Connecting the Docs
Sun, 05/31/2009 - 19:00 – erin
A group of independent filmmakers gathers in Brookline once a month to offer multiple forms of support through the documentary filmmaking process.By Alexandria Lima
Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre sees herds of movie-goers come and go, show time after show time, but a select few are always back the first Sunday of the month, sipping on red wine from small plastic cups and snacking on hummus-filled pitas. There’s no shushing for silence here; they set the screening room abuzz with laughter about recent engagements, lamentations over missed lunch dates and reintroductions to those who may have forgotten them.
Who are they exactly? They are documentary professionals, and a rare breed at that. Instead of congregating online at communities like D-Word.com, they meet in person for Connect the Docs -- a group designed for the exchange of documentary filmmaking news, information and ideas. “It’s a way to get out of my cave,” laughed Justin Francese, a Boston-area filmmaker who has been working in the business for six years. “I learn much more with face to face contact.”
First-time filmmaker and Connect the Docs founder Rhonda Moskowitz’s logic for starting the group was simple. “I thought, ‘If I could foster meaningful relationships on a virtual website, wouldn’t it be nice to have that in person?’” she explained. “There are a lot of talented documentary filmmakers in Boston who are independent and work in isolation, so I wanted them to be able to connect.”
With a self-explanatory name and high hopes, Connect the Docs began small, right out of Moskowitz’s Chestnut Hill home in 2004. She sought members through advertisements on NewEnglandFilm.com and D-Word.com, even going as far as contacting the International Documentary Film Association in Los Angeles for a list of its Massachusetts members.
Over the past five years, Moskowitz’s group has grown in size (upgrading from a living room to the Coolidge Theatre’s Mini-Max room) and grown in the levels of experience amongst its members. Connect the Docs’ roster includes everyone from first-time filmmakers to experienced producers and Oscar-nominated editors. Simply put, it is a documentary professional’s networking dream. “Young filmmakers like me can sit here next to someone whose made seven or eight films already and has gone through of a lot of challenges and successes with distribution, production and storytelling, and ask them how things are going, which is a great thing,” Francese said after last month’s meeting.
He is currently co-producing the full-length documentary Play in the Gray about the local drag king troupe All the King’s Men. Francese hopes to eventually screen a portion of the work for his Connect the Docs colleagues. “The show and tell part of it is really constructive because it’s a friendly group, but an honest group,” he said. “I like having to defend what I’m doing before I take it to someone who’s really going to be mean to me.”
A large part of what Connect the Docs does is hold problem solving and brainstorming sessions for one another’s projects. Even the more knowledgeable of filmmakers need guidance once in a while and are afforded the opportunity at meetings. “I did a quick presentation on my new film, Food for Change, and we did sort of a classic pitch,” explained documentarian and Oscar-nominated editor Steve Alves. “It really helped me realize that I was going to talk about one aspect, the emerging food systems, and that that was probably most likely going to be the thing that would get me funding dollars.”
As for any filmmaker, finding the means to finance a project is an enormous endeavor, so a number of the workshops and presentations Connect the Docs hosts deal with fundraising. Last month’s meeting featured a presentation by Tan Rao, a venture capitalist, who discussed ways to tap into private and corporate money for film projects during a difficult economy. The breadth of knowledge within the group is enough for its own members to give presentations on funding, as well as self-distributing films, creating trailers and navigating festival markets.
Looking from the outside in, the filmmakers attached to Connect the Docs appear to be benefiting in one way or another: filmmaking couple Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly’s The Way We Get By received the Special Jury Award at South by Southwest and will air on PBS’s POV in November; Sean Flynn and Beth Murphy’s The Promise of Freedom was one of five projects accepted into Hot Docs’ Good Pitch category; and Joel Gardner’s Sunlight Man was a part of the Independent Feature Project’s (IFP) Independent Film Week. “It would be nice to know that the meetings help the filmmakers with these new projects and make them more successful,” Moskowitz laughed during a phone interview. “That, you’d have to ask them.”
The documentary professionals tied to the group seem to be grateful on a number of levels, in terms of the constructive criticism they receive on projects, as well as the wealth of information they come by at meetings. “I come a long distance—from western Massachusetts—but I make the effort to come out here because I love a room full of other filmmaker that have great ideas. Plus, you never know where new information will come from,” Alves said.
Whether it is possible to attribute group involvement directly to how well its members are performing in the independent film market, one thing is certain: everyone is grateful of Moskowitz and her work keeping Connect the Docs together. “Rhonda deserves an incredible amount of the credit for putting this together,” Francese said. “Most of us are so involved in our own stuff that the thought of organizing something like this is daunting. We say to ourselves, ‘Oh, I just don’t have the time for that,’ and she just did it and she doesn’t make any money. It’s tremendous.”
Although the professional aspect of Connect the Docs is enough to keep filmmakers coming back, it is clear that there is something more: a camaraderie that stems from the struggles they share. “A lot of us are going through the same types of things. Wherever we are in our filmmaking process, we find common stories to tell each other,” Francese said as the room of filmmakers cleared out. A few final members straggled into the Coolidge Theatre lobby, giving their farewells before the next meeting. “Above all else, I’m a storyteller. What keeps me coming back to these meetings is everyone’s stories and me wanting to follow them,” Alves said.
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