Tuesday, at the Cultural Center, could turn out to be a milestone in documentary filmmaking in Chicago.
The occasion is the first Good Pitch Chicago, in which a process that began in 2008 in London and has spread in this country to New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., reaches our city. If the same synergies that Danny Alpert, one of the local organizers, says he’s seen in the other American cities happen here as well, there will be a “magical interaction” of filmmakers, funders, and sympathetic NGOs that want each film’s message to reach the widest possible audience.
Seven documentary makers in turn will sit at a table with these potential benefactors—the seven films having been culled from an original 150 submissions in a process that took months. At this stage each film is finished or nearly so; its creators will have seven minutes to show a trailer and then pitch their project, and for the next 20 minutes or so everyone at the table will weigh in on it and how to help it succeed. As the seats at the table will change for each film, having been allocated to organizations with an established interest in a particular documentary and the subject it’s dealing with, I wondered if Tuesday’s sessions were even necessary.
Absolutely, said Alpert. “First of all, the atmosphere in the room is a unique thing.” Secondly, the individual sessions are just a piece of the whole. In addition, there are the breakfast before, the lunch during, and the reception after, and the workshops over the past weekend that found “all the filmmakers sitting together around the table and acting as each other’s advocates.” In the course of these hours together the magic happens, said Alpert, and he has seen “organizations that come for one purpose hook up for purposes they never expected.”
What everyone wants, he said, is to “move the needle” on the issues they are passionate about—and the needles do move. To put this movement in crass financial terms, the amount of money raised by individual documentary projects since 2008 (setting aside the value of other assistance) has ranged from $5,000 to $1.5 million.
In 2010, The Interrupters was pitched in Washington. This celebrated documentary, a collaboration between Kartemquin Films‘s Steve James and author Alex Kotlowitz, examined a year of violence in Chicago as confronted by CeaseFire, the controversial organization composed largely of former gangbangers. The MacArthur Foundation was at the table, and a $200,000 grant followed.
The same year the documentary Bully, by Lee Hirsch and Cynthia Lowen, was pitched in New York. At the table was Facing History and Ourselves, an international organization, particularly strong in Chicago, that runs programs in schools teaching students to think about—in the words of senior director Judy Wise—”the impact and consequences of decisions we make, particularly about issues of identity and discrimination. Do we vote our values? Do we discriminate or allow others to discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, etc?”
Wise went on, “Often a great documentary will help teachers connect historical themes to what is going on today.” Facing History decided Bully was such a documentary, and made a commitment to become its educational distributor throughout the U.S. Facing History will be on hand Tuesday at Good Pitch Chicago looking for new films to take on.
The planning committee for Good Pitch Chicago is headed by Steve Cohen, an attorney and documentary supporter (and husband of the judge and actress Mary Mikva, whom I wrote about a couple of weeks ago). Alpert, a member of the committee, is executive director of the Kindling Group, a documentary film house.
The seven films that will be pitched Tuesday are:
• Becoming Bulletproof, directed by Michael Barnett, a story about people with disabilities who make a western movie and take major roles
• The Dreamcatchers by Lisa Stevens, in which two former prostitutes try to teach girls on Chicago’s south side how to stand up to pimps
• The Homestretch by Anne de Mare, Kirsten Kelly, and Kartemquin, about homeless teenagers surviving a Chicago winter
• The Message: The (R)evolutionary Power of Climate Change by Avi Lewis, which argues that the world faces ecological and economic crises that must be solved together
• Private Violence by Cynthia Hill, a look at America’s failure to protect woman at risk of abuse from the current or former partners
• Sister by Rebecca Parrish, about three American nuns investigated by the Vatican for their social work (Sister is a Kindling Group project, but Alpert says he recused himself from all discussions of it.)
• Strong Island by Yance Ford, who investigates his brother’s violent death more than 20 years earlier and the reasons why the killer went free