For more than a decade, filmmaker Margaret Brown, a native of Mobile, Alabama, has worked to document the American South. In 2004’s Be Here to Love Me, she recounted the life and career of legendary Texas singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt. With The Order of Myths (winner of the 2009 Independent Spirit Truer Than Fiction Award), she looked at the complex racial dynamics at play in her hometown’s annual Mardi Gras celebrations. And in The Great Invisible, she traveled from boardrooms to the backwoods, talking to CEOs, small business owners, and the rural homeless to contemplate the fallout along the Gulf Coast from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion.

For her new Field of Vision short, The Black Belt, Brown returned to Alabama to examine how the shuttering of 31 driver’s license offices — all located in predominantly black districts — has directly impacted voter enfranchisement in a state that requires photo IDs at the polls. In the following interview, Brown talks about following a mobile voter ID unit in Alabama’s rural “Black Belt” region, the challenges of developing relationships in the field on a limited time frame, and her experiences as a feature filmmaker working in the short form.

You get the call from Field of Vision, asking if you’re interested in pursuing this story of DMV closures in your home state of Alabama. Where do you start?

Brown: They had closed the DMVs, but to help counter the closures, they got this mobile voter ID — they call it a “unit” — to go around to every county in Alabama. I was poking around and found a website that listed where this mobile voter ID truck was traveling to in Selma. So we drove around, but the address on the website was wrong. It was like in the middle of a field somewhere.

To find the real address, I had to call the assistant to the secretary of state, who was helping us with the interviews, and it’s in this area of Alabama where there’s not even cell coverage. So from the get go — wow, the major way of transmitting the information doesn’t even have the correct address.

I would imagine it’s already a challenge to articulate the real-life effects of an administrative decision, but here it immediately got more complicated in that this initiative to combat the DMV closures is a problem in itself. How do you approach where the point of view of the film is going to be in relation to a situation that’s several layers of messed up?

Brown: We were figuring out as we went along. I didn’t want to have an opinion going in about whether this was politically motivated or not. I just wanted to see what would happen if I followed the mobile voter ID unit, what would happen if I talked to the secretary of state about why these closures were happening. I did my homework and I read a ton about it, and I talked to local politicians to figure out whom I should interview — but other than that, I decided that I would insert myself into these situations and just see what we got.

What was your take on it going in?

Brown: I thought it was strange that in the most African-American part of the state, that they had closed all these places. Getting a driver’s license is the most common form of voter ID, and in a state that’s ranked last in terms of ease of voter registration, they just made it a lot harder for the poorest and most Democratic part of the state. And it was only going to save $100,000 in the whole state’s budget. So I had a question about that going in. But I also didn’t want to go in with, “Oh, I know already what I think.” To me, that’s always a bad place to start with a movie, because you won’t be surprised. You’re closed off to anything happening.

Your process sounds great for being able to really see what’s there, but you’re also going in without a net, not knowing in advance how you’re going to make it work, especially at a condensed length.

Brown: It was a little scary. But I was interested in this idea of, what if it’s not a traditional narrative? I think it ended up being not untraditional, but the logic of it is like a wave, not a three-act structure. And I think you can do that with a short film. I was interested in playing with that — how far can I push this? I was also interested in making something that really was a short film, and wasn’t a “longer short” film. I really wanted it to be 10 or 12 minutes.

The most important thing to me would be that it felt like the place and made you think about whether or not this is voter suppression. But not in a beating-you-over-the-head, activist way — feel the place and see the people and come up with your own thoughts. We ended up hanging out a lot in Selma. This is a place in the Black Belt where there’s a lot of history. It just organically evolved and became a portrait of a place. Once we got that scene in Selma, we were like, “Why don’t we hang out here a little bit longer?”

What did you come to know about Alabama that you didn’t know previously? Did your perspective change at all making this film?

