A Fruitful Collaborative Year: Filmmakers and Scholars Reflect on First Humanities Documentary Development Fund

By ITVS Staff
Posted on May 2, 2023

A year ago, ITVS announced the start of a year-long fellowship for 20 filmmakers, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Sustaining the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan (#SHARP) funding. The Humanities Documentary Development Fellowship (HDDF) focused on filmmakers who were in the early stages of research and development, one of the hardest phases for filmmakers to receive financial support. 

Fellowship funding was not tied to the project, but intended to support the individual. Additionally, each Fellow received the support of a Humanities Advisor, meeting with them monthly, receiving mentorship and guidance to strengthen the humanities alignment and approach to their story development.  

Advisors recommended experts, archives, libraries, text, and other sources. Fellows participated in a series of programmatic sessions to develop their concept into a strong, humanities-driven documentary story. The overall goal was to strengthen their competitiveness for future funding and increase the diversity, urgency, and relevance of the nation’s humanities-centered documentary pipeline. 

As the first iteration of the HDDF has concluded, we look back with the help of both Fellows and Advisors on the impact the year had on them.

The Effects of the Pandemic

The pandemic significantly affected independent documentary filmmakers. A 2020 study by Center for Media and Social Impact found that 74% of respondents reported financial harm, while a 2020 study by Dear Producer found the number of respondents earning less than $50,000/year jumped from 30% in 2019 to 42% in 2020 during the onset of the pandemic.

This kind of fellowship, which can create a space of financial peace and the freedom to work continuously, is crucial."

Many private funds were redirected from humanities to frontline work on COVID, injustice, and elections. Communities of color, including filmmakers, have been disproportionately affected, including access to Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. As a result, many independent filmmakers, especially diverse, less established makers, had to fight to keep their careers and projects alive. 

Fellow Pilar Timpane is working on her first feature called Querida, following a group of international Catholic women igniting change in the global church. For Timpane, this opportunity was not only about financial support, but about something much larger: sharing how important it is to the fabric of our culture to support artists.

“Being given the chance to have an unrestricted sustainability fellowship through HDDF is something that I, as an artist, always hoped to achieve but never knew I could," Timpane says. "This kind of fellowship, which can create a space of financial peace and the freedom to work continuously, is crucial." 

"It’s not an understatement to say that the humanities, the arts, and documentary media are all in serious threat of being defunded and co-opted by capitalist models that don’t view our work as the essential culture driver that they actually are," Timpane continues. "It’s hard to watch from the inside and feel helpless. We need funding to survive, platforms to maintain careers, support to have lives that thrive, resources for our families to be happy. But there are so many limitations to what’s offered to us as freelancers and independent filmmakers.”

Read more about the HDDF Fellows here >>

The Crucial Time

Receiving financial support at a research and development stage is rare for documentary filmmakers. 

Having the time to focus, build relationships, develop their approach and deepen knowledge can set a filmmaker up foundationally as they move into production. For filmmaker Mridu Chandra, whose project is about the historic 1956 congressional race in which Dilip Singh Saund became the first Asian American congressman, the fellowship provided space and time to build primary original research essential to the project.

"This fellowship allows diverse people outside of the establishment the time to develop a project and to offer a new perspective on our collective history."

“I do not know of any other funding opportunity that will fund the R&D stage of a historical film. Most historical documentaries are made by established filmmakers who have access to the gatekeepers at distribution channels and/or are self-funded during the development stage," Chandra says. "This fellowship allows diverse people outside of the establishment the time to develop a project and to offer a new perspective on our collective history." 

"Additionally, most grants—including public media grants—fund contemporary stories and require a visual work sample even to request R&D funding," Chandra adds. "It’s easier to immediately make a visual work sample for a contemporary story. This HDDF Fellowship was critical to the development of [my] project.”

Steven Fischler, who has helmed acclaimed historical documentaries From Swastika to Jim Crow and Dressing American: Tales from the Garment Center, valued the time and financial freedom as a result of the fellowship, which allowed him to build a strong, nuanced proposal and treatment.

"This fellowship has been extremely helpful to me. It came at a time when income opportunities were scarce due to the pandemic and gave me time and resources to fully explore my subject, Edna St. Vincent Millay," Fischler tells us. "The fellowship allowed me to really delve into my subject’s life and get a sense of how Millay is viewed by the academic world, as well as the general public, and to learn much about her life and work."

Deepening Understanding

With the space and time afforded by the program, Fellows were able to deepen their relationships with communities, build trust with participants, and consider their own relationship and positionality to the subject of their film, often in conversation with their Humanities Advisors.

Arwen Curry, who directed and produced Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, is now examining the world of intentional communities. In semi-weekly conversations with her Humanities Advisor, Mayuran Tiruchelvam, Marcus Endowed Chair in Social Justice Filmmaking at San Francisco State University, and producer of The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, Curry spent time focusing initially on her approach to the film, participants, and subject matter.

