Dr. Mitzi Goldman is the CEO of the Documentary Australia Foundation that with the Shark Island Institute, hosts Good Pitch² Australia. Here, I ask Mitzi about DAF—how it came to exist and about her experience working with filmmakers and philanthropists in the realm of social impact.
A documentary filmmaker for over 25 years, Mitzi’s most recent credits include: Night Parrot Stories (producer, 2016), Ka-Ching! Pokie Nation (producer, 2015), Love and Sex in the Age of Pornography (director/co-producer, 2013) and A Common Purpose (director/producer, 2011). Her production company is Looking Glass Pictures. Mitzi was Co-Head of Documentary at AFTRS (2002-2008) and she served for six years on the board of the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC), acting as co-chair the final two years. Mitzi also has a PhD in cultural studies from Murdoch University, Western Australia.
In the early 80s, a friend took Mitzi to meet film editor Christopher Cordeaux who was working on a film about the kooky American performer Tiny Tim and the tragic accident that occurred in 1979 at Luna Park in Sydney. Cordeaux taught Mitzi how to lace up the flat bed, and she spent some time working on the film as an editing assistant. The film, Street of Dreams, is legendary in Australian cultural circles because it was produced and directed by the pop artist, cartoonist, songwriter and filmmaker Martin Sharp. (It was also known for having one of the longest edits in Australian film). Sharp was a founder of Oz Magazine and The Yellow House in Potts Point (1971–73), named after the painting by Vincent Van Gogh and a multimedia gallery and concept, ahead of its time. (It is now a vegan restaurant). Anyone who had the good fortune or opportunity to spend time in his house and workplace ‘Wirian’ in Bellevue Hill was exposed to a true bohemian experience the likes of which are hard to come by today. There was a continual flow of remarkable and utterly unique people and artists who came together under Martin’s roof and by way of his generosity of spirit. It was here that Mitzi’s addiction to film began. I wasn’t surprised to discover that one of her favourite places to be is in an art gallery and her cinematic inspirations more poetic than prosaic: Marguerite Duras, Agnes Varda, Alain Resnais and Dziga Vertov.
PJB: What is the Documentary Australia Foundation?
MG: DAF is a not–for–profit organisation that enables documentary filmmakers to receive philanthropic funding to make social impact documentaries.
PB: Does DAF raise funds?
MG: We do raise funds but technically speaking, philanthropic foundations, trusts, individuals give donations to our foundation with a preference to support a particular project.
PJB: Is that a film?
MG: It could be a film but it could also be a program that we’re running—an education, screening or evaluation program or it might be for our own operational costs. We also receive funding for own operations sometimes tied to our programs, sometimes to films, and sometimes untied.
PJB: You have program areas that are specific to certain social issues. What are they?
MG: We haven’t launched them all yet—we’ve launched two of six and are hoping to launch the next one next year. This is part of our five–year plan but the six areas are: Indigenous, Youth and Education, Environment, Human Rights and Social Justice, Health and Well Being, and the Arts.
PJB: How did you settle on those areas?
MG: Since the beginning, we’ve always organised what we do in terms of issue areas. We don’t attract funding to support documentaries per se. The pitch, if you like, to the philanthropic sector, has always been around how films can amplify social issues or areas of purpose that different donors want to support.
When you look across the breadth of issues that philanthropic giving settles into, you find that there is a huge amount, maybe even 85% of philanthropic giving goes towards youth—poverty, education, the future, opportunities for disadvantaged youth essentially. There’s a distinct interest in Indigenous issues, which overlap with education and health. So, broadly speaking, the areas we are focusing on, are what philanthropy funds. Also, these are the areas our society cares about.
PJB: How do you work with philanthropists? What’s the relationship?
MG: Over time, that has changed. Initially, I would spend a lot of time with philanthropists learning about their interests and introducing them to documentary. Now I am spending more time with the filmmakers to help work with a new impact model and to understand the nature and opportunity with these new partnerships. I meet a lot of philanthropists either in one–on–one meetings or we organise board room lunches, screenings, networking events. It’s really about introducing them to documentaries, and the kind of stories documentary filmmakers are making, and the way documentaries can align with their funding areas and the other not-for-profit organisations. I’ve always been really interested in how documentary has the ability to make visible what a lot of philanthropy funds but would otherwise be not known or forgotten possibly or not able to be replicated or shared. For example, if you have a really great education program with Indigenous kids and it’s working, it’s great to be able to show that to others—documentaries are an obvious tool to be able to do that.
PJB: How hard was it to persuade the philanthropic community, when DAF first started, about the power of film?