Brown: I was definitely very aware of my whiteness, and my relative wealth, in a way that I don’t think I was making The Order of Myths. A lot of the people in the African-American Mardi Gras have money — it’s a different group of folks.

Here it was [cinematographer] Jeff Peixoto and me and a white sound guy, in this pretty impoverished part of the state, walking around asking people to talk about voting. And I felt white. I’m asking myself, “Am I the right person to be making this?” I’m not a complete essentialist, and I think that I can go and interrogate this and see what I can find, but the reason I put myself in the movie is because I think it’s important to see that I’m this white woman making the movie. The audience should take that into account when they’re watching the film.

How did you determine how much of yourself to put in, and where?

Brown: In the first edit, I was in the movie a lot, but I think a little goes a long way. I decided to just have it in the beginning, where you see me looking for a pen. Which is very indicative of how I am — I always lose the pen, I’m scattered that way. And you can hear me asking the questions — my voice is more present in the film than in other films I’ve made. I felt that my voice should be a part of it, that my presence should be a part of it. It adds another level of meaning.

How long did you shoot for, and where?

Brown: We had four official days of shooting. I went around Selma and Montgomery, and called a ton around the state. Mostly in the Black Belt but a little in Mobile, because I’m from there and it was easier to get people to talk to me. Another challenge with the short form is that you can’t pull the same weight. Usually what I do is I go in and really get to know somebody and embed myself in a community so they trust me. They let me film them because they know who I am as a person. It’s a real relationship.

But with this, I’m going in there for 30 minutes — I’m getting it and then taking off. And that was really hard for me. Because to me it’s a two-way street — I don’t want people to think I’m stealing a part of their soul. Maybe people who do regular journalism or reporting have made peace with that, but it was rough for me. I just felt guilty somehow, that they didn’t know where I was coming from. They were just signing a release and I was taking off. So that was probably the roughest part for me, trying to get someone to talk to me in a real way, when I have such a limited time to establish that relationship.

What did you do to make yourself, and the people you were interviewing, more comfortable?

Brown: The only thing I could do was call in advance. But still you would meet people in the field. So I talked about the questions I was interested in, without answering them. I said that I would like to hear about this from your perspective. These were the everyday people that we encountered walking around the neighborhoods, who aren’t scholars or politicians or public people, the people who better embody that place. It’s tricky editing, knowing that this is going to represent them. Is this a truth of this situation? Can I get behind this?

Even if you’re the one doing it, you’re still wondering if you can get behind it.

Brown: All the time. I want to get it right. I want to get the balance right.

Do you feel that you got close to that balance?

Brown: I do. I would have kept editing it if I didn’t. When it starts to feel like it did when I was there, emotionally, then I’m getting closer. I feel that I could have made a longer piece if I shot there longer, but not with the material I had. With the material I had, I made something that felt representative of Selma late 2015, and how people feel about this thing on both sides of the issue.

How did you feel in the end about working at this short length?

Brown: Shorts are having a moment right now, and it’s cool to be part of that. People are paying attention to them in a way that they haven’t in the past. I still like the feature length, because it gives a viewer a chance to know that you’re going to hear a story and you’re on this ride. Psychologically, that’s something I’m interested in.

But for living on the internet — like this short ultimately will — I think it’s kind of a perfect length for getting something across. It’s digestible in a different way. Shorts have a different logic than features. And it’s nice to get feedback on something that took a month to make, instead of four to six years of my life. So it’s been interesting to think about how I might want to move forward with other work. This kind of expands the palette of what’s possible to tell stories.

IF/Then Shorts, in partnership with Hulu Documentary Films calls short-documentary filmmakers based in North America to take part in the Inaugural IF/Then x Hulu Short Documentary Lab. This lab will channel Hulu and IF/Then’s shared vision of creating a new pipeline of diverse talent and incubating strong voices who will be the next class of non-fiction storytellers.

