Foundations of all stripes continue to play an important role in the financing of documentaries. Orlando Bagwell, director of the JustFilms programme at the Ford Foundation, took the stage at MIPDoc yesterday to share some thoughts on Ford’s work in this area.
Bagwell drew on 25 years as an independent filmmaker before his current role too – a man who’s seen both sides of documentary funding. He was interviewed on-stage by Jason Daponte from The Swarm.
“In the 1990s foundations really found their voice in documentaries, supporting work on public television,” said Bagwell. “You also saw a large, growing documentary community thinking about how their films found new audiences.”
JustFilm started to help some of these documentary makers, with a fund that initially supported non-fiction work as “an opening into larger audiences” for the filmmakers.
“A lot of what we do is to look for independent filmmakers with great ideas, support their work, find other funders to come in and work with us… but also work with them in how we can build communities around the work.”
The foundation is based in New York but has offices all over the world, including four in Africa, three in South America and three in Asia, which it uses not only to fund documentary films focused on social justice issues, but to spark engagement and build communities around them.
Ford isn’t just funding films: it’s funding places to screen them. For example, Bagwell talked about holding screenings in Africa of ‘God Loves Uganda’, a film dealing with homophobia and anti-LGBT legislation in that country.
Bagwell also talked about the Ford Foundation’s approach to filmmakers. “We’ve thought and felt very strongly about this: we want strong examples of really good storytelling, and we really wanted to work with independent filmmakers. We’re not commissioning films at all,” he said.
Which is to say the Foundation (and Bagwell) are as hands-on as filmmakers want them to be, rather than forcing themselves into the projects they fund. “I’ve never gone in and said you have to make this film a certain way because this is what the Ford Foundation thinks,” he said. “We’ve really worked to try to help other foundations feel comfortable with the idea of working with independent producers.”
The Ford Foundation funds in different ways, sometimes providing development grants to get projects up and running, but other times coming in during the middle of a project, or at the end to give it the final push to reach the distribution stage.
Bagwell also explained that the Foundation doesn’t only look for individual films about specific social justice issues. It looks to join the dots between films tackling different angles on an issue. As an example, he cited ‘House I Love In’, which focuses on the US war on drugs and the industry that has built up around the prison system.
“We realised this was a film that could launch a larger strategy around prison reform, but it was just the introductory piece,” said Bagwell.
“We then moved to another film, and that’s where we did Gideon’s Army [which focuses on the work of three young public defenders in the Deep South]… The idea is to keep thinking about the issue, and the different ways people need to look at it from different angles, and look at the independent community and say where’s a film out there that is addressing that?”
Bagwell gave some tips for documentary filmmakers hoping to get funding from the Ford Foundation, stressing the need for them to do their research on its website to understand what films it’s funding, and which social justice issues it’s most active around.
“For foundations in general… it’s important to look at what they do,” he said. “Just because they have a media fund, they don’t necessarily fund everything. We’re a social justice foundation. We don’t fund health! But I get so many proposals coming in asking me to fund things round health, and that’s something we don’t fund.”
He continued: “Really do the homework and investigate who you’re talking to… Also, I wouldn’t fashion a 10-page proposal to talk to them. I’d write them a letter… A letter is much better than a 10-page request, when you think about [them receiving]about a thousand requests for funds.”
Bagwell also talked about the Ford Foundation’s work around the world through those international offices – “in many ways that’s our big growth area” – and its partnership with the Tribeca Film Institute on an initiative around transmedia documentary projects, which aims to help filmmakers reach new audiences with new forms of content.
Bagwell is actually leaving his role at the Ford Foundation soon to return to filmmaking himself. He reassured the audience that JustFilms isn’t going anywhere: “the search is really active right now” for a replacement, and he said the Foundation’s commitment to independent filmmakers is unwavering.
“We love what they do and they do it for the right reasons. And because it’s coming from their heart and their soul, it speaks to other people,” he said. “We have confidence that we can help them find audiences.”
In the final Q&A segment of his session, Bagwell was asked about the influence of right-wing politicians and campaign groups in the US over the last decade, and what it means for the kind of social-justice projects that the Foundation is funding.
“It’s a part of our conversation within the Foundation,” he said. “That Right can be incredibly vicious, and it’s sad that we exist in that moment where people begin to cower because they don’t want to take on the viciousness of the attack once you’re in the crosshairs.”
Some films funded by the Foundation have found themselves squarely in those crosshairs, and Bagwell admitted that it could be more “direct in taking that on” on behalf of the filmmakers, even though “we’re not really about right or left, we’re about justice and certain kinds of issues that we stand for”.
But Bagwell said the dangers should not be underestimated in this area. “What’s in jeopardy right now is this idea of free expression,” he said, drawing a distinction between filmmakers responding to constructive criticism of their work, and more politically-motivated pressure.
“If you are coming at it with a sound journalistic approach to the work and you can defend what you do, that’s a legitimate conversation. But you should never feel that you’re backing away from the work that you’re doing because of that external force.”