NGO + Doc = ?

21 mins read

The NGOs are coming! NGOs want you! I am NGO

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the term NGO? Issues? Whales? Activists? Agenda? Human rights? Calendars?

Documentary isn’t likely at the top of that list right now, but for many it will be … and sooner rather than later.

NGO involvement in documentary films is bubbling right now. Here’s what four filmmakers and one advocate have to say about NGOs.

“Money always has a colour,” says Jess Search, Chief Executive of Channel 4 Britdoc Foundation. She’s referring to the perception that money from broadcasters or public agencies comes without an agenda attached.

“Sometimes I feel like people are fearful of what NGO funding might mean and (are) somehow comparing it with an imaginary past where filmmakers had complete autonomy and independence,” says Search, who was Commissioning Editor for Independent Film and Video at UK’s legendary Channel 4 before becoming the Chief Executive of Channel 4’s Britdoc Foundation, an organization that is actively fostering relationships between NGOs and filmmakers. When she says, “I don’t really recognize that perfect past,” you know that Search is speaking from experience.

Her thoughts are echoed by those of Kevin McMahon, whose latest film, Waterlife, shows how the Great Lakes are in peril. “The corporations own the media. Your film (is) being financed by a broadcaster … who is under the influence of a sales department who is under the influence of advertising companies … Global warming is a phenomenon that was well, well, well known in scientific communities, including in government scientific communities for at least fifteen years and never emerged in the mainstream media (until now)…”

G-a-s-p … if this is the situation we find ourselves in with the status quo funders, then what are we to make of potential funding partners who have overt agendas?

The Good Pitch
The Good Pitch took place on day two of the Toronto Documentary Forum at this year’s Hot Docs Festival. It’s part of Channel 4 Britdoc Foundation’s efforts to advocate for the increased use of documentary films towards creating social change and is partnered with the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program. Amnesty International is hosting another Good Pitch event in the UK this fall.

And The Good Pitch was extraordinary. Panel members—foundations, NGOs and campaigners—unabashedly came out with statements like, “I love this project”, or “I want to be involved” and “Well, you know we have supported causes like yours for a long time…”.

I’m all for using docs to advocate for social change. Shining a light onto human rights abuses or polarized social inequity seems… right. A film backed by Amnesty International? Could things get much better? Through responsible use of the media, couldn’t we fix the world’s problems? But then I began to wonder: would I have the same warm-all-over feeling if the backer was perhaps the NRA or Ducks Unlimited? Could I watch such a film with open eyes?

NGOs wear their agendas on their sleeves. It’s why they exist. It just wouldn’t be the same if Greenpeace came to your door and said, “Hello, madam. We were wondering if there was anything you wanted us to know about you.” No. They have a purpose. It’s blatant.

Rough Aunties
“They were very hot on that at Hot Docs. Quite a few people said to me, ‘Surely you’re losing your integrity’ because I’d actually said in the Q&A that (it) was a collaboration with an NGO. People asked, ‘How could you make a film for a charity? Isn’t that reneging on your editorial freedom?’” Kim’s response? “It’s more complicated than that.”

Kim Longinotto is speaking about her recent film, Rough Aunties (winner, World Cinema Jury Prize, Sundance), which follows a team of women who valiantly stand up for the rights of sexually abused children in South Africa. The film was made after Kim became aware that Jackie Branfield, founder of Bobbi Bear, wanted a film made about the NGO. “I think they’re really smart … They’re such a small group of women and they can’t go ’round endlessly telling people about what they do and about the battles they’re fighting because they want all their energies going into their work.”

Although Branfield instigated the project, other Bobbi Bear team members were initially reluctant to be filmed. Previous documentarians had attempted to stage events in ways that felt completely contrived. Clearly, NGOs are not the only ones to have a reputation precede them. It took two days of workshopping about the proper approach for Longinotto to build a relationship with the team to the point where they trusted that working with her was the right thing to do. “The framework was their own lives and their own reality, really,” she says.

NGOs and Docs
During the creation of Waterlife, McMahon consulted with NGOs about his research and then prior to its release, he networked through them to get the word out, all in the spirit of collaboration. Although this type of NGO involvement did not draw any specific attention, what detractors did try to repeatedly discredit Waterlife for, was inclusion of a Native perspective.

If a documentary as strong as Waterlife can be targeted with such a banal argument, would using NGO funding be worth the inevitable, well-founded and troubling questions? There are many shades of collaboration, but what if an NGO funds 100% of a film? Can such a film even be called a documentary?
The demise of the CIFVF [Canadian Film and Video Fund] was raised during a Forum discussion at Hot Docs, attended by many of the leaders in Canadian documentary filmmaking. There will be $50 million dollars less for projects that weren’t necessarily designed for broadcast. The moment seemed good to share a victory story. Thinking that they might be inspired, I stood up to let the room know that a film I made had recently been instrumental in raising $60,000, in one hour … for an NGO.

Red Door, 2009…
…is a film showing the passion and commitment of staff and residents at the Red Door Family Shelter in Toronto.

It wasn’t until after I sat down that it occurred to me that some filmmakers might not even consider my work to be a documentary because the NGO paid for it. In my heart of hearts I knew the truth, but until I had shared this in public it hadn’t even dawned on me. At that point, passing my shoe seemed a better option than retrieving it.

Red Door’s trust in me was so strong, that they allowed me to shoot a self-initiated project (for the International Documentary Challenge) before the one I’d been hired to make. They knew I got their cause. I was allowed the discretion of freely interviewing the subjects, for both projects. Red Door staff sat in on the second edit. Of course they had final say, but the spirit was all about collaboration and integrity. Considering the many ways that the media can be used, I feel that “we done good.”

