by Jason Osder
In January, I had the opportunity to attend my first Sundance Film Festival as a fellow of The Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program. Along with William Youmans, a colleague at The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs and co-director with me of a new documentary, we were invited to workshop and pitch our film in development. GW and Docs In Progress asked me to reflect on this experience. I’m glad that they asked, because I’ve been thinking a lot about the role that arts institutions and education institution play in the lives of artists.
When I started teaching at GW about eight years ago, I was struggling to make my first feature documentary, Let the Fire Burn. In fact, I was stuck. Joining the faculty at GW was instrumental in my being able to create this film. There are many aspects to this, from funding and dedicated time to do creative work, to legal assistance and access to a world-class group of scholars and practitioners.
[caption id="attachment_2844" align="alignleft" width="300"] Jason Osder met editor Nels Bangerter at Peer Pitch.[/caption]
A short time after coming to GW, I participated in a Docs In Progress event called Peer Pitch in Silver Spring, MD. This activity is exactly what its name implies: a group of filmmakers get together informally to practice pitching their films to each other. There is feedback, constructive criticism, and a whole lot of support. For me, it was a deeply generative experience as well as the first-time meeting many people who became true friends. The Sundance Documentary Film Program (DFP) eventually got behind that film with a key piece of funding and I finished it.
Fast forward to Winter 2015: Here I am pitching a new film at Sundance, again under DFP’s auspices and this time with a collaborator who is also a colleague. I was engaged in a new kind of "peer pitching" as we got to know new people through sharing each other's passionate work and offering perspective.
Full circle, yet I had come so far.
It hit me hard that I could not have made this progress, could not have emerged as a documentary filmmaker, without the help and support of institutions. Each institution that supports the arts has its own unique character: local, national, or international, specific or broad in vision. They are all different threads, but together they form a fabric and that fabric is a safety net. No, really it is a floor.
GW gave me a home as an intellectual. Docs In Progress gave me a comfortable space to develop as an artist. The Sundance Institute supported me financially and in all kinds of ways that sometimes I don’t even realize until they run their course and have their effect.
Arts and higher education institutions are sometimes misunderstood, even attacked by those who are not sure what purpose they serve in society. The bottom line is that institutions that support the arts make art possible. They make artists’ lives possible. And art is important. It’s clearly important in terms of a vibrant culture, but it is also important in terms of our civil dialogue in a democracy. Documentary, and art in general, foment issues and discussions that are needed for a healthy polity. Finally, art makes economic sense because nothing sells better than the products of an active imagination.
I never used to call myself an artist. It is an unbelievable privilege to reinvent yourself as an adult, to become something new. It is beyond rewarding to feel that you are occupied in an activity that utilizes your best abilities. The challenges are constant but the goal is something that you sincerely believe in.
When I say that I could not have completed my first film without institutional support, I mean that in the most literal way possible. I tried and failed to make Let the Fire Burn for years totally independently, and failed resoundingly. Only as I found ways to partner with organizations that support the arts and artist development did I start to see success. That is a huge life lesson, and something for which I am deeply grateful.
Jason Osder is an assistant professor in the George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs and an alum of Docs In Progress' Peer Pitch program. He is the director of the award-winning documentary Let The Fire Burn about the 1985 confrontation between the group MOVE and the Philadelphia police that claimed the lives of eleven people. The film premiered at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival where it won the best editing in a documentary award and a jury special mention for best new documentary director. The film went on to play over fifty film festivals around the world, be broadcast on the PBS series Independent Lens, and win awards from the IDA, Cinema Eye Honors, and the Independent Spirit Truer than Fiction Award.
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