Morning Manifesto on The State of Documentary at DOC NYC Pro
International Documentary Association (IDA) Executive Director Simon Kilmurry offers his perspective on opportunities and challenges for documentary filmmakers.
Written by Megan Scanlon
Now in its 8th year, with over 250 films and special events, DOC NYC again lights up lower Manhattan with a shared buzz of excitement and camaraderie. As a nod to this, International Documentary Association (IDA) Executive Director Simon Kilmurry, in conversation with DOC NYC Artistic Director Thom Powers, kicked off DOC NYC PRO’s State Of Documentary Day. Kilmurry opened the Morning Manifesto saying, “It is great to finally see New York get the documentary festival it deserves.”
Kilmurry delved into what filmmakers deserve too, and what the IDA is doing to serve filmmakers and address industry challenges. After an IDA study that explored how people in the documentary filmmaking field make a living, it quickly became clear that filmmakers could use more support. Head to any Q&A and directors will share that it took them 5-10 years to finish a film. Filmmakers often dive into their own funds, and are forced to take long breaks from research and production to recoup their losses. Filmmakers also have difficulty securing funds early on, as risk averse funders are hesitant to give award money without significant progress, and yet it’s that money that can mobilize a film.
Funding is just one challenge – filmmakers could reap enormous benefits from peer support, too. For instance, the Center for Media and Social Impact issued a “Dangerous Docs” report that examined links between documentary filmmaking and journalism, highlighting areas “where filmmakers could use more support, particularly when taking on high stakes stories,” said Kilmurry.
Powers pointed out the challenges of independent docs, like Josh Fox’s fracking documentary Gasland, and Kirby Dick’s Invisible War, about sexual abuse in the military. “These are films going up against powerful interests who push back hard, with lawyers and spin control specialists, and for the independent filmmaker it’s a lopsided equation. Traditionally in journalism you’d have a journalist protected, for example CBS 60 minutes, or the New York Times… they have their own lawyers, their own mouthpieces and their own editors that will back them up… independent docs don’t have that,” said Powers.
Enter the IDA Enterprise Documentary Fund which provides millions of dollars in grant funding for feature-length documentary films, including early research and development grants that allow room for exploration, opportunities, and growth. An advisory board made up of investigative journalists, lawyers, academics, and filmmakers support the navigation of thorny issues, and help support projects. Kilmurry added, “We have a partnership with freedom of the press foundation, and they are working with filmmakers throughout the process. All of this is a way to think more widely about how to support the field. Filmmakers are often out there working by themselves without a whole lot of support around research, fact checking, and first amendment issues. The IDA support prepares for pushback.”
History shows that foundations of the past were not interested in supporting media projects, but Kilmurry said he’s seen an upsurge. “I’ve got to give some credit to organizations like Media Impact Funders who have helped educate a community of funders to recognize the value of the media and what documentary film in particular can bring to illuminating stories, social challenges, understanding that documentaries are part of a democratic dialogue—that we have value in that space.”
Megan Scanlon is the North American Representative at the American University of Beirut. She is a frequent contributor to the DOC NYC and Stranger Than Fiction blogs, sits on the Bronx Documentary Center programming committee, and teaches at Yoga to the People. Follow her on instagram and twitter @meganscanlon5