Program Details:

Four filmmaking teams will be chosen to participate in a one-year lab focused on short-documentary production and career training. For the first six months, filmmakers will be individually mentored through production by IF/Then staff and take part in monthly virtual cohort trainings, consisting of keynotes from industry heavy-hitters and edit consultations. Upon rough cut of their projects, filmmakers will be invited to debut their works-in-progress to an invitation-only audience and receive feedback. For the remainder of the program, filmmakers will finalize their cuts and receive high-level festival and distribution strategy consultations, along with guidance creating their publicity materials, and pro-bono legal support. Hulu will have the right to review the projects for potential acquisition or further development.

Each team will receive a $25,000 grant to use for the production of their film.

This opportunity will be open to individuals living in/from North America, with an emphasis on Black and/or Indigenous filmmakers, people of color, women, LGBTQ+, recent immigrants, and individuals who identify as having a disability. We will welcome any and all stories from underrepresented voices, with a strong preference around subjects related to gender, the LGTBQ community or issues unique to the BIPOC community.

Project Eligibility:

  • In addition to the identity eligibility of the maker and the theme, eligible IF/Then Shorts projects must meet the following criteria:
  • Be an original short documentary with a final duration of 10-20 minutes
  • Be completed within six to nine months of receiving the IF/Then Shorts grant
  • Be factually accurate, follow best practices in documentary ethics, and be designed for a U.S. audience
  • Be driven by (a) compelling character(s), with access to the character(s) secured
  • Be presented in English or subtitled in English
  • Have no prior distribution attached and be able to participate in the IF/Then Shorts distribution initiative
  • All stories and storytellers coming from countries and territories in North America. This includes the United States and its territories (Puerto Rico, Guam, US Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa,) Canada, Greenland, Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, and Venezuela, and countries in the Caribbean: Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, The Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, Bonaire, British Virgin Islands, US Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Clipperton Island, Cuba, Curacao, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Montserrat, Saba, St. Andres and Providencia, Saint Barthélemy, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Martin, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Sint Eustatius, Sint Maarten, Trinidad and Tobago, and Turks and Caicos Islands.

KEY DATES:

The application portal will open on January 15, 2021 and close at 11:59pm EST on Feb 15th.

  • January 15, 2021: Open call for IF/Then x Hulu Short Documentary Lab
  • March 31, 2021: Finalists announced
  • April 5, 2021: Virtual Program Kickoff

APPLY:

Submissions are now closed.

Please direct any questions regarding this application to ifthenshorts@fieldofvision.org

Starting July 22, IF/Then Shorts has a new home at Field of Vision. Joining Field of Vision will be IF/Then Shorts Program Director Chloe Gbai and Supervising Producer Caitlin Mae Burke. Founded in 2017 with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, IF/Then Shorts is a fund and mentorship program that supports storytellers in breaking barriers to access, exposure, and sustainability in the media landscape. IF/Then works with creators who experience inequity based on factors such as race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, ethnicity, age, citizenship, and/or geography.

IF/Then Shorts taps into the need for broader geographical representation in the stories that get told through its regional pitch events. It holistically supports short documentary storytellers in their creation of compelling, character-led, community-inspired stories that embody the breadth and diversity of the people and places they represent.

The program addresses the imbalance of representation, perspective, power, compensation, and career longevity among independent filmmakers and media artists. IF/Then Shorts leverages access, expertise, network, and brand to address these challenges. Through grants, mentorship, industry connections, and professional development, IF/Then Shorts helps to ensure that storytellers from a multitude of backgrounds have access to the resources and tools they need to tell their stories, connect with audiences, and thrive in their careers. IF/Then Shorts was previously part of the Tribeca Film Institute, which is planning to pause operations indefinitely in September. "IF/Then Shorts is an incredible program, and one that’s vital to the field," said Charlotte Cook, Field of Vision's Co-Founder and Executive Producer. "We’re so glad that they can find their new home with Field of Vision. The program’s values align perfectly with Field of Vision, and further our overall commitment to shorts and advocating for filmmakers. Chloe and Caitlin are phenomenal, and I feel so lucky that they’ll be joining our team."

