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Funding, Post-Truth, Podcasts among Hot Topics at AFI Doc Forum

By Casey Freeman Howe

The panel 'Truth in Storytelling: Docs and the Media in a Post-Truth World,' left to right:  Andi McDaniel, senior director of content and news at WAMU; John Yang, correspondent, 'PBS NewsHour'; Phil Bertelsen, producer/director; Realization Pictures; Raney Aronson-Rath, executive producer, 'Frontline'; and filmmaker Whitney Dow. Photo: AFI Docs

The annual AFI DOCS Filmmaker Forum was held this year from June 15-18 at the AFI DOCS Festival Hub in downtown Washington, DC.

The forum opened with the panel "Going to the Source: Documentary Funders Share Their Insights," which was moderated by Kathryn Washington, director of television content at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

The panel featured Maida Brankman, founder of Genuine Article Pictures; Dan Cogan, executive director and co-founder of Impact Partners; Jax DeLuca, director of media arts at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA); Melissa Fondakowski, a consultant with The Redford Center; Sheila Leddy, executive director of The Fledgling Fund; and David Weinstein, senior program officer, Division of Public Programs, National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

During the standing-room-only panel - which was followed by one-on-one sessions between filmmakers and funders - the panelists discussed their different investment approaches and strategies.

Brankman described philanthropy as the "ultimate risk capital" and said that as a philanthropist she has some advantages over institutional investors - particularly the ability to fund projects that might be seen as too risky by more traditional film investors, but also flexibility with timing and funding amounts. This year, for example, she chose four projects and invested $50,000 into each, and said she's done investing for the year.

Cogan's Impact Partners, a fund made up of 43 investors, has a more traditional approach to film financing and seeks to find projects that will bring a return on investment. The fund has invested in projects with budgets ranging from $200,000 to $2M, and the size of Impact Partners' investment has ranged from $25,000 to $2M. Their investment in projects follows what Cogan called the "typical indie film structure," where investors receive their money back plus 15 percent and a percentage of net profits determined by the percentage of investment.

The Fledgling Fund - which recently eliminated their bi-annual deadline in lieu of a rolling one - has introduced a new funding initiative, the Special Fund for Rapid Story Deployment. Leddy emphasized, however, that The Fledgling Fund remains as committed as ever to supporting post-production outreach and engagement work for social impact films.

The panelists also picked up the conversation about personal financial solvency and career sustainability for filmmakers, which was a focus of IDA's Getting Real conference in Fall 2016.

Deluca said that "making a living is one of the most pressing challenges as a filmmaker" and she encouraged filmmakers to "be really transparent about how you're getting funding." She cited Lance Kramer's recent article in Documentary magazine about Meridian Hill Pictures' efforts to fund their feature-length documentary City of Trees as an example of the type of transparency she hopes will help the field find solutions to the sustainability problem.

"All of us who love film and love filmmakers need to think about sustainability and need to think about how filmmakers can have a career doing this," Cogan stressed. But he also emphasized that filmmakers need to find a way to fit into the existing marketplace. "If you want to have a career making movies, you need to find ways to make films that people want to see," he maintained, adding that it is important for filmmakers to "choose the right film to spend three to five years on."

But what that "right film" is, was something that the panelists agreed was hard to define.

At NEH, which is operating business as usual despite possible elimination under the current administration's proposed budget, Weinstein explained that because they are a federal agency accountable to Congress, "It is important to be able to show we are getting good value." In their case, that means their funding is focused on projects that will appeal to a national audience.

Brankman re-emphasized that not all funders are looking for projects with large market appeal, and said that "it would be really great if in a capitalist society we have philanthropy pick up where the market falls down. There is an audience for other types of films that may not have broad market appeal, and it's an opportunity for philanthropy to step up."

Leddy also added that for films with a less commercial audience, there is more potential on the impact side of film funding. "It may not do well on broadcast," she admitted, "but it might do well doing its job as an impact film."

Day two of the forum opened with "Truth in Storytelling: Docs and the Media in a Post-Truth World." Andi McDaniel, senior director of content and news at DC-based WAMU, moderated the panel, which focused on storytelling in the current environment of hyper-partisan media outlets, media antagonism, "fake news" and "post-truth."

