A Determined Filmmaker Returns to Open Call

Posted on February 16, 2012

Filmmaker Judith Helfand's latest documentary Cooked was one of a dozen projects accepted into ITVS's latest round of Open Call funding. She offered BTB this roundup of the producer's orientation, held last week in San Francisco.

I started writing this amidst the din of the one week orientation for filmmakers funded through ITVS’ most recent Open Call. I’m finishing it from the relative “quiet” of my Upper West Side apartment, save for the garbage trucks way below on 84th - otherwise known as Edgar Allan Poe Street, the two-year-old running on the bare wood floor above me in 11B, and the hammering from somewhere in my pre- WW1 building. The “din”: the walla walla of 20 independent producers, each in a different state of disbelief, gratitude, relief, giddy nervousness, tenacious “I can handle anything that comes my way” and “thank you but don’t touch my digital rights”.  It has since turned into a low comforting roar/buzz/oral memory playing in the background as I write up these reflections.

Our mission was to embrace the steps necessary to turn our 12 films-in-progress into PBS “90’s” and “60’s” and navigate our way towards a public television broadcast. Being a “veteran” I was immediately asked – “What was it like the last time you were here for an Open Call orientation?” Well, the last time I was “here” for an Open Call orientation was August 1995, when ITVS was still in Minneapolis, MN, the youngest of my current cohort of filmmakers was just 10 years old (and watching Full House not PBS), and the best I can recall, it was just a few days not a week.  There was no live tweeting, face-booking or You-Tube-ing and “digital” was an exploratory sort of key-note about the “future” humbly offered to us by the very brilliant Jim Yee (may he rest in peace). 

My most cogent memory from back then (17 years ago) was my pride… as if I had done a public TV coming-of-age walk about and found my way home ONLY after getting to the Open Call panel four times in three years. I was “very, very close” three times, until the fourth time proved to be “the charm.” I recall being grateful for learning how to use those “no’s” wisely, to fold all of that insightful, painful, and crazy-making “how dare you say that” feedback from the panel, back into my next Open Call proposal. So... by the time I received the electrically happy for me call from Emily Stephens about completion funding for A Healthy Baby Girl on June 28, 1995 (my 30th birthday and the weekend that my first film, The Uprising of ‘34, co-directed with George Stoney, was broadcast on POV), I had turned my 2.5 year “video diary” into a five-year longitudinal story with a “unique voice” and a very unexpected metaphor via my parents red wooden starter ranch turned blue vinyl-sided house, about what is private and what is public, what is forever, what is "toxic" and what it means to really ruin continuity with a BIG C.  

The small group and one-on-one meetings we had back then focused on: accounting and reporting, balancing expectations with deliverables, forging a working relationship between the filmmaker and the ITVS production manager/handler/therapist (thank you Emily Stephens), and learning about the byzantine process of getting a film, not just funded and completed, but into the PBS system and broadcast.  Back then the Internet -- for average people like me -- was relatively new, perhaps about five years old, and websites were more for “about the film/filmmakers”, timelines, campaign strategies and a few photos, than they were for rigorous campaigns with multiple platforms, streaming video easily or endless ways to connect in and out and back and forth.

Back then the platform was your show on PBS, a basic website, and your “viewer guides” – which we were designing to be handed out, mailed by snail mail and printed. “Engagement” was not the norm, and really, in a lot of ways, it was in its infancy. It was much more face-to-face and on the ground than Facebook or online. ITVS was just starting to have regional, city-based coordinators in a handful of key cities, who were committed to organizing face-to-face community screenings around a broadcast, very much like the Community Cinema approach ITVS is taking now, but smaller, leaner, and in some ways “experimental”.  

In fact I think the first group of "community engagement coordinators" were "sworn in" for a training by Suzanne Stenson O'Brien the same week I was there for orientation in 1995. I must admit that these 2012 meetings were different than I expected, all due to a very diverse staff of story-loving, filmmaking savvy, committed individuals who are dedicated to putting the public back in public television  -- many of whom are filmmakers themselves. The vibe was warm and generous and ready for the dynamic can-change-on-a-dime- nature of real-life and non-fiction.  It's safe to say “ I don’t know,” “I am not sure about this," “I am worried about giving up these rights." 