IF/Then Program Director Chloe Gbai said of the move: "We’re so excited that thanks to the MacArthur Foundation and Field of Vision we can keep this funding and development pipeline open to diverse, creative nonfiction talent past TFI’s pause this September. This program will have a new life and is ready to uplift the voices that we need to champion during these interesting times."

Supervising Producer Caitlin Mae Burke added: "As a former Field of Vision filmmaker myself, I know how beneficial it is to work with these trailblazers in the short documentary space. I'm overjoyed that all of our active projects and future supported filmmakers will benefit so immensely from this move, and we look forward to the tremendous growth potential for IF/Then possible under the Field of Vision umbrella." IF/Then is currently holding an open call for the North Shorts Grant and Fellowship, in partnership with Points North Institute, The Screening Room, Jigsaw Productions, and the LEF Foundation, for regional filmmakers in the American Northeast. About Chloe Gbai Chloe Gbai is the Director of IF/Then Shorts. Previously, as the POV Shorts and Streaming Producer, she launched POV Shorts, which earned POV its third documentary short Oscar® nomination, two News & Doc Emmy nominations and an IDA Awards nomination for Best Short Form Series.  She has previously worked at Teen Vogue and Viacom, as well as served on review panels and juries for the National Endowment for the Arts, Sheffield Doc/Fest, ITVS, IDA Awards, Black Public Media, Creative Capital, and various other film organizations. She is a member of Brown Girls Doc Mafia and a member-in-residence of the Meerkat Media Collective.

About Caitlin Mae Burke Caitlin Mae Burke is an Emmy-winning producer. Her films have screened and won awards at top tier festivals including Sundance, Berlinale, and Tribeca Film Festival and have been broadcast across the US and around the world. Her work has screened at MoMA, The Museum of the Moving Image, and in movie theaters internationally. She is an inaugural inductee to DOC NYC's "40 Under 40" and alumna of Berlinale Talents. IF/Then currently has funding opportunities available for filmmakers. Please find more information here.

Field of Vision has partnered with Doc Society and Sundance Institute to launch Independent Documentary: Filming in the Time of Corona, a new Risk Assessment Guide for independent documentary filmmakers who are considering starting or resuming production during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

Many filmmakers are asking themselves — and others in the documentary field — the big question: Should I be filming at all?

As our field discusses and debates this particular question — and its ethical and and public health implications — Field of Vision, Doc Society, Sundance Institute, and our co-signatories are offering a “living document” that provides guidelines, a checklist, and questions for independent documentary film teams to ask themselves, each other and their partners. It is our hope that this guide will help filmmakers make informed decisions and help keep everyone safe.

We’d like to acknowledge our gratitude to all of the the co-signatories of the Risk Assessment Guide, who helped consult on, and improve the guide: Asian American Documentary Network (ADoc), Asociación de Documentalistas de Puerto Rico (ADocPR), ACOS (A Culture Of Safety) Alliance, Ambulante, American Documentary/POV, Black Public Media, Brown Girls Doc Mafia, Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), Chicken & Egg, DOCUBOX, Impact Partners, Indian Documentary Foundation, Latino Public Broadcasting, National Association of Latino Producers (NALIP), Pacific Islanders in Communications, Perspective Fund, Scottish Documentary Institute, Topic, Vision Maker Media: Native Stories for Public Broadcasting, and others.

This is a rapidly changing situation as well as a long-term reality. Those of us in the documentary field will need to be mindful, flexible, and diligent as our risk assessment continues to evolve in order to keep not only our community safe but also the communities we collaborate with in the stories we tell. This new normal is unprecedented, but our documentary community is nothing if not committed to responding to this profoundly unique situation.

The guide will be updated as the situation develops and as we receive additional feedback from filmmakers and support organizations.

The final round of funding is now closed.

