On a crisp autumn morning in northern Afghanistan, a group of imams in elegant turbans and with cultivated beards listen to a seminar about the merits of a lubricated condom.
An array of contraceptives around him, Dr Rahmatuddin Bashardost, a programme manager for Marie Stopes International (MSI), then moves on to talk about birth control injections.
Some imams take boxes of condoms for themselves, others take them to distribute to their congregations. “It would be very good if we could show people that there are four or five kinds of birth control methods,” says one imam. The others nod.
In culturally conservative Afghanistan, it is often left to local imams to deal with delicate social issues such as family planning. It is not, however, that simple. Those who advocate what are seen as modern ideas, including contraception, can fall foul of the Taliban. “Imams like myself disappear and no one asks about them,” says Mansour Mahsoom, one of the clerics involved in the programme.
Foreign aid to Afghanistan has dramatically increased access to healthcare and family planning, but despite reproductive health campaigns through public service announcements and healthcare providers, only 22% of Afghan families use contraception.
Cultural and economic barriers have kept both maternal and infant mortality rates the highest in Asia, with 67% of mothers giving birth at home, often because their husbands forbid them to go to hospital. The relentless pressure to bear many sons, a sign of high economic status, sometimes ends in tragedy.
One in 50 Afghan women dies of causes related to pregnancy. Five years ago, MSI and the UN Population Fund realised the most effective way to decrease mortality rates was to reach men through mosques. They set up partnerships with local imams and their wives to change reproductive practices in their communities.
The Qur’an supports the use of contraception to allow women breaks between pregnancies to nurse their children. It states: “The mothers shall give suck to their offspring for two whole years.” Another passage says: “Allah desires to lighten your burden, for man was created weak.”
Most Afghans, however, are not aware of this. Instead, the Taliban threaten imams for collaborating with a western occupying power. Some have received anonymous phonecalls and letters.
The 200-year-old mosque Imam Mahsoom presides over is the focal point of his community. Each day after prayer, scores of men and boys ask him for advice on health, money, jobs and family issues.
“These men are primarily farmers. They’ve known only war and guns and weapons,” the 36-year-old scholar says. “It takes time, but I’ve been able to encourage them to take their wives to the MSI clinic for treatment and medicine.”
At MSI’s clinics, women have access to prenatal and postnatal care and contraception at reasonable prices. Condoms cost two Afghanis (2p) the birth control pill 15 and Depo-Provera injections 30.
MSI has reached out to 6,000 imams and their wives so far. With their help, it estimates that it averted 1,646 unintended pregnancies in 2014, up from 199 in 2008. Last year the charity even noticed the wives of local Taliban members coming to its clinics for consultations.
An atmosphere of fear, however, surrounds the programme. For a time, the imams were comfortable distributing condoms outside their mosques. Today threats from the re-emergent Taliban forces mean they all have given up the practice.
Communications and web development specialist at a media development organization.
A Deaf Journalist in Nigeria Fights to Advance Disability Rights
People with disabilities in Kaduna State in Nigeria took to the streets in May to protest a proposed law banning street begging and hawking. The administration of governor Nasir el-Rufai said that the goal was to keep children in school rather than begging in the street and to enhance security after a street bombing that left 25 dead and others injured.
But activists say the government needs to enact the Disability Rights Law and provide gainful employment before they ban the primary means of income for people with disabilities.
Despite decades of activism and advocacy by nongovernmental organizations, disability legislation in Nigeria has been stymied since 2013 when a bill was passed by the National Assembly during the administration of ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo but never signed into law by the president. The current Senate reintroduced and once again passed the Disability Bill in June 2016 and it is waiting for presidential approval.
Julius Shemang, a journalist and the Chairman of the Joint National Association of Persons With Disabilities (JONAPWD) Kaduna State, has been at the forefront of the call for a disability rights law in Nigeria.
“Lack of education, employment and poverty in the disability community made many resort to begging in order to finance their education and that of their children,” he said in an article from The Nation (in Nigeria). “While we welcome and commend the present policy on free education for all children by the present regime, the gesture should be effectively extended to People Living with Disability.”
People with disabilities need the protection of the a disability rights law because of discrimination faced in school and at the workplace, often based in a fear that disability is contagious.
Shemang lost his hearing at the age of 14 and he developed a passion for reading and writing because he felt, “…as a Deaf person, these were the best options I now had to cope effectively with the world having lost touch with the hearing world.”
As he adjusted to his deafness, Shemang became upset at the way the able-bodied population viewed disability, treating it as a matter of charity rather than a human rights issue. He went to the New Nigerian Newspaper(NNN) headquarters in Kaduna State to propose writing on issues of the disabled to draw public and government attention to their needs. He was initially told he should go teach at a school for the Deaf but he was able to convince them to give him a chance at journalism. His first article was titled “The Deaf Want to be Heard” and discussed how the Deaf were being denied admissions into universities and being denied employment opportunities.
“That was the beginning of my involvement in advocating for the rights of people living with disability,” he said in an interview in Poor Magazine.
When questioned by a news editor about how he was able to report as a Deaf person, Shemang says, “Whenever I go to cover an event, I go with a partner or get someone at the event and ask him or her to listen and to jot down points from various speakers. In addition, I use my eyes to observe movements and the behaviours of people around and try to make sense and meaning from what I observe, after which I sit down to combine and write everything into juicy reports for the reading public.”
Having the readers know that he was a Deaf reporter, “…really helped change public perception, negative attitudes and feeling toward the disabled as they too began to join the campaign for a society that speaks inclusion and justice for all,” he said.
In 2006, frustrated with the lack of coverage of disability issues in mainstream media, Shemang was inspired to start his own newspaper — Kafanchan Times –that covered disability as well as other human life issues. For financial reasons, he was forced to stop publishing the paper in 2010 but he hopes to revitalize it soon. It is currently the only newspaper owned by a disabled person in northern Nigeria and fully registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission.
“Both the disabled and the abled population viewed Kafanchan Times as an ideal platform that encouraged the learning and recognition of both sides in a collective struggle, as well as the need to liberate the disability community in Nigeria, Africa and globally,” he said.
Although there are some other media focusing on disability issues, such as Inclusive Network News (INN) TV, an effort of Sign Language Interpreters and other disabled people in southern Nigeria, currently the coverage is still sparse.
“I will say that the mainstream media have not done enough in fighting the disability cause in Nigeria,” says Shemang. “For instance, I don’t know of any media organization that ever visited the headquarters of JONAPWD Abuja to find out what we are there for, what we do, how we do it, our struggles, and challenges. In recent months, it was wrongly reported in a national daily that the population of Nigerians living with disabilities is close to 15 million when in reality the number is 25.5 million, according to United Nations data. The mainstream media do not consult organizations of people living with disabilities to get accurate information about disability issues.”
Shemang also acknowledged that media coverage is influenced by money. “Most media organizations in Nigeria cover issues that increase the size of their pockets and not the issues that impact [marginalized] people’s lives. The poverty state of the Nigerian disability community coupled with the unwillingness of the mainstream media, are principally and systematically responsible for the huge failure of the government in successfully implementing the National Disability Law. Some media in Nigeria have done well, but a lot more needs to be done to impact lives and change public perceptions.”
He offered a plan for how media coverage of disability issues can improve. “One, we organize and invite the media for coverage. Two, the media invite us or come to us and do the coverage. Thirdly, we jointly plan how to get the issues out.”
“In essence, there should be no limit to what the media should do to impact the lives of people with disabilities because we are the most neglected and discriminated group in the society,” said Shemang.
The Kaduna government passed the street begging and hawking bill into law September 1, but Shemang says people with disabilities are still protesting and monitoring the situation to ensure that further harassment does not occur. He and his organization continue the struggle to enact the Disability Rights Law.
Patricia Chadwick, Digital Media Coordinator for Internews, writes on disability and media issues in the international arena.
Documentarian Frederick Wiseman will be one of four individuals honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at its 2016 Governors Awards gala in November.
Wiseman will receive an honorary Oscar statuette at the Hollywood presentation on November 12, along with actor/director/producer Jackie Chan; film editor Anne Coates; and casting director Lynn Stalmaster.
While presenting the project to a host of international commissioners at the Forum, Wiseman told the roundtable: “One of the reasons people like my films is because they’re complex explorations of complicated subjects, and I try not to simplify them in the service of having some fantasy of reaching a larger audience.”
In addition to the honorary Oscar and the Golden Lion, Wiseman has been recognized with three Primetime Emmys, and a Peabody award given to the filmmaker “for a mastery of television documentary destined to be studied through the ages.” He has also received the International Documentary Association Career Achievement Award and an Award of Distinction from the American Society of Cinematographers.
According to the Academy, the Honorary Award is given “to honor extraordinary distinction in lifetime achievement, exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences, or for outstanding service to the Academy.”
“The Honorary Award was created for artists like Jackie Chan, Anne Coates, Lynn Stalmaster and Frederick Wiseman – true pioneers and legends in their crafts,” said Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs in a statement. “The Board is proud to honor their extraordinary achievements, and we look forward to celebrating with them at the Governors Awards in November.”
Realscreen‘s special report on doc financing and the economic pressures on filmmakers continues with a look at the issue through the commissioning and distribution lens. For part one of the report, click here, and for part two, click here.
In every generation, there’s a small group of doc makers for whom “sustainability” is more than a buzzword. They’re able to make that second documentary – then third, then fourth – and sustain lengthy, sometimes illustrious, careers.
But as realscreenpreviouslyexplored, most doc makers working today fall outside of that elite circle. As the Center for Media & Social Media (CMSI) have found in a forthcoming study, 67% of respondents who identified as documentary professionals don’t make their primary living through doc filmmaking. Director Emily James illustrated her struggle through the concept of ‘auto-exploitation,’ while noting a wider – sometimes seen as exploitative – commercial system around doc makers that uses their work as the central commodities of the industry.
But what do those on the other side of the commissioning table make of the commercial system in which they operate? In what ways do they look out for the filmmakers they commission? And what about the distributors, professionally entrusted to turn profits for the filmmakers they represent?
Nick Fraser (pictured, top left), editor of the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ doc strand, says bluntly that the whole genre is “catastrophic” when it comes to sustaining careers, but also doesn’t see a way of regulating documentaries or the process behind them.
“The problem about all these surveys and stuff is they circle around this subject; they kind of hold out the prospect that it will be possible to normalize and industrialize docs, and I feel trying to write a book on the subject of docs is something you can’t do.
“Docs will always be the strange hybrid of something that people love, but they get made in a borderline miraculous fashion and there really isn’t any way of industrializing them, because if they’re any good, they’re different.”
Fraser acknowledges a significant inflation of doc costs in North America, but notes more opportunities – though “poorly spread” – in the region, with decent levels of government funding available in Canada. The situation, he says, is tougher in Europe where some broadcasters have experienced hefty cuts, particularly the BBC.
“Increasingly my job is putting bits of string together into knots and hoping they hold together for the package and the film.” – Nick Fraser, BBC ‘Storyville’
“It’s very tough, and the only way I can get around this has been to amalgamate the work of many broadcasters, put it together and find enough money for filmmakers,” he says, referencing the successful ‘Why Poverty?’ seriesand recent ‘Why Slavery?’ project, which unites international broadcasters in commissioning and funding a number of films around a theme.
Fraser says he tries to give all filmmakers hope and assistance in putting packages together for their projects – “Increasingly my job is putting bits of string together into knots and hoping they hold together for the package and the film,” he explains – but adds that solutions to the funding squeeze aren’t straightforward.
“[It’s] an anti-system – it always has been – and you just have to hope that more important players or individuals come to the market with money,” he says, adding that an essential step is encouraging traditional elements of the “anti-system,” such as broadcasters, to step up their game and “spend more money on docs… the erosion of funding, from my point-of-view as someone working at the BBC, has been pretty borderline awful.”
“My license is what my license is.” Jane Jankovic – commissioning editor at the publicly-funded TVOntario (TVO) – agrees there are more opportunities for doc financing in Canada through a mix of public and private funds that aren’t as widely available in other countries.
She commissions projects with budgets that range from CAD$200,000 up to $1 million, with most budgets coming in between $350,000 and $400,000. Her license fees for first-window commissions average $70,000 to $80,000 per film, with occasional exceptions on either side of that range. And often, that fee is at least matched by the Canada Media Fund, which is triggered by a broadcast license fee.
But Jankovic (pictured, center) is clear about the parameters of her support, particularly for bigger-budget projects.
“My license is what my license is, and I’ve been very vocal about what my license is. My Canada Media Fund commitment is what it is. If someone’s coming in to me with a project, I don’t really care what their budget is, as long as they can raise the money,” says Jankovic, who has served as a doc commissioner at TVO since 2006. “I can trigger a lot of it, but they have to do the footwork and the sweat equity to get that money together.”
She says that when filmmakers come in – particularly those who are new to the field – she indicates that they must pay themselves in the budget, and asks to see it in on paper as a commitment.
“It doesn’t mean [their salary] stays there, because they will continue to whittle away at it [with production expenses], because they think, ‘Oh it’s just $1,000, it’s worth the $1,000′ or ‘It’s only $5,000, that’s okay.’
“I have certainly worked with teams that have brought in outstanding documentaries but when I look at the time they put into that film and I compare it to their budget, I know they did that for nothing and they were paying their bills in some other way,” she adds. “I don’t think that should be encouraged or even, frankly, admired.”
“If someone’s coming in to me with a project, I don’t really care what their budget is, as long as they can raise the money.” – Jane Jankovic, TVO
On the other end of the spectrum, she says, are filmmakers that “absolutely pay themselves first” and appear in every budget line. Jankovic outlines that a budget has to be reflective of the needs of the production plus the filmmaker’s salary, but doesn’t have to take into account total living expenses for the numbers of months or years a project is in development.
“Sometimes, I see what I think is a very high fee for a producer or director, and they’ll say to me, ‘Well yes, but I’ve been working on this for three or four years,’ and I [say] ‘I can’t pay you for the time you’ve put in on your own. What I can pay you for is to get this film out.’”
Jankovic makes it known that her financial obligation ends following the endorsement of a license. After that, she says, it’s up to the filmmakers to look for funding from as many avenues as possible that the broadcast license can trigger.
