Orlando Bagwell, Director, JustFilms Initiative, Ford Foundation

October 7, 2011
Orlando Bagwell, JustFilms Initiative

Earlier this month, the Ford Foundation officially launched JustFilms, a new initiative designed to expand support for social issue documentary films. Announced last winter at the Sundance Film Festival, JustFilms will provide $50 million over the next five years to fund the creation of social issue docs and help build effective audience engagement programs around them.

In August, Kathryn Pyle, a frequent contributor to PND's PhilanTopic blog, spoke with the initiative's director, Orlando Bagwell, about the new effort and how it relates to Ford's broader agenda, as well as his twenty-five-year career as a documentary filmmaker, which includes serving as a lead producer for the award-winning Eyes on the Prize series, four Emmy Awards, three George Peabody Awards, and the 1994 New York Film Festival Grand Prize.

Bagwell joined the Ford Foundation in 2004 as a program officer focused primarily on support for public media and subsequently led the foundation's Global Perspectives in a Digital Age, Advancing Public Service Media initiative. He later served as director of the foundation's Freedom of Expression unit before being tapped in 2010 to establish and lead the JustFilms initiative.

Kathryn Pyle: I came across a piece by Pat Aufderheide of the Center for Social Media in which she quoted you as telling a new cohort of Public Media Corps fellows and their mentors that "story is essential in public media," but that in light of today's technology "you can and must go beyond the making of stories, to connect people to each other; to have the kinds of conversations they need to have." I thought that was an apt quote in terms of JustFilms' mission and your own career as a filmmaker involved in projects that got people talking to each other. Can you explain the convergence between stories well told and what we are now calling "audience engagement"?

Orlando Bagwell: My first involvement with public television was with Eyes on the Prize and Blackside, Henry Hampton's production company. As a young filmmaker I'd done small independent films, but nothing on that scale. I was consumed in many ways by the challenge to produce on that level and to take on a history that included so many people with a vested interest in how it was told and represented. Public television was the only space at the time where something like Eyes on the Prize could be incubated, and I think all of us who were producers on the series were kind of overwhelmed by the challenge.

The interesting thing was that we had no idea how people would respond to it and it turned out to be an immediate response. When it first came on the air, I was in China shooting a film. I got a call from the States and was told, "Your phone is ringing off the hook!" That really was an indication of how hungry people were for the kind of storytelling we were doing and the way that storytelling spoke to such a large cross-section of America. It wasn't just a story for the African-American community or the news media or civil rights activists. It was a series that engaged everyone, and it quickly became a part of history itself, which is how Henry had planned it. It was meant to be an American moment that people had a stake in.

At the same time, the response also made us realize we had an opportunity to engage in a conversation that we hadn't really anticipated. People immediately began to ask, "How do I use this? What do I do with this? How can it be a part of learning in the classroom?" But they were also asking how we were going to be involved in facilitating the conversation that was taking place around the series. And this was twenty years after the civil rights movement.

We realized that films had the potential to have enormous impact and that somehow, in some way, the process of thinking about what a film could do, could mean, needed to be embedded in the film from the beginning....

We realized we had missed something in the process of making the program: that films had the potential to have enormous impact and that somehow, in some way, the process of thinking about what a film could do, what it could mean, needed to be embedded in the film from the beginning. The immediate question was how do we facilitate and engage a conversation about Eyes on the Prize that would bring unlikely people into a room to share not only their own thoughts about the movement but what that history means today.

My experience with Eyes on the Prize really influenced how I approached films from then on. If you look at the programs I did through PBS after that, especially the series work, you'll see a really strong outreach and public engagement piece.

One of the core funders of Eyes on the Prize was the Ford Foundation, and Andrea Taylor, who managed the media program at Ford at the time, was very much present at Blackside as we were moving the series through production. She recognized that there was something going on, something that represented another piece of what documentaries could be in people's lives, the engagement end of it. And she challenged us to think critically about what materials and tools were needed to work with that aspect and how to organize it. That made an impression on all of us as filmmakers.

Over the years, Ford not only supported a lot of my film projects but also supported the engagement piece. I looked for other funders who had an interest — not just in the production side but in the larger public conversation and how a film could reach beyond an expected audience. So when I came to the foundation in 2004, I arrived not only with a clear sense of the power of storytelling to impact people's lives, but also with a real commitment to take advantage of that, to bring people together to engage in a conversation rather than letting them remain in their separate spaces. I want people who have very different positions on an issue, people who in fact have a stake in the stories, to reconsider their relationship with the issue and with other people. That is the real opportunity.

