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Documentary Is Our Public Square: Keynote Address from Hot Springs’ Inaugural Filmmaker Forum

By Darcy McKinnon

Photograph of Darcy McKinnon delivering a keynote talk at the Filmmaker Forum. Courtesy of HSDFF

Photograph of Darcy McKinnon delivering a keynote talk at the Filmmaker Forum. Courtesy of HSDFF

Editor’s Note: On October 9, the first day of Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival’s two-day Filmmaker Forum, Darcy McKinnon delivered the following keynote address advocating for the value of documentary films as a public good. As a producer, McKinnon has shepherded some of the most vibrant and iconic nonfiction work from the Gulf South in recent years. For nearly a decade, she was the Executive Director of the New Orleans Video Access Center (NOVAC), a nonprofit supporting community-based media in Southeast Louisiana, overseeing a bevy of youth, film industry workforce training, video production, video preservation, and community screening programs. Last week, AmDoc, the nonprofit behind POV, announced that McKinnon would receive the inaugural Creative Visionary Award at the AmDoc annual gala on November 7, 2023. 

HSDFF's Filmmaker Forum marks the hope of first-year ED Ken Jacobson and Forum Producer Lisa Hasko to transform the convivial festival into “a major annual convening of filmmakers and industry leaders from through the South and mid-South regions” that focuses “on public media, as well as a wider lens on the nonfiction ecosystem as a whole.” Passes were sold for a fraction of most industry conference prices, and offered for free for Arkansas-based filmmakers, festival alumni, and any filmmakers who submitted their projects for programming consideration at this year’s fest. 

This text has been edited for publication in Documentary.

Hi, I’m Darcy, and I’m a Documentary Producer

This fall marks the end of my fourth year where documentary producing has been my only job; I have a small production company in New Orleans called Gusto Moving Pictures, with two colleagues/friends working with me, and a diverse group of collaborators in town and out. I really love my job. Before I stepped out on my own,  I was the Executive Director of a small community nonprofit for nine years, and before that I was a public school teacher for nine years. Before that, I was a waitress, a post-production manager, a temp worker, an assistant editor, and a video store clerk.  I have worked in, on, and around films for much of that time, but I’ve only been a full-time filmmaker since 2020; I’m almost 50, by the way, for those of you emerging creatives who are worried time is passing you by.

When I left my job to produce full-time, I had a bit of a panic attack. In 2020, there were no in-person film festivals, and I didn’t know when they would return. I didn’t know how I was going to make enough money to sustain myself. So while producing CJ Hunt’s The Neutral Ground (2021)Nailah Jefferson’s Commuted (2023), and Katie Mathews’s Roleplay (anticipated in 2024), I took a field producing gig on a film that a bunch of my friends were working on, Margaret Brown’s Descendant (2022). It was really great and I loved working with Margaret. But after a few days doing COVID protocols, getting lunch, and signing releases, I realized that I had panic-attacked myself into a demotion. After a decade of running a business, I was starting over, and maybe I didn’t need to be.  I didn’t know how one did this work of “being a producer” as a whole job.   

A few weeks after that Descendant shoot, I got a call that led to me being brought on as a producer on Look at Me! XXXTENTACION (2022)directed by Sabaah Folayan. And the three years since then have been really, really busy. I’ve been making indie docs that I’m fundraising for on the one hand, and taking more commercial jobs on the other. While I’ve been trying to build a balance, I have still been so grateful to be able to make a really good living (for a former public school teacher) as a professional storyteller, working on projects I believe in throughout the South. What a privilege. 

Then this year happened. Whew. Did it happen to you too? I remain ever-willing to get scrappy, and I am used to making something out of nothing, but honestly, this year’s scarcity surprised me. I had gotten used to the abundance (or promise of abundance) of the documentary landscape of the past 5–8 years so quickly. I had expectations that I was building into my personal and professional life—into my travel plans, my budgets, the scope and breadth of the projects I was planning to do, and the money I was going to need to do it.  

This year I was forced to recall my own words, that I say to younger filmmakers in workshops and one-on-ones: We have chosen a very expensive art form to practice, an art form that is as much a business as it is a craft.” This year, I had to reflect on whether I had the intestinal fortitude to ride out this business/art, when people with money and platforms treat documentaries the way that they historically have—as not worth that much.

I took time for myself this summer, kayaking with my sister through mangrove tunnels, spending time with my family, my friends, my dog. And now I have started resetting myself around my work and my expectations of the landscape. I am reflecting on why exactly I have and why we have continued to try and take on this work of documentary storytelling—and as importantly, who exactly we are making it for. 