And herein lies the problem with dual director-producer roles and the navigating of finances, says Jankovic.
“[Filmmakers] just keep slicing away at their 15% of the budget and they think, ‘Because I’m doing both the producing and directing, I can afford to lower my fee just a little bit,’ and then it’s always just a little bit, a little bit, a little bit [more].”
The commissioner says she doesn’t often meet as many people who are interested in producing. In fact, she offers that there doesn’t seem to be a full understanding of what producers do.
“They’re horrifically undervalued and I’ve seen many projects where there’s been a weak director, or a director that’s gone off the rails, and it’s the producer that saves the project – not just financially, but also from a creative perspective,” she says.
“Having that second set of eyes that can step back and see whether or not that story is working, is really critical I would say [for] 99% of the projects that I deal with.”
Art vs. commerce: a distributor’s take Esther van Messel (pictured, right), founder and CEO of the Zurich- and Berlin-based distributor First Hand Films, is often caught in a limbo between art and commerce. Offering the character of Ari Gold from the HBO drama Entourage, she says some people perceive distributors as greedy ten-percenters.
“That’s not us. It’s documentary. Nobody goes into documentary sales or distribution for financial reasons. But on the other hand, it has to make sense and it has to pay and it has to not be abusive in any financial way. It’s a very challenging job.”
Alongside acquiring films on completion and serving as an international distributor and sales agent, First Hand is one of a growing number of distributors that often comes in early on projects, getting involved as executive producers or co-producers and helping with financing and the production process.
One of their recent co-produced successes was Ido Haar’s Presenting Princess Shaw, which last year premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and was picked up by Magnolia and Participant.
A key factor in the commercial viability of such projects is an acknowledgement of what things costs, says Van Messel, who served as an EP on Princess Shaw.
“If a budget is $300,000 but you’ve been working on it for five years, then it’s not $300,000 and you have to face that. You can’t tell your landlord or the person in the supermarket that you’re living off air,” says Van Messel.
“Nobody is in this for the money, but at the same time, as sales agents, if we don’t make the producers more money at better conditions – sooner, and including our commission – than without us, we don’t have a reason to [exist],” she says.
“If a budget is $300,000 but you’ve been working on it for five years, then it’s not $300,000 and you have to face that.” – Esther van Messel, First Hand Films
Van Messel points out that, overall, there has been more of a professionalization of the industry in the past 10 years, but admits the situation could be better, and there could be more self-respect among filmmakers as well as respect for the genre.
“I do think there’s a professionalism required, [an ability to] actually think a bit vertically and think ahead, and I think that’s a producer’s job in cooperation with their international representative,” she says.
“It’s such a complex profession that I really wish people would take more pride in it and refuse to be taken for granted just because they’re allowed to tell stories. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be paid properly.”
Realscreen’s special report on doc financing and the economic pressures on filmmakers continues with a look at some funders’ perspectives on sustainability and diversity, creative producers and carving a way forward. Catch up on the first part of the report here.
Paradise Lost director Joe Berlinger admits he chose “a tough subject” for one of his first feature docs, Brother’s Keeper (1992), which he made with the late Bruce Sinofsky.
“Four farming brothers who all slept in the same bed together. One was accused of murdering the other,” Berlinger says plainly. “Today, that would be a very common thing to make a film about, but back then, it wasn’t common.”
The pair maxed out a dozen credit cards, took second mortgages out on their homes and went hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt in order to make the film, which “at the twelfth hour” received some funding from PBS program ‘American Playhouse’ and UK pubcaster Channel 4.
Brother’s Keeper later won the Sundance audience prize, and grossed about US$2 million in its international theatrical release via self-distribution.
“We really gambled everything. Luckily it paid off, but I swore I would never pay for a movie myself again unless it was something that meant a lot to me and I couldn’t raise the funding any other way.”
Since that experience, Berlinger says he’s “always had commercials as part of his DNA” and also pursues branded content and TV series. “You’ve got to treat it like a business and pay yourself a living wage,” he says.
“If you’re going to go about it as your way of making a living, you have to either know how to budget a film or hire a producer who knows how to budget a film, and figure out what it fairly costs.”
Costs of the “average” doc
But how can early-stage filmmakers know what things are supposed to cost when there are few rules of thumb, particularly when it comes to how much they pay themselves?
At the Sundance Institute, Tabitha Jackson, director of the Documentary Film Program, finds herself wrestling with exactly this quandary: the cost of the average doc.
“There is no such thing,” she says, but if there were, she estimates a price tag of around $400,000 to $500,000.
“And that actually is not true. I would say that it’s probably closer to $800,000, $900,000, if the filmmakers paid themselves,” says Jackson, who joined the organization from UK pubcaster Channel 4 in late 2013.
With all kinds of different money sources starting to enter the field – some of it recoupable, some of it not – Jackson says the sustainability conversation is stirring among funders who are keen to convene and discuss ways of making the system work for all stakeholders.
“Part of what I hope is that we, as a field, can be scrutinizing budgets as we give grants, and making sure filmmakers have a proper line and a realistic line [of] what it would take to pay them – and not just the directors but the producers as well – so that we, as funders, can get more used to seeing what a doc actually costs.”
Jackson advises that improving education around the cost of filmmaking, and what is okay to put into a budget, are steps in ensuring not only sustainability, but also diversity among filmmakers.
“The voices we also need to hear from are the people who can’t even contemplate going into this work because it’s not sustainable, and they simply can’t shoulder the amount of debt that it might take to make their film with no expectation of getting any money back from it,” she says.
“If we’re not representing the voices that can express our realities somewhat, it weakens the power of the form, and it’s not a cultural record anymore – it’s a very partial picture.”
One recent advancement, Jackson says, is increased support of creative producers through such initiatives as the Documentary Creative Producing Lab, taking place at the Sundance Mountain Resort in Utah this August.
The myriad roles occupied by producers working in documentary warrants its own exploration, but what is clear is that many directors are also wearing producer hats on their projects – a tension that can negatively impact their finances.
Jesse Moss’ The Overnighters
“When my director self is fighting with my producer self, you know who wins? The director always wins,” says Jesse Moss, director of The Bandit (2016) and The Overnighters (2014).
“The director always wants or takes more time, wants or takes the expensive archival shot, wants or takes the extra production days. The production part of me loses out and the creative part wins, often. It’s very hard to maintain internal financial discipline when you’re wearing both hats.”
Creative producer roles, which are commonplace in the narrative world but less so in non-fiction, involve management of budgeting, legal, accounting and other financial aspects, as well as the creative resources needed to keep projects running day in and day out.
“We really see the need for, and the shortage of, creative producers in the non-fiction field, particularly in the U.S. economy,” says Jackson, who adds that Sundance wants to address issues of recognition, education and sustainability around these roles as well.
As such, delineating best practices around budgeting should also include conversations about crediting, and the role of creative producers as well as producers and EPs – another dialog that is essential, says Jackson, in helping the industry acknowledge the expectations of not just the individual filmmaker, but also the doc making team.
But ultimately, the filmmaker needs to be recognized as the first investor.
“So often the filmmaker spends years of their lives going out and getting the story, filming and doing the research and getting contributors for their film – completely unpaid – so we need to bear in mind that the artist is the first investor, and find a way that that is reflected somehow in the budget.”
A way forward
Looking ahead, Luke Moody, head of film at the London- and New York-based Britdoc Foundation, predicts there will be more developments in non-project specific support that allows filmmakers to hone their creativity without financial restrictions. Some examples are the BFI’s Vision Award, intended to support a “new generation of diverse and ambitious film producers,” as well as Sundance’s ‘Art of Nonfiction’ program, which helps filmmakers develop creative voices without having a specific film to pitch (though it is invitation-only).
Other opportunities might take the form of fellowships, residencies, artist development bursaries, seed funding and production company overhead grants. And to bridge professional knowledge gaps, Moody points to such producing labs and workshops as European Audiovisual Entrepreneurs (EAVE), Future Producer School and Jihlava Emerging Producers.
Luke Moody of Britdoc
He similarly notes there is “no one model” to adhere to in structuring a team and raising budgets, but adds, “More could be done on our behalf and other funders. For example, collecting sample anonymous budgets to share on the Britdoc resources page.”
Also key, he says, is that industry events – festivals, labs and workshops – build detailed sessions on financing into presentations.
One such major opportunity to coalesce and broach some of these topics will be the IDA’s Getting Real conference, which takes place in Los Angeles from September 27 to 29. Career sustainability is one of the event’s three pillars, alongside diversity and the art of storytelling.
“One of the approaches of Getting Real is to create spaces for a much more frank conversation,” says Simon Kilmurry, executive director of the IDA.
And while that’s hard to do on an individual level because a doc maker’s projects may rely on grants and commissions, it’s easier as an organization to step back and identify who’s getting paid, and who’s not.
“I think what we’ll get out of Getting Real as an organization is a way to frame the [conversation] with funders and financiers, so at least there will be a more field-wide acknowledgement that perhaps we might be undervaluing some of this content, and if we really want a field that is sustainable and vibrant and creative, we may need to step back and reassess the economics of it.
“There’s probably a percentage of filmmakers who are doing really well and others who are kind of embarrassed that they’re struggling. But the reality is, when I talk to filmmakers who might be perceived as really successful, they’re struggling, too.”
In this special report, realscreen examines the economic pressures placed on some documentary filmmakers working today, and why doc directors – many of whom also play double duty as producers on their projects – aren’t paying themselves for their time.
In part one, we look at recent surveys and studies investigating the costs of doc making, while part two, to publish tomorrow (July 8), features funders’ thoughts on transparency around financing.
Forgoing personal wages to force down a budget and secure funding is a familiar exercise for doc makers. So familiar, in fact, it makes you wonder: if this is the so-called golden age of documentaries, why aren’t more filmmakers getting paid accordingly?
“It’s like I should be grateful to be able to do my art, and expecting to get paid is like an after-thought”
-Jesse Moss (The Overnighters)
The reasons are two-fold. The democratization of technology and abundance of distribution platforms allows most anyone to make docs, but with so many opportunities and a saturated market, it also means more doc makers – even veterans of the field – are struggling to first get their films financed, and then make money and recoup debts incurred.
Personal pay cuts and deferred fees abound, rendering documentary filmmaking a curious profession in which one pays an impossible price to sustain a career – if you’re lucky.
“Part of it is that tension between art and commerce that afflicts us,” offers Jesse Moss (pictured above, left), director of critically acclaimed doc The Overnighters (2014). “It’s like I should be grateful to be able to do my art, and expecting to get paid is like an after-thought.”
Jesse Moss-directed docs
Moss recently made his fourth feature doc, the CMT-backed The Bandit – the first of his films to be fully financed at conception, allowing him to take a combined producing and directing fee. Most of his previous work, however, including Speedo (2003) and Full Battle Rattle (2008), was made through a combination of sweat equity, private equity, grant funding, loans and – as always – a significant personal financial investment.
“You assign a commercial value to your work, and it’s almost like that’s antithetical to the [act of] making art, yet we need to survive,” he says. “And because the system is so fluid, the way in which films are financed is so different in every film that your value on one project is not necessarily your value on another project because of the nature of the film itself.”
The golden age offers no golden rules for budgeting, but many argue it’s time now for a field-wide conversation about sustainability. If the doc community aspires to be less self-selecting and more diverse, part of that effort should include improved transparency around financing, and best practices for drawing budgets, discussing maker salaries and crediting.
It appears that for the documentary field to move forward, it needs to first step back and turn the lens on itself.
Unpaid or underpaid, from Los Angeles to London
Perhaps one of the best indicators that sustainability is becoming a priority in the non-fiction community are recent surveys delving into the pressing, day-to-day issues facing doc makers in the field.
A forthcoming study by American University’s Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI), in collaboration with the International Documentary Association (IDA), is looking at the experiences of working documentary filmmakers and other industry professionals in the U.S.
Launched in late January, the tentatively titled “The State of the Documentary Field Trend Study: Perspectives from the Industry” had collected 573 complete responses to its IDA-distributed survey as of June 17, with a breakdown of about 47% directors and 28% producers. Full results will be presented at the IDA’s Getting Real conference in September.
Jane Ray of Whicker’s World Foundation
Caty Borum Chattoo, co-director of CMSI and the study’s director, says preliminary findings show that about 67% of respondents who identified as documentary professionals do not make their primary living through doc filmmaking, and about 66% of those who identified as such made either no salary at all, or less than 50% of their annual salary from their films.
Initial findings of how recent doc projects were funded reveal the main sources of funding as foundation grants (31%), followed by personal finances (26%) and then broadcasting and cable licensing deals (21%). In response to how much personal money was spent on a recent project, about 36% said they spent between $5,000 and $50,000.
Meanwhile, the London-based Whicker’s World Foundation (WWF) in January partnered with Sheffield Doc/Fest and the European Documentary Network to assemble a picture of the current doc making field in the UK and Europe by reaching out to filmmakers via a 16-point questionnaire. The goal was to see how much the organization’s top funding award of £80,000 could buy for a doc maker.
Based on the responses of 191 participants at varying stages of their careers, findings revealed that around 27% of respondents said their time would have cost more than £60,000 if they had paid themselves fully for every day of work, while the median valuation was roughly £10,000.
In addition, 87% of respondents said they had not received the calculated wages for their work. Common reasons included “tight production budgets” or the inability to raise necessary funding, while some who worked on passion projects out of love, or a need of experience, simply didn’t expect pay.
Jane Ray, consultant artistic director for Whicker’s World, says the financial strain evident in their survey wasn’t only relegated to emerging talent, but also involved 30-year veterans of the industry.
“The whole emphasis on the broadcasters is the strength of your idea: ‘You seduce us and we will take your idea but let’s not talk about money,’ and it makes things very difficult because obviously the whole nature of doc production is enormously isolating,” says Ray.
“I think there’s a sense that it’s such a competitive world that if anybody gets a whiff that [a doc maker is] a bleeding heart, difficult person who is going to go into the commissioning room and say, ‘Look, are you going to pay me for this or what?’ they will never work again. I think it’s a mix of fear and shame.”
