September 25, 2020

IDA Member Spotlight: Black Documentary Collective

Black Documentary Collective (“BDC”) hosts the premiere of 'The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution' at Film Forum, New York City, September 2, 2015. Pictured (L-R) BDC Co-Chair and filmmaker Sabrina Schmidt Gordon, Producer Lauren Grant, Director Stanley Nelson.

This month, we’re featuring one of our newest Organizational Members, Black Documentary Collective (BDC). BDC was founded by the late, great documentarian—and former IDA Board Member St. Clair Bourne, to support the artistic development and professional advancement of documentary media makers of African descent. We spoke with its Co-Chair, Sabrina Schmidt Gordon, on how the organization got started and the goals the collective has set over the next year. 

The mission of BDC is “to support the artistic development and professional advancement of documentary media makers of African descent”. Can you elaborate on this statement and tell us how the BDC has grown since its inception in 2000? 

From the beginning, the organization’s membership consisted of documentary professionals in all fields—directors, producers, editors, cinematographers, writers, curators; and in all genres—film, multimedia, installation and experimental video; and at all levels—from veterans like Bill Greaves, Stanley Nelson, Camille Billops, Kathe Sandler and Sam Pollard, to folks like me who were just getting started and learning from these visionary artists. We had monthly meetings, work-in-progress feedback screenings (which could get pretty heated!), guest speakers like Melvin Van Peebles, and industry panels. A major milestone for us was obtaining our 501(c)3 not-for-profit status, allowing all cash contributions to be tax-deductible, as well as offer our members pass-through fiscal sponsorship at a competitive rate. 

Today, many of us who were just beginning our careers are now established filmmakers, mentors and experts in our field, so the organization has evolved and adapted to the changing needs and priorities of our membership. We are a global organization, and we have partnered with countless media organizations around the country and abroad to co-present panels, provide free and discounted workshops and production services, fee waivers and other perks. We still offer opportunities for beginning and emerging filmmakers, but for our more established members, our professional workshop opportunities focus more on keeping up with the changing landscape of our field, from innovations in technology to new models of distribution. What has probably grown the most is the amount of direct support we provide to our members. Over the years, we have helped countless members raise funds, promote and screen their films, promote and assist with impact campaigns, connect with schools, organizational and local partners, and secure distribution, speaking engagements, work-for-hire, consulting, teaching and more. 

One of the biggest changes for the BDC was moving to a mostly online platform, long before the pandemic. This was in response to our members’ increasingly hectic schedules that did not allow as much time for regular, in-person meetings, as well as to harness the powerful engagement and communications opportunities made possible by social media. Most recently, we reimagined our screening series to launch BDC Virtual Cinema. We’ve also cultivated a large audience, so our social media following is not just filmmakers and industry professionals, but documentary-loving fans who seek out our members’ films.

In 2011, we created the BDC Member Directory & Catalog, and we are excited to announce the launch of the new and improved online version. One of the unexpected treats of working on the update is seeing how far so many of us have come. We are a prolific and impressive bunch! I think Saint would be proud!

BDC's directory of accomplished and veteran filmmakers directly counters the misconception that there are not enough experienced BIPOC filmmakers in the field. What are some other activities BDC has planned to dispel and disrupt this narrative? What message are you hoping to convey to the greater filmmaking community? 
 
Our industry is in the midst of a historic moment—a movement, really. BIPOC filmmakers, particularly, are continuing the work we’ve always done— to disrupt narratives, change the way the industry operates, define new terms of engagement, and rep our communities—but doing so with renewed purpose, resolve and urgency. This is anti-racism work we are engaged in, and more than ever, I think the BDC has an important role, and our member directory is a critical resource. We are excited about all of the initiatives that cultivate new talent, but we also want to acknowledge that there are plenty of talented, skilled and experienced BIPOC filmmakers among us. It’s time to disrupt the narrative that BIPOC filmmakers are forever “emerging.” We’ve been here. BDC’s very existence, our roster of immensely talented, overachieving, accomplished documentary rockstars challenges this erasure and gives every executive, funder, commissioning editor, curator, school, library, museum, an easy way to find amazing content and to collaborate with some of the best talent in the documentary field. No excuses!

The BDC was founded by late documentarian and former IDA Board Member, St. Clair Bourne. Can you explain how his work shaped the BDC to be what it is today? 

The legendary William Greaves, Saint’s mentor and friend, said that Saint’s contribution was not just as a filmmaker, but as an “advocate, mentor and advisor.” In that spirit, when Saint passed away in 2007, I, and many of us who benefited from Saint’s generosity and dedication, felt that we had a responsibility to keep his vision alive— to demonstrate how much we valued his leadership and contribution. Admittedly, it’s been a challenge as an all-volunteer organization, but my co-chair, Rafee Kamaal, and I have just tried to be as creative and resourceful as possible to maintain Saint’s hard-won accomplishments and relationships and the prestige that he built around the organization. Between the two of us, we are promoters, crowdfunders, partnership brokers, website designers, coders, copywriters, social media managers, event planners, caterers, arts administrators and bookkeepers! All in our spare time ;-) 

Rafee and I are always exploring new possibilities and opportunities for our membership, and ways to support our communities, so please reach out to us at bdcnewyork@gmail.com to find out how you can participate and support.

What are some projects that BDC members are currently working on?

Too many to list! We are a prolific bunch! As a collective of Black filmmakers representing every facet of the diaspora, our work is necessarily and inevitably political, whether investigative doc, historical profile, or experimental short. Our members’ most recent work includes Yoruba Richen’s new film, The Killing of Breonna Taylor, which is now streaming on The New York Times, FX and Hulu platforms. Art Jones’ hybrid media documentary project is another that addresses the state violence with which our communities have been besieged. His Blue/Lives installation combines moving images, 3D sculpture and Google Maps data to document every fatal encounter in the United States between an unarmed civilian and police, from 2018 to the present. Our members’ range of expertise is vast, including distribution consultants, like Michelle Materre, and festival directors, like Carolyn Butts, who founded Reel Sisters, an Academy-qualifying film festival. We even have several authors, including Faith Pennick, whose book, D'Angelo's Voodoo, is about D’Angelo’s album for Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 Music series. Check out the BDC Member Directory & Catalog to learn more about these and other amazing work from our members.

How can interested filmmakers join the BDC and allies support the organization?

Easy! Join us at Getting Real ‘20, or visit our website, where you will find information about joining, donating and volunteering. Funding, as with many self-sustaining organizations, has been our major challenge and biggest barrier to upscaling and doing all that we would like for our members and the communities we are a part of and are committed to serving. We are a not-for-profit, so all donations are tax-deductible, and we also welcome volunteers and folks who may offer in-kind services to contribute to the mission in any way they can. Discounted memberships for students, seniors, and new members are always available. 

We are currently in need of a programmer to help in the expansion of our searchable catalog, social media maestros and pr/marketing gurus. Contact us through our website or on social media to be in community with us—which is what our collective is all about. And if you are just looking for great movies to watch, we’ll hook you up! ;-)

I really want to thank the IDA, who has always acknowledged Saint’s and the BDC’s contribution to the documentary field, and for their generous and enthusiastic support. This moment has brought Saint’s vision and everything the BDC is about to the forefront, and it has reinvigorated our membership, who recognize how important it is for us to engage and be visible. 

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