Homeless Nation
Speaking of “doing good,” EyeSteelFilm’s Daniel Cross’s commitment to empowering homeless people is humbling. “The real objective here is for street people to be able to have access to the web … and video cameras, so their voices can be expressed and hopefully heard. Self-expression creates self-esteem.” Homeless Nation, a project he designed to give people without a home access to the internet, as a communication tool, has received a United Nations World Summit Award. Cross’ passion is evident in his willingness to share and give away control of content. His approach seems to be more about facilitation than exposition: Dan likes to provide cameras to the people in his projects.

“It’s a site where there’s not, you know, the ten best videos of the day … (People on the street) are judged all the time. They don’t need to be judged on this site as well. Most sites are designed to make it as easy as possible to attract the biggest audience possible … And that’s dysfunctional for this site because for every success there (would be) four failures.”

But despite international recognition, Homeless Nation is running into major funding issues. Cross has met the challenge in a courageous, intuitive manner. “I did a deliberate big step backwards. Instead of making it more organized and more high profile and being forced into kind of needing funding from questionable places, we stopped. And we went … let’s wait. We were on a bit of a wagon train of needs … it’s like an appetite. The arts council monies … usually these things come on a bit like a three-year plan, which is a development plan and then after that you’re supposed to be sustainable. So, the sustainability comes from basically finding corporate sponsorship. We didn’t feel ready for that.”

Cross is concerned that certain partners, especially corporations, would be the wrong choice for funding Homeless Nation because, “someone who wants to put money into something, they want to see a return on investment … arguably.”

Britdoc’s Mandate
Here are two quotes that stand out on the Channel 4 Britdoc Foundation website:

1. “We believe that film, specifically documentary, is an excellent medium for conveying important social messages to individuals and the wider community…”

2. “We are becoming the commissioning editors.”

Can you guess which quote is from a marketing executive at a major brewery and which is from an NGO executive? Either way, we should be paying attention. The two messages co-exist on the same website and neither one’s an ad in the traditional sense.

Between the time I looked over the Britdoc website and spoke with Jess Search, one of the films they had sponsored had gone from having 650,000 downloads to 4 million. Seems that even the Internet has a hard time keeping up with itself.

“There’s three areas of funding that we’re pushing at simultaneously,” says Search. “The third sector, individual fans of the film and brands … It’s early days with brands … I think it’s the beginning of a very significant trend because the advertising model that brand communications has been based on since the birth of radio is, I think, about to be profoundly challenged by the Internet.”

Four million pairs of eyeballs. That’s a hard number to ignore. Of course corporations are looking for ways in. The lines are being blurred between factual programming, documentaries and corporate messaging. Good or bad, love it or hate it, that’s what’s happening.

“I could see that the future of documentary funding was going to need to be something different from the way it had been in the past where, you know, filmmakers would be commissioned 100 percent by television,” says Search about her reasons for being part of the team that started the BritDoc Foundation. “We were beginning to splinter into lots of different channels and it was becoming harder and harder to get the kinds of documentaries that I’m really interested in supported 100% through the TV system. So what I was interested in then was starting an organization where people would be dedicated to figuring out what future funding, distribution and impact models would be for documentaries. …And that’s pretty much what The Good Pitch supports.”

When asked about how independent documentary filmmakers should feel about working with an NGO, Search’s answer is forthright. “You never get given money to make films that come with no agenda. And that was as true with money that came from television as it is with money that comes from any other source, whether it’s from a private philanthropist, an investor, a brand, (or) an NGO. One should always ask questions and clarify what’s expected of money, wherever it comes from because (otherwise) … it’s a fast route … into a mess.

“In my view, there is no intrinsic problem with taking money from either brands or from NGOs to make films as long as one has sat down and thrashed out the issues and has all the expectations and agreements in writing…. And the same is true of television, frankly. I mean, you have people who don’t expect the commissioning editor to turn up in their edit suite and tell them that they’ve re-written their commentary and this is the way it’s going to be. It’s about clarifying everything up front and having everything above board.

“There’s certainly a job to be done for filmmakers to learn more about how the NGO sector works and what they want … where they’re coming from, so they can work with them more effectively. And there’s definitely a job also for the third sector to learn more about filmmakers and what drives them and motivates them and how they work, so that those partners can work together effectively,” says Search.

A Happy Ending?
On one hand, it is easy to see how partnerships between NGOs and filmmakers like Kevin McMahon would be a natural fit. McMahon sees a very real and hopefully long, grassroots life for Waterlife, in Great Lakes communities. The message of the film is directly relevant to their everyday lives and to their futures. But it’s more than that: it’s the spirit that counts, if you ask me, that really connects the two.

At the same time, it would be wise not to take anything for granted. McMahon would certainly consider the future possibility of using NGO money in one of his films … but not without scrutiny.

“I think it’s just bullshit to say that the pure fact that the money’s coming from an NGO would taint it any more than to say, the fact that the money’s coming from a broadcaster would taint it because the biases are ridden through the media.”

Documentary filmmakers are a diverse crowd in subject, purpose and approach. Kim Longinotto’s work also has a good purpose, but her approach on Rough Aunties was very different, despite (and perhaps even because of) being involved with an NGO.

“Obviously, I’m absolutely thrilled that it is helping them (Bobbi Bear) but that wasn’t the main reason for me making the film and I was really clear with them about that. I wouldn’t make a film with just that in mind. What I was hoping to do from the very beginning was to make a film that was about a wider society that said things about South Africa as a whole and that’s why there’s a quote from Nelson Mandela at the beginning of the film.”

If the organizations that The Good Pitch has brought to the table are any indication of what’s in store, I believe we should see some pretty extraordinary films in the near future. I look forward to hearing about how they got made … and how audiences receive them.

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