Filmmaker Emily James
California-born doc maker Emily James was among the respondents of the Whicker’s survey. A UK resident since 1995, James studied documentary directing at the National Film and Television School (NFTS) and sold her first doc, The Luckiest Nut in the World (2002), to Channel 4. Her current feature effort is a copro between BBC’s ‘Storyville’ doc strand and A&E Indie Fund.
James hasn’t managed to pay herself much of a salary on any of her projects, and like many filmmakers, she subsidizes her docs through commercial work and savings. In the 16 years since graduating NFTS in 2000, the amount of time she has been in production – fully-funded – and without needing other sources of income adds up to five years.
Speaking of her experience at film school, James says there was little practical guidance around financing – a pattern she still notices while mentoring.
“Often you meet filmmakers and you show them a budget and they don’t even know what they’re looking at,” explains James. “If you’re not able to get your head around where the money is and how you use your resources to maximize efficiency, then it’s like you’re trying to run a race one-legged. It’s such an important skill but it’s one that gets very, very little formal teaching or education.”
In the Whicker’s World survey, James labeled the standard of paying everyone on a film crew full rates except yourself “auto-exploitation” but cautions that the wider commercial system also needs to be challenged.
“We’re exploiting ourselves, but we’re also being exploited by all the people around us who are making a proper living from what they’re doing, and using our work as the center of that.
“Nobody ever pays you back for all of that effort you put into [development]. But then, if the film is good, you suddenly have all of these other people that are working for distributors, festivals and broadcasters – who are being paid a waged job – and they’re using the work that we’ve created as the central commodity of their industry without ever repaying the people that took the major risk at the beginning.”
#OscarsSoWhite is hardly a new phenomena in dramatic narrative circles and Hollywood, but determining where the doc community fits into the debate – is. Without empirical data, it would seem the doc community is doing a better job at building diverse and inclusive opportunities than Hollywood counterparts. But if that’s true, by how much? What measures are in place to ensure that the people in front and behind the camera better reflect the world in which we live and the stories we tell? How do public vs. private dollars impact this outcome? If, in the end, it is determined that the doc-world also has a race problem, who is accountable and what, if anything, can the industry-gatekeepers, creators and consumers do to change course?
The following conversation was part of a #DocsSoWhite? – Diversity & Inclusion Panel at the 2016 Independent Film Festival Boston (IFFB). An introduction to the panel was given by Julie Burros, Chief of Arts & Culture for the City of Boston. The panelists included: Lois Vossen, Independent Lens Executive Producer (ITVS), Simon Kilmurry, Executive Director, International Documentary Association (IDA), Darius Clark Monroe (Filmmaker, Evolution of a Criminal), and Sabrina Avilés, Executive Director, Boston Latino International Film Festival (BLIFF). The conversation was guided by Chico Colvard, Filmmaker, Professor & Founding Curator of the UMB Film Series.
Chico Colvard: There are, of course, any number of people — Black, White, Brown and others – people outside, as well as inside the industry, who find it difficult to talk about race. Lois you said White people need to be on this panel so that there’s an element of “accountability” – I was thinking that allies are also needed to create a robust conversation. I wonder if you each can speak to why you agreed to talk about what is a difficult conversation for many to have?
Simon Kilmurry: I understand that this is a play-on what’s happening with the OscarsSoWhite campaign, but I think it’s actually a really important question. I come from primarily a public media background and would like to say that we are better than our commercial counterparts in terms of how we create points of access for our diverse voices and diverse communities, but I think we can all agree that public media and commercial media can be doing a better job at that in the documentary field. And I think it all goes back to, not only who’s making the films and who’s telling the stories – both in commercial and public media, but who are the gatekeepers, too? Who are the funders? Who are the people on the broadcast side? Way beyond series like Independent Lens and POV, who do a good job, but across the broad spectrum of people who are getting to produce and are getting to make decisions about who is getting to produce and direct these films. I think it is a serious question that we need to step back and look at. I think there is some really good research that we can build on and broaden. So I’m glad we’re having this conversation and this certainly is part of our “Getting Real” conference. Diversity is an issue filmmakers are raising with us constantly and that needs to be a central theme. So it’s definitely a focus of our work, at the moment.
Lois Vossen: I do feel that this issue is paramount to the work that we do. It’s absolutely at the center of what ITVS is all about. It is the reason the organization was founded — to mandate to bring more diversity to public media and to set a role model so that other media can step onboard – and obviously it is the key mandate to Independent Lens. So it’s what we do all day, everyday, to the best of our ability. As Simon said, we can certainly always do more. And not only can ITVS do more, and we’re always striving to do more on Independent Lens, but I think PBS and public television, as a whole, has a mandate to do this on a level that is higher than commercial television. And so you see great things like Stanley Nelson’s Firelight Media emerging because of this issue.
The reason I think this continues to be an issue is because of the transparency issue. At ITVS we set out to gather the information in order to hold ourselves accountable. We spent years trying to get the information from other organizations – both inside public media and outside public media – and no one shared the information: How many filmmakers of color were they funding? How many filmmakers of color were they mentoring? How many stories were they telling that came out of communities of color? Who was telling those stories? So the fact that people wouldn’t even share the metrics was alarming to us and very much underscored the problem to us that the problem is still very much real.
I do think there’s a good sign in that non-fiction film is better than fiction, to some extent. Women are doing better in non-fiction – but even women are in secondary roles and are being paid less. And certain filmmakers, who come from non-white communities, are up against a huge plethora of issues. Darius and I have had great conversations about this. I know when we were working together on Evolution of a Criminal and he was out in the world… just the conversations he was having about just this issue were enough to infuriate me. So that’s why I did the panel. I think it’s a really important topic.
Darius Clark Monroe: Evolution of a Criminal was my first experience of navigating the whole festival circuit, distribution circles, pitches – essentially meeting everyone in the documentary community. It felt a bit like the Twilight Zone. So this panel was something that intrigued me. Not just to continue to stir the pot, but I also think this is a necessary discussion – especially because when I would go to festivals, I would see in the program guide so many films about people of color, all over the globe, but when you look at the producing team, the director, the editor, everyone was pretty much white. That just annoyed me to no end because I feel it is important to be open and honest about the culture we live and that it’s not easy to just swoop in and study and observe people you did not grow up with and don’t know and have some semblance of authenticity. We are talking about documentaries, so on some base level we are talking about truth and representation — allowing people to speak truth and have a say.
To me, what’s even more powerful than the shooting of people outside of the dominant culture – it’s the editing. Who is truly controlling the voice of the people in front of the camera? I was starting to get a chip on my shoulder because I was seeing it over, and over, and over, again. And I kept wondering, why, if anything, so many filmmakers, who happen to be White were so interested in people of color? Yet, I never saw so many documentaries that explored what it meant to be white – what it meant to go to another country, let alone another continent to shoot and observe – just what does that entail? You rarely see filmmakers discussing what it means to turn the camera onto them and explore that.
So I feel like this conversation isn’t just about diversity. It is about who owns the power and how can we divvy up that power – but also how can we investigate what it means to be diverse, what it means to control the lens?
Sabrina Avilés: A lot of the documentaries that I’ve worked on — and what I find frustrating, as well — is that we’re trying to tell stories about relations of our people, if you will; about the experiences of Latino people, whether it’s a positive theme or a negative theme, and yet, it’s hard to find people with my background working in the industry. Everyone wants to be a director. Everyone wants to be a producer, but when you come to the editing – even things as a PA or researcher, I need someone who speaks Spanish. It can be very frustrating to try and find that. From my perspective, and I speak from the Latino experience, I think part of our responsibility is to make Latinos aware that they can actually make a living at this. It’s not easy, but from a creative source, it is so fulfilling.
I’m getting a bit emotional, but growing up in this industry – straight out of college I was really lucky and worked at WGBH – I didn’t have any mentors. Everybody saw me as this… “who are you?” And immediately, wanted to label me – “if you’re Latina, then this MUST be your experience.” And so that’s the other thing, the expectation of who you are, leads to people wanting to define you and what you can and cannot say.
Chico: Darius talked earlier about who is in FRONT of and BEHIND the camera. That there isn’t any shortage of White filmmakers venturing into very narrow and often harmful portrayals of the so called Black/Brown experience and then widely disseminating those films and subjects to mostly White audiences as victims or objects of study. I don’t think there are white industry types: filmmakers, distributors, broadcasters, programmers and the like sitting around plotting ways to undermine and exclude Black/Brown people from access to the industry. I do, however, think there’s a correlation between these same industry types’ lack of personal ties to Black/Brown people and the racial disparities witnessed in the industry. I wonder if anyone can speak to that?
Lois: Yeah, it’s an important question. First of all, I want to underscore what Darius said about who’s telling the story and who has the access. There’s a great story told by Stanley Nelson about a time when he was making Black Panthers. He was sitting with one of the former Panthers and it was a hard interview, but it was good… and at the end of that interview, the Panther said, “in that moment of the shoot-out, I felt like a free man.” The reason Stanley tells that story is because he knows that if a white filmmaker had been sitting there, doing the interview, he wouldn’t have gotten that out of that subject. And it underscores again and again, who is sitting there asking the subject to tell their story and then, as Darius said, who’s going to edit that and then ultimately bring that story forward? And so it’s critical that you have to have that representation throughout, because you can’t fabricate that knowledge. As Darius said, if you grow up with it, you know it. You can’t fabricate it. So I think that’s important.
In terms of the accountability… I think about all the time. And I’ll be honest, there have been times when I’ve actually thought, “Should I leave this job? Should there be someone else in this position?” I’ve always had a co-programmer, who’s a person of color and that person’s counsel and conversation is critical. We constantly talk about things like this and I will say, Noland Walker, who I now work with and just have the utmost respect for beyond words, will often shed light on something. And it’s not that it’s completely foreign to me, but it’s a different gateway in that I hadn’t thought of. He’ll even give conversations like… he was recently at a pitch session, where someone came up to him – and for those of you who don’t know Noland, he’s African-American, and this person said to him, “well, you know all about violence.” [audience gasps] And Noland was like, “Woo! I do? Actually, no I really don’t.” The assumption that simply because he’s an African-American male that he somehow had this insight…. When Noland tells me these stories – literally the hair on the back of my neck just stands up because I can’t imagine what that’s like to have to consistently have to face that. So for me, there’s no way I would do my job without a Noland by my side because I think it’s absolutely essential that I be in constant conversation and reminded about those things.
Simon: I think that if you did have a more diverse set of gatekeepers making decisions, you would come up with a wider range of films and filmmakers being supported. I think there is a kind of cumulative effect that power is concentrated in one place rather than spread out. One of the great experiences I had over the past years was when I was working with Michéle Stephenson and Joe Brewster on their film, American Promise, they were examining the notion of implicit bias and I think we all have to recognize that no matter how good hearted we are or where we sit on the spectrum, that we all have our own implicit biases. And it’s only by having a wider range of voices that we can help balance that out. It is where those concentrations of power are that we have a fundamental problem.
Chico: Darius and Sabrina, when Lois and Simon are talking about the need to diversify the gatekeepers, they’re talking about that taking shape in a professional context. What I’m suggesting is that evidence of diversity in our personal spaces, or lack thereof, dramatically impact the makeup of diversity and the decisions we make in our professional circles.
Darius: You know it’s interesting just being a filmmaker, a storyteller, just being a person, who is living and breathing and walking on this planet, there are so many things you can, obviously, observe. One thing, when you are Black in the documentary or just the film community, the work or recommendations you get are specifically tied to something the White culture – the dominant culture views like, “Oh, this social justice” or “criminal justice” — this is a “poverty story,” these are “black athletes.” So every time something gets tossed your way or someone sends you an email in an effort to include you, it’s always very specific about the “Black experience.”
It’s like one of those things where I complain about not getting an opportunity, but then when I do, it’s always a very small window of options that are presented. And that’s always something that’s strange to me, because – again, as a person living and breathing in this country, everyone else – if you’re not White, you know White people just as much as they know each other, because this is the world we live in. I have to interact: I’ve had to study, educate and be educated by White people my whole entire life. So if anyone can be dispatched to tell a story about White people, it’s people of color who can tell that story. We have to navigate that world so often, on so many different occasions, that it’s not something “foreign” to us. There’s no way for us to be in this business – whether it’s documentary or commercial – without having to constantly engage with White people. Whereas it’s the complete opposite for White people. They don’t have to engage. White people don’t have to engage with Black people, with Asians, Latinos – they don’t have to engage at all and yet they want to be the authority on other cultures. So I’m asking, in addition to these interpersonal relationships, some humility – because there’s some arrogance there. Because you know for a fact that you do not need to interact with people of color at home, work. You get to choose when to engage with people of color, whereas the opposite is the case for me – I don’t get to choose. I am literally inundated with White people.
I’m not complaining about these relationships, but there is this trend. And I don’t want to just let people off the hook by saying, “Oh, there’s this dissonance and implicit bias.” A lot of times, and I’m not going to name any festivals, but when I was on the festival circuit, I reached out to a few filmmakers, including Joe and Michéle, and I said, “I’m noticing a trend!” and that is there are certain filmmakers and films that did not film in certain parts of [America]. Obviously work is subjective. Some work may or may not be as strong for one festival versus another, but I noticed a consistent pattern over 3-4 years! With films that had won Grand Jury Prizes at premiere festivals – films that had shown in competition at Sundance were just completely off the radar at some festivals and these festivals tended to be in parts of the country that are 99% White. I felt like that was strange that they believed these films were somehow marginalized or pushed aside because they didn’t feel that their audience would be able to connect to the material if it were about people of color. To me, that’s not just a random happenstance. This is something that’s been going on for years and needs to be addressed – because I do feel that when we talk about these opportunities, sometimes it goes as far down as something as simple as an economic opportunity for a filmmaker, for their career, for their future. So that dissonance can turn into oppression or suppression and it can have a deleterious impact on the future and forward movement of a filmmaker. Again, Michéle and Joe had a phenomenal film that did incredibly well, but I kept noticing that the film was not on the radar at certain festivals around the country – and when I looked at those program guides, I also noticed that there was not one single film directed by a Black person or person of color. That’s a HUGE issue – that’s not just unintentional bias, that’s on purpose and people need to be called out and shamed.
