AFI DOCS Forum Commenced with Poignant Themes

by Megan Rummler

Acute Discourse on Documentary Film Funding and Sustainability;
Zeitgeist of Storytelling; and Purpose and Responsibility of Public Media


Thursday panel, “Going to the Source: Documentary Funders Share Their Insights.”
Left to right: Moderator Kathryn Washington, Corporation for Public Broadcasting; David Weinstein, National Endowment for the Humanities; Sheila Leddy, The Fledgling Fund; Maida Brankman, Genuine Article Pictures; Dan Cogan, Impact Partners; Melissa Fondakowski, The Redford Center; Jax DeLuca, National Endowment for the Arts.

The opening day scene of American Film Institute (AFI) DOCS Festival Hub at the District Architecture Center in downtown Washington, D.C., drew standing room only crowds for its inaugural AFI DOCS Forum. Now in its 15th year, AFI DOCS Forum is the film festival’s plenary sessions of exclusive networking events and presentations that examine current and pressing industry topics. Forum sessions are also designed to “connect filmmakers and industry insiders outside of the movie theatre,” says Michael Lumpkin, director of AFI DOCS. AFI DOCS Forum sessions ran from June 15 through June 18.

AFI DOCS Forum Panel—Day One:
Wading Through the Funding Maze

Thursday morning’s forum session, “Going to the Source: Documentary Funders Share Their Insights,” convened to a densely packed crowd of documentary film professionals, industry insiders and festival pass-holders ready to engage in a robust plenary discussion on how to navigate funding artists and filmmakers in an ever shifting documentary landscape.

Moderator Kathryn Washington unveiled three main themes: the desire for increased, open dialogue within the industry about the funding process; the need for transparency around financial options and avenues; and the desire for an increased team approach between funders and filmmakers.

Open Dialogue

Founder of Genuine Article Pictures, Maida Brankman, acknowledged an ever-present tension she grapples to address—which is the question of “how to address the quandary of career sustainability and creative space.” She stated, “How do we think about funding artists and filmmakers and maybe less about funding projects?” She explained, “I know that when artists are working as independent people it presents an issue that can’t be solved with simply giving someone a general operating grant. An individual artist is not the same as a non-profit, but people and organizations I don’t think can make it on only project grants. There’s got to be someway to bring in some kind of proxy for general operating support for artists and that is a question I’ve been pondering. I don’t have the answer but I’m really interested in talking about that.” Brankman also added that perhaps philanthropy picks up where funding falls short.


Guest panelist Jax Deluca, Media Arts Director at National Endowment for the Arts, called for increased transparency in the filmmaker funding process. She urged audience members to reference Lance Kramer’s article published on the website titled, “The Messy Truth behind a Day Job as a Documentarian.” Deluca stated that the industry needs more articles of this nature to help filmmakers get past the feeling of being, “all alone and in the dark” about the funding process. Deluca is currently curating a “filmmakers toolkit” in an attempt to demystify the funding process and to help accelerate the funding experience.

Team Approach

On the other hand funders like Dan Cogan, Executive Director and Co-Founder at Impact Partners, ask filmmakers to be more industrious and purposeful in their filmmaking. Cogan said, “All of us who love film and who love filmmakers need to think about the sustainability issue and how people can have careers doing this work.” He stated that there is a responsibility on the part of the filmmaker to think, “how am I telling a story that through the marketplace as it exists today, can find a home?” Cogan continued, “I think it’s important actually for filmmakers to recognize that it’s not only about what the field broadly conceives of doing. It’s about the films they’re choosing to make.” He explained, “the truth is that if you want to have a career in making movies you need to find a way to take the things that you care about, the things that make you passionate, the subjects that you want to make your films about and find a way to make things audiences want to see.” Cogan concluded that the funding process is, “a two-prong thing; where we build the field on the one hand, but filmmakers who have lives, who exist today, who are making things in the moment, you have to think, how do I make something that I can get out into the marketplace as it exists right now.”

AFI DOCS Forum Panel—Day Two:
Panel 1—Deconstructing Storytelling’s Current Climate

Friday panel, “Truth in Storytelling: Docs and the Media in a Post-Truth World.”
Left to right: Moderator Andi McDaniel, WAMU; John Yang, PBS NewsHour; Phil Bertelsen, Realization Pictures; Raney Aronson-Rath, Frontline; Whitney Dow, Filmmaker.

Multiple Platforms, Narratives

On Friday, AFI DOCS Forum kicked off day two with, “Truth in Storytelling: Docs and the Media in a Post-truth World.” Moderator Andi McDaniel of WAMU opened the panel by asking broadly, “How’s the news business?” John Yang, Correspondent at PBS NewsHour, answered succinctly, “Ironically, President Trump may be saving the media.”

