Sheffield Doc/Fest ’20: Funders talk power dynamics, accountability

Sheffield Doc/Fest’s digital program returned Thursday (Aug. 6), bringing together a panel of international funders to reflect on the changing landscape of commissioning, distribution and audience. The session was produced and ...
August 12, 2020

Sheffield Doc/Fest’s digital program returned Thursday (Aug. 6), bringing together a panel of international funders to reflect on the changing landscape of commissioning, distribution and audience.

The session was produced and chaired by producer Elhum Shakerifar of UK-based Hakawati (pictured, bottom right).

Speakers included Adrian Kawaley-Lathan (bottom center), creative director at the Bertha Foundation; Khalil Benkirane (top right), head of grants at the Doha Film Institute; Jess Search (top left), chief executive at Doc Society; Chu Hui Yang (bottom left), senior program officer for JustFilms, Creativity and Free Expression at the Ford Foundation; and Charlotte Cook (top center), co-creator and EP at Field of Vision.

“The film industry as a whole is an ecosystem,”  Shakerifar said, opening the discussion. “Independent documentary is an endangered species, in a sense, or at least a rare bird. And I think we have the power to save it and to think about the best possible forms it can exist in.”


As decision makers within their respective organizations, Shakerifar first asked how the panelists work to “level the playing field” for filmmakers.

New York-headquartered Ford Foundation’s Chu Hui Yang said there’s “real asymmetries in terms of how power is negotiated” in the documentary industry.

“One thing that Ford, alongside supporting filmmakers and film service organizations, feels really strong about is supporting criticism in documentary reporting,” he explained.

The Ford Foundation, with the Nathan Cummings Foundation and Allied Media Projects, recently created the Critical Minded program to “support cultural critics of color” in the U.S.

Yang said Ford Foundation is also supporting research that looks more deeply into the function of documentary reporting in journalism.

“Ultimately, we need more types of infrastructure like this, which do that accountability work, whether it is about the critics who are thinking more deeply and engaging on questions of power and ethics and the connection between those two things… As documentary has become such an enormous commercial sector, there needs to be a shift in how it’s being looked at,” he added.

Adrian Kawaley-Lathan said the pandemic — and the ways it exposed vulnerabilities in the filmmaking industry — presented an opportunity to “double down” on the Bertha Foundation’s mission to support “radical inclusion for underrepresented people and producers and storytellers.”

“I really looked at the work Bertha had done around documentary features and investigative journalism,” he said. “But then I looked at the future as well and I looked at the history of our grantees and said, ‘Well, we’ve been focusing a lot on non-fiction — which is so important — but how much are we also looking into the future?

“When we look at documentary and we look at decolonizing the space around filmmaking and film production, how do we support that in a really tangible way to put that power into the hands of emerging filmmakers with whatever technology they have in their hands and with whatever new tools of distribution can be created to really make the impact while supporting them financially? It’s that balance.”

The Doha Film Institute, located in Doha, Qatar, supports first- and second-time filmmakers from around the world. Khalil Benkirane said the organization invites “everyone who has a story that is worth telling.”

“When you are open to the whole world, you have places where documentary tradition is not as developed as it would be in the U.S. or other countries that we know of, so we basically adapt to the region of the filmmaker and that’s our starting point… In the Arab world, as in many other places around the world, governments are not able to do their job and filmmakers are automatically engaged to bring out everything that is not being said or that is taboo. And we do want to honor those filmmakers so we try to support them,” Benkirane said.

One of the institute’s initiatives, Qumra, offers a professional incubator for filmmakers from Qatar and around the world.

“We create an ecosystem for these filmmakers to optimize their chances to stay on track and not derail because the road is long,” Benkirane said.

When the pandemic hit, Charlotte Cook said the team at New York-headquartered Field of Vision reviewed the organization’s budget, determining one resource they could offer was their time.

“We were very lucky in that our organization had said, ‘You are guaranteed for your budget for the year.’ We came in at a place that had been communicated as somewhat stable and we knew that other organizations weren’t… And so we kind of felt it was our duty to step in if we could,” she said.