Sabrina: Now that we’re getting submissions for the Latino Film Festival, I said, “If I see one more immigration film, I’m just going to shoot myself.” It’s that whole thing again: if you’re Latina, there’s that assumption that you have to talk about immigration. Well you know, I’m actually Caribbean and that’s not my story. So I agree with you, we get a lot of submissions from Latin Americans and although there is a chunk about social justice, you actually have filmmakers making films about family, and culture, and art – things that are relevant to everybody, not necessarily only people of Latino-American descent.
On the other hand, I’m working on a film about the sterilization of Puerto Rican women and I feel like because of my background and my experience – I should tell that story. So it’s an interesting quagmire because I would be “bullshit!” if I found out a White person started to tell that story.
Chico: Darius and Sabrina, you talk about the limitations on what kinds of stories we get to tell and whether those stories – despite being cloaked in the right pedigree, are still restricted in how nuanced/“race free” or rewarded and programmed as much as our White counterparts. To that point, I want to share a bit of a conversation I had with Roger Ross. In the history of cinema – White filmmakers are handed stories to make, whether it’s about a legendary musician, hall of fame baseball player or the next redux of Iron Man. With Roger’s latest film, Life Animated, it is completely race free. I asked him if he was aware of how rare that is for an African-American filmmaker and whether it takes having to win an Oscar before a person of color can make a film that is race free. His answer was, yes!
On that note, let’s bring the audience into this conversation.
Audience: I don’t know if our panelists can see the room [via Skype], but we are about 95% Caucasian… so that just goes to show who makes up the documentary community. I came here today expecting to be all pissed-off and my expectations were met. So Darius, you keep that chip on your shoulders.
Process is impossible to navigate for people who aren’t trained to do so. The more simple barriers, like fill out an application for a grant, are put in front of people, the more difficulty they have in doing it – unless they’ve had a particularly good primary school and secondary education. That’s a very difficult thing for people to do. So you almost have to eliminate the application process and shower these creative people with money, even if they can’t define what they’re doing. Those would be my comments to you, today.
Chico: I want to give everyone an opportunity to respond to that comment.
Sabrina: For me, and speaking as a Latina, yes perhaps not everyone has that private school education, but I feel that we have to raise the bar so that – we need to address why these kids don’t know how to write these grants. To just hand them money is bordering charity. I want to go in there [schools] and say, “This is how you pitch a project. This is how you write a grant.” What you’re doing is giving them a skill set that they can use in other aspects. Yes, we need to give them the opportunities, but I don’t think we need to lower the bar.
Chico: The people of color I know in this industry are extremely qualified and just as capable and skilled to fill out a grant or take on any of the other difficult tasks required to usher a film across the finish line. I don’t think a deficiency in their skill set or talent is a barrier to their access and success.
Lois: Yeah, I agree. It’s not a shortage of talent. The talent is there. I mean, ITVS, 67% of our money goes to filmmakers of color and we could be giving more – if we had more. It’s not that there aren’t great projects by talented people. Occasionally, as is true with White filmmakers, some filmmakers come to us early and they need mentoring. They have the ideas, they have the access and they certainly have the passion and the experience. So I don’t think there’s a dearth of talent. I think its quite the opposite.
Audience: I found something really interesting. I do a lot of disability advocacy work and when we talk about “diversity,” that seems to be the thing that always gets forgotten. I wonder if this is something we’re missing? I’ve been on a lot of panels and usually it’s me, a bunch of women and one Black dude. How do we include all of the people that are Black and Brown and Native American and disabled and White – and not discount their need for access and inclusion?
Simon: I think that’s a really fair point. This shouldn’t just be a binary Black/White conversation. This is about populations and representation from a whole range of communities. And it’s also geographic. A lot of resources in the field get concentrated on the coasts or the major cities and other parts of the country – the “fly-over” states don’t get included. I think it’s a much wider conversation that this is part of and that we need to be having across the board. Issues of representation about and by people with disabilities are as important as anything else.
Chico: In Oscar history, only four films directed or produced by an African American have been nominated for Best Documentary Feature and only two for Best Documentary Short Subject. In 2009, Roger Ross Williams, who we mentioned earlier, became the first African American director to win the Academy Award for directing (in any category) the short Music by Prudence.
Three years later, in 2012, T. J. Martin became the first African American to win an Oscar for the documentary feature,Undefeated.
Here are the documentary stats for Academy Award winners and nominees: African Americans (Feature Nominees = 4/Winners = 1 | Shorts = 2/Winners = 1) Asians (Feature Nominees = 10/Winners = 3 | Shorts = 19/Winners = 6) Latinos = 0 Native Americans = 0. Disabled = unknown?
I wonder if people can talk about some initiatives and action steps you’re taking to address these dismal stats?
Simon – let’s start with you. You mentioned earlier that you and your colleague, Ken Jacobson, who is in charge of IDA’s Getting Real Conference taking place in LA later this fall are focusing on three themes: career sustainability, diversity and art. Can you tell us more about that?
Simon: Well certainly from our perspective there are a couple of things we’re doing. One, we have a survey we’re wrapping up, which looks at diversity and career sustainability, so we have some data to work with. That’s going to need to be an ongoing process and effort so we can measure whether any progress is being made.
The themes of the conference, that we are producing, which is happening at the end of September , are driven by the conversations we’ve been having with filmmakers. We’ve had focus group meetings in New York and Chicago and L.A. and on the phone with probably about 100 filmmakers at this stage — producers, editors, cinematographers – and it’s out of those conversations that we came up with the three pillars: career sustainability, diversity and art, the creative approaches to documentary storytelling. They are all inextricably linked.
The group that we’re gathering in L.A. is going to be about 4-500 professionals, who are involved in the field, mostly makers, to talk about what specific solutions can we be working on as a field. We aim to come out of that with some working groups and a central task force to help us advance the conversation. We’ll see what comes out of it.
There were some concrete actions that came out of the first Getting Real conference in 2014 around conversations with funders and public media. So there is an opportunity to bring a significant number of people together to come up with some actual action steps and concrete measures. So I think there’s a chance there.
Lois: ITVS has had a Diversity Development Fund [DDF]. Originally when that fund was created from a foundation it was a termed grant – it was for 3 years. But we felt it was such a vital part of who we are and what our mandate is that when that grant ran out, we made it a core part of our programming. We lobbied to have that implemented into our ongoing funding contract so that our funder, who gives us money, allows us to spend money that way. And we will continue to have the DDF because it is the single most important way for us to identify filmmakers, who are trying to get into the system, which is closed and hard – to get them a leg-up.
What we’re looking at doing now is to add a second tier – sort of like a Diversity Development Part II. Because what we have found, not surprisingly, is that great talent comes to us with great ideas. We give them a small amount so they can go out and develop the idea and maybe put together a trailer, but they are still having a hard time competing with the predominantly White field. We’re hoping that this alternative funding will help those projects become more viable – not just for ITVS Open Call, but with all the myriad of funders out there, who are supporting documentary film.
So that’s critical to us and for me, it really is the most exciting work that we do – not just because it’s young talent, because our Diversity Development, as you can see, produces people who are at various stages in their careers, but it is about bringing in new ideas and making sure that those voices are able to continue to make the film. And a big part of what we talk about is will there be a second film and how can we keep them going?
In addition to ITVS shouting proudly that we fund 67% of diverse filmmakers, Independent Lens has 54% diversity in terms of the programming we represent. This is to go back to Darius’ point earlier: it is a sad reality that the vast majority of programming that I am able to bring to our slate is ITVS funded programming. Because when I go to festivals to look for programming, it is predominantly – heavily, by a huge majority — White filmmakers. So it is very hard, on the festival circuit, to find films that are made by diverse filmmakers because there are just less of them, as Darius pointed out.
The other thing that I think is critical, and again, I’m in a position where I have a wonderful situation, but ITVS feels very strongly about diversity on all levels. So our staff is always 60% or more diverse and we’ve never dropped below – or we’ve never certainly dropped below 50% — and that creates a huge reality. Everyone working on the marketing side, thinking about how you’re going to talk about the films, the outreach side, the funding side when you diversity throughout the organization is absolutely critical. And we do it including our vendors. Like when we’re going to hire a dubbing house, we try to find the dubbing house that has the most diverse staff, etc.
And then the last thing that I’ll just throw in there is something we’ve been working on; my colleague, Erica [Deiparine-Sugars], with other funders, is to try to create – and this grew out of the last IDA conference — is to create more consistency around the funding guidelines so that filmmakers, especially filmmakers, who are coming at it against these sort of large obstacles, don’t have to recreate the wheel every time they apply. We think that will provide more opportunities for filmmakers from diverse communities to be more competitive for larger sources of money from funders, who are typically looking for proposals that have all the “bells and whistles.” So if we can get that a little more equalized, we’re hoping that that will also increase.
So those are just a few of the things we’re working on, but we’re always open to suggestions and feel as though these kinds of conversations have to be available in order to hold us accountable and push us forward.
Sabrina: For me as a programmer with the Latino International Film Festival Boston [LIFFB] along with a ground troop of supporters, we want to create more of an educational presence throughout the year – without reinventing the wheel, but talking to other festivals and high schools about how can we start introducing filmmaking as an option for younger students. Yes, a lot of festivals have that component, but specifically targeted at communities of color.
Also as a filmmaker/producer, it is essential to me that my crew better reflect the diverse world we live in and to emphasize that we are not only minimum-wage workers, but that there are a bunch of us that area well educated – professionals with backgrounds in law and medicine… And again, I recognize that that’s just my reality and that’s what I bring to the forefront of my personal and professional life. Unfortunately, this equation isn’t always as important or part of their reality.
Darius: For me it’s difficult because I don’t run a festival, I’m just a freelance filmmaker. So all I have is the work. I feel like my role is to speak truth to power. The thing is it gets a little scary because I’ve noticed that over the last couple of years on social media I’ve almost become silent. Other than re-tweeting a few articles, I’ve just become quiet because I have been concerned about speaking too loudly about this issue and being silenced, professionally, which is a real reality. Not everyone is a Lois and a Simon. There are folks who do not want to hear this and don’t want to be bothered with it.
My focus is to continue to do work that is challenging and continue to talk about the reality. It’s not just about diversity because I don’t want people thinking this about some affirmative action thing – it’s about inclusion. That everyone has a right. Their opinion, their life experience, their talent should be at the table – not there simply because there was a need for a person of color or disabled person, but because you have a right as a human being to be present, to speak up and have your say.
Also my goal is to continue to learn. I don’t know if in 15-20 years, if I’m in a position as a gatekeeper, will I have to eat my own words and to make sure that I’m studying these issues and following through so that I’m not just talking the talk, but also walking the walk.
So yes, there is a need for this conversation to continue, but the other word that keeps coming to mind is “disruption.” There needs to be a massive disruption. TV has been dominated for so many decades by the dominant culture. This country, just living in NY, you realize that this is an incredibly diverse world we live in, but you might not know that by simply watching TV. So I agree with Lois that we need a level of diversity at every level of this operation. It can’t just be the filmmakers. We need people in the jury pools, at the festivals, broadcasters, in the edit suites – every single step we need representation of what reality looks like. The world is not 95% White.
Lois: I want to add that when Darius said he thought he was going to have to be quiet, is when I became infuriated and also quite afraid, if someone of Darius’ stature, who’s made this extraordinary film and who has proven he’s a great filmmaker and talent with a unique voice – if he has to be silent, then I thought… I must be living in a glass bubble. So the more that we don’t silence Darius — the more that we say, “Darius, louder, louder, louder,” is what we have to do.
I would also like to just say one more small thing, but it all adds up. My challenge to all filmmakers, but especially White filmmakers, is to have people on camera, who represent. So, if you’re doing a historical documentary, people tend to, “what did the White person say about this in 1965?” You know there are a diverse group of people we can use as experts, who represent who we are, as well. It’s about who’s behind the camera, who’s in front of the camera – especially who’s in the role of “expert” or “social commentary.” So I challenge filmmakers all the time. I’ve even asked filmmakers to go out and re-shoot interviews where I’ve heard, now, like what five White people think about – can you tell me what anyone else thinks about this?
Darius, please keep talking.
Darius: I’ll try [audience laughter].
Audience: Hi everyone. Really great conversation, but I want to shift the conversation to that moment, where a filmmaker has an idea and that filmmaker may be a 12 year old White boy or 12 year old Black girl, but their idea might be stopped because of this massive brick wall they have to overcome with regards to access. For instance, if I wanted to create a documentary about disabled or Puerto Rican women sterilization, why shouldn’t I be able to do that if I’m really passionate about it and how do I overcome that stigma of, “Oh, you’re a White male” and how do I connect to my characters as well as maybe you can?
Sabrina: I just have to respond to your comment because I find it really disturbing. When in the history of the world has a White man needed permission? The job of any documentary filmmaker is to gain access and build trust with their characters – whatever subject or community you’re going into. That is your job regardless of whatever is compelling you to tell that story. If it is a community who’s experience is not yours because of region, race or ethnicity, then you have to be aware of that. As someone who works in programming or as someone like Chico, who reads proposals, you look at the team they surround themselves with. OK, maybe this person isn’t from that community, but have they built a team of crew-members and advisors that balances them? I’ve lobbied for White filmmakers making films about Black or Latino communities because they did their due diligence. They did everything to show that they are taking great care and responsibility to build trust – as is your job as a documentary filmmaker. So I take exception with your comment. I think it was a bit naive and that’s okay, but I also think it’s really important to listen and not ask for permission that stems from guilt or not wanting to be associated with the history of White men.
White allies are important, as I think some of the panelists were saying. Listen to Lois. ITVS is the model in terms of building-up a team that reflects and challenges them about their own assumptions. Of course you should make a film about what you’re passionate about, but maybe it takes an extra step to listen to that community and question, “Why do I want to tell this story?”
