Next to gravity, inertia is perhaps the most ubiquitous force. It's
an obstacle activists know all too well, and many would say it's their
most crippling opponent. Documentary filmmakers also bump up against
this wall. "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. And no matter how forceful a television show, "people
are not used to translating that into action," Hill continues.
"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. And that's
what Judith is trying to do."
Judith Helfand is cofounder of Working Films, an organization that
partners with filmmakers to create outreach campaigns in communities
and classrooms. She's also a filmmaker herself-one of the few that
Dorot has funded. A family foundation best known for its fellowship
for study in Israel, Dorot supported Helfand's personal documentary,
A Healthy Baby Girl, about diethylstilbestrol (DES) and cancer
as well as her latest "toxic comedy," Blue Vinyl,
codirected with Daniel Gold.
"Blue Vinyl is irreverent, funny, accessible to the average
person, and it's not something I would call your stereotypical documentary
on a scientific issue," says Marni Rosen of the Jenifer Altman
and Mitchell Kapor Foundations, sister organizations that co-grant
in the environmental health area and that also supported both films.
Naturally, Rosen was delighted when A Healthy Baby Girl appeared
on PBS. She was even more thrilled when Blue Vinyl was picked
up by HBO, which reaches 10 million "unconverted average consumers,"
as Helfand describes them. "For us, that was great," says
Rosen, "since we're involved in educating the general public.
Something like Blue Vinyl can really go far in doing that."
But Rosen also knows that a television broadcast doesn't necessarily
translate into action. That's where Helfand's outreach comes into
Earlier this year, Helfand could be found channeling audience energy
at the Sundance Film Festival, where Blue Vinyl debuted. This
filmic odyssey begins at her parents' Long Island house, which had
been recently re-sided with blue vinyl, then moves around the world
to follow the toxic trail that the production and incineration of
polyvinyl chloride (PVC) leave behind. When audiences exited the theater,
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 (www.myhouseisyourhouse.org)
where they could learn more. For audience members riled up enough
to "do something," Helfand and Working Films provided stamped
postcards protesting the continued use of PVC packaging by Victoria's
Secret and Bath & Body Works.
They also brought the issue home. Utah's largest municipal incinerator,
where vinyl products are burned, was located nearby. Working Films
flew up members of the Louisiana "bucket brigade" featured
in Blue Vinyl to train locals how to capture air samples for
professional monitoring. They also organized a special screening of
Blue Vinyl for Utah health workers and local press.
These Sundance activities kicked off Blue Vinyl's outreach
campaign. But that's not where the trail began. In fact, a well-conceived
outreach campaign starts with the film's preproduction and can potentially
last for years after its broadcast, as Helfand's A Healthy Baby
Helfand is among a growing number of filmmakers who have discovered
that the more they interface with the community of potential users
while they're making a film, the more effective it will be once it's
out in the world. (See also Arthur Dong in Chapter
When creating A Healthy Baby Girl, Helfand called up Jeanie
Ungerleider, a clinical social worker who specializes in fertility
issues. A Healthy Baby Girl sprang from Helfand's own experience
with a hysterectomy at age 25. When pregnant, Helfand's mother took
DES, a synthetic hormone then prescribed to ensure a healthy pregnancy.
This hormone has been linked to Helfand's rare type of cervical cancer,
which in turn led to A Healthy Baby Girl, a film about Helfand's
hysterectomy and the complicated web of grief and guilt surrounding
it. Asking "what did they know, and when did they know it?"
of the drug companies that pushed DES on expectant mothers, Helfand
reveals a shameful history of corporate irresponsibility.
Ungerleider was one of medical professionals Helfand contacted to
discuss the film's content and use, but it so happened she was also
on the Dorot Foundation's board of directors. Ungerleider subsequently
brought the film to their attention, and Dorot wound up providing
A Healthy Baby Girl with $20,000 through the foundation's "board-initiated
grants" category. Although it was the outreach that interested
them, they provided the funds while Helfand was still in production.
"Outreach can be a lot better when people are brought in from
the beginning," explains Hill. "She's using them for ideas
on how to make the film effective, and that's informing her filmmaking."
Ungerleider was one of those excited prospective users, and she recommended
the film to peers in the medical profession and to other funders.
" A Healthy Baby Girl is such a good teaching tool in
so many different areas-in the clinic, in the classroom, with
nurses, with medical students. That's what really got me aboard,"
she enthuses. Ungerleider found Helfand's Community Action Guide (paid
for by $5,000 from the Jenifer Altman Foundation) to be right on target.