“I’d been talking to filmmakers and they felt very disconnected. The industry had kind of shut its doors while it was figuring stuff out which is totally understandable but we were in a position where we just thought, well, let’s give our time first of all.”

Field of Vision has conducted more than 300 meetings with filmmakers, she said, adding the organization also used some of its operating budget to create a relief fund.

Jess Search of New York- and London-based Doc Society called this moment a “time of great risk” for independent documentary filmmaking.

“It’s a funny time, because there’s more resources for commission to documentary right now than there has been for a really long time. But, of course, what we believe in here is the independent space,” Search said. “As we move to save it and strengthen it, [it's] also a moment for us to critique it and change it.”

Search said Doc Society’s efforts over the last decade have largely focused on the Global South, working so filmmaking communities could “grow their own ecosystems without always being reliant on coming to decision makers in the Global North.”

“That’s been a really fruitful and wonderful process,” Search added. “But we realized we’d perhaps done less to think about how to help build organizations like that in the Global North that might be able to challenge different groups and to make more of a plurality of organizations more like our own.”

The organization is currently hiring a UK-based head of film — the appointee to be announced shortly. Doc Society also plans to examine allocation of resources in the Global North, as well as re-imagine its current funding model. “Do we need to build on some of these early efforts by other organizations to fund the artists and not the project? And is it giving long-term artist support that we can really make the field inclusive?” Search said.


Shakerifar asked speakers what “accountability” meant within their respective organizations. For Yang, funding human resources operations is key.

“The funding’s usually project-driven. There’s a real starving of the administration of organizations and oftentimes that is the piece that allows a lot of these dynamics to grow. From a funder’s perspective, thinking about how to loosen dollars, making sure organizations have the right kind of resources so that they can build strong internal operations that allow facilitation and movement through complex dynamics,” Yang said.

With more commercial and corporate money flowing into the documentary space, Cook said she hopes filmmakers — especially in the UK — can “advocate for themselves more.”

“We are stuck in a broadcast-centric field. Whereas in the U.S., it’s not quite the same except that it’s heading into a very streaming-dominated field,” she said. “I hope that in the future we see filmmakers be able to value themselves more, be able to make films for what they actually cost to make, that funders will match them on that and then the people that present the films to the world give them proper value positioning.”

Shakerifar asked whether the funders see it as their responsibility to ensure filmmaking teams are paid adequately.

“For us it’s completely, completely different because, for development and production, it is mostly for the Arab world and most — if not all — Arab filmmakers are telling a story because they feel the need and the urge to say it, so it is beyond the monetary value of generating the images, of paying themselves,” Benkirane said.

“Our job is to follow them and help them with the little means that we have… We receive very little documentaries from North America and Europe even when we were open at production level. Why? Because, in Europe, the tradition nowadays is, unless you have the full budget, you are not supposed to go into production with fiction and with documentary. In the Arab world, and with these independent filmmakers is, whatever I can get money on, I will go and shoot.”

Shakerifar asked panelists how the pandemic has affected their organizations’ budgets and priorities, particularly when it comes to budget hikes for filmmakers to ensure safety.

“I’ve been really struck by this conversation around COVID and how it’s forcing everyone to think about responsibility in relation to transmission and illness, responsibility around care and well-being, and I would really love to see that extended into the space of filmmaking for good,” she said.

Search said funding for safety resources should be considered early on in a project, adding Doc Society’s funding capabilities haven’t changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The danger is not the funding this year or possibly even next year, it’s actually what the COVID-induced recession is going to do to all the funding sources that feed into the independent world… And that is unknown. We are looking at our own funding sources and figuring that some will lessen and fall away.”

When discussing audience, Yang said protecting engagement rights is key.

“One element of this we’ve been thinking about is how to protect engagement rights and to make sure that those are held and maintained by filmmakers despite when a lot of these distributors want to take up everything,” he said. “The structural problem there is the films that are thought to have the most limited audiences are those made by people of color, people who are disabled, folks who are already marginalized by society and part of that is that the folks who are doing sales, distribution, marketing are largely not coming from those communities… There’s a whole set of actors that needs to be diversified in a serious way.”

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.