"In particular, we reflected on my own positionality as a white filmmaker with a countercultural background, but a relatively mainstream current lifestyle, and how to navigate this transparently in the film, and with participants and other stakeholders throughout all stages of production," Curry says. "We also discussed the stakes of participating for community members, especially those seeking refuge from oppressive forces in the larger world, or engaged in active tensions or conflicts within their communities.”

Pilar Timpane was paired with Humanities Advisor Dr. María del Socorro Castañeda, a sociologist and ethnographer, co-founder and Chief Education Officer of Becoming Mujeres, and author of Our Lady of Everyday Life: La Virgen de Guadalupe and the Catholic Imagination of Mexican Women in America.

“Dr. Castañeda and I met weekly for one year, and by the end, neither of us wanted to say goodbye!" Timpane says. "Her background in Latin American Catholicism and women's contributions to culture has made a profound impact on the course of this film project. She helped [our team] imagine our shoots in Brazil and Mexico, giving us an overview on Mexican history with the Catholic Church. Centering the experience of Indigenous perspectives in the Church and relying on traditions to guide us visually, Dr. Castañeda helped us see the path for this part of our journey. We hope to continue working together for years to come.” 

Two-Way Street: What Advisors Learned from Filmmakers

Twelve Humanities Advisors joined the Fellowship, from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives, each with either lived and/or professional experience that aligned with the Fellows’ projects. For some advisors, this was their first venture into advising a documentary filmmaker. 

For her part, Dr. Castañeda shared that working with filmmakers offered her the opportunity to expand the reach of her work beyond traditional audiences.  

"It is not too often that academics are asked to become involved in a film project at its beginning stages. Starting at the initial stage allowed filmmakers and advisors the necessary time to discuss ethical and thoughtful approaches to telling marginalized communities' stories."

"Serving as a Humanities Advisor for ITVS taught me the importance of thinking beyond books when we document and write history," Castañeda said. "As academics, when we think about making our research accessible, we automatically limit ourselves to the ivory tower—the classroom, professional conferences, books, and academic articles. This eye-opening experience allowed me to see beyond these venues. Films make our research more accessible because they are disseminated more extensively, thus having a greater impact."

Dr. Danielle Phillips-Cunningham, associate professor of labor studies and employment relations for Rutgers University, and author of the upcoming book, A Tower of Strength in the Labor World: Nannie Helen Burroughs and Her National Training School for Women and Girls, worked with fellows Christiane Badgley and Brian Myers, whose films explore different individuals and events of the labor movement in the United States. 

"It is not too often that academics are asked to become involved in a film project at its beginning stages," says Dr. Phillips-Cunningham. "Starting at the initial stage allowed filmmakers and advisors the necessary time to discuss ethical and thoughtful approaches to telling marginalized communities' stories. We especially need their films at this time when learning about the histories of women and people of color is becoming increasingly prohibited in our schools.” 

Dr. Anthony Chen is an associate professor of sociology at Northwestern University, and author of The Fifth Freedom: Jobs, Politics, and Civil Rights in the United States, 1941-1972. He served as the Humanities Advisor for Mridu Chandra, and developed a deep appreciation for the complexity and variety of roles a documentary filmmaker plays in crafting their project.

“Serving as Mridu's advisor for the year has been a transformative experience for me," Chen says. "Not only as a chance to serve as an intellectual resource and sounding board for a talented filmmaker whose subject overlaps with my area of expertise, but I’ve gained a newfound respect for independent documentary filmmakers, some of the most phenomenally talented people I’ve come across in my career. They’re not just writers, directors, and producers, they’re archival researchers, project managers, philosophers, curators, accountants, detectives, marketing executives, database administrators, development officers, grant writers, and human resources specialists." 

"I’ve learned as much from Mridu as she has hopefully learned from me. Going forward, I'm confident I will be approaching my own academic work with a fresh angle of vision and new stock of intuitions that will elevate the overall quality of whatever I do.”

A "Life-Changing" Year

Over the course of the year-long fellowship, ITVS staff, twenty filmmakers and twelve Humanities Advisors all came together to build a collaborative space based on values of respect, compassion, support, and community. The overall mission was to achieve the goal of NEH’s "A More Perfect Union" initiative, intended to support projects that “explore, reflect on, and tell stories of our quest for a more just, inclusive, sustainable society throughout our history.”

By creating a collaborative cohort, the Humanities Documentary Development Fellowships strengthened these talented filmmakers’ frameworks. Through the fellowships, they built a foundation in which they can more readily move forward in the marketplace, further developing and producing their projects. Both Fellows and advisors alike expressed the power of what is possible together, even during such especially challenging times.  

As one Fellow shared with us, “HDDF has enabled me to spend my time focused on my project, a tremendous boost to my film in particular and to my filmmaking career. For the first time, I have been able to focus without juggling a job or struggling to make a living. Just the ability to commit my time has been life-changing. My project has moved forward significantly and my life has been stabilized financially.”

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