In Dutch, vrijman means ‘free man’. The late Jan ‘Vrijman’ Hulsebos earned the nickname as a World War II resistance fighter, and it stuck with him through later life, when he cofounded the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA). Today, thanks to a fund that bears his nom de guerre, ‘Vrijman’ also means the freedom to make non-fiction films.
Headed by Ally Derks (who is IDFA’s festival director as well), the Jan Vrijman Fund is dedicated to supporting the doc industry in developing countries and ‘countries in transition’ (such as Russia), as determined by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. In 2003, the five-year-old group handed out 325,000 euros (US$360,000) to creative docs of every genre and length. Since its inception, JVF has granted more than 1.4 million euros ($1.6 million) to 157 projects.
Because the fund gets most of its financing from the Dutch ministry of foreign affairs through multiyear contracts, the JVF’s mission has a geopolitical spin. As JVF coordinator Isabel Arrate Fernandez explains, its mandate is to spread the money as widely as possible across the developing world. For example, in a bid to increase submissions from Africa, JVF recently changed its English-documents-only rule to enable African producers to apply in French. She adds, ‘We do the best we can to reach [producers from a variety of places], but in the final selection we choose projects we think are best.’ (For details of eligible countries, go to www.idfa.nl.)
To vet the submissions, a panel of about six judges breaks up to prescreen by region – Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Once each judge has culled a best-of list, the entire group evaluates the finalists.
According to Arrate Fernandez, applications are judged on a dual scale: degree of financial need and ‘quality’ of the proposal. ‘Quality is a very subjective term,’ Arrate Fernandez admits, adding, ‘We look for creative doc projects that we believe have [market] potential.’
In a move to encourage support for projects that have international TV-broadcast potential, the organizers invite commissioning editors, such as the BBC’s Nick Fraser and Iikka Vehkalahti of Finland’s YLE TV2, to sit as judges. Fund organizers benefit from the CES’ experience, and the editors get a first look at up-and-coming filmmakers and their work. Vehkalahti says doc-makers from the developing world often offer up perspectives that challenge conventional thinking. ‘There is a strong urgency for them to tell their stories… At their best, they are really fascinating and important.’
Recent JVF-backed docs include Indian Supriya Sen’s Way Back Home, a personal look at the impact of the 1947 partition of India. In July, it became the first doc to secure a theatrical release in that country. Another is Russian director Victor Kossakovsky’s Tishe! (Hush!), a film shot entirely from a window in the director’s St. Petersburg home that offers a quirky view of daily life in Russia today. To date, this 2002 doc has been selected for exhibition by more than 100 festivals around the world.
The JVF looks to pick up all program distribution rights for Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. As Arrate Fernandez explains, the JVF’s goal is to recover its investment and tuck it back into the grant purse, thus building an equity base for future use. ‘Everything earned above the JVF’s contribution goes to the producer,’ she adds.
The JVF awards grants twice a year in four categories: script and project development; production and post-production; sales and distribution; and ‘other activities,’ such as workshops and festivals. There is a per-project contribution cap in each area: 4,000 euros ($4,500) for project development; 15,000 euros ($16,800) for production; 7,000 euros ($7,800) for distribution; and 15,000 euros ($16,800) for ‘other’. A project can only apply to one category per round, but applications can be submitted to multiple rounds.