For this final round of funding, we will continue prioritizing providing support to filmmakers of color and filmmakers from other marginalized communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Field of Vision and Topic Studios have created a $250,000 fund to provide grants for freelancers working in the Documentary field. The fund will distribute unrestricted grants of up to $2000 to support personal financial needs during the COVID19 pandemic to freelancers who have experienced hardship from loss of income or opportunity as a result of the pandemic

Dates and Deadlines

April

The fund will be open for applications from Wed April 8th from 9am ET until Friday April 10th at 6pm ET or until we reach 1,000 applications. You can find the link to the application at the bottom of this page.

May

The fund will be open for applications from May 6th from 9am ET until May 8th at 6pm ET or until we reach 750 applications.

Notification of grant approval will be within 20 days of the fund closing, and payments will be processed within 30 days of notification of a grant. June The fund will be open for a final round of applications from June 10th from 9am ET until June 12th at 6pm ET or until we reach 500 applications.


Criteria

Be able to demonstrate work as a freelancer within the documentary field in roles such as:

- Directors - Producers (This includes Associate Producers) - DPs - Editors - Sound Recordists/Designers - Researchers - Assistants - Critics & Writers who have covered documentaries - Publicists

Other freelance roles will be accepted if they meet the rest of the criteria

Provide a link (examples - IMDB page, Film Review, Direct link to project) that shows professional work in the field.

The fund is eligible for artists internationally, however you must be able to receive funding electronically (we are not able to issue checks), and priority will be given to countries and regions of which there isn’t government freelance assistance that you are eligible for. If you have not been eligible for government assistance, please state that in your application.

Students who are currently enrolled are not eligible.

People who are currently in employment are not eligible.

Please note: We have made every effort to reduce the amount of information, paperwork and requirements for funding and have tried to make the fund as open and accessible as possible. We are largely operating on a trust-based system and really urge you to work with us on being able to maintain this. It’s extremely important to us to be able to get funding to the freelancers that need it the most. Please answer all questions thoroughly and accurately so that we can ensure the funds are allocated to help as many people in need as possible.


Information Needed:

- Demonstrated professional work within the field - Usual income source - Description of situation - Maximum amount requested - Minimum amount requested - What the funding would be used for - Location

Please note: It’s important to include a maximum and minimum amount requested. Also, please note that grants may be taxable as income under the law that applies to you. We will issue Form 1099s for grants of more than $600.


The Process

As always, it is important to us that filmmakers lead how we operate and respond, and so the process will begin with a blind review of applications by a panel of filmmakers and producers, with a simultaneous review by the Field of Vision and Topic Studios teams. Those recommendations will then provide the recommended list for funding, which will then be reviewed once more before contacting the fund recipients.

We will only be contacting those who have been allocated funding.

On receipt of the grant acceptance please expect up to 30 days to receive payment. In order to issue the grants we will need a W-9 or W8-BEN tax form and an invoice which includes wire transfer details.

UPDATE: Our first 200 meeting slots have been booked. However, you can still sign up for the waitlist at the links below as we work to add additional appointment times. Coming this spring, the Field of Vision team will again offer a virtual "office hours" service for the documentary community. As we’re in a moment of uncertainty, we want to make ourselves available to filmmakers in any way we can. We understand that the industry is experiencing a lot of upheaval, and that this is a particularly difficult time for freelancers and people working independently.

We will be allocating time every weekday to have video meetings and calls. We’ll be prioritizing filmmakers who’ve been affected by festival postponements and production changes, but will also be available to offer a range of mentorship and consultation around a variety of areas.

At Field of Vision we like filmmakers to lead and improve how we work. We were inspired by Jeanie Finlay, who has opened her time to mentoring after an upcoming film shoot had to be cancelled. Jeanie is working on a new film that we’re extremely honoured to be supporting. 

We are a small team and will try our best to make ourselves available to as many filmmakers and producers as possible. If any other members of our community would also like to donate their time, we are happy to facilitate this as well, so please feel free to reach out to us.