Darius: I don’t believe everyone should make a film just because they can. That whole, “give me a camera and I should jump into this because I’m passionate about it…” — it’s imperialistic. It’s arrogant. There are certain stories that no, you should not be telling. I’m not saying a lot of stories, but there are certain topics, where you should tell yourself, “I have no business going down this road. This is not my lane. I should not do this. I don’t know anything about this. Even with due diligence, I will be doing a disservice by going down this road – regardless of how passionate I am about it.”
We have seen this endlessly in the whole entire continent of Africa, where you have so many different groups, who are flying over there to lend a helping hand; not even understanding the politics, the culture, the language, but just feeling a passion to help. I think you need to channel that passion to looking in the mirror and ask yourself, “Why am I obsessed about this thing?” You need to sometimes turn the camera around and ask, “Why am I going to seek out the other without exploring what it means to be me?” For example, what does it mean to be a White man in America? What does all of that entail?
You will notice for the last decade in documentary film, a lot of White men don’t have any interest in even talking about that. But as a Black man, I would love to go see that film. And as passionate as I am about wanting to go see that film, I don’t want to make that film. I think a White man should make that film. There are some things I don’t want to touch.
So I don’t think we should just toss around, “Oh, you should be able to do whatever you want to do.” As an adult, you should understand that there are certain things that out of respect for different cultures and different experiences that I should understand where I stand and allow someone else to tell their particular story.
Again, this is a very subjective litmus test, but we have got to remove arrogance and add humility to these ideas in order to understand that we are not just talking about an hour and a half and subject matter – we are invading peoples’ lives and cultures and experiences and we have to respect that. We have to know when to get involved and when to step back.
In 2015, the profits generated by Afghanistan’s illicit economywere worth more than $1 billion. Drug trafficking, smuggling, unregulated trade, and fraud in procurement contracts are encumbering the country’s economic development and funding the terrorist groups that undermine its stability.
Money laundering plays a crucial role in supporting this criminality. Yet over the past decade, the government has not been able to do much to crack down on it: of the many clear cases of the practice that have appeared, only a few have been prosecuted. The problem is a product of several factors, including lax financial and customs controls, inadequate expertise in the Afghan government, high-level opposition to change, and weak enforcement mechanisms.
The hawala system is appealing to Afghans seeking to shield ill-gotten gains from the state.
Chief among the roadblocks, however, is the nature of Afghanistan’s capital flows. Most of the country’s economic activity is informal, and data provided by the Ministry of Finance suggest that only 35 percent of the financial flows within the country are legal. Unregulated cash transactions and remittances through the country’s traditional money transfer system, a network of brokers known as hawala, are the rule. According to the Financial Action Task Force, an international anti-money-laundering body, more than half of all transactions in Afghanistan involve hawala brokers. Ordinary Afghans do not have many other options: although the country’s banking sector has grown significantly in recent years, most commercial banks are still concentrated in its cities. For many Afghans, hawalabrokers, whose services often leave no paper trail, provide services that are cheaper and more convenient than their counterparts in the official banking sector.
Largely because of its informality and opacity, the hawala system is also at the center of Afghanistan’s troubles with money laundering. Many brokers are unlicensed, operating without oversight in violation of domestic laws and foreign exchange regulations. Making matters worse, the line between the official banks and the hawala system is blurry. Hawala brokers often keep bank accounts and use bank transfers to pay other brokers abroad, and Afghan banks have used the system to send money to the country’s remote areas. This makes it nearly impossible for the government to determine which funds sent through the hawala system are above board and which are not. Together with the hawala system’s lack of formal limits on the size of transfers, such factors have made the system appealing to Afghans seeking to shield ill-gotten gains from the state.
Those who profit from Afghanistan’s massive narcotics sector are the biggest beneficiaries. In 2015, Afghanistan’s opium economy was worth some $1.5 billion, or around seven percent of the country’s GDP. A large part of this money ends up in the hands of the Taliban and other insurgent groups: according to the United Nations, in 2015, at least ten percent of the earnings from poppy cultivation in Afghanistan’s eastern and western provinces financed such organizations. In Afghanistan’s opium-rich provinces, according to the World Bank, more than 80 percent of the proceeds generated by the drugs trade run through the hawalasystem.
Cracking down on the laundering of drug money through the hawala system is especially difficult because in many cases, the transactions involve the exchange of goods as well as cash. In northern Afghanistan, for example, traffickers, abetted by Afghan officials who are willing to look the other way, load trucks bound for Central Asia with drugs, precious stones, and metals. The exporters of the illicit cargoes disguise the profits they reap from their sale by importing goods instead of transfering money in return, paying the government’s import tax at the border, and disguising their ownership of the imported goods by laundering the funds from their sale through shell companies and hawala brokers. The shell companies then invest the proceeds into normal commercial activities, such as real estate investments. These kinds of exchanges are extremely difficult to trace.
The ease with which drugs cross Afghanistan’s borders speaks to the broader difficulties that Kabul has had with customs control. In the past, traders managed to avoid border inspections by paying off customs officials. That problem has diminished recently, mostly thanks to changes President Ashraf Ghani has made to Afghanistan’s customs system. Yet powerful officials still flout a rule requiring that they declare cash worth more than $20,000 at the border; in recent years, they have carried millions of dollars out of the country.
GHANI GETS TOUGH?
Over the past decade, Afghanistan has successfully prosecuted only a handful of money-laundering or terrorism-financing cases. Between 2011 and 2014, the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Center of Afghanistan (FinTRACA), a financial intelligence unit, referred several cases to the country’s attorney general, but none were brought before the courts, and the authorities did not issue orders to freeze or seize assets in any of them. For its part, FinTRACA has never sanctioned a bank or hawala broker for regulatory breaches or for violating anti-money-laundering or terrorism-financing laws. And no hawala brokers have reported suspicious transactions to FinTRACA, even though all of Afghanistan’s financial entities are legally required to do so. What is more, money laundering is still treated as a minor offense in Afghanistan: it is punishable by an imprisonment of between two and five years or a fine of between $1,000 and $7,000.
Those who profit from Afghanistan’s massive narcotics sector are the biggest beneficiaries.
Afghanistan’s National Unity Government is taking on this problem with an approach that is tougher than its predecessor’s. In June, Ghani established an Anticorruption Justice Center to investigate and prosecute high-ranking officials, including former cabinet ministers and governors, suspected of graft—a move that, predictably, has angered many current and former officials. So far, the center has reviewed over 150 corruption cases, and it is preparing a number of prominent ones for prosecution. The government has also strengthened its ability to combat money laundering and terrorism financing. It has amended the laws that criminalize both practices, requiring the attorney general to order asset freezes against people involved in either offense as soon as the authorities have determined their involvement. Kabul is working to improve the ability of Afghanistan’s various government agencies to coordinate their efforts on money-laundering and terrorism-financing cases and is trying to improve compliance in the banking sector by increasing the government’s oversight of bank transactions. It has also computerized the government’s revenue and customs departments, both of which had been at the center of official corruption.
In recent months, Afghanistan has ramped up its inspections of hawala brokers and has strengthened its hawala licensing program so that it will punish brokers who do not regularly report suspicious transactions to the authorities by, for example, temporarily stripping them of their licenses. The program has also made it easier for the government to monitor and seize assets involved in money-laundering offenses. These efforts have been supported by a three-year, $45 million IMF grant aimed at bolstering Afghanistan’s banking laws and anticorruption regulations. More broadly, the government has overhauled the judicial sector, replacing more than 600 judges, removing 20 percent of the country’s prosecutors and 25 percent of customs officials from their posts, and prohibiting many others from leaving the country.
Ghani’s moves have raised the hopes of many, but some powerful Afghan—from former cabinet officials to local strongmen—have pushed back against his reforms to protect their own interests. Since the reform push still lacks deep domestic support, the backing of Afghanistan’s international partners, particularly the United States, will go a long way to making it a success.
The government should work with its international partners to better train Afghanistan’s judges, prosecutors, and regulators. It should also tighten its control of Afghanistan’s borders and continue to back FinTRACA’s efforts to fight money laundering and terrorism financing. Fixing Afghanistan’s problems will not only require cleaning up the drugs, real estate, procurement, and import-export sectors—it will demand dismantling the illicit financial flows that support law-breaking in all of them and threaten the country’s stability.
Jomo Kwame Sundaram was United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, and received the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought in 2007.
– At the UN Millennium Summit in September 2000, world leaders committed to halve the share of people living on less than a dollar a day by 2015. The World Bank’s poverty line, set at $1/day in 1985, was adjusted to $1.25/day in 2005, an increase of 25% after two decades. This was then re-adjusted to $1.90/day in 2011/2012, an increase by half over 7 years! As these upward adjustments are supposed to reflect changes in the cost of living, but do not seem to parallel inflation or other related measures, they have raised more doubts about poverty line adjustments.
Jomo Kwame Sundaram. Credit: FAO
The number of people living on less than $1.90 a day in developing countries is estimated to have fallen from close to two billion in 1981 to 1.95 billion in 1990 to just under 1.4 billion in 2005 and 902 million in 2012, projected to 702 million in 2015. The share of poor people has thus declined from 44% in 1981 to 37% in 1990, 24% in 2005 and 12.8% in 2012, projected to 9.6% in 2015.Uneven progress
Much of the progress has been due to sustained rapid growth in several large developing countries, notably China and India, and higher commodity prices for over a decade until 2014. However, outside of East Asia, progress has been modest, with actual setbacks in some countries and regions. For those earning just above the extreme poverty line ($1.90 a day), progress can be temporary as economic and other shocks threaten hard-won gains, forcing them back into poverty. Progress in reducing poverty has been generally slower using higher poverty lines. Over 2.1 billion people in the developing world lived on less than $3.10 a day in 2012, compared to 2.9 billion in 1990.
Extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa has hardly declined, standing at around 42.6% in 2012. Moreover, many of the poor in this region are estimated to be very far below the poverty line as the average consumption of Africa’s poor is only about 70 cents a day—barely more than twenty years ago. Thus, even 20 more years of progress at recent rates will not end poverty in Africa, with a quarter of Africans expected to still be deemed poor in 2030.
Besides income, wide ranging deficits in the human condition remain widespread, not only in most low income countries, but also in many middle income countries. Access to basic education, healthcare, modern energy, safe water and other critical services — often influenced by socioeconomic status, gender, ethnicity and geography — remain elusive for many.
There is little evidence that the professed commitments by the global community to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and what was done in the name of the MDGs was critical to poverty reduction. This does not bode well for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially with the protracted economic slowdown since 2008, the declining commitment to economic multilateralism and the constrained fiscal and policy space most developing countries have.
In decoupling poverty reduction from economic development, various ‘silver bullets’ – microcredit, ‘bottom of the pyramid’ marketing, land titling, ‘good governance’ – were touted, but failed, as miracle cures. In most developing societies, economic reforms and policies imposed or advised by international financial institutions, did not deliver promised growth, but instead often exacerbated growing inequalities, both within and among nations. And even where economic growth – typically despite, rather than because of the conventional wisdom – lifted most boats, it often did not raise the leaky, fragile ones of the poor.
This nuanced record of poverty reduction challenges the conventional policy prescriptions identified with the Washington Consensus – the norm outside East Asia since the 1980s. Reductions in public investments – in health, education and other social programmes – have adversely affected billions. The poor have also been more vulnerable to economic downturns, as unskilled workers tend to lose their jobs first, while job recovery generally lags behind output recovery.
Ideology, crisis and poverty
The counter-revolution against development economics, and the ascendance of the Washington Consensus since the 1980s, significantly transformed the development discourse. Reforms such as macroeconomic stabilization, defined as low single digit inflation, as well as microeconomic market liberalization, associated with structural adjustment, were all supposed to accelerate economic growth and poverty reduction, presumed to follow from growth. These typically failed on both counts – to spur growth and to eliminate poverty.
Little attention was given to structural causes of poverty, including gross inequalities of resources and opportunities, and the consequences of uneven development. While the Washington Consensus economic reforms were supposed to unleash rapid growth, social protection was reduced to social safety nets targeted at a few supposedly falling between the cracks, often victims of temporary setbacks such as natural catastrophes and economic crises.
The Washington Consensus reforms, often imposed as conditionalities, have significantly constrained policy space for national development strategies. Failure to sustain growth, regressive tax reforms and reduced government revenues have also constrained developing countries’ fiscal space. Developing countries also significantly reduced state capacities and capabilities while under pressure to liberalize and globalize on unequal and debilitating terms. Such reductions of both fiscal and policy space have undermined sustainable and equitable development.
Conventional policy approaches to poverty eradication are clearly insufficient, if not worse. Meanwhile, obstacles to reducing global poverty remain formidable, numerous and complex. Targeting – often demanded by many donors – is not only typically costly, but also inadvertently excludes many who are deserving. Furthermore, many poverty programmes favoured by donors have not been effective in reducing poverty, although some have undoubtedly helped ameliorate poverty.
The 2008-2009 global financial and economic crisis has prompted some reconsideration of appropriate economic policies, even by the international financial institutions. There is now greater recognition of the need for inclusive, pro-growth and counter-cyclical macroeconomic policies as well as prudent capital account management, but institutional prejudices and prescriptions have been slow to change at the country level.
The overall global economic situation and prospects have deteriorated with the ongoing economic slowdown. While the timing and sustainability of economic recovery remain uncertain, job prospects and work conditions continue to deteriorate, with adverse consequences.
Joel Dreyfuss is a Washington Post Global Opinions contributing columnist.
Haiti won a rare victory on the international stage last week. After five years of evading accountability, the United Nations finally admitted that its peacekeepers were responsible for a deadly cholera epidemic that killed 10,000 men, women and children and sickened 700,000. Long after scientists traced the disease to the poor sanitation practices of Nepalese troops stationed in Haiti, the U.N. rejected the findings, claimed diplomatic immunity and enlisted Obama administration support to block efforts by Haitians to hold the agency accountable in U.S. courts. The U.N. backed down after a report by New York University law professor Philip Alston, an adviser on legal and human rights, became public. Alston called the U.N.’s stonewalling “morally unconscionable, legally indefensible and politically self-defeating.”
The U.N.’s arrogant stance was just the latest example of how Haiti’s friends are so often its worst enemies. The U.N. military mission has been in Haiti since 2004, presumably to “stabilize” the country and nurture its fragile democracy. Yet that democracy is barely breathing, with a “provisional” president and a group of dubiously elected officials who can barely agree on a date for presidential elections.