MG: I think it was a whole new paradigm. Like many ideas that take off, timing is everything and it was an idea whose time had come. Philanthropy in this country is very private, very discreet; we don’t have the same kind of model as in the US where people celebrate their giving in a very public way. I think the hardest thing in the beginning was finding and identifying people who have the capacity to give and might have an interest in media and documentary. There was a lot of research that went into it in the early days.
Philanthropy Australia were really helpful and we’ve always worked very closely alongside them from the beginning and, of course, there was Ian [Darling]’s circle and networks but for the model to succeed—I’m not talking about the organisation but the work itself—for it to be successful and give back to those who support it, we had to reach beyond Ian’s network, it had to be a real shift in consciousness about how documentary and storytelling generally can amplify and share.
PJB: How did DAF come to exist?
MG: Ian had a brainwave. He is a filmmaker, as you know, with a real passion for documentary—and he had been traveling in the US on a sabbatical—
PJB: He was looking at foundations that donated to documentary films, which didn’t happen in Australia at that time.
MG: Yes. When he came back from the US, that’s when we met. I was co-running the documentary department at AFTRS. He thought it would make sense to investigate the possibility of philanthropic donations contributing to documentaries… He asked me: If you were to make a case to the philanthropic sector as to why they should support documentary, what would you say? This led to him asking me to do some research with the intention that we write a proposal. At the time, I was job sharing at AFTRS with Pat Fiske and so I had a couple of days a week free. The first thing I did, because I knew nothing about philanthropy, was to look at what philanthropy funds in this country. I found so many amazing topics for documentary—that’s still with me ten years later.
PJB: What were they?
MG: The environment, young people, health… there were so many areas rich in stories if you were a documentary filmmaker.
PJB: So you looked at the issues/areas that philanthropists were interested in and saw the potential for documentary filmmakers?
MG: There was so much cross–over. Here were these projects being funded because philanthropists wanted to make a difference and then there were the filmmakers wanting to give voice to the characters who had stories within those social issue areas… and there were so many stories. It was a win-win. In those early days, I thought I’ll be finished this in a month—it’s a no-brainer…
Somewhere along the way, Ian said, “Let’s not write a report…no-one will read it and it’ll sit around on someone’s desk gathering dust”… And then, it was Let’s build a website! This was in 2006. The idea was to create a resource hub for these different sectors and people would come and learn about what was possible. Ian’s next thought was that there should be no obstacle to funding and we needed to set up a foundation. So, then we had the website, the foundation and about nine months in, Ian brought in Susan Mackinnon [documentary producer and former investment executive at the Film Finance Corporation) and asked her to collect examples of all the documentary films that had been made so we could build a huge bank of case studies in documentary films. I was writing the words on the website and Susan was collecting great Australian documentaries.
PJB: Were they all Australian documentaries?
MG: No, we also had some American documentaries because none of the Australian ones had impact campaigns wrapped around them. It was way too early for that. We could point to Born into Brothels or An Inconvenient Truth or End of the Line… Some of those films had key campaigns around them and we used them as case studies on the website. Ian put the board together and was Chair for the first three years [he remains Founder and Patron of DAF]. Lisa Cotton followed Ian and now Sam Meers is Chair so we’re in our third cycle. In around 2010, we moved into our own premises and with Lisa Cotton as Chair, we created a more professional structure for the organisation, a strategic plan, put processes in place to underpin the growth that was beginning. I was offered the position of CEO full time. By then we had a development director as well.
PJB: DAF has been around since 2008 and Good Pitch came along in 2014—that’s a fair amount of time to be developing the philanthropic documentary model. How easy has it has been?
MG: We certainly struggled in the early days. There was a lot of scepticism. Early on, we relied on several international films but that was exactly why we focused on issues not on films. DAF was not going into the space to plug the gaps in the diminishing government funding for documentaries, because the case could not be about just supporting the art form of documentary—for philanthropic support it’s really about the issue areas that documentary highlight.
There were some notable sceptics and I remember being challenged: Documentary films don’t change the world. My answer to that was: That’s right, a documentary film alone won’t change the world but it’s what you do with that film and where you take that film and the partners you can get to work with that film and screen it in their community—
PJB: The film is just one prong in a multi-pronged strategy in relation to tackling a specific issue—
MG: That’s right. While distributors do good work and pride themselves on their catalogues, they are not necessarily pro-active in terms of creating new audiences. I’ve always seen the value of not only extending the life of the film but also keeping the issue in the public eye, and keeping the film relevant and useful for years to come. But you can also support that film with other films that have been made—often wonderful films that people haven’t seen, so it’s also an opportunity to open up the archive and bring out some gems.
PJB: Were there any Australian documentaries you used as examples of social impact films in those early days?
