Real DC Is Also Reel DC: A Regional Perspective
The majority of American documentary filmmakers do not live in New York or Los Angeles. That may seem difficult to believe, given the large communities in those film centers. However, documentaries can be made anywhere, and there are thriving communities outside of the coastal film capitals.
One is right here in our nation's capital, Washington, DC. As a near lifelong Washingtonian and executive director of Docs In Progress—a nonprofit dedicated to supporting documentary filmmakers in the region—I have a special interest in this community, but I also see it in the context of regional film communities more broadly.
Several years ago, I opted to drive, rather than fly, from my homebase in Maryland to a conference in Minnesota. Along the way, I stopped and met with film organizations and filmmakers in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago and Milwaukee. More recently, I attended the Southern Documentary Fund's annual Artist Convening and had a chance to meet filmmakers from across the South. Both experiences opened my eyes to other communities of filmmakers and how many of the joys and challenges of working outside of major film centers are shared between regions.
For those working to sustain documentary careers anywhere, being a part of a community can be an essential lifeline to get feedback on works-in-progress, refer each other to paid work, collaborate on projects, celebrate each other's successes, and empathize with each other’s challenges. It can also be a means of ensuring that one's community is strengthened not only internally but externally. We need to know who we are and make sure those outside of the region know that too.
This is particularly important for those of us working in and around Washington. While most folks from outside the region think of our town as the seat of the US federal government, it is also home to real people with a wealth of stories that have nothing to do with Congress, the President, the Supreme Court, K Street lobbying or think tanks. At the same time, politics, international issues and social justice are omnipresent. "We live in such a unique place where national and international politics is local news," says Jon Gann, who founded the DC Shorts Film Festival and continues to be one of the biggest cheerleaders for DC's film and film festival communities. "It gives both audiences and filmmakers here a broad perspective on the world."
It also means that we have no shortage of opportunities to see and share work. There are more than 60 film festivals between Richmond and Baltimore, almost all of which showcase documentaries as part of their programming, including AFI Docs, the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital and the Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival. That doesn’t include museums, cultural centers, think tanks, academic institutions, international organizations, government agencies, community centers and art house theaters that show documentaries year-round. We also have three PBS affiliates. In the world capital of wonk, there is an audience for almost any topic of documentary, no matter how specialized.
Though not the first city that may come to mind as a cultural capital for makers, Washington has a strong arts scene, particularly in theater and music. And, yes, there is a film community here—one that has long centered on nonfiction storytelling. The cult classic Heavy Metal Parking Lot comes from local filmmakers Jeff Krulik and John Heyn. Aviva Kempner's The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg was a box-office success at a time when documentaries were not thought of as theatrical fare. Grace Guggenheim carries on the preservation of her late father Charles Guggenheim's historical documentaries, and is an accomplished producer in her own right. The DC area is home to numerous award-winning documentary filmmakers, including Jason Osder (Let The Fire Burn), Dana Flor (Check It; The Nine Lives of Marion Barry), Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine (War/Dance; Inocente), Marilyn and Hal Weiner (Journey to Planet Earth) and Ben Crosbie and Tessa Moran (Fate of a Salesman; The Guardians). Just this year, two of the nine Peabody Award-winning documentaries—Deej and Indivisible—came from Washington, DC-area filmmakers Robert Rooy and Hilary Linder.
While individual filmmakers like these have made films that have earned national and international acclaim, the region as a vibrant and multi-dimensional documentary community is not as well known. Do we have a branding problem? That was one of the questions asked at a recent town hall meeting on the state of the regional documentary community.
Held as part of AFI Docs, the town hall gave local filmmakers a space to reflect on what defines our community and what we need. I co-facilitated the session with Kathryn Washington, who, when not working for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, volunteers on behalf of local makers. While these sorts of gatherings can easily descend into venting sessions, we wanted to focus the conversation on three key questions, ones we think any regional filmmaking community may want to consider:
What defines our community?
What sustains our community?
What is our vision for our future?
Interestingly, the first question may have been the hardest one to answer. Even deciding how to define our geographic reach draws attention to some of the idiosyncrasies of our region. Washington, DC itself has fewer than 700,000 residents. However, the metropolitan area includes parts of Maryland and Virginia, making it the sixth largest metropolitan area in the country. There are more than a dozen counties or independent cities that are part of what is affectionately referred to as the "DMV" (DC/Maryland/Virginia), but the borders are porous when it comes to media-makers. While we often refer to ourselves as the "DC Film Community," in reality, filmmakers may live and/or work in Washington, or any of its suburbs or as far away as Baltimore.
Geography is not the only thing that can be nebulous. As is common across our industry, making a consistent living from documentaries is more dream than reality. Bread-and-butter work includes nonprofit videos, government training videos, digital journalism, museum videos, political commercials and reality television. Many filmmakers double as archival researchers for clients who need to access resources at the National Archives, Library of Congress and other collections. Quite a few teach at any of more than a dozen regional universities, colleges and community media centers. As a crossroads between the north and south, it is only a few hours to get to New York or Atlanta for other paid work.