Consider the aftermath of the massive earthquake that killed 200,000 to 300,000 Haitians on Jan. 12, 2010. The international community did responded generously. Former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush presided over a reconstruction commission that won $14 billion in international pledges and posed to help transform Haiti into a modern nation. However, what money was actually delivered was sucked into a morass of Beltway consultants, failed projects and nongovernmental organizations. “Valuable studies and assessments conducted by Haitians themselves were largely ignored,” the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported in a postmortem study. Six years later, the rubble in downtown Port-au-Prince has been cleared, but little has been rebuilt. The nation’s center of commercial activity has moved to suburban Pétionville. Plans to revive the capital remain as vague as the early-morning fog that drifts across the majestic mountains that serve as a backdrop to Haiti’s tortured history.
The Clintons have expressed a fondness for Haiti ever since they honeymooned there in 1975. Bill and Hillary have been up to their elbows in Haiti ever since 1994, when President Clinton used U.S. military power to restore Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Clinton, whose home state of Arkansas is the No. 1 rice producer in the United States, extracted an agreement from Aristide in 1995 to drop tariffs on imported rice. The resulting influx of cheap American rice destroyed Haitian’s near-self-sufficiency in food and sent thousands of poor farmers and their families into the overcrowded capital. Clinton has since apologized for his “devil’s bargain.” Fast-forward to today, and Haitians know that the United States’ presidential elections will have a profound effect on their future: A Hillary Clinton victory could mean more interference in Haiti’s affairs.
The current political crisis was precipitated by the heavy-handed manipulation of Haitian politics by the “Core Group,” (the United States, Canada, France, Spain, Brazil, the European Union and the Organization of American States). In 2011, they excluded the most popular political party from presidential elections and discarded one of the top vote-getters, and Haitians ended up with former bandleader Michel Martelly as president. They tried the same tactics this year, putting heavy pressure on Haitians to complete a tainted second round of ballots. Fed up, thousands of Haitians took to the streets to reject that advice and force a new round of elections over strong American objections.
Haitian identity at home and abroad is tightly linked to our native country’s status as the world’s first free black republic. Every August UNESCO commemorates the secret ceremony in Haiti’s Bois-Caiman in 1791 that triggered a successful slave uprising, which in turn fomented the revolution that led to its independence. I know I will offend many of my fellow Haitians by saying this out loud — but I wonder if Haiti will ever truly regain its independence. The reality is that Haiti, more than 200 years after it gained its freedom, has spent large chunks of its existence under the military, political or economic control of foreign powers.
Haiti paid twice for its freedom, first with blood and then with money. Haitians handed Napoleon his first significant military defeat by repelling the 50,000 troops he sent to restore slavery. But fearing a new invasion, Haiti signed an agreement with France’s Charles X in 1825 to pay former owners of plantations and slaves tens of millions of francs (variously estimated by historians at between $3 billion to $25 billion in today’s dollars) as the price for recognition. The deal doomed Haiti to 80 years of distorted budgets focused on paying off foreign debt and starving its people of the infrastructure and educational facilities that might have set the young nation on a more prosperous path. The United States began its military occupation of Haiti in 1915 and remained there for 19 years. But even before American Marines landed in the country, Haiti’s many authoritarian and corrupt leaders plunged the country into debt and exacerbated the domination of the many by the few. Rosalvo Bobo, an early-20th-century Haitian politician, noted that Haitian leaders had replaced the liberating achievement of their ancestors for “slavery of blacks by blacks.”
The ultimate challenge for Haiti — and many other small countries — is how to gain a measure of control over their own destinies, especially when they are in the “back yard” of powerful nations, dependent on foreign aid and are forced to deal with internal divisions. One way the U.N. could make restitution is to fulfill its pledge to rebuild Haiti’s sanitation system and begin planning a removal of the peacekeeping force. Those who want to help Haiti should begin consulting and involving Haitians at home and abroad in their grand plans.
But the best incentive for change will come from Haiti itself. A new chapter for the embattled nation will come only when Haiti’s rapacious business and political elites and its masses of neglected poor learn the lessons from 200 years ago — that no one is coming to save them.
“What’s your call to action?” This was one of the first questions asked of us when it was announced that our film Swim Team was chosen for this year’s IFP Documentary Completion Lab. It’s a familiar question for sure.
Somewhere along the line, it became important for documentary films to have a so-called call to action, particularly if these films are competing for the typical sources of funding. Some of the best known and most generous documentary funders now explicitly state or demonstrate through their choice of films that fundable documentaries must address contemporary social issues and seek to challenge the status quo, inspire people to join or create a movement, or otherwise call for social action.
But if you’re making an independent documentary on an artist, any sort of biography or historical film, or something non-traditional, good luck getting support. “There’s been a gradual change in the understanding and acceptance of what a documentary can be,” says Milton Tabbot, Senior Director of Programming for IFP. “Although there are exceptions among funders, these days most of the films that get funding are the ones that have real strong social issues, where it’s clear how the film can be used as a tool for outreach and impact. Some people are still surprised if there’s a strong narrative and story.”
Even our film, about a competitive swim team of teens on the autism spectrum, was dismissed by some as “not about a hard hitting social issue,” and thus ineligible for support. Swim Team focuses on young people seeking acceptance in a society that takes every opportunity to segregate based on disability, and the nonprofits that we have begun to partner with certainly recognize the potential of our film to engage in a national conversation about inclusion. That said, our narrative throughline of a sports team trying to dominate the competition makes our film more difficult to categorize for some funders.
To be clear, supporting films that tackle social issues head-on isn’t a negative trend. Social issue documentaries offer incalculable value towards generating real world impact. And it’s not a zero sum game; films with an agenda are luring new funding to the space. As director Marshall Curry recently observed to The New York Times, “If these funders weren’t funding activist films, they would be funding some other form of activism — not some other form of filmmaking.”
IFP is the rare organization now supporting independent film that embraces diverse voices, including the kind of films that may not be the obvious candidate for a grant. The documentaries IFP has supported through their Documentary Lab, Film Week and/or other channels include such outstanding films as Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, Keith Maitland’s Tower, Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo’sRich Hill, Penny Lane’s Our Nixon, Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie and the Boxer, Todd Miller’s Dinosaur 13, Eva Radivojevic’s Evaporating Borders, Jason Osder’s Let the Fire Burn, and Amanda Wilder’s Approaching the Elephant. In an increasingly competitive field, it’s validating and meaningful to be chosen for IFP’s Documentary Lab, and we were pleasantly surprised to discover the eclecticism of IFP’s other selections.
“We support voices that might otherwise not be heard,” says Tabbot. “As a programmer, I’m drawn to diversity of approaches in this artform, and above all any documentary has to succeed as cinema. If you return to a work five to ten years from now, the film should be able to stand alone as a film, not just as an issue. The issue isn’t the film.”
Film is a powerful medium to change people’s perspectives, but impact isn’t easily measured. This is true even when there’s a strong social issue, but quantifying impact is doubly difficult when the film is not singularly focused on a cause and more concerned with characters, story and cinema. Nevertheless, these films have the ability to absorb and deeply affect viewers.
“Documentaries that are more cinematic, stylistically unconventional and less issue-focused retain the power to challenge audiences’ views of the world, but perhaps in a subtler way,” says Paola Mottura, Documentary Program Manager for IFP. “These films can change the way we perceive certain realities by drawing us into characters, making us empathize with their stories in a way that ultimately may still result in changing our attitudes towards the subject matter.”
Our first week of the IFP Documentary Lab in May included a number of opportunities to learn about and discuss distribution and impact – terms that are increasingly linked in the documentary world. Funders and distributors have ratcheted up their expectations for audience engagement plans from filmmakers, making it our job not only to make the film itself but also design a campaign around its distribution to engineer its impact. If that sounds daunting, it is. As the landscape in the documentary world has shifted to favor the films that are deemed best suited to “make an impact,” an enormous responsibility is placed on the shoulders of filmmakers to create films that make the case for impact right out the gate.
As we got to know the other IFP Lab fellows and discover their films, we realized that what all of our films had in common was a personal and sometimes quirky perspective on stories that have deeper and yet sometimes subtle roots in social and political issues. These issues include women’s equality, mental illness, patient rights, immigration, poverty, racism and more – but none of this year’s IFP Lab films seem geared to change the law, feature a ripped from the headlines story or include experts articulating issues in a talking heads style.
“It takes more work to have that discussion outside the film instead of people talking in the film,” says Tabbot. But films that introduce compelling characters and communities and don’t necessarily advocate or present a succinct “case” may be just as if not more resonant simply because they ask the viewer to arrive at his own conclusions.
Indeed, sometimes an intimate, character-driven story can generate tremendous impact. Tabbot believes that there’s an innate excitement around more personal films that often make them more engaging, and therefore more effective at times. “Rather than approaching a topic in a very traditional way and listening to an issue again and again, it’s intriguing to see artists that are trying something different,” he observes.
Every documentary is a form of commentary on its subject, every documentary filmmaker’s work is informed by her personal point of view. In documentary film, the personal is indeed political. As IFP Lab editing mentor Carol Dysinger said, “Every movie is a conversation with the world.” So if we’re paying attention to the circumstances surrounding a film’s story, many documentaries reveal social issues in unexpected ways.
The late, great Roger Ebert once noted, “film is a machine that generates empathy.” It’s the viewers’ experience of empathizing with a character in a film that can help awaken them to certain causes. By leaning on the raw power of personal, human stories, films that have deep impact may not appear to have an agenda at all, but instead tiptoe lightly towards changing hearts and minds.
At the Mirebalais Hospital in Haiti’s central plateau, Dr. Louise Ivers and Dr. Roman Jean-Louis are examining a baby girl who was born in early July with microcephaly, a smaller-than-normal skull often associated with Zika infections.
The baby, named Chinashama, is dressed in a white smock adorned with small flowers. Her legs cross unnaturally over her shins, and her mother, Chrisnette Sainvilus, says the baby cries a lot and has trouble passing stool. “Day and night she’s crying,” the mother of two says. It’s unclear what physical and mental problems Chinashama is facing.
Ivers lifts Chinashama’s legs and tries to move them apart. “See, her legs are still crossed. The muscle development is not what we’d want to see,” she says. “This baby definitely needs physical therapy.”
Chinashama is one of three babies born with microcephaly at the Mirebalais Hospital in July. The Haitian Ministry of Health says there have been 11 others born nationwide over the past two months with this usually rare birth defect. But only one has been officially confirmed as a result of the Zika virus.
Haiti has all of the ingredients for widespread transmission of Zika. The mosquito that carries the virus flourishes in Haiti’s tropical heat. As the outbreak wanes in Brazil and Colombia, the Caribbean is currently the epicenter of Zika transmission. The region is reporting high numbers of cases. Puerto Rico, for instance, has a population a third the size of Haiti and is reporting roughly 1,500 new cases of Zika each week.
Yet as of August, Haiti had confirmed only five cases to the World Health Organization.
Many people who get infected with Zika have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. In Haiti, it can take all day for a patient to see a doctor, so most people don’t come to health facilities unless they are extremely ill. But if they’re pregnant and have Zika, the virus could still pose a threat to their fetus.
Sainvilus, Chinashama’s mother, says she doesn’t remember having a fever or other signs of Zika during her pregnancy — although she thinks she had a bout of fever that she thought was chikungunya just before she got pregnant.
But even if Sainvilus had gotten sick, it’s highly unlikely that she would have been tested for Zika. For the last four months, a doctors’ strike in Haiti has brought the public health care system to a standstill. The Mirebalais Hospital, which remained functioning, is a five-hour bus drive from her home on the road that leads from Port-au-Prince to the Dominican Republic.
Secondly, Haiti just doesn’t have the infrastructure to do widespread Zika testing. The only place that can test for Zika is the national laboratory run by the Ministry of Health. They’ve been doing a limited number of tests that will only come back positive if the actual virus is still in the blood sample being tested. Zika clears from the blood fairly quickly, so unless you test while the person is still sick, it’s going to come back negative.
Other more complicated tests have to get sent out to Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago or the U.S. — and it can take months for a doctor to get those results if they get them at all.
Ivers, from Partners in Health, a global health organization based in Boston, says she’s quite anxious that Zika is spreading widely across Haiti — but it’s not being detected.
“We don’t have a good idea of what’s going on. Now that we’ve seen three babies born [with microcephaly] in the span of three weeks in our own facility, we are very concerned that it’s being under-reported in other parts of the country,” she says.
On top of that, she’s worried that Haiti’s severely limited health system, which isn’t picking up Zika cases, is also ill-equipped to deal with a wave of children with severe birth defects.
“Children with developmental delays or disability need individual care with lots of different resources,” Ivers says. “Those resources are not really available in Haiti.”
CSFilm documentary film training, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 2014
CSFilm director Michael Sheridan has been invited by the Film Studies and Multimedia Design departments at Highline College to conduct classes and make a campus wide presentation over three days in October.
Highline provides community college programs and bachelors degrees to a diverse population in Des Moines Washington which overlooks beautiful Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains.
With more than 15,000 students and 350,000 alumni, Highline is one of the state’s largest institutions and one of 34 community and technical colleges in the state of Washington. For more than 50 years, community members have counted on Highline to meet their educational needs close to home. Today, students can pursue more than 100 fields of study – including Film Studies and Multimedia Design, the latter established in 2015.
Highline is internationally recognized as a premiere community college, a reputation earned through the development of an institutional culture that values diversity, innovation, globalization of curriculum and community participation. The college’s commitment to diversity, social justice and multiculturalism recently earned it prestigious awards: the 2014 Award of Excellence for Advancing Diversity from the American Association of Community Colleges and the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award three years in a row (2013–2015) from Insight Into Diversity magazine.
Michael is very much looking forward to working with students and faculty at Highline. Thanks for the invitation!
Has the time come for Pakistan to put an end to its security dilemma with India?