MG: We were constantly using Ian’s films —in particular, The Oasis. But we needed more than one film and I wanted to prove to myself that this could work, irrespective of Ian, and I needed a film I could wrap my arms around in a very pro–active way. I wanted it to be a film that was not a campaign film and distinct social issue film… As a result of a range of coincidental things that happened I am a Girl, the film by Rebecca Barry, was chosen. It was a kind of heart piece for her that she didn’t have time to make so it was sitting in the drawer unfunded. We pulled it out—I was the EP of that film—and I literally took it to a number of philanthropic funders to get it financed. It was the first film as DAF that we had funded entirely philanthropically—it had been knocked back by broadcasters, funding bodies and international forums. So, I am a Girl became the poster child for DAF and it was proof that this could work and on a film that was not a campaign film.
PJB: Can I stop you there, what do you define as a campaign film?
MG: The Oasis was a campaign film—it was made with the intention of reducing youth homelessness. The film I finished last year Ka-Ching! Pokie Nation—its aim was to regulate the Gaming Industry. ‘I am a Girl’ was a gentle, poetic film about what it’s like to be a girl in the 21st Century. It shows the lives of six girls around the world. When I asked Bec about what her intention was in making the film, she said, “I just want to start a conversation about what it’s like to be a girl in today’s world”. I remember thinking, “This is going to be hard, why did I choose this film?”.
But I discovered the strengths of having a gentle film because it allowed people to read into the film their own needs and project their own desires about what they wanted from that film. Of course, so many people are girls, know girls, live with girls, have been girls, work with girls—it’s universal. We got corporate foundations, a major NGO, individual donors… a whole group of really interesting partners around that film
PJB: So you road-tested the model—
MG: From the beginning: all the way through to the impact report and evaluation some years later. We had some bumps and obstacles along the way but we also road tested it with the funders. So when you ask me, How do we work with funders? One thing is to present a film to philanthropists, foundations and then to work closely with that group of funders to manage the relationship with the filmmaker because many of them don’t know about filmmaking —why does it take so long? When is it going to be finished? What’s it going to achieve? Is anyone going to see it? It’s managing those anxieties and coordinating the group together. They do have their own interests, agendas and reason for being there and it’s important they are happy but it’s also about making sure that this remains an independent documentary. In a way, we are a buffer between the filmmaker who makes the film and the funders not influencing the storytelling.
PJB: So you’re also protecting editorial independence?
MG: Absolutely. That’s really important—to me and to DAF. It’s not about making a corporate tool or promo piece for an organisation or about being driven by anyone’s agenda. That’s why funders give to DAF with a preference and DAF will then support the film but it’s not the funder supporting a particular project for their own agenda.
PJB: Have you ever had a situation where a funder has been unhappy with the film or the message of the film?
MG: Yes. It did happen on I am a Girl. There was a funder that wasn’t particularly happy.
PJB: Can I ask why?
MG: It wasn’t that it wasn’t a beautiful film and there wasn’t a question about the quality of the filmmaking or the integrity of the filmmaker. The way Rebecca Barry conducted herself with everybody was impeccable; it was that it didn’t meet the funder’s expectations in terms of the agenda for her own organisation. She felt that it wasn’t going to be useful for her in terms of what she wanted to do with that film.
PJB: What you’re describing is not unusual. In fiction film, when people read scripts prior to the making of the film—not only those who are not experienced in filmmaking but also people who see mostly finished films and don’t work from script to screen—have already made the film in their heads. And they are not familiar with what happens in the process of making a film. It’s also that everyone has grown up watching films and television and are familiar with the form, even if they’ve never been anywhere near a shoot or edit suite. They then sit in a screening room and say, This is not the film I thought we were getting—because the vision in their head is not the vision of the filmmaker. There’s a total disconnect between personal projections and the reality that someone else has made it.
MG. It’s very common. It happens to me too—when people pitch something to me and I get excited, I imagine how I would do it.
PJB: We all do that but experience, brutally, teaches one how to detach. Also why trailers are so important and help people get a sense of what is in the filmmakers head… So how did you manage what happened on I am a Girl ?
MG: It’s quite a long story so I won’t go into the details… but there were a couple of things that happened along the way. There’s one girl in the film from Afghanistan who wanted to get an education. And just before we were launching the film Malala Yousafzai [prior to her winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014] was shot by the Taliban. A major NGO that we were working with, (not the funder who was unhappy with the film) got very nervous about launching the film after that incident so they pulled the launch. That was something that needed to be managed in terms of all the partners’ expectations. We got everybody together and had a screening, and discussed it together as a group… We came to agreement on a course of action and delayed the launch for six months. In the end, that was a good thing for the film.
PJB: Rebecca Barry talked about that when we talked about her experience on I am a Girl… so what was the next problem to be solved?