The panel featured a mix of public media journalists and documentary filmmakers: Raney Aronson-Rath, executive producer, Frontline; John Yang, correspondent, PBS NewsHour; Phil Bertelsen, producer and director at Realization Pictures; and filmmaker Whitney Dow.

"This topic of truth is something that I think is particularly relevant now, but it's never been irrelevant," Yang said. "Ironically, Donald Trump may be saving print media," citing the increase in subscriptions to a number of the country's largest and most established newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal. It has also been a good year for PBS NewsHour, whose viewership has increased 21 percent over the campaign year, while cable and network news viewership is down over the same period.

McDaniel noted the recent Huffington Post article titled "PBS NewsHour Is Unexciting and Even-Keeled and People Are Loving It" and asked if this could be a "golden moment" for public broadcast's style of reporting. "I think that there is a change," Yang replied. "I think that we do things without drama and people appreciate what we're doing." He added that he's noticed a difference in what people say to him when they recognize him in public. "People used to say, 'We love the show.' Now they say, 'We really appreciate the show'."

The investigative journalism giant Frontline is also holding steady with its non-partisan, fact-based reporting, and is actively experimenting with new ways to build trust with its diverse, multi-platform audience, about one-third of which identifies as "somewhat conservative." "One of the biggest things that I've been focusing on lately is trust, this idea that there is such a lack of trust, especially in East Coast media," Aronson-Rath explained. "We're starting a big experiment we're calling The Frontline Transparency Project, which is an interactive opening of our notebook." The interactive scripts are a digital native tool that Frontline plans to pilot for a year.

"If you want to know how we constructed an argument or how we came to a conclusion, we're going to walk you through that process," Aronson-Rath explained. "The reason for that is because we're trying to build a dialogue with our audience, which is very different than times in the past. The assumption was trust.

"I think now if we want to reach across the divide, whatever side of the divide you're on, it's essential that journalists say, 'This is how we came to this conclusion,' so that people who maybe don't trust you can understand or at least come to their own conclusion, which sometimes isn't what you want," she continued. "Sometimes they'll disagree with you, but at least make them be privy to that process."

Filmmaker Whitney Dow fully embraces the idea of multiple narratives. He explained how he views the production process itself as the key to creating work that represents the complexity of a "post-truth world."

"We've always been living in this post-truth world," Dow said, and he works to build production teams and production processes "that are constructed on my understanding that my narrative is faulty." Dow’s understanding of multiple narratives arose during his experience on his first film, Two Towns of Jasper, about the 1998 murder of James Byrd, a black man who was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged to death by three local white men in Jasper, Texas, a small town of 7,000 people.

"From the very beginning of my career, I was confronted with this idea that there are multiple narratives," Dow said. "I went [to Jasper] and the first thing that struck me was the multiple narratives in the community. The white community had a fundamentally different truth about this event than the black community. It's a strange feeling. I realized that there was no way that I could tell a single story."

Dow's response was to create two different crews: an all-black crew that only talked to black people, and an all-white crew that only talked to white people. The crews spent over a year in Jasper during the trial. "What was really fascinating about this whole process is we realized that when we got to the editorial process, we couldn't agree on reality," Dow said. "There were fundamentally different realities in almost every situation."

Since that formative experience, Dow says he has come to value diversity as the key to good storytelling in his subsequent projects, which include I Sit Where I Want: The Legacy of Brown versus Board of Education; The Whiteness Project; and Veterans Coming Home.

"The best thing to do is to build a really complex team that produces really good work," Dow said. "You can't produce good work unless you really understand that you have multiple narratives."

AFI DOCS Opening Night Gala at the Newseum. Photo: AFI Docs

The second panel of the day, "Documentary Film in Service of a Civil Society," focused on local engagement initiatives at public media stations.

Moderated by Caty Borum Chattoo, director of the Center for Media & Social Impact, the panel featured Emmalee Hackshaw, director of community engagement at Georgia Public Broadcasting; Jefferi K. Lee, general manager of WHUT TV in Washington, DC; and Naomi Starobin, general manager of WHYY Radio in Philadelphia and the editor for "Keystone Crossroads," a solutions journalism initiative that focuses on urban challenges in Philadelphia.