"It was very much geared towards people working in health care,
but also relevant to patients who were dealing with reproductive issues
like infertility." Approximately 3,000 copies were distributed,
reaching target audiences through the film's outreach and organizing
partners, who handed them out at events and screenings. In addition,
the film's distributor, Women Make Movies, sent out a Community Action
Guide with each sale, and other copies were requested through the
film's Web site.
But this study guide was just one component in Helfand's outreach.
As with Blue Vinyl, she used her time on the festival circuit
to network with local activists and organize special screenings. Then
after the festivals and PBS broadcast, her outreach work continued.
Her core effort involved long-term partnerships with environmental
health activists. Although DES is no longer prescribed to pregnant
women, there are other harmful synthetic chemicals circulating in
the environment, such as dioxin, which is known to cause cancer and
harm fetal development. Helfand allied with an environmental health
coalition that is targeting the health industry itself-Health
Care Without Harm (HCWH), which seeks to eliminate dioxin and mercury
from the medical waste stream. Through this partnership, she was able
to use her film to move the campaign ahead in ways that would not
have been possible for either party separately.
Helfand carved out a task for herself: get medical students involved
in the campaign, targeting university hospitals with medical waste
incinerators. "The idea was get students to say, Not in
my school," Helfand explains. Dubbed Divest from
Dioxin, this outreach effort (funded by The Mitchell Kapor Foundation,
the W. Alton Jones Foundation, and the Starfire Fund) involved a screening
and discussion of A Healthy Baby Girl, plus a follow-up meeting
with students-a critical organizing step. "I'd make sure there
was an organizer from Health Care Without Harm there do the follow-up,"
says Helfand. Like a Johnny Appleseed, Helfand made more than 100
such appearances. Some had direct and immediate results. At the University
of Michigan, they formed Students Against the Medical Waste Incinerator.
"They were one of the first student chapters to start, and that
was definitely because of A Healthy Baby Girl," says Helfand.
At least six or seven other campuses were also spurred to action,
but as Helfand notes, "the impact is long-term." The broader
movement of which A Healthy Baby Girl is part is gaining momentum.
According to a recent HCWH report, the California Medical Association
passed a resolution strongly urging all hospitals to phase out their
use of PVC products; and medical waste incinerators have closed in
California, Michigan, and Ontario.
For the Jenifer Altman and Mitchell Kapor Foundations, A Healthy
Baby Girl was an attractive proposition because it neatly dovetailed
with organizing efforts they were already supporting- namely,
HCWH. Similarly, when Helfand was raising money for Blue Vinyl,
she went to foundations that were funding activists groups in Louisiana
near the country's largest vinyl plant. Even though The Ford Foundation's
Community and Resource Development unit had never supported film before,
Helfand nevertheless sent them an application. "That department
is absolutely committed to economic or technical development in communities
that have been harmed by toxic industries," says Helfand. "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. "[Program officer] Vernice Miller-Travis
saw an 18-minute trailer and committed $150,000."
This kind of funding synergy makes sense to Helfand. "If a foundation
is spending $1million, it's almost like they're spending $2 million,"
she says. "You fund two organizations that work together, sharing
resources and materials, and one builds on the work of the other."
Helfand has no doubt about the catalytic effect of film as an organizing
tool. That's why she cofounded Working Films with curator Robert West.
"I never again wanted a foundation to say to me, 'I'm sorry,
we don't fund film; we fund organizing. But what you do with films
is not organizing.' I felt that unless I created an organization that
is solely dedicated to organizing but from a filmmaking perspective,
I'm always going to lose out."
Working Films is now collaborating with a handful of filmmakers on
developing and implementing outreach campaigns. The deeper Helfand
gets into this work, the more she sees that the most effective campaigns
stretch over a period of years. "For me, it's only one or two
years out when you really understand how your film functions,"
says Helfand. "By then you know the best thing you can do with
that movie, and you do it over and over again."
That's why in an ideal world Helfand envisions multi-year grants for
outreach. "My sense is that's part of what might be an evolution
in film funding,"says Dorot's Hill. "First people funded
production; then they wanted to do outreach. Now Helfand 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-whether
around a broadcast, a piece of legislation, or an ongoing activist
campaign-have proven to be a worthwhile investment for foundations
interested in social change.
Patricia Thomson is the former editor-in-chief of The Independent
Film & Video Monthly, and writes for Variety, American
Cinematographer, and other film magazines.
The heart of your film comes from unique visuals and smart cinematography. Jon Kline is a documentary cinematographer working in Chicago, New York, and around the world. He has worked with National Geographic, CNN, and Discovery to make documentary television.
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