Meet the Winners of the MacArthur Foundation's Documentary Film Grants

Let's step back in time to January of 1985, shall we?

The number one movie in the country was Beverly Hills Cop. Madonna's "Like a Virgin" topped the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. And the top-rated TV show was The Cosby Show (with Family Ties at a close second).

It was also around that time that the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation began awarding grants to documentary filmmakers. In the intervening years, the foundation has been at the forefront of funding "independently produced documentaries that examine underreported but important social issues. These films have the potential to spark dialogue, create understanding, and contribute to social, culture, and policy change."

Last year, we alerted you, dear reader, that the foundation was looking for submissions for its Documentary Fund. And now there's news that they have awarded 19 grants totaling nearly $2.5 million for documentary and interactive projects. The cumulative give represents MacArthurs' largest ever single-year investment in documentary film and interactive storytelling projects. These 19 grants also bring the total number of documentary films supported by the foundation since 1985 to over 300.

The projects address a range of timely issues, including the Syrian refugee crisis, race relations and inequality in the United States, mental illness, police and community relations, and environmental pollution. The foundation received nearly 500 proposals in response to its open call for independent documentary film proposals. 

"MacArthur remains committed to deep and insightful journalism and media in the public interest; supporting documentary films is one way we support excellent and original nonfiction storytelling on issues that matter to our society," said Kathy Im, MacArthur’s director of journalism and media. "The projects selected for funding include a mix of documentary forms, underscoring the importance of supporting both proven and new ways to tell stories that engage audiences and spark conversations."

Some of the winners include:

  • After Spring, which follows the struggles and triumphs of two Syrian families living in a Jordanian refugee camp as they contemplate an uncertain future, directed by Ellen Martinez and Steph Ching, After Spring LLC ($140,000).  
  • Angels are Made of Light, which follows the daily struggles and inner lives of students and teachers at a school in Kabul, Afghanistan, during the closing years of America’s longest war, directed by James Longley, Angels are Made of Light ($100,000).
  • Finding America, a multi-platform series inviting local citizens to craft new and surprising stories from their community, produced by Sue Schardt, Teresa Gorman, and Adriana Gallardo, Association of Independents in Radio ($200,000).
  • The Conversation, a series of six short films that will serve as a catalyst for dialogue on the deep racial tension and polarization that exists in U.S. communities, directed by Joe Brewster, Blair Foster, Geeta Gandbhir, Perri Peltz, Michèle Stephenson, The Conversation LLC ($75,000).

Related: "What's the MacArthur Foundation Really Looking for in Documentaries?"