Of course, by 2004 the whole landscape had changed in terms of how you did outreach. You were still able to convene people in an analog way — through television — but you also had new digital platforms, and that's a big part of what my Ford colleagues and I think about today.

KP: Clearly, there is more interest on the part of both funders and audience in documentaries, and one explanation is that there are fewer resources and less space for in-depth coverage of complex topics in the media.

OB: Part of the change is that documentaries are much more available now. People can watch them at their leisure. Being able to find the films you want to see, for example the online services offered by PBS and others where you can download or stream films, allows people to come to documentaries on their own terms. You don't have to tune in at a certain time to see it; you don't have to go to a movie theater an hour away.

There's also just greater interest in independent documentaries — and I say independent because I think there continues to be a very strong collection of documentaries that exist in the television space; HBO's a good example. These are documentaries that are pretty diverse in terms of what they talk about and how they're done. But they're not all "independent" in terms of their financing. And because we've been exposed to more and more documentaries, I think the public is developing an appreciation for and more confidence in the independent voice.

KP: There seem to be more foundations and corporate funders supporting different pieces of documentary filmmaking and audience engagement today. What has been your experience, as a grantmaker, in terms of finding partners who share your vision with respect to social issue documentaries? How do you see that landscape changing in terms of other funders and filmmakers, many of whom have been trained to make films and not to think about how they're going to be used to engage an audience around an issue? And where are the nongovernmental organizations in the equation?

OB: One of the big growth areas in the philanthropic sector related to documentary films is grantmakers who have a very particular expertise in public engagement. There are grantmakers who are very much tied to what might be called the traditional public broadcasting model. They recognize the value of PBS affiliates as vehicles for convening local audiences and drawing them in to activities such as public screenings. Then, after the screenings, they organize conversations around the film and suggest ways that people can become involved in the issue, creating a network of audience members in the process.

There are also new organizations, NGOs, using social networking tools to explore not only how to amplify issues raised in conversations sparked by a film, but also how to use technology to convene people in a virtual space in order to have those conversation. You have projects created by organizations like Cause & Affect, which is handling The Bully Project, a documentary film that's part of an advocacy and education program. [Ed note: The film is funded by the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust and the Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention, among other groups.] These organizations and others like them are exploring how to use new technology to change the language and conversation around particular issues and how to use films to help make that change.

I believe in the impact, but I also believe in the purity of the work. I recognize that making films is really hard work. And I see filmmakers being pulled in lots of different directions....

The challenge for filmmakers is finding an NGO partner interested in using film to drive impact. And I'm of two minds on this. I believe in the impact, but I also believe in the purity of the work. I recognize that making films is really hard work. And I see filmmakers being pulled in lots of different directions. It's really hard to raise money to finish a film, and at the end of the day that's the core piece that's going to allow all these other things we've been talking about to happen.

We want to organize JustFilms so that filmmakers do what they do best, which is to tell stories. That's why we're going to continue to give direct support for making films. But at the same time there's got to be a clear audience-engagement strategy. What are the outcomes you're looking for? What are the key measures of success in year one with respect to the media? How about year two? What kinds of policy changes are you hoping to effect? What about behavioral changes? How can the film make an impact in the public space?

You want that product — the documentary — to be as strong as possible, because that's the lead piece of the larger project in a sense; that's the door that opens other doors. The key part of any public engagement effort is that you have a clear strategy in terms of the kinds of outcomes you're looking for. It doesn't mean they might not change, but you've got to be clear about them in order to know whether they should change.

Your best bet is the analog approach I talked about before, the traditional public broadcasting model, where you're trying to bring people together and create a core to get to the next piece. You want to build a cadre of people who are going to be activists on the ground doing things you know need to be done. At the same time, maybe your online effort is being driven by an outcome related to policy change or public support around a referendum that could have a real impact on your issue. At the core of the process, these questions all help the filmmaker to make the critical decisions about who they work with and at what stage they begin to incorporate different approaches to public engagement.

KP: You seem to be describing a continuum of sorts. At one end are documentaries about important issues that simply describe the issue of concern but without advocating for any change. Moving along the continuum, you might have the same film that with the right support from a local television station, a network, or an NGO could be a catalyst for the advocacy piece. And even further along are films that begin with a social change agenda. How will JustFilms work with filmmakers to move them along that continuum?

