TFI launches IF/Then pitch initiative at Big Sky Doc Fest
It’s the end of day six of Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. The back room of Rocky Mountain School of Photography is crammed with documentarians. Standing-room-only and so stuffy it almost feels like a sixth grade classroom. Only in this classroom, everybody’s rapt, on the edge of their seats. The energy focused toward the front of the room is palpable.
Behind a small table – measly protection against the hungry crowd – are Amy Hobby and Mridu Chandra of Tribeca Film Institute. They’re at BSDFF to launch TFI’s new IF/Then pitch initiative. Funded for the next two years by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, IF/Then will serve as a completion fund for short documentaries. More than that, though – what makes these filmmakers desperate for what Hobby and Chandra have to offer – is part of the mission that has nothing to do with money.
Sure, the lucky winner will receive up to $20,000 in funding toward completion of their film, but they also gain access to the nearly 50 years combined experience at the front of the room, and to Tribeca Film Institute’s extensive alumni. It is this altruistic, community-growing spirit which allows these women, on behalf of TFI and for themselves, to answer question after question about IF/Then’s mission and about filmmaking in general. The mentoring aspect is key to the initiative: giving filmmakers the tools they need to protect themselves and their work after the movie is made. “When you get to the finish line,” says Chandra, “we can start nurturing that process. And then once a filmmaker has done it once, then they should remember. They will remember. And pass it on.”
They’re very upfront about the newness of this project, which seems to set the filmmakers at ease. Big Sky Doc Fest is the launch of this project and there’s still some figuring out to be done. “You’re here at the start,” Hobby tells the audience. “And we’re partnering with Audience Awards, which is going to be a very cool experiment. We really hope to continue that.” We share in that first-time experience with the launch of the Audience Awards Digital Voting Platform, giving a second team the chance at some funding and mentorship.
Pitch Day, unsurprisingly, finds six very eager filmmaker teams presenting their visions of the American West, which was TFI’s call for this round.
It’s the first pitch that gets them. It gets everybody. The submission, The New Neighbors Project: Self-Directed Stories From the New American West, begins with a powerful concept: to put the camera in the hands of the characters in order for them to tell their own stories. While they aren’t what you might expect, they are representative of the new American West. They are asylum seekers: refugee families from Syria, Iraq, the Congo and Eritrea who have moved from their war-torn homes to find solace and a new start in a state which is also home to Richard Spencer. “Frozen-ass Montana,” says Bryan Bello, in the middle of his pitch, “a state that voted for Trump in a landslide, is still the dream at last for these families who have endured tragedy beyond our imaginations.”
I’m crying by then. To be honest, I’ve been crying from the start. The footage that’s already been shot – these families playing, singing, working, trying – carries with it a hopeful heartbreak. We yearn for these refugees to find a home and wrestle with whether they can find what they’re looking for here. “We believe that a strong investment in a story’s owner results in an even stronger visual product,” Bello finishes. “If knowledge is power, then cameras must come with an education to truly be activated.” It’s thrilling to imagine what this project might be like once it’s complete.
Bello and his filmmaking partner, Ryan Seitz, have been working for over five months to build relationships and earn trust. The bond is evident when Bello teases one of the refugee men in the audience but even more evident when the filmmaker is challenged by the jury about filmmaker credits. He explains very clearly how credit will be given equally to the documentarians who will provide framework to the film and the new Missoula residents who will be providing the footage. As Bello, Seitz and filmmaker Saif Alsaegh, who joined the team recently, wish to invest in these families telling their stories, so too does Tribeca Film Institute. New Neighbors wins the $20,000 grant, and the audience award goes to Border Nation, yet another powerful pitch focused on the challenges we face today. Jason Jaacks will follow Ofelia Rivas, an activist and member of Tohono O’odham, a Native American nation which spans the border between the U.S. and Mexico.
I get a chance to sit down with these TFI juggernauts to talk more in depth about the initiative. After chatting about giant tacos and the magic of local distilleries and their beautiful bottles of whiskey, Chandra boils it down.
“IF/Then is an initiative for emerging and diverse filmmakers,” she says. “Tribeca has a history of representing and working with underrepresented filmmakers in the community.” Their choice to launch this at Big Sky Documentary Film Festival is part of that initiative, to reach artists and ideas that live outside of “the big two.” She is emphatic about loving her LA and NY filmmakers – in fact, she is one – but she recognizes a need, especially now, “to have inclusive voices and to bring in different audiences.”
Part of the big dream for TFI’s new initiative is to start to mold some standards and practices for short films and to find some space in the market to sustain them in a meaningful way. The short-form film has yet to find its distribution home, which is one of the reasons the MacArthur Foundation’s interest in a short film project is so exciting. “We hope for more complexity,” Hobby says. Rather than short films finding the end of their lifespan after running the festival circuit, Hobby talks about the possibility of widespread community screenings or attaching short films to relevant feature films. “I’m interested in the accidental viewer, somebody who voted for Trump who doesn’t think she’s interested in the Iraqi experience in Missoula, yet somehow they stumble upon it and suddenly they’ve watched the whole film.”
Both women, though feature filmmakers by nature, express a deep love for the short form which matches their deep love for filmmakers. They each talk about a desire to create a culture where these filmmakers might have a chance to see short-form film exalted as an artform unto itself.
“I think it’s pretty pioneering,” says Chandra.
“We want it to be a growing, breathing thing,” says Hobby.
“Which is why it’s so appropriate to be in Montana.”
Their smiles grow wider as they look at each other.
Hobby finishes it. “The Wild West.”
They look forward to pitches in Copenhagen next month from female-identified filmmakers residing in Europe and then in October in New Orleans calling for filmmakers to tell stories about the American South. The fourth will be for Tribeca Film Institute alumni. We at Audience Awards look forward to being there with them to provide audience awards voting at each event, supporting their initiative to raise up artists and help them advocate for themselves.
“The initiative is to elevate and empower, so if you start with those as principles, then you draw from that this tree of actions that we will take.” Over and over in our conversation these established and powerful women talk about elevating filmmakers and giving them the tools they need to help sustain a career. “And, look,” Chandra says, “all you can do is try. If you try, then things happen. If you don’t try, then nothing will happen. I think what we’re doing is pretty radical. It’s taking action on a multi-platform level in terms of a filmmaker’s life.”