Reflecting on the First-Ever All-Virtual ITVS Independents Summit

Posted on August 27, 2020

What does community look like when we’re physically apart? How do we build our collective future in a time of great uncertainty?

Over the last month, we came together—virtually—for the ITVS Independents Summit, a gathering of ITVS-funded filmmakers and thought leaders. Through Zoom meetings and Slack channels, we discussed the challenges currently shaping our industry and re-imagined what the future of public media and documentary filmmaking could look like. 

Somewhere between the panels on filmmaking and distribution during COVID, workshops on digital engagement and marketing, and the happy hours (never discount the happy hours!), we charted a path forward. Here are some takeaways, big and small, from our virtual Summit:

Collective Action > Individual Action

At the Summit kick-off, Sally Jo Fifer, President and CEO of ITVS, addressed the realities of independent documentarians during COVID. Fifer recalled ITVS’s founding in the late 1980s and how independent filmmakers—through activism and lobbying—successfully secured funding from Congress to establish an organization that could help diversify and innovate public media. This history was more than just a welcome reminiscence, but also a reminder of how collective action can secure a more stable and equitable future for all filmmakers.

Sally said: 

"For what’s ahead, we need a community, forward, because we cannot stay here. It’s a paradox of democracy that the best way to defend it is to question it hard, to think hard about it, demand reality, and to tell our authentic stories. As James Baldwin famously said: 'Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.'  This is the work of independent filmmakers."

Ask Questions, Lots of Questions

We really can’t say it enough. At the panel “Distribution During COVID,” sales agent Abby Lynn Kang Davis said it best when talking about the deal-making process: “I think a lot of times there's this fear that, ‘I’m not allowed to ask questions and I'm supposed to know already what this deal looks like.’ That's a bunch of BS. Ask questions, no matter who you're working with.” It can be challenging to admit not knowing or to ask directly about money. But what became clear is that the best way to learn is to ask.

Ethics, Ethics, Ethics!

At the “Filmmaking During the Pandemic” panel, filmmakers Bernardo Ruiz (Harvest Season; Latino Vote: Dispatches from the Battleground), Beth Levison (Made in Boise and Untitled Storm Lake Project), Phil Bertelsen (Untitled Withers Project), cinematographer Derek Howard (The Hottest August), and producer Carrie Lozano (The Weather Underground, many other films) shared their experiences and insights about what working during a global pandemic looks like. 

What came up time and time again were questions about ethics. Ruiz candidly discussed the process of putting ethics into action, from “speaking with the crew to the subjects [about] what they were comfortable with in terms of filming amidst of COVID-19.” It was a reminder that communication is central for negotiating these challenging conversations about ethics.

Listen Closely, Generously

We wrapped up the Summit with a keynote address from Alonzo King, the founder of the world-renowned contemporary dance company LINES Ballet. King spoke about collaboration and how it will be imperative for artistic survival in the times ahead. Even more, King reminded us of the importance of listening in the creative process, sharing: "Great listening is not easy because it means you put all of your knowing, your intelligence, your brilliance, whatever you have, you put it to the side and you actually become the other person so that you can speak the story.’"

In a time of compounding crises—a global pandemic, systematic racism, environmental collapse—it’s easy to forget moments of private and public joy. The Summit reminded us how collective joy can help us to reimagine what the independent film community can do.

We’re so grateful to the filmmakers, industry leaders, and collaborators who joined us over the past month. We at ITVS are honored to be a part of the vibrant filmmaking community and invite you to share with us your personal moments of joy when making or watching documentaries at @itvsindies on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Here's to you.

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