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Chapter 6: The Documentary in Action

by Patricia Thomson

A powerful thing happened in Casper, Wyoming, the week after Matthew Shepard was beaten by two gay-bashers and left for dead on a prairie fence. It centered on a documentary called Licensed to Kill, in which director Arthur Dong, who 20 years earlier had himself been a victim of anti-gay violence, enters the prison cells of convicted gay-bashers and quietly, effectively probes into the background, motivations, and psyche of these young men. Why did they do it? Where does their hate come from? Why do they feel their attack was socially sanctioned?

The crowd in Casper listened attentively as Licensed to Kill recounted large and small actions guided by hate. Many in the audience had come to town for a vigil in memory of Shepard, and one man after another stood up after the screening to tell his own story, demonstrating that Shepard was not an isolated case. "Every one of them had a similar experience; it was chilling," recalls Sara Dubik-Unruh of the Community Outreach for Prevention and Education (COPE), who had arranged the screening. "It took my breath away to realize how many people in our community have been devastated physically, emotionally, and spiritually by these types of attacks," she wrote to the filmmaker. "I felt honored and in awe of the men who shared their experiences at that showing." Dubik-Unruh now screens Licensed to Kill every semester at Casper College, joining the leagues of others who use the film and its study guide for education, sensitivity training, defense courses, and more—teachers, gay activists, inner-city youth centers, social service agencies, probation officers, police departments, and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Licensed to Kill, which went on to win an Emmy nomination, awards from the Sundance and Berlin film festivals, and a PBS broadcast, would never have seen the light of day without funding from private foundations. In fact, nearly every penny that didn't come out of the filmmaker's pocket was provided by foundations. Three major media funders—the Soros Documentary Fund, The Rockefeller Foundation, and the CPB-backed National Asian American Telecommunications Association—gave the bulk of the production budget. But the rest came in small grants of $2,000 to $7,000 from foundations that were more interested in the message than the medium, including the Unitarian Universalist Funding Program, Horizons Foundation, The Zellerbach Family Fund, the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation, and the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation.

When it comes to funding film production, "It's hard to feel you're having an impact with small money," says Ruby Lerner, president of Creative Capital Foundation, which provides grants to performing, visual, and media artists. But as former executive director of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF), Lerner knows that a little can go a long way in the documentary world. "We can't offer that much money, because we're small. But we know that $5,000 has helped a lot of people get critical things done in the production process."

Dong is one of those filmmakers who knows how to stretch a dollar. Licensed to Kill and his latest documentary, Family Fundamentals, each cost in the ballpark of $130,000. That's lunch money by Hollywood standards. More significantly, it's far cheaper than documentaries used to be when film stock was the preferred format. Dong is careful to note that his budgets are lower even than most independent productions because he doesn't hire a director, producer, editor, or cinematographer, but does it all himself. Even so, whether it's a one-man-band like Dong or a small documentary team, a little bit of funding at the right moment can have a big impact.

Take Dong's Family Fundamentals, a film about the conflicting values that divide Christian Fundamentalist parents and their gay or lesbian children. One of the film's subjects, Brian Bennett, was about to head off to the California State Republican Convention. Bennett had once been chief of staff for United States Representative Bob Dornan, who was a surrogate father to Bennett despite the fact that the congressman was a conservative Republican and vocal opponent of homosexuality. When Bennett came out of the closet, Dornan broke all ties. This convention presented Dong with the chance to film Bennett interacting with other Republicans as an open homosexual. "It was a one-time event. I had to go," says Dong, but he needed $5,000 to cover the shoot. That's when the Theophilus Fund, a private donor-advised fund in San Francisco, stepped in, enabling Dong to capture this event.

Later, an offshoot of this fund called the Theophilus Foundation helped out at another critical moment. Dong was racing the clock to finish his film in time for the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. Family Fundamentals had been accepted, but Dong still needed to complete the sound mix and pay for transfers, up-conversions and insurance. Theophilus quickly issued $15,000 to cover those costs, and Family Fundamentals made it over the finish line, allowing the film to premiere at the country's most important launchpad for documentary films.

"Fundraising is hard every step of the way," says Creative Capital's Lerner, echoing the lament of countless filmmakers who can spend as many years chasing funds for a film as they do actually making it. "Unless you are lucky enough to get one of the big funders like the Independent Television Service (ITVS) or HBO, you're going to be piecing things together," she says. "Sometimes to get a larger entity even interested in a project, you need to show [a sample reel], which again means that up to that point, you're going to be piecing together small money."