They are even open and know how to roll with unanticipated changes to a film's story, agreed upon shooting days, or even a budget, in the face of the narrative demands of everyday life, politics, democracy and tyranny changing the story. Richard O'Connel explained this via two immediate up-to-the-minute examples: 

"In the wake of the violent and life threatening coup in the Maldives, ITVS and Independent Lens are in conversation with the filmmakers of award-winning Island President (scheduled to have a theatrical release in a few weeks and on IL in the future), and we are willing to support the filmmakers in any way they need to use the film to rally support and safe-guard the ousted democratically elected President Nasheed and if need be, and it will, open up the film to add this context and recent turn of events. And on the other extreme, Kristy Herring, Director/Producer of The Campaign, is missing on this first morning of Orientation because she was out shooting the press conference where the State of California announced their decision on the passage of Prop 8 (which had been a vote to overturn the legalization of same sex marriage in CA) and they ruled it unconstitutional and a violation of federal equal protection law."  

Honestly, my Co-Producer Fenell Doremus and I had come with the fear of g-d in us, as we had not finished dotting the i’s, crossing all the t’s, and completing certain spread sheets. We'd come with things we did not know yet and hadn’t figured out -- like narrative strands that were key to our story and needed more attention, more research, more shooting and more time in the editing room. I was relieved to not only find a “have no fear, we are here for you” atmosphere that turned that 5 LB book of deliverables, criteria, rules, lexicons, templates, tech specs, MOU’s and PBS standards into stark, vivid, not so scary relief – but a group of colleagues that were willing to negotiate, listen, justly spar and compromise on the issues and concerns I was passionate about.

But perhaps the best part of this meeting was how intergenerational it was. There were 12 projects in all with four of them produced by filmmakers well under thirty – these being their first “feature” directing debuts. Compelling, fresh, and vivid, each film was unique felt (to me) to be totally connected to this unique moment in digital storytelling. The projects feel like they are of this moment, made by young filmmakers, with old soul skills using relatively “tiny” powerful digital storytelling tools.  You can feel their passion and their “HAVE TO” genes.  

They "have to make these films" and "NO" is not in their vocabulary. “I can get into that sulfur mine,” “The family whose gay son just committed suicide will want us by their side in their living room” “I must get inside that town hall meeting and get an invitation to the inside of that TEA PARTY," "He doesn't want me around today... but I will find a way into his real estate office, his living room, his taxi, and his gym, so I can experience, understand, and feel what it is like to be demonized, misunderstood, mistrusted, and have my dream of a mosque at Ground Zero vetoed." Some of them even defied the ITVS Open Call myth and got in on their first try (yes, a rough cut is proving to be a good model for securing Open Call -- if you take away one thing from this missive it should be this!)

The give and take, exchanging of skills, stories, and digital technical know-how between peers, regardless of age, was a constant throughout the week. Imagine a twenty-something digital natives showing us elterin (older ones in Yiddish), during the meeting with the accounting maven in charge of teaching us how to report all costs/budgets, how to use [The Neat Receipt] receipt scanners that go directly to your iPhone - instead of into a "baggy", a shoe-box or a folder and left to FADE. As for getting back here... well, with four films under my belt and the last two broadcast on HBO and Sundance, it still took me the same amount of try's through the ITVS Open Call process to secure funding for Cooked. Four Open Calls, getting into the finalist round [AND CLOSE] each time, with the last one, the fourth, being the charm. All the same principals applied as well. There were some "wise no’s" that I was determined to listen to and did. And when I was so pissed off by the whole process, I forced myself to listen louder to the critiques and feedback. 

Finally we determined that getting to the finals and showing 10-minutes would never cut it. We would always be CUT. The only way to ever get this through was to submit a rough-cut. And…. it worked. And along the way… I found the film’s “voice”—which conveniently is mine. When I told my mom (who was the one to accept the Peabody Award for A Healthy Baby Girl, broadcast on POV in ’97, and which I only bring up because I had to walk by it to enter and exit the ITVS office each day of orientation) that Cooked would be on public television, she gasped, “REALLY… on PBS? So everyone can see it! That’s the perfect place for you to be trying to get extreme poverty redefined as an official disaster. That’s WONDERFUL honey.” I agree.


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