MG: Well it was then, six months later, and after the release of the film, that a different funder said they weren’t happy. It was quite a shock to all of us. To Rebecca’s credit, she went and met separately with that funder so she could understand what the cause of the unhappiness was. She offered to use the footage she had to cut a small short piece for them so they could use it exactly the way they wanted to use it on their website and for an awareness-raising tool. She delivered to them something they were very happy with—she was responsive to what they wanted
PJB: That’s smart.
MG: The film was left intact and that funder supported the whole film but they also got what they wanted to use.
PJB: What criteria does the filmmaker have to meet in order to qualify?
MG: It’s super broad, we’re a very broad church. There are 4 application rounds a year when filmmakers can apply —we get roughly 20-30 films each time, and we’re approving roughly 100 films per year.
PJB: That’s a lot. It’s surprising to me that there are so many documentaries out there.
MG: They come in at all different stages—some haven’t been made, some are finished and only want outreach support. Apart from an obvious set of questions, the two most important questions we ask are: What do you want to make happen with the film? and How do you propose to make that happen i.e. What is your strategy? We look to see if they have any other partners on board; we also look at feasibility i.e. If they say they are going to make a 30-minute film for 1.2 million or a 3-part series for $20,000… Then that is unlikely to work. We accept emerging filmmakers, very experienced filmmakers but we’re really looking for films that would be suitable for philanthropic support. Having said that, you only need one donor willing to make a donation and it proves the film is suitable for philanthropic support.
PJB: But they only get that support once they’ve been accepted by DAF?
MG: Yes, and our view is, if they can’t convince us there is no hope in hell of convincing anyone else—because we are so accepting. We are the first barrier they have to get through.
PJB: How many projects do you reject? Or rather what’s your rejection rate?
MG: It’s tiny. We reject about 10% of the films that come our way. We have recently done an audit and culled 120 projects from the website that were just sitting there not doing anything, or sometimes the filmmakers themselves take them off because they didn’t need to be on there anymore.
PJB: So there’s not a time-frame you enforce—marks the filmmakers have to hit in order to continue with the support of DAF?
MG: We are getting tougher. We recognise that films take a while to fund and things can also not happen and then suddenly they do. They just need to talk to us and let us know what is going on. However, if there has been no activity in two years, we suggest they take the film off the site or we do.
PJB: So how many films are registered with DAF at the moment?
MG: There’s over 600 films approved on the site since our launch. In the last two years 130 films have received funding.
PJB: How much has been raised via DAF since 2008, excluding the 2 Good Pitch Australia events since 2014 which have raised 7.2million?
MG: It’s hard to separate Good Pitch Australia from DAF because there are films that went to Good Pitch which were on the DAF site… Good Pitch has been like rocket fuel for DAF; it has really made us visible. I can give you broad figures: $13 million has been raised in total funds since our launch at the end of 2008, of which $7.2 million has been pledged through Good Pitch. We have been slowly and steadily growing. The first year $600,000 was raised and we’ve been growing steadily ever since, we had raised $5.5 million before Good Pitch in 2014.
PJB: How does DAF work with Good Pitch Australia?
MG: DAF is a partner with Shark Island Institute in hosting Good Pitch. We are very involved with selecting the films, working with the filmmakers and they all have their films on the DAF site and have been approved by DAF. All the funds raised on the day come through DAF because we can offer the donors a tax deduction for their support and then we work closely with over–seeing everything on the filmmaker side of things—delineating what is the production budget and what is the impact budget, contracting etc.
PJB: Do the other Good Pitches internationally have the benefit of a DAF?
MG: Not really, or not that I know of. There’s Britdoc that was formed at the same time DAF was set up… but they don’t deal with philanthropists or philanthropic contributions. DAF takes responsibility for the donations because we understand and always have understood that philanthropic donors don’t necessarily understand filmmaking nor want to—it’s not their area of expertise.
PJB: But they want to know their money is in good hands—
MG: And they want to know how the money is being spent, that it is going towards what they intended it to, so we offer them that security and governance around the funding. So, yes, we issue the tax receipts and the processing of their donations but we also check cost reports—
PJB: You manage their financial donation.
MG: That’s right. And we work with the filmmakers and help them to understand donors’ expectations, which are really different from broadcasters or funding agencies—it’s not government money.
PJB: For a lot of people, including filmmakers, relationships to money can be awkward—be it private, government or philanthropic. The rules are different in each case; so too the criteria for funding and the way relationships are managed.
MG: The philanthropic donors are not there to fund films as funding agencies or broadcasters are set up to do. It’s a different culture—it takes a shift in understanding for the filmmakers.Tags: DAF, I am a girl, Martin Sharp, rebecca barry, Street of Dreams, The Oasis, The Yellow House