On the positive side, says Lerner, smaller investments give foundations a certain flexibility. "You can make a $5,000 investment very early on, then look at what that bought you and say, ‘Wow! This is really going somewhere. Here's another $5,000.’ Or at that point you might say, ‘Ugh, this is not turning out as exciting as I'd hoped.’ So before you've made a $50,000 investment, you can assess your investment every step of the way."

For filmmakers, small grants can be particularly effective in the early stages of a film. Seed money is precisely that—the seed that promotes future growth. Coming from a foundation with a vested interest in a topic, it provides a stamp of approval, a mark of credibility that can act as a magnet for other potential funders. (See Chapter 5.) For his part, Dong used seed money from the Lear Family Foundation ($5,000) and the Soros Documentary Fund ($15,000) to lay the all-important groundwork for Family Fundamentals: researching the Christian Right and assembling an advisory board of individuals from both the Fundamentalist movement and gay and lesbian organizations. "I spent over half a year forming my advisory panel," says Dong. "It wasn't an overnight thing or easy to reach some of these advisors, especially the more conservative ones, because why would they want to talk to me? I'm from PBS, right? ‘Mr. Liberal.’ So I nurtured the relationships—and it was worth doing."

As a result, Dong was able to bring aboard individuals like Forest Montgomery from the National Association of Evangelicals and Philip Yancey, an editor and columnist for Christianity Today, the leading Protestant magazine in America, among others. "Once I had them confirmed, I was able to approach possible subjects for the film. They didn't know me from Adam, but they knew of the people on my panel. ‘Oh, you've got so-and-so. Well, I agree with his values, and his religion is my religion. So I guess you're okay.’ That was well worth the work."

This board of advisors played a critical role in obvious ways—information, access and balance. But just as important, it helped pave the way for the next stage of the film—its outreach.

Dong belongs to that special breed of documentary filmmakers that thinks of production and outreach together from the get-go. Outreach is not an afterthought, but operates on a parallel track throughout the film's creation, and potential users are involved early on. (See also Chapter 7.)

For Dong, the benefits of this integrated approach crystallized with Licensed to Kill. During production he connected with the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, an umbrella group with over 20 member organizations around the country. "I worked with the coalition as a whole, which meant working with all those local agencies," Dong recalls. "That led me to have screenings in those cities where there's an agency." As a result, community screenings increased exponentially. "I learned how valuable that relationship was. So when I set out to compile my advisory panel for Family Fundamentals, I picked people who were connected with agencies as well," such as the National Association of Evangelicals, which has chapters throughout the United States.

Dong plans to involve his advisors and peer organizations in townhall forums around Family Fundamentals. "Venues will be safe and neutral spaces, such as libraries, museums, and public centers," writes the filmmaker in his proposal. "People with different feelings about LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual] rights will be invited and welcomed, albeit with one important condition: that they are sincerely interested in civil dialogue and are open to the idea of working through differences to find common ground."

For the Unitarians, Dong's strategic alliances with organizations like the United Church of Christ, Soulforce, and People for the American Way, plus his strong board of advisors and their affiliations, made all the difference. "If Arthur had submitted this proposal on its own without the other connections, we probably wouldn't have funded it," says Program Director Hillary Goodrich. The organization's nondenominational Fund for a Just Society normally provides grants to groups organizing for systemic change. "We usually fund small grassroots groups challenging an institution that could be, say, dumping toxins in their backyard, or a group of waitresses in Nevada who are organizing against wearing three-inch heels as a condition of employment," says Goodrich. Film is not normally on their plate, but the foundation awarded $7,000 toward production of Licensed to Kill, and later came back with $8,000 for editing, lab costs, and outreach for Family Fundamentals.

By the time of Family Fundamentals, Dong could more effectively support his case. In his application, he included something new: an in-depth evaluation of the impact of Licensed to Kill. Surveying the film's users, he collected dozens of anecdotes and testimonials from users, which he then synopsized for his grant proposal. "I was able to evaluate what I did on Licensed to Kill and incorporate that as solid evidence—to show that I could do this again for Family Fundamentals. With Licensed to Kill, I didn't have that type of evidence," Dong says. "I got more sophisticated."

Dong is not the only one. Many documentary filmmakers are becoming increasingly savvy about outreach—how to do it, when to begin, whom to partner with. But for outreach to happen, a film first has to be made. Foundations interested in social change can get in on the ground floor and support films that support their causes—even if they have limited funds.

"You can't just say that because it's a film, it doesn't have the potential to be incredibly valuable as part of an ongoing organizing strategy," says Goodrich. "The films that we fund are few and far between, but we've been really gratified by the results."


Patricia Thomson is the former editor-in-chief of The Independent Film & Video Monthly, and writes for Variety, American Cinematographer, and other film magazines.

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