Yang explained that due to the adversarial relationship between the media and President Trump there has been an increase of online media subscriptions and television news media viewership and that the general public is seeking the truth. Yang added, “This topic of truth is always something that I think is particularly relevant now but it has never been irrelevant. I think what has changed is how people react and respond or how they view what we write and what we broadcast.” Yang said that is the part of the complexity—with regards to truth in storytelling—is the number of media platforms now available. Yang stated, “Now there is a diversity of sources, you’ve got the internet, you’ve got partisan media and if you take the long-view—non-partisan press is a uniquely American phenomenon and it is really relative new.”

Raney Aronson-Rath, Executive Producer at Frontline agreed with Yang by stating, “acknowledging that consumers are using these multiple media platforms to get information is critical to understanding the new landscape of news publishing.” Aronson-Rath emphasized that for each type of media platform, Frontline “has multiple different audiences” and what they are discovering is that for each platform, “they are different people, they are different generations, they have different political persuasions – which means we are actively publishing natively on each of these platforms and as a result our storytelling technique changes as well.” Aronson-Rath concluded that the purpose of what Frontline does is, “to create a conversation and that is essential and vital to our democracy.”

What’s Next for Storytelling?

Moderator Andi McDaniel advanced the discussion onward asking panelists their opinion of the current state of storytelling and what the future of storytelling holds. McDaniel asked if journalists need to return to a “beginner’s mind” and question everything. Phil Bertelsen, Producer & Director of Realization Pictures added, “we have to take stock of what we are doing, especially now.” The panel discussed visual data storytelling and its emergence and gaining popularity in the industry. However most panelists agreed that there should be a healthy skepticism in assuming all data is accurate.

On the future of storytelling, Aronson-Rath stated that she believes “there is so much more for journalists to work with right now then ever before because there are so many different ways to publish.” She said, “I feel for what we do has a rich, rich future and I see it in all of the ways people are finding us. I think people are ready to process content in many different ways and in multiple narratives.”

AFI DOCS Forum Panel—Day Two:
Panel 2—Examining Public Media’s Purpose and Role

The second panel titled, “Documentary Film in Service of a Civil Society,” was moderated by Caty Borum Chattoo, Director, Center for Media & Social Impact at American University.  This plenary session examined the role of public media in communities nationwide and the expanding roles of journalism and documentary film in activating civic engagement and creating a more equitable society.

Friday panel, “Documentary Film in Service of a Civil Society.” Left to right: Moderator Caty Borum Chattoo, Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI), American University; Naomi Starobin, WHYY Radio; Emmalee Hackshaw, Georgia Public Broadcasting; Jefferi K. Lee, WHUT-TV.

Public Media & Community Engagement Embodiment

Moderator Chattoo opened the forum by asking panelists to describe “how they are working to advance local and community engagement through public media.” Naomi Starobin, General Manager of WHYY Radio, began by describing her project called, Keystone Crossroads, and how it explores the urgent challenges pressing upon Pennsylvania’s cities. Starobin explained that their goal “was to go out into communities, hold events, talk to people and actually bring people together to discuss what’s bothering them in their community and what could be done about it.”

Emmalee Hackshaw, Director of Community Engagement with Georgia Public Broadcasting stated that they worked with sister stations to produce eight micro-documentaries of, “individuals and families across the state kind of representing all the different kinds of populations that we have in Georgia.”

And lastly, Jefferi K. Lee, General Manager of WHUT TV, stated his station’s approach is likened to a “little milk crate that we can put on the ground and let you stand up to rise above the noise sometime and you get to speak you don’t necessarily have to be on stage all the time to get your voice heard.”

Civic Deliberation and Ideological Advocacy

Moderator Chattoo advanced the panel discussion by asking speakers if they could reflect on the value of convening communities to discuss tough issues. Hackshaw stated, “the work that we do is being the milk crate and kind of providing a space for people to experience things communally which builds empathy and interest in the local and larger community.” She said, “It’s about opening your eyes to the larger world and I think it is a responsibility that we have and that we are really trying to allow people to be interested together and be responsible and be empathetic and kind of nurture all these things through the content.” Lee concurred and said, “it is absolutely important and it is a commitment to opening thoughts.”

The closing theme centered on ideological advocacy and the role of partnerships and local organizations. Moderator Chattoo posed the question to panelists, “How do you bring in partnerships that are going to deal with the issue? How do you architect programs that allow that civil dialogue without advocacy?”

Hackshaw answered, “You have to be thoughtful about setting up panel discussions to be representative of multiple vantage points. At the end of the day we are not advocating, we are just providing the space.” Lee added, “If we don’t run it, does it mean it doesn’t happen? The way I approach it is—can I be in the position of having both sides not necessarily on the same program? Over the course of a year we do our best to broadcast a diverse program. It’s an ongoing process.”

Moderator Chattoo concluded the plenary session by summarizing the mission of public media in a civil society saying, “I feel like the space that public media can service in a civil society is by raising issues—not advocating either way—but raising issues bringing people together to have a conversation and that is worth protecting and celebrating.”


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