Why Mac's Big Give for Docs Is So Important

In October, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the city's fabled alt-weekly newspaper, went under. It was a sad day for Bay Area residents who valued the paper's bold reporting and investigative journalism.

Unfortunately, similar closures have played out across the country in recent years. And as the New Yorker notes, thanks to the Internet, media consolidation, and the rise of mobile computing (among other factors) the medium's long-term future doesn't look too good.

This is bad for the communities they serve because alt-weeklies do the hard-hitting reporting on local issues that are often ignored by larger papers. Case in point: the recent "Bridgegate" scandal in New Jersey, which was broken by a tenacious reporter at a regional paper, not the New York Times.

So what does this have to do with documentary filmmaking? Glad you asked.

The MacArthur Foundation recently awarded $2.3 million in grants to 18 documentary film projects. We reviewed the list of winners, some of whom we mention below, and it occured to us that an overwhelming majority of the winning films address a range of important issues, some international, but many local. 

So with news outlets drying up, who will pick up the slack to report on critical local and national issues? What mediums provide the kind of depth to explore the contours and details of these types of issues? One answer is documentary filmmaking, which makes MacArthur's support for the craft all the more important.

We analyzed the 18 winners and placed them in unscientific categories. About 60 percent of winners, for example, addressed social and economic issues on the domestic front. Three different films examined the U.S. immigration system. Director Byrton Hurt's "Hazing," meanwhile, netted $50,000 for examining the cultural practice of hazing.

Ciara Lacy's "Out of State" looks at the experiences of native Hawaiian inmates sent to a private prison in Arizona. And "The Schools Project" examines the effects of the 2013 closings of 47 public schools in Chicago.

Approximately 15 percent of the winners addressed issues from a more informational perspective. "Carbon Trade-Off" looks at the promises and challenges facing carbon trading in California and Mexico, while "Care" tackles the challenges facing home-based elder care providers.

Fifteen percent of the films highlight under-reported international issues, like "Peacekeepers," a film about an all-female Bangladeshi UN peace-keeping troop deployed to Haiti, and "Saving Mes Aynak," which looks at efforts to preserve archaeological treasures found in Afghanistan.

Lastly, the remaining projects don't actually come across as "films" in the traditional sense. "Map Your World," which netted $100,000, is "an interactive web platform enabling global youth to map their communities' assets and challenges, and create media to catalyze positive change." 

For IP's more thorough take on the foundation's approach towards funding documentary filmmaking, click here.