So when I thought about what I wanted to talk about with y’all today, at this Public Media Forum, I realized I have been reflecting a lot on the idea of “the Public”—this mostly invisible, hard to quantify, borderless audience that we are shouting our stories at, often with no real, clear sense of who they are or what they think about our documentaries, or about our intentions as documentary filmmakers. 

On the “Public”

The Public is an audience that, for most of us in this room, is an undefined slice of America who 1. shares our beliefs in democratic systems, and 2. is seeking to be illuminated, moved, or outraged by the stories we tell and the way we tell them. Facing ourselves toward this Public is an essential part of what we do. Most of us here in this room are trying to make the Public aware of stories that are different, or from different points of view, than the prevailing narratives that we see across our commercial streamers, studios, and broadcasters. We are seeking to connect the Public to a world that they might not have access to through other channels. 

The Public is an idealized concept that sits at the center of our collective ongoing democracy experiment. When we are storytellers at our best, we are serving the Public new and challenging narratives that are free from the influence of corporate shareholders, theocratic leaders, or reality-show grifters, to help define a body politic that embraces the real diversity of that Public, and sees its own nuance, complexity, and contradictions.

I’ve also been thinking about public school a lot these days. I’m an alumnus of Southern public education (Go Gators), a former teacher, and a friend, cousin, and sister of public school teachers across the South and beyond. I’ve been thinking about the purpose of public school, which at its heart is to equalize the playing field of life, and to help form good citizens. I've been thinking about how  teaching today, which as a profession is already one of the hardest jobs out there, is infinitely worse in the present moment—if you know a teacher or librarian, give them a hug for me.  

The attempts to deconstruct public education and public school teaching are legislating the stories we tell ourselves about who we are as Americans—that is literally what is up for debate in state legislatures in the South, and also in New Hampshire and Iowa and in districts in every state in the nation. Meanwhile, teachers we have been interviewing for CJ Hunt’s new film are worried about whether their kids are food secure, safe at home, and learning literacy and numeracy. What can we do for these teachers, students, and families as storytellers? 

On social media, I see a lot of people leaving or boycotting the South because of these policies. For me, the South is a huge range of diverse communities, and the people are not their governments. As I was radicalized in many ways by the experience of being a New Orleanian during Hurricane Katrina almost 20 years ago, and seeing what generational economic and media divestment wrought, I don't believe divestment serves my communities, most of whom don't have the privilege of leaving. I remain more committed to storytelling in the South as my purpose. We can ensure teachers, students, and families have access to rigorously reported and researched, empathetically created, boundary-pushing primary source work and analytical essays that help support their understanding of themselves and others, inside and outside of the classroom. 

And because I’m me, I’ve been thinking a lot about the South as our public square. I care about the representational history of the American South and the Caribbean, my slice of the planet, but I also really enjoy living and working here, and not in the places I’m “supposed” to work in to make it in the industry. As I’ve had to reflect this year that my budgets might not be as big going forward, that we may not have money for ACs or AEs (gah), and that I might not get a black car pickup for the next film premiere, I’ve had to reset around what I love about this work. And what I’m grateful for as a person who gets to be a Southern storyteller as my job and career. I really just love driving around the Gulf South, the Mississippi Delta, and South Florida in my little car, and finding new towns, new stories, and new people, and working with filmmakers to make sense of how these people and places fit into my own understanding of where I’m from and to whom I belong. Realizing this work, of being in space and community with the diversity of people who make up this South—this is what I’m in it for.  

The more time I spend in small towns, in rural communities, in Southern cities, in communities and traditions that vibrate at the same level as I do, or that contradict my assumptions and challenge my ennui, the more I realize that this South is my public square. These are the people and communities that are struggling to find existential and kinetic energy to move forward, both exploited by the right and ignored by the left. These are communities with correctional facilities and transnational energy companies as the only employers in town. These are the places whose deep pride, ritual, and traditions defy or define the stereotypes that grow in the absence of thorough and thoughtful storytelling. We, documentary storytellers as a group writ large, and more specifically as storytellers who consider ourselves to have a love for and responsibility to the places that made us, are here today, in our own public square, and we are here today to speak to the Public— our Public. 

It’s My Public Media, and Yours Too 

My career in film has never not been connected to community-based and public media. I got my start working on projects like Vicky Funari and Sergio de la Torre’s Maquilapolis (2006), which got ITVS funding after five application rounds. It ended up premiering at Tribeca and broadcast on POV, having a long tail of impact and outreach screenings; I know the film is still being taught in college syllabi today.  Community media gave me tools throughout this process—organizations like NOVAC and BAVC, who take all comers with a story to tell, took me and helped me throughout my career, and still do today. The Neutral Ground was only possible through early support from CAAM and Firelight Media, who came in as first money to a film about the legacy of slavery in the South. BPM, ITVS, and World Channel are bringing Commuted out with me to festivals in a few weeks, and broadcast next year.  

