Two documentary filmmakers reveal how to obtain the funding your film needs.
Independent film has long been a staple of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's programming, and since its creation by the Act of Congress in 1988, ITVS (the Independent Television Service) has acted as, "public media’s leading incubator and presenter of independent film," dispensing financial and creative resources to filmmakers. Though they're a unique entity, the application process for any independent film seeking finishing funds has always been competitive, and perhaps somewhat mystifying.
In a live webinar hosted last week, ITVS' Monika Navarro spoke with Erika Cohn and Ray Santisteban, two documentary filmmakers who made it through the rigorous application process, on how to create the final submissions that lead to financial benefits enabling you to complete your films. Here are three things to know in order to make the process easier.
Submit Your Most Compelling Work (But Make it Quick)
Erika Cohn (who's been featured on our very own No Film School Podcast) and Ray Santisteban have been working on individual projects for several years. Although both filmmakers previously submitted to the ITVS Open Call (ongoing until January 29th), neither made it through on their first or second tries. Their works-in-progress were very different, but both had to do the same thing: make it through numerous rounds of judging with only a maximum of 14:59 minutes of footage to convince multiple rounds of panelists that their projects deserved funding.
Cohn's film, The Judge, tells the story of the first woman to serve on the bench in the Islamic law court in Palestine. A verité documentary, the filming process required extensive stays in the Middle East. Over a number of years (starting in 2012), Cohn submitted sections of the film, but her winning package consists mostly of a single scene where we are introduced to Al-Faqih's world: she presides over a case of spousal support. Because the courtroom was so small and crowded, Cohn decided to attach a GoPro to the judge's robe, giving the viewer her point-of-view as Al-Faqih hears the case. The film is currently finished and on the festival circuit.
Santisteban's Time of the Phoenix: The First Rainbow Coalition consisted of contemporary interviews with the members of the first Rainbow Coalition: the Black Panthers, Young Lords, the Young Patriots, and a group of white southerners who had moved north to Chicago in search of work. These interviews are intercut with archival footage (all of which, due to a lack of funds, is currently uncleared). While Cohn's film is on the festival circuit, Santisteban's is still in post-production as he's currently working om the visual structure of the archival footage, even if it's just a few frames of an obscure source.
He also previously submitted to ITVS. His winning work-in-progress starts by following the least known group among the members of the first Rainbow Coalition, the Young Patriots. The opening minutes are filled with tension between the groups, one that eases only when one of the Black Panthers ventures into a meeting of the Patriots in order to note that they are both fighting the same fight. This common ground sets up the rest of the film, following the nascent Rainbow Coalition's efforts to improve the lives of impoverished Chicago citizens.
Make Sure You Have Access
Another thing Navarro stressed was the need for filmmakers to demonstrate that they have access to their subjects. This might seem like a no-brainer, but it's vitally important to leave nothing to chance in your proposal. For both Cohn and Santisteban, the process of building a relationship with their subjects took a considerable amount of time. Cohn built up a relationship with Al-Faqih while simultaneously trying to obtain release forms from the people who appeared in the courtroom trial scenes. "It was different for everyone," she said, "and it helped, of course, that we had Al-Faqih there, to show that we had her trust." Some subjects didn't want their faces on camera and consented to have audio recorded, and vice versa.
"I can't stress enough the importance of giving us a character to care about."
In Santisteban's film, his was a matter of gaining the trust of the Young Patriots', Black Panthers', and Young Lords' former members several decades after the events of the film had taken place. Because it's primarily an archival film, the film wouldn't have worked without the participation of several key players from each of the different groups, and both filmmakers stressed how vital it was for a filmmaker applying for funding to demonstrate their access to the subjects (in writing, as well as in the WIP). After all, it's unlikely that a filmmaker will gain funding for a documentary if they can't prove to have much access to the people needed to tell these stories.
Character Is Everything
Despite being very different, the one thing these two works-in-progress have in common are that they're centered on characters with whom the audience can identify. ITVS' Navarro said that she "couldn't stress enough the importance of giving us a character to care about." It's through the characters that audiences are drawn into the worlds of these stories. With Cohn's film, she was giving audiences a glimpse into a world that almost none had seen before, and through multiple rounds of submissions, cuts, and feedback, she realized it was vital to focus on the character of Al-Faqih, to "see her in her various roles: as a strong woman, a judge, and also a community leader, meeting with different women. We had to show all of these aspects of her humanity." In doing so, she was able to communicate a subject that is, to many American viewers, somewhat abstract (the religious Law Courts of Palestine) and give it a human face.
By securing the cooperation of a wide-range of participants from the era of the first Rainbow Coalition, Santisteban was able to tell the story of a distant historical event. He was able to showcase the surviving characters and bring to life key participants in the movement like Fred Hampton, the charismatic 21-year-old Black Panther who was killed by Chicago police in 1969. Without the participation of surviving members of the Rainbow Coalition, there's no doubt the film would have lacked much of the narrative power that led, ultimately, to its funding by ITVS.
Though the funding process is, of course, different for every organization, the webinar hosted by ITVS gave a great deal of valuable information to filmmakers looking to put together the best package possible. By relying on feedback and constantly honing their work, Cohn and Santisteban were able to not only produce the best samples, but to demonstrate that their subjects would be revealing characters brought to life on-screen.