Why do so few funders support film making?


Caroline Hartnell


Caroline Hartnell

Caroline Hartnell

Why don’t more funders seeking to achieve social change support film making? Much as it pains me to say this, as a lifetime devotee of the written word, there is nothing so powerful and immediate as a good film.

This was my first thought at the end of a fascinating day at Good Pitch UK 2010 (10 September), an event organized by Channel 4’s BRITDOC Foundation in partnership with the Sundance Institute. During the day, eight documentary film makers ‘pitched’ films in various stages of production to a hand-picked ‘roundtable’ of ten potentially interested people and a wider audience of 300 or so.

The aim is both to bring in much-needed funding and to attract support in the form of ideas, help with outreach and dissemination, and so on. For a film on homelessness in the UK called On the Streets, directed by Penny Woolcock, the roundtable included representatives of homelessness NGOs, mental health NGOs, think-tanks and funders. BRITDOC Foundation CEO Jess Search, who moderated brilliantly, was tirelessly inventive with her suggestions for how different organizations could support the film, and made sure to ‘close’ each contribution from the roundtable on a practical note. No one got away with less than a positive answer to her default question ‘So are you willing to meet with XXX to talk more about this?’

A great range of films was shown in the day. One I was particularly interested in personally was a film called We Are Many, looking at what director Amir Amirani calls ‘one of the single most remarkable days in human history’: 15 February 2003, when 30 million people in 800 cities around the world marched against the impending war against Iraq. Sadly, although we were many, we ultimately failed. I will be interested to see how the director deals with this, something we couldn’t gauge from the short trailer we saw.

As editor of a magazine on philanthropy, I was particularly interested in a film called A Small Act, directed by Jennifer Arnold. The film tells the story of Chris Mburu, a Kenyan, who finished school with the help of a Swedish benefactor. Now an international human rights lawyer working with the UN, he has set up his own sponsorship fund, named after his sponsor Hilde Back Fund, whom he has met and discovered to be a German Jew who escaped the Holocaust.

In the philanthropy world we are always talking about what information donors want.  As discussed in Tris Lumley’s recent Latest from Alliance post, donors often like personal stories/anecdotes showing what their donation has achieved. What more eloquent way to tell a story than through a film? While it clearly isn’t practical to make a film about every grant made, a film like this showing what a small grant can achieve – often way beyond what could ever have been predicted – could be a valuable tool for those working with individual donors.

I’ve only seen the trailer, but I have no doubt that A Small Act, while showing the problems of lack of education and the horrors of ethnic violence in Kenya, is a positive film, the key message being that a small act can make a big difference. The contrast between this and On the Streets made me think about different types of film being right for different audiences.

On the Streets shows the severe trauma and mental health problems experienced by many homeless people, and reflects the film maker’s gradual realization that ‘the awful problems of homeless people are not about the lack of a roof’.  For a potential funder it is perhaps too bleak, showing the problem of homelessness as intractable and almost too daunting to tackle (again, as far as one could judge from the trailer). But for a policymaker or advocacy organization, for example, it demonstrates powerfully the shortcomings in traditional assumptions about homelessness and how to tackle it.

The uses of documentary film are endless, yet how many foundations or individual donors would think of supporting film making? PUMA’s new partnership with the BRITDOC Foundation, announced during the Good Pitch event, sets a great example.

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Tagged in: BRITDOC Foundation Film-making Good Pitch UK

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