To celebrate 10 years of showcasing short, social-issue videos, the Media that Matters film festival (part of media arts center Arts Engine) hosted a day-long conference on …what else? Media that matters. The panel I chaired on making impactful social documentary was filled with insights, not only from the panelists but from the audience—full of talented New York makers. Ronit Avni (Encounter Point, Budrus) and Abigail Disney (Pray the Devil Back to Hell) both spoke about the importance of finding stories in which viewers can meet characters as peers, and in which characters gain agency—the ability to become actors and subjects in their social world. Disney urged makers to pay attention to production values and especially sound. “It’s a shame that we have such low standards for content in this country, but such high standards for production values,” she said. However, because that’s true, if you provide less-than-high-quality sound, viewers who are meeting someone who does not look like them for the first time may too easily dismiss or not understand them.
Lynn True spoke about the value of short documentary films as entrees to longer and even fictional work. She has worked on five films that debuted with Media That Matters, each of which grew into a longer project. “Having the exposure through Media That Matters made a big difference,” she said, both in terms of fundraising and in terms of sharpening and focusing the project’s design.
All agreed about the importance of finding, as True said, “a human-sized story.” Disney noted, “We often talk down to people in our business, without meaning to. We assume a deficit; there’s something they don’t know that we need to tell them. We can and need to address them as peers about what they’re for, not about what they’re against.”
As they discussed distribution options, Ronit Avni noted that many times cash-strapped filmmakers have to sell off their rights to distributors who then hoard rights, making it harder to creatively tap into digital markets. She called for a capital fund to tide filmmakers over during the last two months of production and the first six months of post-production.
At the awards presentations, during which we watched Julie Winoker’s moving and jury-award-winning short film Denied, about the human cost of bad health care, Ford Foundation program officer Orlando Bagwell praised Arts Engine and recalled a screening of one of the Eyes on the Prize films, which he had worked on. At one of the screening, “I watched a fierce debate ensue. And as I watched a conversation happen that I had never seen before, I thought, this is what it is about. This is why we do this.”