Afghanistan, a landlocked country, is located in a strategic location, connecting Central Asia to South Asia and East Asia to West Asia. For centuries, it functioned as the economic corridor for the Silk Road and other ancient trade routes in the region. The political rifts and instability in Afghanistan are often attributed to its strategic location, since major powers have always tried to control Afghanistan in the interest of spreading their political, economic, and ideological hegemony in the region.
Despite being a member of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War, the confrontations between the two main power blocs had dragged Afghanistan into hostilities, turning it into a battlefield. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Afghanistan was left alone, drifting into civil war among different guerrilla Mujahideen groups, supported by the neighboring states. Eventually Pakistan managed to nurture and sponsor the Taliban that then controlled most of the country until they were overthrown by the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan in 2001.
Since their independence, India and Pakistan have been engaged in a protracted mutual hostility, with each country seeking to enhance its security and self-protection. To this end, they have acquired nuclear weapons, purchased sophisticated military technologies, and partnered with powerful states. Moves by one of them would cause the other to feel suspicious and insecure. However, the main reason behind the escalation of a spiral of distrust and hostility is due to the misinterpretation of motives and intentions by the decision-makers in both countries. As a result, both New Delhi and Islamabad seem to be trapped in what international relations scholars would describe as a security dilemma. This has borne costs, such as direct military conflicts between the two countries or, more recently, smaller skirmishes.
Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.In the post-Taliban era, besides other donors in Afghanistan, India has played a significant role in the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan by providing development assistance worth $2 billion, focusing primarily on infrastructure development, institutional capacity building, agriculture and food security, health, education, and scholarship programs. In contrast, Pakistan, itself being dependent on the security and development assistance of the United States and China, had not been in the position to provide substantial contributions to Afghanistan. Pakistan has however been wary of India’s active role. In other words, Islamabad considers a stable, friendly, and cooperativeAfghanistan only beneficial when it is under its influence and with limited Indian ties. Pakistan perceives India’s development contributions in Afghanistan as part of New Delhi’s strategic encirclement policy, counteracting Islamabad’s strategic depth policy.
However, Afghanistan does not expect Pakistan to meet India’s development assistance, but to stop harboring and supporting the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and other terrorist groups. Time and again, President Ashraf Ghani, in the strongest words possible, urged Islamabad to put an end to its undeclared war and crack down on the sanctuaries of the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network on their soil. Ghani, in an interview withPakistan’s Geo News last month, reiterated that Afghanistan is not part of any one country’s strategic depth, nor is it going to be anyone’s dependency. Whoever has tried this in the past has failed, Ghani warned. He also assured that he will not permit his country to be used for the destabilization of other countries – particularly the neighborhood. However, he emphasized that as a sovereign state, Afghanistan is free to strike partnerships with any state without posing a threat to others, which is the essence of regional stability and prosperity.
In the past decade and a half, Afghanistan, with the partnership of neighboring states, inked a series of regional infrastructure projects — among them the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) Pipeline and the Central Asia-South Asia Electricity Transmission project. Both are not only pivotal for the future of Afghanistan, but also for other signatories in the region. As a landlocked state, it ultimately gained direct access to Chabahar port with the partnership of Iran and India. This port should by no means be seen as a competition to other efforts in the region—especially the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor—but a necessity for regional trade and economic cooperation.
Pakistan’s strategic depth policy has not only failed but also brought Islamabad in a critical situation in which it will not be able to continue its duplicity – supporting and harboring the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani Network, and other insurgent groups in its soil, while also expecting to receive U.S financial support. Washington, has already showed its frustration by withholding $ 300 million in military assistance. If Islamabad does not change its policy,U.S Congressmen and former U.S diplomats suggested not only to cut off the overall financial support but also impose economic sanctions to push Pakistan into a North Korea-type of isolation. Islamabad must take action to win the support of its oldest military ally, who has provided military and development assistance for decades. Islamabad should also acknowledge that Kabul has the sovereign right to establish partnerships with other states; it should not be wary of, doubt, or exaggerate the presence and cooperation of the United States and India in Afghanistan.
New Delhi is equally part of the paradigm in Afghanistan because of its development contribution and security assistance. Islamabad often claims that the Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies jointly support the Baloch separate movement. Thus, considering the sensitive security environment in Afghanistan and the region, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech during the Indian independence day, highlighted Pakistan’s atrocities and oppression in Balochistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, while refusing to acknowledge parallel atrocities and human right violations in India-administered Kashmir. This will further aggravate security challenges in Afghanistan as Islamabad will remain vigilant and suspicious of India’s active presence across the porous and insecure border.
Since taking office, President Ghani tried to establish good relations with Islamabad but his rapprochement efforts didn’t succeed. Being trapped between India and Pakistan, Kabul is also to some extent part of the problem, since President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah have not been able to tackle the epidemic corruption in the security sector and have appointed incompetent officials from their political camps. In the past few months, moreover, Kabul witnessed a range of horrific and brutal attacks that have borne a high toll. Thus, Kabul should take responsibility for ensuring security and stability throughout the country rather than blaming neighbors for its incompetency. Ghani and Abdullah have been unable to work together on the agreed national reform agenda that the National Unity Government was formed on back in 2014. Abdullah recently criticized Ghani for not consulting with him on key decisions; their unity is at the brink of dismantling while only less than two months are left before the 2016 Brussels Conference on Afghanistan.
The murky relations between these three neighbors in South Asia will have direct implications on the peace, security, prosperity, and stability of the broader region. India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan must understand that basing policy on illusions and supported by unrealistic rhetoric will deepen mistrust. Instead, they must pursue rapprochement by addressing differences between them, strengthening state-to-state partnerships, and further confidence building measures.
Najibullah Noorzai is a researcher and development analyst. He worked for the European Union and the United Nations in the areas of rule of law, counter-narcotics, and anti-corruption in Afghanistan. He tweets @NajNoorzai.
CSFilm Haiti Program Coordinator Ralph Thomassaint Joseph directed this new film in collaboration with the camera and editing assistance of CSFilm training coordinators and assistant trainers Jude Stanley Roy and Evens Louis. The film was commissioned by the French and US non-governmental organization Haiti Futur which supports education in Haiti through technology.
From a filmmaking perspective, CSFilm is extremely pleased to see this collaborative work coming out of the training in 2014. It is also encouraging to see that the film’s structure emphasizes scene-based visual storytelling, supported by interviews, rather than interviews supported with pictures. This is a fundamental principle of our training in documentary storytelling. Congratulations to the makers.
The first victims lived near a base housing 454 United Nations peacekeepers freshly arrived from Nepal, where a cholera outbreak was underway, and waste from the base often leaked into the river. Numerous scientists have since argued that the base was the only plausible source of the outbreak — whose real death toll, one study found, could be much higher than the official numbers state — but United Nations officials have consistently insisted that its origins remain up for debate.
Mr. Alston wrote that the United Nations’ Haiti cholera policy “is morally unconscionable, legally indefensible and politically self-defeating.” He added, “It is also entirely unnecessary.” The organization’s continuing denial and refusal to make reparations to the victims, he argued, “upholds a double standard according to which the U.N. insists that member states respect human rights, while rejecting any such responsibility for itself.”
He said, “It provides highly combustible fuel for those who claim that U.N. peacekeeping operations trample on the rights of those being protected, and it undermines both the U.N.’s overall credibility and the integrity of the Office of the Secretary-General.”
Mr. Alston went beyond criticizing the Department of Peacekeeping Operations to blame the entire United Nations system. “As the magnitude of the disaster became known, key international officials carefully avoided acknowledging that the outbreak had resulted from discharges from the camp,” he noted.
His most severe criticism was reserved for the organization’s Office of Legal Affairs, whose advice, he wrote, “has been permitted to override all of the other considerations that militate so powerfully in favor of seeking a constructive and just solution.” Its interpretations, he said, have “trumped the rule of law.”
Mr. Alston also argued in his report that, as The New York Times has reported, the United Nations’ cholera eradication program has failed. Infection rates have been rising every year in Haiti since 2014, as the organization struggles to raise the $2.27 billion it says is needed to eradicate the disease from member states. No major water or sanitation projects have been completed in Haiti; two pilot wastewater processing plants built there in the wake of the epidemic quickly closed because of a lack of donor funds.
In a separate internal report released days ago after being withheld for nearly a year, United Nations auditors said a quarter of the sites run by the peacekeepers with the organization’s Stabilization Mission in Haiti, or Minustah, that they had visited were still discharging their waste into public canals as late as 2014, four years after the epidemic began.
“Victims are living in fear because the disease is still out there,” Mario Joseph, a prominent Haitian human rights lawyer representing cholera victims, told demonstrators in Port-au-Prince last month. He added, “If the Nepalese contingent returns to defecate in the water again, they will get the disease again, only worse.”
In 2011, when families of 5,000 Haitian cholera victims petitioned the United Nations for redress, its Office of Legal Affairs simply declared their claims “not receivable.” (Mr. Alston called that argument “wholly unconvincing in legal terms.”)
Those families and others then sued the United Nations, including Mr. Ban and the former Minustah chief Edmond Mulet, in federal court in New York. (In November, Mr. Ban promoted Mr. Mulet to be his chief of staff.) The United Nations refused to appear in court, claiming diplomatic immunity under its charter, leaving Justice Department lawyers to defend it instead. That case is now pending a decision from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.
The redress demanded by families of the 10,000 people killed and 800,000 affected would reach $40 billion, Mr. Alston wrote — and that figure does not take into account “those certain to die and be infected in the years ahead.”
“Since this is almost five times the total annual budget for peacekeeping worldwide, it is a figure that is understandably seen as prohibitive and unrealistic,” he said. Still, he argued: “The figure of $40 billion should stand as a warning of the consequences that could follow if national courts become convinced that the abdication policy is not just unconscionable but also legally unjustified. The best way to avoid that happening is for the United Nations to offer an appropriate remedy.”
Mr. Alston, who declined to comment for this article, will present the final report at the opening of the General Assembly in September, when presidents, prime ministers and monarchs from nearly every country gather at United Nations headquarters in New York.
Mr. Haq said the secretary general’s office “wanted to take this opportunity to welcome this vital report,” which he added “will be a valuable contribution to the U.N. as we work towards a significant new set of U.N. actions.”
Twenty years ago today, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reauthorization Act, promising famously to “end welfare as we know it.” The goal was to ease poor people away from depending on government and encourage them to work instead.
The main achievement of “welfare reform,” as it was better known, was to end the program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and replace it with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). AFDC entitled families below the poverty line to income support for so long as they remained poor. All states had to follow the same federal rules, even though the amount of support differed by state based on local economic conditions.
TANF was different. It offers support to poor families and their children for up to five years, but only if they could show that they’ve tried to find work. After five years, people are dropped from the program. States could change all these guidelines, within limits — kicking recipients off sooner or later, giving more or less in cash benefits, altering the work requirements, and adding more conditions such as being drug-free.
Caseloads dropped dramatically, although it’s not as clear whether poverty dropped as well. Much of the debate in the past 20 years has been over how to measure welfare reform’s overall effects. But because states had so much leeway in how to put TANF into place, welfare reform affected various racial and ethnic groups differently — in some cases, in ways that shored up racial and ethnic inequality.
Welfare reform was especially hard on ethnic groups with high proportions of immigrants
In new research, we show that legal immigrants — a group that includes large numbers of Latinos and Asians — were especially hurt by welfare reform. In particular, their children were less likely to graduate high school.
After 1996, many immigrants lost eligibility for benefits, because TANF removed federal subsidies during immigrants’ first five years as legal permanent residents. (Undocumented immigrants were never eligible for these programs.)
A lot of the savings promised by welfare reform came from this exclusion. States were allowed to distribute TANF to immigrants during those years if they wished, but the money had to come from the state’s budget; by 2000, half the states were doing so.
Using data from the 2002 Educational Longitudinal Study, a study of more than 16,000 U.S. school students, one of us, Alexandra Filindra, worked with Cynthia Garcia Coll and David Blanding to explore how these state-level welfare policies affected the children of immigrants. In states that granted TANF to low-income immigrants, graduation rates for children who had at least one foreign-born parent were 5.3 percentage points higher than those in states that excluded them.
Of course, that gap could be the result of other differences between the states aside from immigrant restrictions in welfare policy. So to check our findings, in a second study, we compared something slightly different.
Using data from the Current Population Survey, we looked more closely at how individuals’ chances of graduating changed over time, comparing the chance a young, low-income immigrant had of graduating from high school in the periods before (1994-1995) and after reform (2003-2004) in states that did, and did not, offer TANF to immigrants.
When we looked at individuals and their family’s eligibility, we found that in states that allowed low-income immigrants to receive benefits, non-citizen children’s chance of graduating grew faster than in the states that did not.
Unlike the first study, in which we included all children of immigrants regardless of their own citizenship status, thereby including some youths who were themselves eligible for benefits, in this study we focused on children who were foreign-born.
Our results were similar to those from the first study. Only low-income Latino and Asian youths were affected: children who live in immigrant households or in communities with high proportions of immigrants.
Take, for example, a newly arriving, low-income immigrant who would have been directly affected by ineligibility. That young person was 17 points less likely to graduate from high school if he or she lived in a state whose TANF program excluded new permanent residents than in a state that included new permanent residents.
The spillover effect: The exclusion for some immigrants hurt the high school graduation rates of even those who were eligible for TANF
What’s more, that state restriction affected not just the legal permanent resident children from low-income families who hadn’t been in the United States long enough to be eligible for TANF; it also affected those children who had been in the United States long enough to qualify for the program. Even for a low-income immigrant youth who had been in legal permanent residency status for more than five years and thus eligible for TANF, the probability of graduation was still eight points lower in states with the exclusion.
Social science calls that a spillover effect; it’s a commonunintended consequence of policies that target immigrant groups.
These results aren’t linked to other differences between the two kinds of states, TANF-restrictive and TANF-inclusive. For example, the gap doesn’t appear to be due to other variations in state welfare laws, such as caps on how many children a family could cover, or time limits on receiving TANF.
We checked this by comparing different ethnic groups. All low-income youths in a state experience the general restrictions the state puts in place, but immigrant eligibility restrictions affect only immigrants and others in their families and communities. States’ decisions about immigrant eligibility had no effect on the graduation rates of low-income, native-born, black or white youths, who weren’t subject to the restriction and weren’t likely to experience spillover effects.