OB: One way to support that process is the Good Pitch, which is a forum for filmmakers where they can present their film to a group of funders, issue experts, and activists who understand that it's all about the larger project — namely, connecting audiences to the film's message. The discussion then is about the value and potential of the project to drive change and about what partnerships are needed to create the desired impact. Whether the films are in production or are finished, in that moment you begin to get a sense of how people outside the film see the work. Often the conversation comes around to ways the film could have impact or reach audiences the filmmaker hadn't imagined. Of course, it also takes time from the making of the film because the filmmaker has to invest two weeks of his or her time to prepare for the event!

KP: I understand that with support from Ford as well as the Tides Foundation, the Fledgling Fund, Chicken & Egg Pictures, Impact Partners, the CrossCurrents Foundation, and the Wyncote Foundation, there are three Good Pitch events scheduled this year. What, in your mind, is the right balance between support for the films and support for finding and building audiences that are then moved to take action? What's a good model for enabling both?

OB: Within the Ford Foundation, I can collaborate with people who have expertise in different issue areas, so a lot of my internal work is aligning storytelling with a social change strategy. We can invest in that first-stage strategy consideration, defining the outcomes that we might be looking for. But we don't want to move further in terms of the outreach funding, because in the philanthropic world there are very few of us who really support film production, and support it from a storytelling point of view. In other words, it's not the issue we're interested in primarily, it's the product itself — the film plus the engagement and how they fit in the social change equation.

Outside Ford, there are many funders who will support the use of the film because they have a vested interest in an issue. We see our role as helping to identify those partners. But the way to bring them in is to have a clear strategy for what you want to do with your film. That's important.

KP: JustFilms will be carrying out its program in a number of interesting ways. One is working with external partners, including the Sundance Institute, Independent Television Service, and the Tribeca Film Institute. Why those three organizations?

OB: Those three organizations are our signature partners, and about a third of our funds will go to them. The Sundance Institute is a major influence in the documentary field, and not only because of the Sundance Film Festival. We really believe in their workshops, and that's a part of what JustFilms is supporting: the various labs they offer to grantees in script writing, producing, directing, editing, and composing. The workshops really improve the skills of filmmakers and improve the films they bring to the workshop. It's a model we want to replicate in other places.

As a foundation, we're interested in how we can bring more voices to the conversation around issues that are important to us. And I mean the global conversation....

Another part of that partnership, and a feature of our partnership with ITVS as well, is the ability of these organizations to reach out to filmmakers we wouldn't normally have access to. As a foundation, we're interested in how we can bring more voices to the conversation around issues that are important to us. And I mean the global conversation. We're well aware that most of the filmmakers who are making films about issues that are important to us are from Europe and the United States. But if we're talking about global issues that affect all of us, that conversation has to be broader.

Our strength as a foundation is that we have deep relationships in other parts of the world, and we want to take advantage of those relationships. We want to be in places where we can have those conversations with people and something is triggered and they say, "Well, I can make a story about that." Yes, it's a filmmaker's story, but if it's done well it can engage the public and bring all sorts of people to the issue. Especially this year, the first year of the initiative, we want to design a way to raise up the voices of storytellers in the global South to comment on the rest of the world, not just their own countries or regions. That's going to take time, but we're committed to building that kind of expertise and that kind of storytelling.

However, we don't feel that all the best ideas come through our office, so with Sundance and ITVS we can fund films that we might otherwise miss and see projects that we wouldn't otherwise see. For instance, although the majority of Sundance Institute's funds go to U.S. filmmakers, maybe 40 percent goes to filmmakers overseas. With ITVS, we were actually the initial funder for the International Media Development Fund, which supports filmmakers in other parts of the world and brings their content to the United States. It's a way to encourage more stories from the rest of the world. We supported both Sundance and ITVS prior to JustFilms, so we're continuing those relationships, but we're looking to help them expand programs that are important to us.

The Tribeca Film Institute is a new partner of ours, and our support for them is for a transmedia fund. The fund is a way to think about how documentary film finds its way into the much larger digital storytelling space. How do you begin to think about the many different ways in which documentary film gets translated into new products? The majority of products will come out of the films themselves, but there might be new ones that are related to the film but are not necessarily part of the film, for example, a game based on the film. But, again, all this is tied to a clear sense of what the outcomes are that you're looking for. Whatever we're creating as a transmedia strategy is really aligned to certain outcomes that are part of an earlier filmmaking strategy.

KP: So the partnership with Tribeca will be exclusively transmedia work, in contrast to your support for ITVS and Sundance?

