September 1, 2008

A Well-Tuned Arts Engine: Celebrating 10 Years of Social-Issue Documentaries

A volunteer on the Pine Ridge Reservation prepares to mobilizes Native American voters on November 2, 2004. From <em>Election Day</em> (2007).

It was a brisk February night in Brooklyn, and, as it is most nights, the club Southpaw was packed with moving bodies, musicians on the stage and drinks flowing at the bar. But this was no ordinary night for showcasing the latest New York indie rock band. This was a celebration of a decade of social-issue documentary filmmaking and innovative distribution.

And the women of Arts Engine held the stage.

Over ten years ago, filmmakers Katy Chevigny and Julia Pimsleur envisioned a new kind of documentary production company. Inspired by the models of companies Pimsleur had worked with while living in France, their organization would curate a slate of filmmakers whose work they would co-produce, sustain and support any way they could.

The organization would also use new technologies like the burgeoning Internet to help get great films off of filmmakers’ shelves and out to audiences and activists hungry for issue-oriented media.

In the ensuing decade, Arts Engine weathered the Internet bust, the difficult terrain of nonprofit fundraising, and the ups and downs that come with producing a box-set worth of films.

Looking back on that February night in Brooklyn, Chevigny––who is now the organization’s executive director––says, “I wanted to celebrate not throwing in the towel.” To say the least.

In today’s expanding media landscape, Arts Engine has found a unique niche. It is a nonprofit organization, a social-issue documentary production company, a significant online presence and an ad hoc filmmaker support group—all under one umbrella.

With the guiding principle that nonfiction films are effective tools for social change in the hands of activists and audiences, Chevigny and Pimsleur allowed the organization to grow in unexpected directions as new opportunities presented themselves. One of those opportunities arose in 1997, when the Ford Foundation approached Arts Engine with a nebulous idea of using the Internet to connect social-issue filmmakers with activists working at the grassroots level. The resulting project, MediaRights.org, was the first website of its kind. Activists can use the site to find documentary films about a wide range of issues.

At the same time, MediaRights.org offers filmmaker easy access to an international network of activists and nonprofit organizations. If a documentary is a tool for social change, then MediaRights.org is the hardware store of the social-issue film movement, and a one-stop shopping site for activists working on issues ranging from criminal justice to sustainable agriculture and youth development.

Arts Engine expanded its online presence in 2001 with the Media That Matters Film Festival (www.mediathatmattersfest.org), one of the first online film festivals. The event was a success online, but when requests for DVDs started coming in from educators and the technically disinclined, the festival organizers discovered that an online presence wasn’t always enough. “We realized that we have to be ‘big tent’ when it comes to platform,” says Chevigny. Soon the Media That Matters Film Festival expanded to include a traveling theatrical festival and series of DVDs.

Arts Engine has maintained its strong roots as a production company for social-issue documentaries through its Big Mouth Films division. The organization began as one rented desk in the offices of Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt’s production company, Cine Qua Non. “They took pity on us,” Chevigny laughs. Big Mouth Films continues as an integral component of Arts Engine, both as a producer and as a production services provider.

Another early supporter of Arts Engine was two-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple, who met the Arts Engine team while they were editing their first film, Innocent Until Proven Guilty, in an office she shared. "Not only do they make extremely compelling films that tell powerful stories, but they do so much for young filmmakers in the community,” Kopple notes. “I recently gave an award to a young filmmaker at one of Arts Engine's events, and I was very moved by the experience."

Innocent Until Proven Guilty (1999), an exploration of the criminal justice system through the story of a young black public defender in Washington, DC, was produced by Chevigny and Pimsleur and directed by Kirsten Johnson. Pimsleur and Chevigny didn’t set out to support female directors in particular, “but once we headed in that direction we consciously stayed in that direction,” says Chevingy.

You’d be hard pressed to find a more diverse staff than the 15 employees that currently work in Arts Engine’s office in lower Manhattan, and the diversity starts with the organization’s intern program, which hosts as many as 20 individuals each year. “We don’t do much outreach for the program,” says director of production Angela Tucker, who started out as an intern herself. “They just show up.”

Chevigny, whose production credits also include Brother Born Again (2000), Nuyorican Dream (2000) and Deadline (2004), notes that people often assume running an organization with both production and distribution responsibilities would be an overwhelming challenge. But, she asserts, “It also makes us more dynamic.”

A recent example is the Arts Engine film Election Day (2007). The film utilized 12 crews spread out in various locations around the country. Crews captured polling sites, first time voters, poll watchers and others on November 2, 2004, the day George W. Bush won a second term in office. (Full disclosure: I was one of the filmmakers tapped to field-produce a segment for Election Day near my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio.)

Shooting an entire feature-length documentary on one day is no easy task. “We couldn’t have made Election Day without all of the contacts and networks we’d developed,” Chevigny maintains. The resulting film is a cohesive and often surprising ground-level view of American democracy in action—or inaction, depending on the location.

As Americans gear up for another presidential election, the number of pressing social issues we face continues to grow—certainly enough to keep the staff at Arts Engine very busy well into their second decade.

 

Election Day, the organization’s eighth feature-length documentary, aired on P.O.V. in July and will be released on DVD in September. All eight Arts Engine films will soon be available in a box set available on the organization’s website, www.artsengine.net.

David Becker recently directed the feature-length documentary Small Steps: Creating the High School for Contemporary Arts, which aired nationally on PBS last September. He is currently producing a nonfiction film about activist, clown and humanitarian Wavy Gravy with director Michelle Esrick and executive producer DA Pennebaker.

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