Yesterday evening I attended NYWIFT's Digi-Dynamics: Changemakers - Documentaries That Spur Social Movement. A panel discussion made up of a variety of filmmakers whose focus is, as the event's title implies, to inspire social change through social issue documentary films. Moderated by Michelle Byrd (former distinguished IFP Executive Director), the filmmaker panelists included Laura Castañeda, Jesse Erica Epstein, Nancy Kennedy, Bitta Mostofi and Vaishali Sinha. Ms. Byrd introduced each filmmaker, who set up their film and then the audience was shown a clip. There was a bit of follow up explanation and then the floor was opened for questions. Most questions revolved around funding and distribution.
Although the usual respectable suspects were mentioned, such as Working Films, Chicken and Egg Pictures, Gucci Tribeca, The Fledgling Fund and New Day Films, the discussion still had great variety in each filmmaker's approach to audience engagement and distribution strategies.
Vaishali Sinha, who's documentary, Made in India (pictured above), exposes the outsourcing of surrogacy to India. Most of her funding and distribution sounded like a fairly standard for an independent work as indicated above. That might make funding sound easy, but anyone could tell by the clip shown of Made in India that a filmmaker has to have a compelling and deep subject that's explored in a clear and emotional way to make the cut. Made in India will be showing at HotDocs this year.
Bitta Mostofi, a filmmaker who is part of a artist activist collective (Where is My Vote, New York) organized to promote citizen journalists, videographers and bloggers through mulit-media exhibits and the internet. Ms. Mostofi's video shown at this event was a beautiful merging of music, animation and protest footage. Her distribution strategy was simply to get the videos seen by as many as possible in order to raise awareness of human rights violations and to increase international solidarity with the citizens of Iran.
Jesse Erica Epstein talked about her struggle over experimenting with new distribution options and concern over network disinterest stemming from possible over exposure. Her decision to try youtube's screening room, however, paid off. Not only did she get world wide exposure but she was also picked up by POV. She also discussed partnering with other organizations to promote discussion on body image (the fascinating subject of her films) and she' now working with some sort of interactive video game to further online presence and impact. Ms. Epstein mentioned the great programs at Working Films and Chicken and Egg Pictures that assist filmmakers with audience engagement plans.
Laura Castañeda, originally a beat reporter and journalist participated via Skype and was interesting because she came from a completely different background than the other filmmakers. Some of her funding came from associates in the business and their connections while it sounded as though her distribution came from traditional pitching to network producers.
Nancy Kennedy was one of the most interesting panelists partly because of her impressive body of work, but also due to the promotional and distribution strategy she talked about for the film Who Does She Think She Is? (Ms. Kennedy co-directed and edited). She said the filmed was screened through film festivals and she stressed the importance of filmmakers being present for these screenings. She said at screenings, email addresses would be collected and their list accumulated to 60,000, which proved highly useful later when selling the dvd. Ms. Kennedy also talked about a screening where the film was also streamed in 6 different cities in combination with an online panel. Who Does She Think She Is also distributed "House Party Kits", a beautifully packaged box with a discussion booklet, artist cards, film poster and dvd. The idea being to organize a home screening viewing and post discussion. Who Does She Think She Is will air on PBS in New York on Mother's Day this year.
Although there were questions from the audience that had nothing to do with exposure, funding or distribution, the bulk of it was. After all I suppose it really doesn't matter how amazing a story is if no one sees it. These filmmakers were obviously excellent examples that independent film is still alive, present and adapting to the times, but it's also increasingly obvious that today's independent documentary filmmakers must wear many hats.