Firelight Media‘s Shoshone Johnson weighs in on his highlights of the “Sustaining a Career as a Public Media Maker” summit co-hosted by Firelight Media and POV last Friday.
The first panel was the most rare and exciting for me, as it brought together Louis Massiah, Orlando Bagwell, Sam Pollard, Ann Bennett and June Cross. All are former members of Blackside Inc., the monumental production company/community founded by the late Henry Hampton. Blackside is best known for its landmark series “Eyes on the Prize,” which is the definitive cinema work on the Black freedom movement of the latter 20th century, but its influence stretches far and wide, in terms of its areas of concern, its organizational structure and its formal innovations. The Blackside “diaspora” filmmakers spoke about how Hampton influenced not only their work, but all of film. June Cross said that “there could be no Ken Burns without Henry Hampton.” Another June Cross comment, in response to a question from the audience about finding an authorial voice, stuck with me. “You already have your own unique voice,” she said. Sam Pollard revealed that his upcoming projects include a film on the rise and fall of ACORN and the life of John Coltrane.
A thread of thought which held together each of the other panel discussions, moderated by Ellis Cose, Maria Agui Carter and Eric Easter, was the importance of mentoring and community support in documentary production. There was a subtle tension, in each discussion, between the role of money (from a large foundation or network) and the role of another kind of support, harder to name but no less vital, be it communal, emotional, spiritual or cultural. None of the panelists would deny the importance of each role, but many spoke of their approaches to the task of balancing roles. Judith Helfand spoke over lunch of her many professional hats, and how she’s managed her career by changing those hats often.
In more than one panel, panelists mentioned Ken Burns as a rare example (along with Michael Moore and a handful of others) of a social issue documentary filmmaker who does not need to struggle to get his projects funded. In other words, the rest of us need to rely on connections, community arrangements, mentorships and other means to make sure that poverty “does not become a financial strategy,” in Shola Lynch‘s words.
Stanley Nelson, along with most of the former Blackside members, told anecdotes about his early career. “When I was young,” he said, “I decided that I would only work in film, no matter what happened. I was so poor that if I’d worked as a cab driver I would have felt like I was rich! And then I would still be a cab driver today.”
Like the Blackside filmmakers, Nelson found his way out by building a network and studying with a mentor — in his case, William Greaves. Nelson, Lynch and their fellow panelists Robert Bahar and Almudena Carracedo analyzed the details of the “partner model” of filmmaking, where two spouses work together to make filmmaking possible. (Bahar and Carracedo are also parents of a toddler.)
The program was capped with a panel on social networks and outreach in the digital age. Digital media provide filmmakers and producers with innumerable new ways to reach audiences and sponsors, and each of the panelists had a unique approach to demonstrating this point. Brian Storm demonstrated a unique video player with wrapped metadata that his team at MediaStorm had built. Marco Williams showed a gripping excerpt from an upcoming project (The Undocumented) about Mexican people trying to cross the desert into the United States, which will be paired with an educational game. Yvonne Welbon discussed various ways of maximizing the potential of “free”-conomics (marketing by means of digital promotions), and Jim Colgan described his experience of developing a groundbreaking SMS map for WNYC’s morning show. Future panels, I thought, might begin to examine the questions of community and kinship in the digital age.
Finally, the panelists and attendees met for refreshments and hors d’oeuvres under POV’s wall of Emmys, making introductions and sharing ideas, strategies, contacts and laughter.
The summit set a new standard for contemporary documentary filmmaking. Firelight Media and POV lent countless hours of planning and many other resources to make the event possible at no charge, a decision made to ensure that the event was accessible to its audience: emerging documentary film producers.
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