The panelists showcased a number of the local events, including screenings, forums, Independent Lens pop-ups, and TEDx events and described how these events help create community in combination with local air time, social media and community partnerships. The physical act of bringing people together provides a space for what Chattoo called "the art of civic deliberation."

Hackshaw described how these events allow people to experience stories communally rather than alone, and bring together people who otherwise may never interact. "It's one thing to watch a documentary alone on your couch or listen to a podcast in your car, but it's a whole other thing to consume that as a group of people, and to be able to react to it and react to other people's reactions," she noted. "I think that's how we build empathy."

Sunday's forum opened with the panel "Moving the Needle: How Programs for Filmmakers Are Making a Difference in Gender Parity."

Moderated by Debra Zimmerman, executive director of Women Make Movies, the panel focused on recent initiatives in the industry supporting women filmmakers and featured Claire Aguilar, director of programming and policy at IDA; Lynn Hughes, co-chair of the Women's Impact Network at the Producers Guild of America; Christa Scharfenberg, the Head of Studio at Glassbreaker Films, which is part of the Center for Investigative Reporting; and Terry Lawler, executive director of New York Women in Film & Television.

One of the largest new initiatives in the documentary field is Glassbreaker Films, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), funded by the Helen Gurley Brown Foundation. The $2M program has three components. The first is funding for a documentary series about women leaders, directed by five established female filmmakers. This year's selected filmmakers are Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Ann Shin, Penny Lane, Dawn Porter and Elaine McMillon Sheldon. The second component of the program is a residence for three emerging female filmmakers, who are working on shorter Web docs for CIR and leading the third component of the program, which is training high school girls in the Bay Area in filmmaking.

Scharfenberg said that CIR received over 900 applications for the eight filmmaker spots, and that the program will continue at least one, and hopefully two more years.

Sunday's forum also featured an extended panel session that explored the process of creating nonfiction podcasts. The panel was split into two parts, both moderated by Lauren Ober, host of The Big Listen.

Part one of the panel featured Morgan Givens, the host of Dispatches; Steve Nelson, director of programming at NPR; Liana Simonds, the show runner for the podcast Invisibilia; and Christa Scharfenberg again.

The panelists described the nuts and bolts of podcasting, and highlighted some of the differences between audio and visual storytelling. For example, Scharfenberg said that at Reveal, the podcast based on CIR's investigative work, they "have to get creative at how to explain numbers." She described some of their efforts of "data sonification," including an example of representing Oklahoma's seismic activity spikes due to fracking.

The second half of the panel featured Alix Spiegel and Hannah Rosin, co-hosts of the NPR podcast Invisibilia, and they shared their process for how they construct the show.

The pair described the importance of the interview as the critical component of the show. Spiegel said that the "piece is made in the interview prep" and that their interviews will often take around seven hours. "We do extensive preparation," she explained. "But the real art of it is creating a space as soon as you walk in the room that's essentially safe, warm and inviting. And you have to love the person to some degree and they have to trust you."

Rosin described the learning curve she experienced transitioning from print to radio, particularly when it came to interviewing. "As a print reporter, I just need you to tell me the story," she said. "I don't need you to be in a mental space and re-inhabit the story that you're telling me, because I'm doing the writing. But as a radio reporter, if someone's distracted when you're doing the interview with them, the tape is no good to you. It's dead to you."

The co-hosts also described their process of a scene in an excerpt from an episode that they shared with the audience. In the scene, their subject describes a horrific car crash that became the basis of a lawsuit that was representative of how courts have started to treat emotional damages.

"Since we're in a room full of movie people, the car accident's the first thing to talk about," Spiegel explained. "If you're in a movie and you're trying to show a car accident, you show a car accident. But if you're in audio, it just sounds trite. If you just have the sounds of two cars crashing, it doesn't work. So you have to find a creative way to convey the kind of feeling and urgency and drama of a car accident without literally doing a car accident."

The final sequence used editing techniques to recreate the "series of flashes" that people so often experience when recalling traumatic events, and layerd in beeps, bells, as well the sound of a spinning cup, which, Spiegel said added "a subtle sense of tension and of jeopardy….These are all elements that you combine to create an emotional experience. It's not a literal representation; it's impressionistic. But I think sometimes impressionistic representations are even more powerful."

Casey Freeman Howe is an emerging filmmaker based in Durham, NC.