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Doc Funding and Climate Change Highlight TIFF Conference

By Marc Glassman

Filmmaker Asif Kapadia (left) in conversation with TIFF Docs programmer Thom Powers. Courtesy of TIFF

You've got to hand it to TIFF Docs programmer Thom Powers and the team at Toronto's singularly walloping fall festival. Cutting their signature conference in half has made the event much more focused and practical. There were few dead moments in the new one-day Doc Conference.

Things started off briskly with Powers' interview of Asif Kapadia. The North London director of Amy and Senna was "full value," as the Brits like to say, with an assured account of how his two recent doc hits were created. After the success of Senna, his fascinating doc about the legendary Brazilian auto racer, he was inundated with proposals to make another sports film. Not only did Kapadia not want to repeat himself, but he admitted to Powers that he isn't a sports fan. What most appealed to him with Senna was the opportunity to make a film based on archival material. Despite the objections of some of his colleagues, he daringly made Senna's interviews and physical presence the absolute focus of what became a nonfiction character-based drama.

Kapadia's latest film, Amy, is another bio-pic but differs greatly from Senna. A film about the British soul and pop singer Amy Winehouse was always going to have qualities unlike one about a great sports car driver, but there were other elements that contributed to Kapadia's approach to his latest doc. After a few disastrous interviews with the notoriously vicious British press, Winehouse stopped speaking publicly, making it impossible to create the kind of autobiography that made Senna so compulsively watchable. Kapadia had to rely on Winehouse's close friends, family and business associates as well as the singer's journals to construct a portrait of a deeply troubled, but ferociously talented individual.

Over a period of three years, Kapadia was able to gain the trust of Winehouse's oldest friends, Lauren Gilbert and Juliette Ashby, as well as the singer's first manager, Nick Shymansky, in order to construct the tragic tale of an immensely gifted artist who allowed addiction to overpower her life. Kapadia also noticed and made use of Winehouse's lyrics, which, he pointed out, described her challenging life in poetic and transparent detail.

Describing the difficulties in creating narratives on two people whose endings we already know, the director said, "Their journeys must have intensity." But, he observed, "Real life is always more complicated than fiction." Making sense of the lives of Winehouse and Senna are the accomplishments that Kapadia has already brought to the screen.

Protesters against gold mine in Halkidiki, Greece.  From Avi Lewis' 'This Changes Everything'

One of the conference's key events took place at noon in a session entitled "Do Docs Change Anything?" TIFF programmer Jesse Wente interviewed Naomi Klein, Avi Lewis and Katie McKenna about their high profile project This Changes Everything. Klein's book on climate change and the rise of community activism around the globe was a worldwide bestseller last year, and her husband, director Avi Lewis, premiered his film version at TIFF to entirely respectful reviews. The couple brought with them Katie McKenna, who is taking the lead in propelling the ideas in the book and film into the digital realm. Wente's key question came down to, "Can this multi-platform documentary affect genuine social change?"

Klein spoke for the trio when she stated, "We took on capitalism" in their multifaceted project. A self-proclaimed activist, she sees the film and the outreach strategy attached to it as a "political pop-up." Their idea is to use the public screenings, which will launch in North America in the second week of October, as the opening salvo in a campaign that will generate more and more interest leading up to the major climate change conference in Paris in November. As Klein noted, "A screen seems to help conversations."

Political and community movements won't happen simply because people see the film and read the book. For the campaign started by This Changes Everything to be successful, Lewis maintained, "Social change must happen apart from the film and the book." That's where the digital efforts spearheaded by McKenna are intended to take place. She freely admitted that her outreach project is far better funded than the vast majority of documentary features. But then what she's tasked with is far greater than the expectations generally laid on a film's new media expert.

McKenna is being asked to "connect movements" internationally, encouraging community activists engaged in anti-globalization efforts as well as working specifically on climate change. The rhetoric of indigenous peoples, who embrace local initiatives and are dedicated to preserving natural resources, was ever-present in this session's far reaching discussion, which began with Wente, who is a First Nations Canadian, thanking the ancestors who used to dwell in Toronto for their forbearance in allowing the Doc Conference to take place.