The areas which we would like to offer consultation on are below: 

  • General mentorship
  • Feedback on proposals and grant applications
  • Project Development
  • Online Distribution
  • Digital Engagement
  • Partnerships
  • Pitch Training
  • Editing
  • Technology & Digital Security
  • Distribution
  • Editorial Feedback
  • Festival Strategy
  • Career Guidance

This is not just open to filmmakers wanting to submit work for us to review, or filmmakers we have worked with before. If you feel you would benefit from time with our team on any project you’re working on please feel free to reach out. There are more details on how to take part below.

HOW TO SIGN UP

Meetings

If you would like to have a virtual meeting about any of the above, please follow this link to book a time: https://bit.ly/waitlist-fov-virtual-consult

(We will also be adapting to demand, and will create a waitlist, and/or increase availability if needed.)

Submissions & Pitches

While we are still managing and prioritizing our regular submissions system, we would also like to make time for project and pitch meetings.

To sign up for a pitch meeting with us, please make sure you have submitted through our system prior to the meeting, using the link below:  fieldofvision.org/submit

Once you have submitted through our submissions form, please sign up for a meeting slot here. NB: We won’t be able to take any meetings around potential projects until you’ve submitted through the system. If you’re not ready to discuss a specific project, or are looking for more general advice, please use the first form.

Please bear with us as we begin rolling out our virtual office hours service. This initiative came together very quickly, so there may be hiccups. We just wanted to offer something to start. 

As we navigate these uncertain times, what is certain is that we are a strong community of creatives and storytellers. We have shown time and again how resourceful we are, how dedicated we are to our craft, art form and field, and how supportive we can be of each other. 

Please stay safe everyone, The Field of Vision Team

Shorts

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We Were There to Be There (27 min.)

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The Rifleman (18 min.)

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Utuqaq (27 min.)

Iva Radivojević

More to Watch

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The Hour of Lynching (19 min.)

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The Trial (15 min.)

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Monica Berra, Yoruba Richen and Jacqueline Olive

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Anna Giralt Gris and Ross Domoney

CamperForce (16 min.)

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Graven Image (10 min.)

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Our 100 Days 7/7

American Carnage (9 min.)

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The Town I Live In (10 min.)

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Captured in Sudan (28 min.)

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Timberline (12 min.)

Elaine McMillion Sheldon

Duterte’s Hell (8 min.)

Aaron Goodman and Luis Liwanag

Conditioned Response (6 min.)

Craig Atkinson and Laura Hartrick

Our 100 Days 4/7

Here I’ll Stay (10 min.)

Lorena Manríquez and Marlene McCurtis

Our 100 Days 3/7

An Uncertain Future (11 min.)

Chelsea Hernandez and Iliana Sosa

Our 100 Days 1/7

An Act of Worship (9 min.)

Sofian Khan and Nausheen Dadabhoy

The Moderators (20 min.)

Adrian Chen and Ciaran Cassidy

Clowns (7 min.)

Alex Kliment, Dana O'Keefe and Mike Tucker

Project X (10 min.)

Laura Poitras and Henrik Moltke

Hopewell (3 min.)

Lorena Manríquez

The Vote (12 min.)

Mila Aung-Thwin and Van Royko

Like (9 min.)

Garrett Bradley

Concerned Student 1950 (32 min.)

Adam Dietrich, Varun Bajaj and Kellan Marvin

Peace in the Valley (15 min.)

Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher

Homeland is not a Series (7 min.)

Arabian Street Artists Heba Y. Amin, Caram Kapp and Don Karl aka Stone

#ThisIsACoup 4/4

Surrender or Die (16 min.)

Theopi Skarlatos and Paul Mason

Eric & “Anna” (14 min.)

Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway

Birdie (14 min.)

Heloisa Passos

The Above (8 min.)

Kirsten Johnson