There's one more attribute that makes our regional community unique—a preponderance of filmmakers who have never attended film school and may not make their living from film at all. In a town that attracts do-gooders, it is not unusual to find people who want to extend their passion for making change to a different medium. These are not hobbyist fancies. One filmmaker may lead a double life as a government lawyer and a maker of experimental and music documentaries that have played more than 100 film festivals. Another may be a union organizer who wants to go deeper with a story that exposes labor abuses. A third may be transitioning from a career in international peacebuilding to making a Web series about an immigrant family adjusting to life in the US.
While this creates a diverse ecosystem of filmmaking, it also results in silos. Media professionals who produce or edit work as staff or freelancers for big institutions (National Geographic, Discovery Networks or government agencies) often live in a different world from those who teach or make nonprofit videos to feed their independent documentary work.
Additionally, Washington is known as a place where people stay for a time, rather than set down roots. Because of the nature of our primary industries, this is a region with a high level of transience. This also translates to the film community. There is a steady stream of newcomers to the area, keeping the community fresh. At the same time, some filmmakers feel they need to move on to larger film centers in pursuit of work that better utilizes their talents.
That said, there are filmmakers who purposefully choose to make the region their home for family ties, a spouse's career, or because they like what the region has to offer. "I never really thought of the place I grew up as a home to film," says Lance Kramer. "I always dreamed of being a filmmaker but thought I'd have to leave the place I came from to pursue that dream." Kramer grew up in the area, went away for college and his early career, but returned and ultimately co-founded Meridian Hill Pictures with his brother Brandon.
Heather Courtney moved here after her husband got a full-time news job in Washington. Coming from a close-knit regional community in Austin, she initially bumped up against challenges of finding paid work here. She was also working on The Unafraid and had to travel frequently out of the region to film. Soon enough, though, she had found a group of documentary filmmakers with whom to commune. "I feel very positive about DC," she says. "There are so many incredible stories here that have nothing to do with the national political scene, and I think the local film community has potential to grow and connect with the bigger film community."
Where Washington excels is in offering a support system where filmmakers view each other as collaborators and confidantes more than competitors. “I feel lucky to work as an independent documentary filmmaker in DC," says Kiley Kraskouskas of Flowstate Films. "I consider my fellow documentary filmmakers some of my closest friends, as well as some of the smartest people I know."
The region is also one of the most diverse regions in the country, and that extends to the film community. Women in Film and Video is one of the largest filmmaking associations for women in the country. Parallel Film Collective brings together artists and curators dedicated to promoting global images that transcend racial, cultural and gender identities found in mainstream media. In the suburb of Prince George’s County, Maryland—where more than 80 percent of the population is not white—the Creative Edge Collaborative combines advocacy, creative place-making and services to foster the local film community and economy. "The main reason we started Creative Edge was to get the people who live here a voice in the larger community," Talaya Grimes, chair, secretary and manager of the collaborative, maintains. "A lot of the creatives in the county are black, and with that comes stereotypes that have hindered economic development and the creative community here. Our work brings up issues of place and race and class, and we want to bring those issues, voices and strengths to the forefront."
Creative Edge offers an incubator model through its Innovation Studio that operates a business accelerator for media professionals. Docs In Progress has a fellowship where documentary filmmakers from across the region gain professional development and provide accountability to each other. 202Creates —an initiative of the DC Office of Cable Television, Film, Music & Entertainment and the DC Commission on Arts and Humanities—provides a residency for artists (including filmmakers) that includes office space and resources to work on projects and expand their business. The newest institution on the block is the DC chapter of The Video Consortium, which brings together video journalists and documentary filmmakers every month to see and discuss nonfiction shorts and connect across silos over pizza and beer.
While all of these initiatives provide space, networks and/or accountability for filmmakers to move forward with their projects and businesses, they don’t include direct funding. Women in Film and Video provides a $2,500 seed grant for documentary projects, and several local government arts and humanities funds have $5,000-$10,000 grants for which filmmakers can apply. However, many independent filmmakers have an easier time finding investors and larger donors in places like New York or the Bay Area. Even though there is a strong culture of philanthropy in Washington, DC, it is often more conservative in its approaches to funding the arts, focusing more on large institutions rather than individual artists.
When envisioning the future of DC’s documentary film community at the AFI Docs town hall, filmmakers thought big—a physical space of a film center or tech hub; working with foundations to create a pool of regional funding; developing a stronger flow of homegrown talent between community media and professionals. Most important was recognizing our own power and commitment to alliance-building, both regionally and nationally.
Erica Ginsberg is the co-founder and executive director of Docs In Progress and is a co-host of the online documentary community The D-Word. She will be speaking at Getting Real (with her Docs In Progress hat) on regional sustainability models and will be co-facilitating (with her D-Word hat) "The Whine before the Wine," where you will be welcome to descend into venting about challenges facing your own region or anything else related to the challenges of the documentary industry.