think about at Ford.  If we are doing good work, we are going to connect with lots of people and we should be ready to take advantage of that."

In terms of documentary filmmaking, Bagwell made it clear that while issues are important, storytelling that connects with people is of paramount importance. "It's easier for people to look at a story about something that they know that comes from somewhere else," he maintained. "You can watch someone from somewhere else struggling with the same thing and it will connect you with it in a stronger way." 

When queried about funding, Bagwell pointed out that the majority of the films the foundation works with receives funds in the $200,000 to $600,000 range, but that occasionally JustFilms will support some films with smaller infusions to help get them finished. He stressed that it's not easy to get funding through JustFilms, which received about 1,100 proposals in 2011.

Much of the JustFilms initiative involves working with partners like Sundance, ITVS International and Tribeca Film Institute.  This theme of partnership among organizations continued throughout the day. Sewell Chan, op-ed editor at The New York Times, explained that they are focusing on working with partners, like Sundance, to find work to show on their Op-Docs strand. The Times doesn't have a lot of money to spend, Chan advised, but the exposure is very valuable to filmmakers. The strand accepts pitches of both short films designed just for the site, and excerpts from upcoming films. Chan stressed that for a short or excerpt to be considered for Op-Docs, it has to be an exclusive that has not run elsewhere. However, The Times shares copyright, and filmmakers are free to do whatever they want with a film after 30 days. Op-Docs pays in the low four figures.   

The first panel of the day, "Filmmaking in Conflict," was moderated by the very witty Heather Croall, director of Sheffield DocFest. Using a pie chart to highlight different kinds of conflict involved in filmmaking, she gently nudged the panel to move from petty personal issues to world-changing battles without getting weighted down. Issues of access and responsibility transitioned to conflicts between filmmakers, courts and major corporations/governments. Alison Klayman (Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry), Doug Block (The Kids Grow Up) and Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost Trilogy) all talked of the ethical, moral and artistic reality of dealing with their subjects.  

As examples, Klayman had to wait several years to build the trust needed to get certain shots of her subject, Chinese activist/artist AI Wei Wei. Block gave a great deal of advice about navigating the grey areas of working with one's family on a personal documentary.   Berlinger, who has experienced the widest range of conflict, detailed some of the subject/filmmaker and filmmaker/filmmaker issues he had to navigate over the 20-year saga of making the Paradise Lost trilogy. 

One of the more difficult issues for Berlinger was that he was sent to make a film about "three guilty teenagers" and spent a good part of the first months of his project bonding with the parents of the children who were murdered. As he and filmmaking partner Bruce Sinofsky dug into the story, they became convinced that the three accused boys were innocent of the crimes. As such, the film's focus on the boys' innocence deeply offended the families. Over time, most of the family members have come around, but it was a difficult process. Berlinger's advice was to be careful about becoming too connected with one's subjects.

In addition to discussing the difficulties of family, Block emphasized how important agreements are not only between filmmaker and subject but also between filmmakers working together on a project. Documentaries can often take years to make and partners can move in and out of involvement with the work. As such, it's important for people to put in writing what their roles are (or might be) and what they stand to receive both in terms of credits and money upon completion of the film. "I've seen more friendships ruined by a lack of agreement," Block said flatly. 

Both Klayman and Berlinger have had to deal with the intense power of government and corporations in recent years. Klayman learned to have a blank tape ready to insert into the camera when she feared that her footage would be confiscated. Following Al Wei Wei over a period of years, she faced this situation on a regular basis. Berlinger went up against Chevron following his 2009 film Crude, and without the support of deep-pocketed famous friends, it's very likely the process would have bankrupted him.  Thankfully his wife was extremely supportive, so it didn't lead to family conflict, though it did lead to a re-evaluation of which conflicts he might engage with in the future.  "I felt in danger, and I have two teenage children and a wife. I have other friends for whom being on the road has caused the break-up of marriages."


The "Filmmaking in Conflict" Panel: Left to right--Doug Block,Heather Croall, Joe Berlinger, Allison Klayman. Photo: Phil Stearns


As filmmakers we do what we can to keep our shoots conflict-free, but when we get in the edit room, we use music and sound to crank up the conflict as much as possible.  "Sewing Together the Story with Score" focused on music and sound design. The major takeaways from the discussion: Filmmakers should budget in the 10 percent range for music; not every great musician is a great composer; every film is different and requires different music; if you can't afford an established composer, budget more time and patience to work with one who is just starting out. 

The final panel that I caught focused on "What is Real?" Molly Thompson, vice president of A & E IndieFilms, led a lively panel with filmmakers whose work plays with the line between fiction and documentary.  Caveh Zahedi has made a name for himself by creating autobiographical works that challenge traditional documentary form. He's probably best known for his film I Am a Sex Addict; his most recent film, The Sheik and I, will be released by Factory 25 this year. In 2010 Zahedi was commissioned to make a film about "art as a subversive act" for the Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emierates.  The only caveat he was given was to not focus on the Sharjah's ruler (and financier of the biennial), so the filmmaker did just that. "I believe in crossing the ethical line," Zahedi stated.  Some filmmakers like to focus on challenging the aesthetics of the form, but he is more interested in challenging the ethics. The Sheik and I details his experience making and trying to present the film, which was banned by the biennial. 

Grace Lee, who makes both documentaries and narrative films, decided to mash up the forms in her new film Janeane from Des Moines. Working with an actress who was originally from Des Moines, Lee crafted a narrative fiction that plays out during the 2012 Republican caucus. Janeane spends the film trying to choose a candidate by interacting with each of them. While her questions may be staged, the answers and the interactions are documented as they occurred. However, Lee made it clear that she doesn't see this as a "documentary."  It premiered in the narrative section of the Toronto International Film Festival, where it got an interesting response. "Don't you feel ashamed for deceiving the candidates?" someone yelled angrily from the audience. Lee was not ashamed.


The"What Is Real?" Panel: Left to right: Caveh Zahedi, Jay Bulger (Beware of Mr. Baker), Grace Lee and Molly Thompsonb. Photo: Phil Stearns


The panels were interesting and instructive for both the novice and the seasoned pro.

Michael Galinsky is partners with Suki Hawley and David Beilinson in award-winning production studio Rumur. They are currently working on a film about the connection between stress and pain.