OB: Yes, it's a transmedia fund that will be managed by Tribeca. It really comes out of our early work with the Bay Area Video Coalition and their Producers Institute for New Media Technologies. In our conversations with Tribeca, we learned that this kind of capacity-building is something they wanted to do as well. It will create a space that's as much impact-focused as it is focused on thinking through the implications of new media and technology for filmmakers.

KP: Will you be expanding the partners beyond Sundance, Tribeca, and ITVS?

OB: We're in negotiations with other groups that can complement those three signature partners. Groups that can provide emergency grants, smaller grants, grants that seed ideas, that help engage filmmakers with audiences. We'll be looking for organizations that can do some of that work with us. We're also creating partnerships to support shorter films and different film genres. And because we realize that when you validate a young filmmaker as a filmmaker, you're often launching them into a career, we're thinking about at a small kind of award to acknowledge the work of next-generation filmmakers as a way of saying, "Yeah, we're looking at you, and we think you're the real deal. Keep it up." So we're considering re-granting through other organizations, on a modest scale, that are doing that kind of work.

KP: In addition to working through partner organizations, JustFilms will provide direct support for films. What's the process for identifying those films?

OB: JustFilms includes a fund that's intended to complement the Ford Foundation's ongoing work in different areas and enables program officers here to think about the potential of films and media with respect to the issues they are dealing with. For instance, I was talking with a colleague in the criminal justice area about the alarming incarceration statistics in the United States. So we began looking at projects we could work on together that would fit with the multi-level approach she's taking to her work. And this year we'll launch this new component with three films currently in production. One, by Eugene Jarecki, is about the growth of the prison industry and how it evolved from a correctional system into an industry. The second film came about because we were looking for a film that could humanize an incarcerated person, and we found an interesting film about an artist and her project with an inmate who's been in solitary confinement for a long time; it's called Herman's House, by Angad Bhalla. And the third film, Gideon's Army, by Dawn Porter, is about public defenders. What does it mean to be a public defender in an environment characterized by high incarceration rates? What kinds of impediments keep them from being effective? Do we believe that public defenders could be like a new Peace Corps? The biggest obstacle for young lawyers who want to be public defenders are their student loans! How do you begin to address that? You don't want to lose people who are committed to this work, so we need to bring those issues to light.

These three films are part of a cluster and represent the first piece in our collaboration. Now we're thinking about the public engagement piece; what are some of the outcomes we're looking for and how do they fit into my colleague's broader strategy?

KP: Are you funding an organization that will work with all three filmmakers on audience engagement strategies? Or do you expect each filmmaker to develop that on his or her own?

OB: No, we'll work with an organization, Active Voice, to think about the strategic plan that's going to drive the public engagement work. Each film might have a very specific kind of group working with them — aligning it around a very clear strategy for intervening in prisons, for instance. The issue of prisons as job creators in small towns and communities around the country is a complicated one, and how you engage people with different things at stake in the prison-as-industry debate requires a lot of sensitivity and expertise.

KP: So one of the key features of the JustFilms initiative will be the focus on partner organizations, and a second will be the work done inside Ford to integrate a documentary film strategy into specific program areas, with an underlying theme of expanding support for filmmakers outside the U.S.?

The announcement that Ford was making this level of commitment is significant not just because of the money, but because it acknowledges the importance of nonfiction storytelling in the arena of ideas....

OB: Yes. But we realize that certain projects don't fit into existing foundation initiatives, so the last piece is an open fund to support documentary films that have a social justice theme. In fact, a third of our resources will be dedicated to that fund. The announcement that Ford was making this level of commitment in the documentary field is significant — not just because of the money, but because it acknowledges the importance of nonfiction storytelling/films in the larger public discourse and the arena of ideas.

There were two headlines that came out of Sundance last winter when we announced JustFilms. One was Ford's five-year commitment to the initiative. And the other was Oprah saying that she was going to do for documentaries what she did for books. I think the two statements say something about the public's desire for real stories, independently told stories, as well as the generally sorry state of public discourse at this particular moment. They also say something about trust, or the lack thereof. It's not that people trust everything they see or hear in a documentary film. But I think they understand that most documentaries are a reflection of an independent voice and sensibility. And that makes them an important part of the larger conversation that is happening at any given moment. In an increasingly complicated world, we need those voices and that sensibility.

Kathryn Pyle spoke with Bagwell in August. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch Nauffts at mfn@foundationcenter.org.