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Public Funding and Documentaries at IDFA

IDFA logoFunds from public broadcasting and other taxpayer funds to promote culture continue to be essential to production of social-issue documentaries, if this year’s crop of docs at The International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam (IDFA) is any guide.

Kickstarter campaigns and DIY promotion were everywhere, but usually in conjunction with some kind of public funding. Whitney Dow, for instance, was thumping for his Kickstarter campaign for his Haiti music doc When the Drum Is Beating, but the film also had funding from two U.S. public broadcasting entities: ITVS and NBPC. The Australian film Mrs. Carey’s Concert, about the struggle to mount a symphonic performance in a high school, benefited from co-director Sophie Raymond’s DIY marketing savvy (drawn from her career as an indie musician) in making it the second-highest grossing theatrical doc in Australian history. At the same time, the film got funds both from Australian public broadcasting and from Australian arts agencies.

Hot topics. ITVS was associated with eight films at IDFA, including some of the most-talked-about (Putin’s Kiss and The Interrupters) and two impressive examples of intertwining cultural and political themes (To Be Heard and A Good Man).  ITVS’ Independent Lens showcases dozens of documentaries on U.S. TV each year. Another U.S. public TV strand, POV, was associated with four films, including the audience fave Give Up Tomorrow, a terrifying look at miscarriage of justice in the Philippines, and the controversial and fascinating Girl Model, which reveals the sordid recruiting of pubescent girls for international modeling jobs while leaving only implied the sex trafficking that it often masks. Canada’s National Film Board was responsible for Pink Ribbons, Inc, the devastating investigation into corporate marketing to women via breast cancer “awareness.”  All of these films pick up topics far from the heart of mainstream news and public affairs, and do so in ways that explore and even stretch the art of the documentary.

Funding in peril. Public broadcasting programmers were the backbone of the pitch event, the IDFA Forum; as usual they huddled over their mikes and vaguely promised meetings and interest to pitchers.  But they had better than usual reasons for their vagueness. Funding uncertainties hover over most European public service broadcasters. In part the European debt crisis is to blame; for instance at this point all Greek pubcasting funds for doc are frozen. Cultural funding generally is in jeopardy. Even in the liberal Netherlands, the 27-year-old IDFA’s funds were cut this year by 10%, a cut considered a victory in itself. Its fund for social-issue doc on and in developing nations, the Jan Vriman Fund, was cut by more than 15%.  Another reason for the insecurity is lack of government support for pubcasting’s digital ventures.  Several countries including the Netherlands have seen a push by private media, including big newspapers, to cut public broadcasters out of competing with them in digital space by getting the government to ban public service media’s digital activities.

Ethics in question. In this unstable environment, documentary filmmakers are relentlessly searching out new sources of funding; the just-started Launch PAD, backed by Morgan Spurlock and Thom Powers, proposes to "provide filmmakers with much-needed expertise and financial support in the areas of prints, advertising and distribution...by developing strategic brand partnerships for individual documentaries."  (In an earlier version of this post, I inaccurately claimed that Launch PAD would enable product placement in documentariess, rather than strategic brand partnerships; I've been helpfully corrected by Thom Powers.)  But the new venture, like all advertising-related funding, raises the prospect of conflict of interest, and ethical missteps; a debate erupted at IDFA, chronicled well by Jennifer Merin.  Gordon Quinn, executive producer of The Interrupters (and founder of Kartemquin Films) argued that entrepreneurial skills would never be enough to keep socially challenging docs alive, and that innovations such as product placement raised inevitable questions. Public funding, he argued, was essential to the role documentaries play in promoting sounder knowledge and better conversation about important issues. "Public funding is necessary because it keeps other funding honest. Public funding is the wedge of integrity in what can become very difficult, dicey and complex funding situations," he said to Merin.