Call me naive but sometimes I am still astounded at the amount of money spent to produce Hollywood films that don’t even amount to mindless entertainment. Maybe it’s because I know there are people all over the globe struggling to produce serious films, in particular documentaries about pressing social and political issues. Ten years ago philanthropist George Soros recognized the importance of such films, and he identified the difficulties they face as they confront both the demands of the crass commercial marketplace and the possibilities of government censorship. From October 26th-29th at Film Forum, you can see a selection of films that might not have otherwise been made in “Soros/Sundance Documentary Fund: A Tenth-Anniversary Film Festival.”
“The Soros Documentary Fund started in 1996 because we realized the enormous power of film to create awareness and spur action to deal with human rights abuses,” says Gara LaMarche, Vice President and Director of US Programs for the Open Society Institute. “We saw there were few sources of support for independent filmmakers around the world seeking to deal with these issues.” Since it began, the Fund has supported films like the Academy Award-nominated Long Night’s Journey Into Day, about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee; Calling All Ghosts, which considers the plight of Bosnian women who were victims of rape during the war in Yugoslavia; and Life and Debt, an examination of the IMF’s negative impact on Jamaica. “With a human rights and contemporary issues focus, the Fund recognizes that the lived experience of complex social realities is often painful to acknowledge and difficult to understand and so these topics are often compartmentalized, sidelined and ignored by the news and entertainment industries,” says Cara Mertes, President of the Fund (which is now officially called the Sundance Documentary Fund). “In their most powerful form,” Mertes notes, “films can help change the course of history, not simply comment on it.”
The Fund also concentrates on comprehensive strategies of getting the films seen once they are done. “The wonderful thing is that it not only gives production money but also gives distribution and outreach grants because they understand the important role these films can play is helping to facilitate the democratic process,” says Bruni Burres, Director of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival and one of the selectors for the Film Forum event. “This allows the films to be shown to a wide and diverse audience—to impact public opinion. But equally important, they can be seen by targeted audiences such as policymakers, and be used as evidence in war crimes tribunals as happened with Calling the Ghosts.” In fact, Calling the Ghosts is a clear example of what role film can play in direct change, in this case in the way wartime rape is understood and prosecuted. Calling the Ghosts was screened not only around the world but also by UN high officials, US Senators and others who helped pass legislation pertaining to war crimes in the Balkans. It was also submitted as evidence for trials before the Hague Tribunal and, when screened to a population involved in running the death camps in the former Yugoslavia where the rape took place, the perpetrators who had never spoken before reportedly were moved to attempt reconciliation.
Even with the increasing commercial success of documentary film, media executives, especially in the US, often glaze over when they hear ideas about films dealing with highly relevant international issues. There’s still a notion that audiences simply want escapism and don’t want to know about the world. While we all want escapism at times, there’s also an increasing understanding that a well-made documentary is not only more satisfying than the majority of Hollywood movies, but it can also provide understanding more profound than reading an article or watching a CNN report. “Over the past ten years the Fund has generated a groundswell of attention for issues that are impacting people daily around the world,” says Mertes. “Civil liberties, ethnic conflict, the aftermath of war and the search for justice and reconciliation are just some of the many concerns dealt with in profoundly creative and imaginative ways through the vision of documentary filmmakers. In short, I think that without the Fund, we would not be seeing what I think of as the ‘second golden age’ of documentary that we are now experiencing.”
Go to www.filmforum.com for a complete list of films