Why would these restrictions hurt immigrants’ children?
Why would being excluded from social welfare programs lead some children of immigrants to drop out of high school? There are a number of reasons. Without the income from TANF, parents may need to work longer hours, leaving kids unsupervised. Children may have to work to help their families, reducing the time and energy they have for school.
But beyond the material reasons are psychological effects of being treated as if you do — or don’t — belong. Developmental psychologists have argued that children’s behaviors and attitudes are shaped by social context. Being excluded from welfare may signal second-class status — and being included may signal that you are welcome. That may explain how those policies “spilled over” and affected even immigrant families who were not materially hurt by the welfare reform.
No steak, no seafood, no strip clubs: There’s a logical gap in the recent laws that bash the poor who receive government welfare and food stamps. Wonkblog’s Emily Badger explains. (Tom LeGro/The Washington Post)
The long-term consequences of cutting holes in the safety net
Letting immigrants fall through the safety net means that many children are less prepared to be productive citizens and contribute to our civic life. And though our research focuses on legal permanent residents, undocumented immigrants and temporary migrants on work visas can never turn to the safety net — suggesting that their children are held back as well.
Finally, our research shows that this exclusion hurts not just the children whose families need help the most — it spills over throughout immigrant and ethnic communities, making the American dream inaccessible for many low-income Latinos and Asians, the fastest-growing groups of American children.
Alexandra Filindra is assistant professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago; Amber Wichowsky is assistant professor of political science at Marquette University; Meghan Condon is assistant professor in the DePaul University School of Public Service.
The promise of nature documentaries is that they will show you a world that you otherwise could not see. I will probably never be in a submersible down in the deep, or running alongside a cheetah on the savannah. Few have perfected this form for the mainstream like the BBC. They’ve made a number of blockbuster documentaries: Planet Earth, The Blue Planet, and Frozen Planet, to name just a few. From this tradition comes the newest BBC documentary, The Hunt, which focuses on the tactics predators use to stalk prey. It is co-produced with BBC America and narrated by — who else — Sir David Attenborough.
The stakes are life and death, of course.
I suppose I could feign neutrality, but the truth is, I love these BBC nature docs. After a long day, there’s almost nothing better than settling down with my boyfriend and cat, cracking open a can of beer, and watching footage of wild animals. These shows are uniquely soothing, and the animals are shot so beautifully; well, we all have our own forms of escapism. This one’s mine. I have watched so many of these documentaries that I’ve begun to keep track of Attenborough’s verbal tics — “but there’s a problem” — as well as his tendency to be a bit of a drama queen, repeatedly reminding us that the stakes of the footage we’re about to see are life and death. The stakes are life and death, of course; but then, in nature, they almost always are. And that’s what The Hunt is about, even more nakedly than usual: these predators must kill or starve. The filmmakers focus on the stalk — how hunters attempt to catch their prey. And unlike a lot of other programs about predators, which bill them as “dangerous” or “deadly,” The Hunt documents the failedhunts. In fact, most hunts fail; the best predators in the world only succeed about half the time. And to the series’ credit, it doesn’t just focus on those marquee predators (your cheetahs and wild dogs; polar bears and sharks). Some of the best sequences involve bizarre fish, vicious birds, and a particularly clever jumping spider called Portia.
It’s clever, the way the narratives are constructed. The result is an inspired sense of sympathy for predators, a countermeasure to other media that presents hunters as vicious killers. Personally, I never know whether to root for the predators or the prey. I once saw a starving wolf in Alaska’s Denali National Park — starvation is one way predators die, because their teeth are bad or they are injured or otherwise no longer able to hunt on their own — and its emaciated body as it limped away from me was truly pathetic. At first I did not think it was a wolf at all; too skinny, probably a coyote, I figured. But then I saw the radio collar, which only Denali wolves wear. We wound up reporting the wolf to the park authorities; in all likelihood they would soon be retrieving the radio collar from a corpse.
When we treat predators as blood-thirsty menaces, we shortchange them. These much-maligned creatures are often what hold an ecosystem together. Some are even known as keystone species; like the keystone in a building, they are the foundation upon which the ecosystem is built. They help maintain the local environment by eating prey that reproduces quickly. That gives other kinds of animals, which may reproduce more slowly, a chance at food and survival. It prevents over-grazing, allowing plant life to flourish. And predators typically hunt the vulnerable — yes, that does mean babies, but it also includes animals that are weak or sick and near death anyway.
This perhaps explains the way The Hunt handles kills. Usually, the documentary cuts away from mammals after they’re felled. (Though not fish or insects, probably because it’s less disturbing to watch them being eaten.) This mostly passed beneath my notice, except in the case of one of the more memorable sequences: when a group of chimpanzees hunt monkeys. I have seen footage of these hunts before, and I was cringing, waiting for the extraordinarily gruesome moment when the chimps rip the monkeys limb from limb. It never came; the filmmakers cut away.
I asked one of The Hunt’s producers, Huw Cordey, about the decision — and he told me it was approached with a great deal of thought. “We wanted to be much more focused on the strategy,” Cordey told me. “We wanted people to empathize with the predators, and I just think you don’t empathize with a predator if you see it tear apart sweet little Bambi.” The full footage of a monkey hunt in particular is nightmare fuel, and these nature documentaries are often watched by children. Even for adults, it is troubling to watch. A large part of the audience would have been alienated by the footage, Cordey felt, and so they did not show it.
“We wanted people to empathize the predators, and I just think you don’t empathize with a predator if you see it tear apart sweet little Bambi.”
Some other decisions were made based on footage limitations. In the first episode of the series, a female leopard hunts in a gully, making her effectively invisible to the animals on the plains above the trench. She’s stalking an impala, which she gets and drags into the gully. But then, the impala emerges and runs. “We couldn’t film this, sadly, because it all happened too quickly, but some baboons spotted it and ran into the gully and scared the leopard,” he said. “The leopard obviously let go of the impala.” No reference is made to the baboons in the narration, but it seems like an understandable edit — why narrate footage the audience can’t see? When you work with fact, whether in documentary filmmaking or in journalism, some facts do get cut.
There’s a danger to nature documentaries, too. It’s most clearly demonstrated with the 1958 Disney film White Wilderness. Disney won an Academy Award for the documentary which notably features a sequence with lemmings, mouse-like critters that live in the Arctic, diving over the edge of a cliff to the sea, where they drowned. The narration explains this is a mass suicide. The footage was so striking it gave rise to a new phrase, “like lemmings,” which is sometimes used to describe mass hysteria. In fact the whole thing was a hoax; the filmmakers drove the lemmings over the cliff themselves, and the “sea” was a tightly-cropped river. (The Alaska Department of Fish and Game helpfully explains that while lemmings don’t die by mass suicide, they do occasionally engage in cannibalism.)
Most nature documentaries don’t engage in such outright hoaxing, but staging shots or adding sound effects is common. For instance, stories about animal “families” often splice together footage of unrelated animals to create narratives that would otherwise be impossible or impractical to film. In those cases, documentaries are often telling a composite story of what typically occurs in an animal’s upbringing, rather than the story of one specific set of parents raising their young. It’s also common practice to use footage of tame or zoo animals for close-up shots, in order to avoid disturbing wild animals. In fact, Attenborough has been dinged for this particular approach before, on a previous series called Frozen Planet, when shots of polar bear cubs being born in a zoo were cut together with scenes of polar bears in the wild. Crucially, at no point does Attenborough tell the audience that the cubs are born in the wilderness — but neither does he say where they were born. The provenance of the cubs was revealed in behind-the-scenes footage. Hardly secret, but some members of the audience felt deceived nonetheless.
The noise of cracking bones was created with celery
The Hunt also kicked up a fuss when it was revealed that some of its sounds were added afterwards. The noise of a polar bear on the snow was created with custard powder, with salt crystals “for a bit of crunch,” Kate Hopkins, the sound engineer on the series, told Radio Times. The noise of cracking bones was created with celery. In these cases, the audio engineers couldn’t get microphones close enough to the animals, but wanted to represent the noise for the audience.I’m not shocked by this, and I don’t feel deceived; in every case, the practices the filmmakers are chastised for are practices they have admitted to — either in making-of media or interviews. In essence, they are giving their audience footnotes to the film. As the kind of person who likes to read footnotes, I appreciate this. But it seems audiences believe that documentary filmmaking is meant to render a true view of the world-as-it-is. This is a rather recent attitude toward documentaries; most early documentaries contain fake footage. The New Yorker’s Louis Menand credits Robert Flaherty with raising documentaries from propaganda film to art form with his first film, Nanook of the North. “In vérité terms, Nanook is largely a fake,” Menand writes. He continues:
Flaherty arranged, for example, to film a walrus hunt in order to show how indigenous people once gathered food. The Inuit had long since stopped walrus-hunting, and they ended up struggling to drag a harpooned walrus out of the Arctic surf and begging Flaherty to shoot it with his rifle. Flaherty pretended not to hear them and kept filming. Later on, Nanook and his family are shown building an igloo out in the wilderness. It was too dark inside the igloo to film, so a special igloo — in other words, a set — was constructed with one wall removed, and the family was filmed, in daylight, pretending to go to bed.
Menand dates the style of “plotless, commentary-less, vérité-style record of life as it is” to the 1950s, as an artistic movement. Attenborough offers a different explanation. In a charming lecture published as “Honesty and Dishonesty in Documentary Filmmaking” in 1961, the young filmmaker credits the rise of literal honesty in documentary film to the rise of television. “When television first arrived a large portion of programs were ‘live,’ many of them concerned with events like football matches, the Derby or some Royal ceremonial, all of which would have taken place whether or not the camera was there,” Attenborough writes. In the previous era, movies were understood to be fictional, and documentary films were thought of “in the same terms as one thought of theatrical film.” After television, though, “People then wanted to know whether what they saw would have happened and happened in that way, whether or not the camera was there.”
“Of course, all cameras lie,” Attenborough goes on. Sometimes these lies are deliberate — as is the case of both White Wilderness and Nanook — but sometimes these lies exist, he writes, “because there is no other way of making a film.” Soundtracks are a particular source of inaccuracies, as is the way filmmakers condense time. The Hunt took three years to film; the beautiful sequence of a blue whale eating krill took two years. The first year, the water was too murky for any of the footage to be usable. And the “making of” sequences reveal my favorite inaccuracy: the polar bear section edited out a hunt. That’s because the prey animal in question happened to be the cameraman. (Polar bears are among the few animals that will deliberately hunt humans.)
In fact, the problem is far larger than the lies of the camera. Facts are slippery things; they can render an inaccurate view if they are told in the wrong order, or if some are omitted. Narrative itself is a lie — whether it’s in documentary film, journalism, or any other medium that concerns itself with facts. We believe narrative exists because we travel forward continuously in time, and the chronological progression supplies humans, the meaning-making animals, with a kind of story. But every narrative leaves out facts in order to tell a clear story. In the case of The Hunt, obviously, there are the missing baboons, and the cut away from the kill. Less obviously, the stalk of the camera man and the sound effects. And even less obvious than that: some of the hunters don’t eat other animals as their primary food source. The chimpanzees who hunt monkeys, for instance, average about nine days of eating meat a year, according to Robb Dunn, writing in Scientific American. You would not know this watching The Hunt, simply because it is not relevant to the story the filmmakers are trying to tell. The point of The Hunt is the hunters’ tactics and strategies; whether the animals in question eat other food is beyond the scope of the documentary.
“Animal harassment and cruelty have been pervasive in wildlife filming for decades.”
These are fairly trivial, in the realm of nature documentary sins. The BBC crew is lucky; they have a tremendous budget. The filmmakers used 75 Jeeps, 10 helicopters, 41 boats, 10 spotter planes, “a clutch” of ATVs, two horses, and an elephant to get the shots of animals in the wild. (The elephant, named Gotham, was for filming tigers. Tigers ignore elephants.) Most other filmmakers are shooting with tighter schedules and far less money. That’s possibly why, “animal harassment and cruelty have been pervasive in wildlife filming for decades,” writes Chris Palmer, the founder and director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University. Small budgets and limited time mean that filmmakers use captive animals for hunts, chum waters to send sharks into feeding frenzies, and otherwise sensationalize footage, giving audiences a false impression of animal behavior. Worse, these portrayals demonize animals — sharks, in particular, stand out — making it more difficult to make a case they should be protected from human encroachment. As far as I can tell, The Hunt engaged in none of these harmful practices. The same cannot be said for Jeff Corwin, Bear Grylls, or Steve Irwin, Palmer says.
Palmer cites a fairly stern paper entitled “The Moral Pivots of Wildlife Filmmaking,” by a British documentarian named Jeffrey Boswall. Published in 1988, it lists several more lies than Attenborough does in his lecture. For instance, Boswall views ascribing human qualities to animals as deception; so, too, is incidental music, sound effects (such as the ones used in The Hunt), and making animals behave in a way they ordinarily do not. Though Boswall feels all these things count as lies, he doesn’t think filmmakers should avoid them; instead, they should make individual calls on what serves their purpose. The producers of The Hunt did just that.
I’m glad they did. My absolute favorite sequence of the series certainly would have qualified as deceptive by Boswall’s standards. It is footage of an octopus called Abdopus aculeatus; at low tide, the octopus crawls from tide pool to tide pool, hunting for crabs. The music used in the sequence is reminiscent of The Twilight Zone (there’s even a theremin!); the shots of the octopus on land evoke alien invasion movies. At one point, the octopus is shown in shadow, as aliens are before the big reveal. In the context of Abdopus aculeatus, these choices feel like a joke, a way of acknowledging that a sea creature is “invading” land. I laughed my way through the segment. After I’d finished watching the episode, I rewound the to the octopus footage and watched it again. It was a combination of so many things we think of as artifice — music, clever editing, deliberate narrativizing. But I still laughed with joy and recognition, because something in it felt correct. In the words of a very different documentarian, Werner Herzog, this octopus’ creep was a kind of ecstatic truth.The Hunt is, in other words, art — and art doesn’t need to be perfectly factual in order to be true.