“We are cooking with gas right now!”
That’s something every documentary filmmaker dreams of, and thanks to the MacArthur Foundation, there are 15 doc teams that are lighting up their stoves today.
For more than 30 years, MacArthur has supported documentaries and they did so again this year by dispersing $2 million to 15 films. The announcement was just made.
The above exclamation comes from Yance Ford, one of the recipients, and former series producer at POV. Ford’s film, Strong Island, is about the killing of her brother, and the havoc it wreaked on her family. The killer went unpunished.
Other winners—yes, it’s grade school language, but it seems to apply here—include films about ex-convicts (On the Outside), environmental disaster caused by natural gas drilling (Mudflow) and sex education (Ask the Sexpert). The vast majority of the filmmakers are relative unknowns.
Strong Island is Ford’s first film, and I thought I’d ask her some questions about getting the MacArthur grant to highlight what’s become an oasis in quite a large desert. I’ve had my eye on Ford’s doc for a while—it’s been in the making for more than five years—and I’d been considering it a shoe-in for 2015’s Sundance Film Festival. Of course, there is no such thing as a sure thing at Sundance, but I considered it so because of the subject matter, the early clips I’d seen, and my sense of the momentum.
And it’s particularly interesting that Ford chose not to cut the film to try to get in to the festival. Instead, as she explains below, she chose to make the best film she could make without the time constraint. It must have been a tough choice, but now she’s got $250,000 of MacArthur money to see the film through.
It’s hard not to see such good news for some without recognizing the loss for others. For all the high-fives these 15 filmmaking teams are exchanging now, there are close to 400 rejected projects with filmmakers who are shuffling to the next door, pulling up their collars and continuing to fight against the wind. (Of course, for a lot of filmmakers, it’s nice to note that there’s one less strong film to compete against for a Sundance slot.)
But that doesn’t take away from what Ford has earned. In fact, it should help fuel it. As Ford says, “Thanks to MacArthur, Team Strong Island can finally put the pens down and follow the film wherever it leads.”
Doc Soup Man: What was your first reaction upon hearing that you’d received this grant?
Yance Ford: When I received word about the MacArthur grant, I was psyched because it literally meant I didn’t have to wind down production and post to fund raise. I was also so proud. Proud of the team behind the film that has worked so hard to manifest my vision for Strong Island. And it was a tremendous affirmation of the movie, a tremendous affirmation that this personal story resonates beyond my family.
Doc Soup Man: What’s the status of Strong Island?
Yance Ford: Strong Island is concurrently in production and post-production. Working concurrently isn’t for every film but it’s working quite well for Strong Island and has allowed us to continue following multiple story lines as they play out. I actually followed my own advice and didn’t cut for a deadline. It was the right decision for the film and I can’t wait to see what plays Sundance in January. We’re going to focus on story and the team is really excited.
Doc Soup Man: Sundance has supported you, right? Who else has provided grants for the film and where else are you getting funding?
Yance Ford: It’s an honor to say that Strong Island is supported by the Sundance Documentary Film Program. We also have an amazing group of funders that, since 2008, have supported the film: Chicken and Egg Pictures, Cinereach, the Jerome Foundation, Creative Capital and the Estate of Theo Westenberger, JustFilms / Ford Foundation and the Bertha Foundation. After participating in Good Pitch Chicago in 2013, the Ebert Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation with the support and encouragement of Jane Saks, the Baskin Family Trust and Erie Investments also supported the film. The Fledgling Fund is supporting development of our outreach and engagement campaign. Abigail Disney and Fork Films have been generous in their support as well. The U.S. broadcast rights were sold to American Documentary / POV after I resigned my position as series producer and the film is being produced in association with Louverture Films.
Strong Island may likely be the most important film I will ever make, if it weren’t for support of these funders we wouldn’t have had the material that MacArthur has so generously decided to support.
Doc Soup Man: Would you say that grant money is still a viable way to get a documentary made?
Yance Ford: I think foundation and grant funding are still a viable means of getting your doc made, with an asterisk. It takes much longer than say, 12 years ago, when I first came to public television. The number of projects has skyrocketed. Filmmakers have to find superhuman persistence and patience. The timelines are longer, there is more competition for funding (let’s just call it what it is…) and funders—non-profit grantors and equity alike are being much more specific about what they are interested in funding. ITVS/CPB/NEH and the like are also sources, but they are looking at as many, if not more, projects with even greater constraints than foundations.