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Silverdocs Conference—Launches and Pitches

SilverdocsThe Silverdocs International Documentary Conference again brought together producers, funders and brokers of all kinds to track hot issues and changing trends. The event featured challenges facing people who aspire to make media that matters.

Along with the usual round of one-on-ones with programmers and funders, and panels on distribution and outreach, the conference also featured two significant events. One was the public launch of Public Media Corps, in a panel hosted by scholar and radio talk show host Michael Eric Dyson. He hoped that PMC would be able to narrow the digital divide that only gets amplified with ever-growing social networking platforms. National Black Programming Consortium head Jacquie Jones explained that the 16 PMC fellows who were about to spread out over the District of Columbia’s community institutions would not only be helping people make media, but would be connecting them to the “valuable resources of public media paid for by the American People,” which they could use to improve their lives in those communities. “That connection has to be somebody’s job,” she insisted. When Dyson expressed concern about a free-for-all environment in a blogger’s world of citizen media, high school principal Charlotte Spann commented: “Don't fear voices getting stronger. When you train people not to be afraid of others and difference, that lowers the noise level.” National Federation of Community Broadcasters head Maxie Jackson noted that diversity benefits everyone, by enriching the conversation, and that Public Media Corps work could leverage resources for his under-nourished  member organizations. For decades, public broadcasters have talked about getting better in touch with the community. The Public Media Corps’ experiments will provide cutting-edge knowledge of how to make public media truly public.

presentation at Good PitchAs well, the conference again hosted The Good Pitch. Eight well-mentored filmmakers pitched a tailored group of non-profit leaders, programmers, funders and advocates, each of which had already expressed some kind of interest to Good Pitch organizers. Typically the filmmakers weren’t just pitching their films but the total action package, sometimes including interactive applications. The potential partners around the table often found unusual ways to pitch in.The resulting theater was both instructive and entertaining. When Chad Stevens presented his pitch for The Coal War, about mountain-top removal, AFL-CIO Metro’s Chris Garlock, who runs the Labor Film Festival, volunteered not only to showcase the film but to link the filmmaker to his own network of labor film festivals. The SEIU’s Michelle Miller, whose union represents some of the workers involved, offered to use the film with members. When first-time filmmaker Victor Buhler pitched his film, A Whole Lott More, about a factory that employs disabled workers and is threatened with closing, on the spot two funders appeared—one from the audience, but looking suspiciously like a plant, from BritDocs—to offer him a total of $50,000. Meanwhile, a representative from a labor institute at Cornell offered scholarly advice. Environmentalists piled on to help with outreach for Jon Shenk’s Higher Ground, about the charismatic young president of the Maldives, who is pushing climate change policy before it’s too late for his low-lying nation of islands. Author Alex Kotlowitz and filmmaker Steve James pitched their upcoming work, The Interrupters, which features the work of Cease Fire—peacemakers on the front of gang warfare in Chicago neighborhoods. They found interest from several funders, and Robert Townsend, now associated with OneEconomy’s pic.tv, was wildly enthusiastic (he pointed out it was about his neighborhood).  

Finally, the conference always features a conversation with a filmmaker. This year, Silverdocs head programmer Sky Sitney interviewed Steve James, about his films including Hoop Dreams, Stevie, and the TV series The New Americans. James noted that while his films always have a point of view, they avoid polemics. Rather, he said, he wants to take the viewer on a voyage of discovery. “The trick of making a good doc,” he said, “is to take the viewer through the revelatory process that the filmmaker went through—but in less time.” He noted that work like his—often exploring hard-to-fund characters and situations, conducted over long periods of times, tackling the complexity of experience—has benefited from his relationship with Kartemquin Films. The production house provides a structure within which talent can be nurtured and good projects can be sustained.

As always, the hallway conversations were a key feature of the conference. This year a lot of people had new business cards, as the musical-chairs nature of the business, exacerbated by the recession, continued.