Summit ’21: Filmmakers on propelling premium documentary

A selection of today’s biggest names in documentaries came together in a virtual session for the Realscreen Summit on February 4. With the proliferation of streamers and cable channels long-form docs ...
February 8, 2021

A selection of today’s biggest names in documentaries came together in a virtual session for the Realscreen Summit on February 4.

With the proliferation of streamers and cable channels long-form docs have been enjoying a renaissance. Female directors continue to embrace the genre and are the creative forces behind some of the most culturally significant documentaries today. During this session, titled “Propelling Premium Documentary”, five women filmmakers discussed their work and how they entered the field.

Moderating the session was Abby Greensfelder (bottom left), founder & CEO, Everywoman Studio, a purpose-built media company whose mission is to tell female-focused stories that might not otherwise be told. The panelists were Garrett Bradley (not pictured), producer and director, Thank You Very Kindly, who won directing honors at the 2020 Sundance film festival for her first feature documentary Time; filmmaking partners Julie Cohen (bottom right) and Betsy West (top left), of Storyville Films who co-directed/co-produced RBG; Kirsten Johnson (top right), director, producer and cinematographer, Big Mouth Productions (Dick Johnson is Dead ) and Dawn Porter (top middle), founder and director, Trilogy Films, who has directed Trapped and John Lewis: Good Trouble among other films.

Out of the gate Greensfelder wanted to know if the panel thought of themselves as “women filmmakers.” Johnson took the bait with a firm rebuke. “Let us be done with assuming that the norm is white men, and we know we are women,” Johnson stated. “I know I’m a white person, but no one ever calls me a white filmmaker, ever. So, can we get beyond this?”

From there the panel went into depth on how they launched their careers and some of their biggest projects to date.

For West and Cohen, they didn’t make a plan to become filmmaking partners — rather, it was something that evolved out of the work they were doing. The doc series Makers, of which West was an EP, was airing on PBS and Ruth Baden Ginsburg, Supreme Court justice and, in the words of NPR, a “legal, cultural and feminist icon,” was a fan. Then in 2015, RBG, as she became known on social media, blew up the Internet.

“We came up with the idea that most people don’t know the full story of what Ruth Bader Ginsburg did to secure rights for American women,” West explained. “And also, we knew she had an amazing love story with a feminist husband, and we just thought this would make a great doc. So that’s really the beginning of our in-depth collaboration.”

“It was, oh my god, someone needs to make a film about Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” Cohen added.

Dawn Porter then recounted how her story began with a career in law, where she worked her way through the legal ranks at ABC. Her work under Kerry Smith (senior vice president of editorial quality for ABC News) on standards and practices proved formative. “The way that she organized that job, it was really, ‘You know the question is not, can you show something legally, but should you show it ethically?’ That was really interesting to me.”

Porter also credited the various news producers and editors she’d worked with over seven years for showing her how to take a complex subject and distill it to its essence. Another part of learning the industry for Porter was attending conferences such as the Realscreen Summit and Sheffield Doc/Fest to observe how other filmmakers were getting work funded and sold, as well as networking — all instrumental to her filmmaking education.

For Johnson, who is also a renowned cinematographer (she was a camera operator on Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and examined this aspect of her work in 2016′s Cameraperson) she attended film school in Paris because it was free. But because the program she took wouldn’t admit an American to the directing stream, she chose cinematography. “I immediately was like, ‘Oh, why didn’t anyone tell me the camera is the center of everything?’ So I fell in love with the camera, but I always had the intention of being a director along with being a cinematographer.”

The talk shifted to how difficult it can be for filmmakers to earn a decent living making documentaries and the side hustles that are often a necessary evil.

Johnson said that the way the economic framework of doc-making currently exists, “it isn’t possible unless you’re doing work for hire to earn money in a consistent way. I started doing the work for hire of cinematography, which I just loved.”

For Garrett Bradley, who is based in New Orleans, these types of gigs are inspiring in their own way. “I always had jobs, I worked in retail, I worked in flower shops and funeral homes. I’ve had many, many different types of jobs,” she told the panel. “And I’ve always been thankful for those jobs because I didn’t see them as being in contradiction to my craft. I saw them as being something that could really feed my craft, while also being a very practical thing of needing to pay rent.”

Bradley, who got her start making shorts for the New York Times ‘Op-Docs’ series, shared how she interned in high school for doc filmmakers Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras on their film Flag Wars and how watching them work and build their lives as filmmakers informed her own journey. “There’s been a lot of focus on docs more recently with the streamers getting into the business and there’s more money and the feeling that it’s easy to do and it’s glamorous and film festivals and all that,” Bradley added. “But this is hard work and comes from a place of passion.”

Bradley’s intern story paved the way for Johnson to recall the interns she’s had over the years including Nadia Hallgren, who went on to direct the Michelle Obama film, Becoming, and how networks can be created out of such relationships.

“She developed a relationship with me early on and we kept it, we grew together, and I support her now she supports me now,” Johnson said. “I’ve had a lot of interns bring me water bottles, and many of them I don’t know. I would like to know them and [learn] what makes them different.”

Cohen added that she’s had to take side jobs too, including working as a staff producer at NBC news, producing public relations videos and web videos.

“I think that the hustle changes when you’re getting your passion projects funded,” Porter chimed in. “It’s getting work. What I’ve learned along the way is all work has helped. If it’s a five-minute short, if it’s a 15-minute short, it’s the constant working that is helpful because you know all of the work influences what you do next.” She added that good fortune in the doc space is not always guaranteed. “You have one good year, but it’s not consistent.”

As for the future, Porter is optimistic, “I do think that because of the market for premium documentaries, there is more of an opportunity.”

To wrap up the session Greensfelder asked the panelists to choose one word that inspires them or takes them forward in this space — hers was “inspiring.”

For West is was “persistence,” while Johnson chose “love.”

Cohen, meanwhile, chose “challenge,” while Bradley picked “faith.”

For Porter, who had the last word, she chose “imagine.”

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