10 Years, 100 Mundane Days, 1 Amazing Night

Below is the transcript of the speech given by Docs In Progress Executive Director Erica Ginsberg at Decade of Docs, Docs In Progress' 10th anniversary program held May 20, 2014 at the Jack Morton Auditorium at George Washington University.


Thank you, Nina [Seavey who introduced the program]. Tonight we celebrate ten years of Docs In Progress, and it is great to be back in the theater where we showed some of our earliest works-in-progress, and to be working with our longest-running program partner The Documentary Center.

When Adele Schmidt and I first started doing work-in-progress screenings back in May 2004, we weren’t thinking about being a nonprofit, about being a space where more than 1,000 filmmakers would eventually find professional development or a spark to get started. We just were two documentary filmmakers working on our own projects in our spare time and knowing there were many others like us here in the DC Metro area.  We just thought it would be a good idea to have a space where we could all meet and share what we were working on with each other.

When Sam Hampton came into the picture in 2007, we knew we were ready to become a nonprofit organization and he helped us make that a reality. I made a leap of faith that we could really pull this off and decided to quit a federal career of 18 years in the State Department to do this full time.  In 2009.  In the worst economy since the Great Depression.  Starting a new nonprofit in the town with 1000 nonprofits.  And an arts nonprofit at that.  People said I was crazy. Nina, I am pretty sure you were one of them. And I was crazy. And probably still am.

I don't think any of us -- except maybe Sam -- could have predicted then we’d be here on a night like tonight.

When an organization celebrates successes, we often think of nights like this. Everyone dressed up, mixing and mingling, celebrating their peers with awards, taking away great new insights from industry experts, hopefully leaving tonight inspired and energized.

But for every one night like today, there are 100 days which are a bit less sexy.  Days spent figuring out how we were going to make rent, let alone pay anyone. Days spent learning from the ground up how to do nonprofit financial management. Days spent figuring out through trial and error which programs were going to meet the needs of our constituency. Days spent communicating with that constituency at a time when we are overwhelmed by information. Days spent writing endless grant applications. Minutes spent reading the “We received an overwhelming number of applications and yours was not among the funded…” letters.  I know the filmmakers in the audience have no idea what I am talking about.

Days spent literally taking the trash out to our cars to take home because we didn’t want to spend our budget on a trash service, but preferred to put it into our programs.

I want to thank Adele and Sam for being there in those difficult early days.  And for continuing to be involved through teaching a new generation of documentary filmmakers. Please stand so everyone can thank you as much as I do.

I also want to thank the dedicated board members we have had along the way.  Docs In Progress would not exist today if it were not for you. I would like all our former and current board members to stand so we can all salute you for your service.  Before there can be true success, there must be sustainability.  And Docs In Progress would not be sustainable without your hard work throughout the years.

I would also like to thank every person who has volunteered for us – in ways small and large, including all our amazing volunteers tonight, including those who are outside those doors, working tonight. We simply could not do what we do without you.

Yes for every exciting night like tonight, there are 100 mundane days.  Yes we eventually figured out which programs resonated.  The financial management became easier. We started getting “Congratulations, you have been funded” letters.  Some of those funders are here tonight and I thank you all, especially two who are here tonight -- the National Endowment for the Arts which is supporting tonight's program, and the Humanities Council of Washington DC which will be supporting a showcase screening series we are planning as the second half of Decade of Docs later in the year.

Thanks to some of these funders and our community itself, not only did we eventually have a paid Executive Director, a few months ago, we hired our first non-founder staff member – our program coordinator Ellen Kessel.  I know many of you met Ellen at some of our programs, have talked to her on the phone, or met her when you checked in tonight.

Our classes have been filling. Our partnerships have been growing. Our community has been expanding. I often get asked by people in other places around the country and even in other countries whether there is a Docs In Progress-like organization in their city.  Or how they can start one.

I let them know it’s all about being willing to take the trash home.  I still do, by the way.

Yes, now that Docs In Progress is getting some funding, we are often asked how we measure our impact. It is a question I struggle with. Yes we can track the number of people who participate in our programs.  We can track the number of films produced by those people.  We can even track what happens with those films.

It is always gratifying to see when a film gets prestigious funding, plays at a festival, wins an award, ends up on television, has a theatrical release, gets critical acclaim, or actually makes some money.  Films which have been through Docs In Progress programs have been funded by Sundance, Fledgling Fund, ITVS, the NEA. They’ve played festivals around the world and garnered awards along the way. They’ve screened on PBS, HBO, BET, in schools, at universities, and even a few blocks from here -- at the White House.

Just this week, we celebrate Peer Pitch alum Paul Lazarus whose film SlingShot about how the inventor of the Segway is working to solve the world's safe water crisis.  It is been winning awards at festivals left and right and is screening tonight at the Arclight Theatre in Hollywood and is hopefully coming to DC very soon.

And Kathy Kleiman, a fiscal sponsoree whose film The Computers about the women who are the unsung heroes of the first programmable computer, the ENIAC, back in the 1940s, is premiering at the Seattle International Film Festival this Saturday.

Tonight we will be celebrating some of our alumni films with a series of awards to completed films made by filmmakers who have participated in at least one Docs In Progress program over the past 10 years.

I wish we could give awards too to the docs still in progress. Because the mission of Docs In Progress is not really measured by tangible products. It is about giving individuals the TOOLS to tell stories through documentary film.  Tools are a means to an end, not an end itself.

Just as for every 1 exciting night, there are 100 mundane days, so too must we realize that, for every completed film, there will be 100 ones which are still in the editing room, still in production, or still in the mind of the filmmaker. Documentary filmmaking is not a quick and easy process. In many ways, documentary filmmaking is the ultimate nonprofit endeavor.  And the successes may not simply be where a film shows, how much money it makes, or what awards it wins, but in how the filmmaker, someone being filmed, or someone who sees the film grows from the experience.

We understand that.  Because we have been there too.  As filmmakers. And as an organization.  Docs In Progress is in many ways the ultimate work-in-progress.  It has taken 10 years to make it what it is today.  And tonight we celebrate not only what you see in front of you, but all the things you don’t which have helped us get to this point.

So, with that in mind, I want to welcome our current board president Amy Wilson to come join me up here for our awards.

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