Now, that's social change—even at a film festival.

Will This Changes Everything change anything? No one knows yet, but McKenna says she's dedicated to "getting to ‘yes'" and Klein and Lewis (and I suspect Wente) all agree.

March against coal-fired power plant in Sompeta, India. From Avi Lewis' 'This Changes Everything'

The next major session, "The Year Kickstarter Got to $100M for Documentaries," was presented by two of the company's film outreach leads, Dan Schoenbrun and George Schmalz. The year in the title is, of course, 2015—May, to be exact—and the session had a nice, if gimmicky, narrative centered on the major projects that got them there, year to year, from the beginning, with takeaways from each funding success.

The first winning campaign was for the development of the ultimate nerd doc, Indie Game. It garnered $23,341 in 2010. Yes, as the very upbeat Schmalz often reminded us, Kickstarter had helped to raise $100M in less than seven years. Early successes in 2011 included two docs that appealed to the arts scene, Finding Vivian Maier ($105,045) and Urbanized ($118, 505). Jennifer Fox's My Reincarnation appealed to the Buddhist community and beyond while raising $150,000 and Indie Game proved that you could go back to the well with a second campaign, for distribution, which garnered $71,335. By 2012, Kickstarter was clearly established, helping to fund such diverse projects as The Yes Men Are Revolting ($146,000), Detropia ($71,000) and I Am Big Bird ($124, 114).

Schmalz and Schoenbrun continued with their through line straight to the present but the point was obvious: Kickstarter works. In fact, the money raised for two recent campaigns, I Am Not Spock ($662,000), by Leonard Nimoy's son; and Last Chance to Save the World ($859,425), about Bill Nye, the Science Guy, have been the best ever. What Schmalz and Schoenbrun didn't address is failure. Far more projects fail than succeed, and not everyone has the reputation of Bill Nye. Still, Kickstarter has changed the financing of the indie doc landscape forever, and both Schmalz and Schoenbrun are happy to give advice to new, struggling filmmakers.

The larger issue of fundraising was addressed in the final major session of the Conference, "Finding the Money: A New Study on Documentary and Philanthropy." Dr. Marilyn Burgess of Communications MDR, who co-wrote a survey on philanthropic funding for documentaries in Canada with Maria De Rosa, engaged in a conversation with the IDA's new executive director, Simon Kilmurry, on the global search for money to make docs. Much of the to-and-fro between Kilmurry and Burgess consisted of the recapping of the findings of her study.

In the survey, Burgess and De Rosa pointed out that philanthropists are taking an increasing interest in funding social issue documentaries in many countries, particularly in Australia, England and the US. The work of such initiatives as BRITDOC and Good Pitch, the Documentary Australia Foundation (DAF), the Fledgling Fund, JustFilms, the Chicago Media Project, Impact Partners and the IDA's Fiscal Sponsorship Program are all examined in the report. Each has its merits—and they're all different. For example, DAF acts as a re-granter or fiscal sponsor for films, while the Fledgling Fund (which has been involved in six Oscar winners including The Cove and Inocente) takes a venture capital position in films they believe in, and specializes in audience engagement.

Kilmurry was often left in the position of agreeing with the survey's study, which was too detailed to be addressed in a conversational format. He was more effective when talking about the IDA's Fiscal Sponsorship Program, which has helped filmmakers accept philanthropic donations and grants for over 20 years and attracts more than $7 million dollars in support of documentary projects each year.

How the international examples cited in the report will help Canadian documentarians is unclear. The tax credit system favored by Canadian provincial governments (and the federal one) might work against philanthropic donations, which would likely be discounted for potential governmental credits. Also, at this point, a grant from a philanthropist wouldn't trigger much-needed governmentally regulated broadcast funds, though the dollars might be greater than from a TV network.

Kilmurry had the last and wisest words when he pointed out that whatever success is achieved in Canada through getting money from philanthropy, documentarians should still insist on maintaining what's left of the old public funding system.


Marc Glassman edits the Canadian documentary magazine POV and the Directors Guild of Canada's publication, Montage. He teaches media history in Ryerson University's Masters in Documentary Media program.