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Next to gravity, inertia is perhaps the most ubiquitous force. It's
an obstacle activists and documentary filmmakers know all too well.
"You can watch the most powerful film in a room with a thousand
people, but you don't necessarily turn to the stranger next to you
and say, 'Oh my gosh, we've got to do something about that,"
observes Michael Hill, associate director of the Dorot Foundation,
"people are not used to translating that into action. At least
I'm not. I watch Bill Moyers or whatever, and when they say, 'If
you want to do more, go to our Web site', I've never done that
once in my life!" he admits with a laugh. "You need an activity
set up to channel that energy."
Judith Helfand, an accomplished filmmaker, is charting new territory
in this regard. She successfully uses her films in partnership with
nonprofits to amplify grassroots organizing efforts. These partnerships
enable Helfand to secure media grants from program officers who "don't
fund media." She also cofounded Working Films, an organization
that partners with filmmakers to create long-term outreach campaigns
in communities and classrooms.
The outreach campaign around Hefland's first film, A Healthy Baby
Girl, about the relationship between DES, a once popular anti-miscarraige
drug linked to cervical cancer in daughters of women who took the
drug, included distribution of Community Action Guides geared towards
people working in health care and with patients. Helfand also formed
an alliance with an environmental health coalition, Health Care Without
Harm (HCWH), which seeks to eliminate toxins from the medical waste
stream. The campaign involved a screening and discussion of A Healthy
Baby Girl, plus a follow-up meeting between students and an organizer
from HCWH-a critical organizing step. Helfand made over 100 such appearances.
Some had direct and immediate results but as Helfand notes, "the
impact is long-term."
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When Helfand began raising money for her next film, Blue Vinyl,
she partnered with organizations working on the issues addressed by
her film from day one. Blue Vinyl is a filmic odyssey that
begins at Helfand's parents' blue vinyl-sided Long Island house, and
then moves around the world to follow the toxic trail that the production
and incineration of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) leave behind.
Helfand approached foundations that were funding activists groups
in Louisiana near the country's largest vinyl plant. "I went
to them not only because they were funding some of the grassroots
organizations I was already working with, but in order for that re-development
to happen, there has to be demand from consumers and the middle class
for products that don't harm anyone. And that's what Blue Vinyl
will do." Her logic worked. Ford Foundation program officer Vernice
Miller-Travis saw an 18 minute trailer and committed $150,000 even
though Ford's Community and Resource Development unit had never funded
Blue Vinyl will air on HBO to an audience of 10 million. The
outreach campaign, launched at the Sundance Film Festival in 2002,
brings the issue home. Audience members each received a blue chip
with the warning "This is vinyl. Don't burn it and don't throw
it away" and a Web address where they could learn more.
"First people funded production; then they wanted to do outreach,"
says Michael Hill, associate director of the Dorot Foundation, a family
foundation that rarely funds media, but which supported Helfand's
last two films. "Now Judith is at the vanguard of saying 'That's
fine, but outreach really needs to be a three-year process. I don't
know how many foundations are there yet, but hopefully it's an evolving
process." In the meantime, it's clear that funding for film outreach
proves to be a worthwhile investment for foundations interested in
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