Even more than just specific film work, five or six years ago at a convening, Sapana Sakya from CAAM and I cooked up the Sauce, an emerging filmmaker fellowship for Asian American filmmakers in the South. She found the money, and along with Saleem Reshamwala, we made a beautiful cohort of emerging filmmakers called the Sauce, some of whom are here in the room today, as filmmakers with projects screening and pitching. I would not be here today as a filmmaker and alum of this festival and others like it without public media, ITVS, the National Multicultural Alliance, strands like Independent LensPOVAfroPop and other World Channel programming, and all the people in the PBS system who connect the dots for producers like me.  

I’m no purist. Like you, I also like the idea of a fancy animated logo, a step-and-repeat, a piece of shiny metal hardware, and a Dolby Surround swoosh, and have found myself allured by the idea that “real success” is marked by being chosen by a commercial platform that is shinier and bigger somehow than public media. However, this year in our industry has revealed, again, that while our commercial doc execs are amazing people, the commercial streamers as companies are here to make commercial media—commodity over community. While it may feel bigger or shinier, and that streamers reach a bigger audience, is it true? How will you know that your film is part of the public discourse, part of the public conversation? Who is your audience, who is your Public, and how will you get to them?  

I want kids in schools, rural families, and those who are incarcerated to have access to the stories we make. More than anyone, public media prioritizes those audiences and that engagement. Today, who is going to buy or pay you to make your artful personal story, your experimental sound essay, or your layered and nuanced social issue investigation, without requiring a celebrity attachment, a murder, or a brand gone bad? Public media.

I hope to make big shiny commercial work again. But I’m a public media girl through and through, and if you are a documentary filmmaker today, public media, as a funder, a partner, and a platform, is the entity in the US making the most serious, boundary-pushing, important work. Just last night, The Tuba Thieves and A Town Called Victoria, two projects that are essential conversations about how we engage with our communities, and which are vastly different in their formal approach, both played here, and both will be launching on public media.  

Public media is not perfect—there are conversations that need to be had, or are starting to be had, about subject compensation, ethical budgeting, investing in marketing and press dollars, and the absolute chokehold of one septuagenarian archival pan-and-scanner. My direct plea to PBS: it’s time to invest in being cool. How do we pull the cultural energy about union organizing, mutual aid, and solidarity onto the channel that your grandma watches to learn about antiquing? Public media is cool, but maybe it needs to look a little cooler: serious social media presence, multi-platform access, and more pathways for diverse and younger creators. It’s for the public good to bring more eyeballs to public media. 

What I’m in It For—All Y’all

Later today I’m going to moderate a panel on distribution in the current landscape, and the conversations that you’re going to witness will be in the context that it’s brutal out there for documentary filmmakers. Funding has been moving more slowly. Sales—even more slowly. There are more docs being made today than ever, and fewer places to show them than even a few years ago.  It’s going to be harder to get your project off the ground this year than it has been in the past five to six years. That’s a reality. 

But that reality presents the opportunity to better define what you are in it for—what you want out of this career, this art form, this business, this compulsion. Making documentaries is hard. When it gets hard, what or who are you creating for? For me, I’m in it to have a meaningful, ongoing conversation with my Public—the people and audiences who make up this vast, diverse region called the American South, the fate of which I believe defines the success of the American project. I’m making films that I think can hold ourselves and other Americans accountable for the policies and narratives that harm us and help us, films that showcase the joy, tragedy, and absurdity of these places, and to hopefully engage the public who watches our films in their own projects of narrative change.  And I hope I can keep making a living doing it.

I choose to live and work and tell stories in the South because I believe in the future of the South. A liberated South whose laws and living conditions represent the fertile diversity that has long been our promise. A Black, Brown, and Queer South that represents the legacy of the working class, the enslaved, and other complicated and troubled histories of our land. A South that uplifts all the voices of its public.  And if I’m to be a storyteller in that South, I have to connect my politics to my practice, and work and live here to bring its stories to light.

I hope today is full of great conversations and ideas, and that you take this opportunity, as you set out on the long, arduous process of bringing a documentary story to your public, to consider who and what you are doing this for;  how you can craft a story that reaches the public that you want to engage, that presses forward the conversation of the public square, and uplifts your essential voice and vision. 

Based in New Orleans, Darcy McKinnon is committed to working from within the American South. Her prior work has screened and been broadcast internationally, and has been supported by SFFILM, CAAM, Chicken and Egg, Firelight Media, ITVS, Black Public Media, Sundance Institute, and the Tribeca Film Institute.