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Reflections on GETTING REAL: Debunking Five Myths That Divide Us

By Pamela Yates and Paco de Onís

Pamela Yates and Paco de Onís

Myth #1. Filmmakers who tackle exposés of human rights abuses, or illuminate social issues, are not artists.

We are. We give equal weight to being artists as well as human rights defenders. We know that as we get better and better as artists, we create wider audiences with far greater impact. Because we aren’t just developing a narrative story arc, we are developing ideas across the length and breadth of the documentary film. It’s the interplay of the two that creates dramatic tension. The power and beauty of cinema are our artistic and political tools. Our canvas is global; our palette, the human condition.


Myth #2. It was the foundations with their grant applications that created this demand for impact reporting.

It was we, the social-issue filmmakers, who have deepened foundations’ commitment to funding nonfiction films. We opened up many more funders’ interest in financing documentary films by cultivating foundation personnel to understand how film could be useful when it aligns with the pursuit of the foundations’ mission. At our production company, Skylight, we didn’t choose to make films that would be easily funded. We used our imagination and deep curiosity in the new and the innovative, in subjects and in people to tell stories that could have a profound effect on our world. The films weren’t easy, the locations were often dangerous, access had to be constantly negotiated, and we faced artistic challenges. Then, our company researched foundations whose missions might align with the story we were burning to tell.

When we approached the US Institute of Peace in 2004 with State of Fear about the human and societal costs of waging war on terror, they’d never funded a film before. Now they’ve funded dozens. Two years before the creation of the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms initiative, Orlando Bagwell—then an officer at the foundation—asked us to give a presentation to officers and directors at the foundation on how we use films to promote social justice. Having produced Eyes on the Prize and Citizen King, and understanding the power of film to catalyze social change, Bagwell asked us to join him in helping his colleagues understand how the films supported by the foundation could play a vital role in the advancement of its mission. The subsequent creation of JustFilms formalized and structured this idea.

During the past decade, a range of new funding sources have come on the scene, created by, for and about filmmakers focusing on social issues: Bertha Foundation, Chicken & Egg, Fledgling Fund, Cinereach, Catapult Film Fund, Impact Partners, Fork Films, Rauschenberg Foundation, BritDoc, the aforementioned JustFilms, and the Tribeca Film Institute. And lest this history gets lost, remember that proud moment when we the filmmakers created ITVS more than 20 years ago. We now have a Congressionally mandated annual pot of more than $10 million that goes to vital documentary films created for diverse and underserved audiences on public television. This is the virtuous cycle. We took it on, we created it, we have agency.


Myth #3. Creativity is stifled if you have to think about what you'll do with the film upon finishing.

Documentaries are living stories. The journey begins long before we commence filming, and the story continues into the future after the film has been released. What’s happened to Anwar Congo from The Act of Killing? What did Shelby Knox go on to accomplish after taking on the Lubbock, Texas school board in The Education of Shelby Knox? Rigoberta Menchú, from our film When the Mountains Tremble? Gideon’s Army’s Jonathan Rapping? Did Jay Reinke and his wife from The Overnighters repair their marriage? What will be the fate of Edward Snowden? In our security state, is journalist Jeremy Scahill safe? Surely we all have the intelligence both to create works of great artistic imagination and think creatively about how to get it out into the world and keep the story going and the issue alive. Our relationship with the people in our films continues and our commitment grows.


Myth #4. It’s enough work to find the funds and create a feature-length documentary.

At Skylight, we have found that creating a media ecosystem to widen the eventual impact of our film actually helps us work out narrative solutions in our documentary features. While you’re thinking and creating your feature documentary, what about a companion digital project to spread the ideas and artistry across multiple digital platforms? Later, could you create short films that broaden and deepen some ideas or flesh out people you couldn’t fit into the documentary film? We find that it frees our minds and offers solutions to thorny structural problems in the flagship feature documentary film.


Myth #5. Documentary filmmaking is unsustainable and we are in danger of only the elite being able to produce them.

Wealthy people producing documentary films is a relatively new phenomenon. Most documentary filmmakers are not wealthy. At Skylight, we don’t make that many films, but each one creates experiences and opportunities to build on for the next release. It’s essential that we diversify our funding sources. At Skylight, we have put a lot of careful thought and effort into creating a free/pay model of distribution, in which we try to make money where money can be made—by licensing our films in the educational market in the US and on broadcast television worldwide, and by selling DVDs from our website—and we give the film away for free so the film can be seen; we even give masters to bootleggers. You want a human-rights film to be bootlegged! Don’t be afraid to join this brave new digital world. Paradoxically, we have found that the more we have given the film away through bootlegging or through streaming multiple language versions worldwide, the more our sales go up and the more requests we get to go out with the films for paid presentations.

Let’s find a way forward for all kinds of documentaries across nonfiction film genres to widen the spectrum of funds to produce films, so that filmmakers who don’t wish to make social-issue films or create outreach and engagement campaigns can leverage funds from new sources and new foundations. There can be synergy across the documentary film genres as we all stand to gain from powerful funding of purely experimental films and the art world stands to gain from expressive social-issue documentaries. It’s up to all of us to create new relationships and new models, and widen the scope and health of our community. Let’s not get caught up in a false dichotomy of art vs. social-justice films; we’re all in this together.


Pamela Yates and Paco de Onís are partners in Skylight, a New York-based company committed to producing artistic, challenging and socially relevant independent documentary film and digital media tools on issues of human rights and the quest for justice. Their latest films are Disruption and Granito: How to Nail a Dictator.