A Fellowship Is Fostering Diverse Documentarians—and Reaping Oscar Nods

The Artist-in-Residence program at Concordia Studio is building a network for filmmakers like Garrett Bradley, whose film ’Time’ is up for an Academy Award this year

In 2016, director Garrett Bradley completed the submission form on the New York Times Op-Docs website, the newspaper’s nonfiction documentary shorts series, and waited. She hoped to tell the story of Aloné Watts, a New Orleans woman struggling with the societal and social stigma of marrying her boyfriend, Desmond Watson, who was serving time in a private prison. “I didn’t have any relationships outside of New Orleans,” Bradley, 35, says. “I was very much an independent filmmaker. I still am.” Three months later, she received a response: They wanted to make her movie.

That documentary, Alone, went on to receive the Short Form Jury Award in nonfiction at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, making Bradley the first Black woman to win the award. It also led Bradley to Fox Rich, a New Orleans entrepreneur and activist who’d spent two decades fighting for her husband’s release from Louisiana State Penitentiary. Bradley’s more recent film, Time, tells Rich and her family’s story through a mesmeric blend of speeches, home videos, and voice-over. The doc was initially conceived as another short, but Bradley’s plans changed when Rich handed her a treasure trove of home videos on the last day of filming. With the help of the Artist-in-Residence program at Concordia Studio— a new company devoted to bringing diverse voices to documentary filmmaking—Bradley worked with an editor to turn it into her first feature. Time is now nominated for Best Documentary at this year’s Oscars (to be awarded on April 25) and has been praised for the masterful ways it experiments with narrative structure.

Hollywood has long failed when it comes to diversity, but no filmmaking space has been more male and more white than the director’s chair. In the University of Southern California Annenberg Foundation’s “Inclusion in the Director’s Chair” report, they found that just 13.5 percent of the top-grossing films from 2007-2019 were directed by non-white filmmakers. While film festivals have made a concerted effort to increase diversity behind the camera—57 percent of all projects in the 2021 Sundance slate had a BIPOC director—representation is still severely lacking in the industry as a whole. An estimated 72 percent of producers are white men, and this year’s Golden Globes were selected by a voting body without a single Black member.

“I think it’s evident what needs to change,” Bradley says with a laugh. “We need to open up more perspectives and points of view.”

Rahdi Taylor spent a decade at the Sundance Institute, ultimately as the head of the Documentary Fund. There, she witnessed the creation of several fellowships to get BIPOC filmmakers into the industry. But she watched these directors continually miss the chance to helm bigger budget, career-changing projects. She envisioned a fellowship for midcareer, underrepresented filmmakers to help them cross the “chasm between the independent side of the film industry and the industry side.”

In 2017, Taylor was connected with Davis Guggenheim (director of An Inconvenient Truth) who was hoping to build an artist-in-residency at Concordia, the new studio he’d just launched with producer Jonathan King. Their funding from Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs, meant they had the ability to attempt a wholly new take on a film fellowship. Guggenheim, the son of Academy-Awarding director Charles Guggenheim, inherited a powerful Hollywood network that he knew was inextricable from his success and wanted to find a way to boost less privileged voices. “I came to L.A. and there was a network of mostly white men who gave me breaks. And not at one juncture. At like fifty junctures,” he says. “What I’m seeing with these filmmakers in the fellowship is that that network is not there for them. So, we’re trying to build one.”

In Spring 2018, Bradley connected with Concordia, and Taylor asked: “How can we help?” Bradley was at a place in her career where she actually knew the answer: editing. So, Taylor created a personalized artist-in-residency that connected her with an editor—Gabriel Rhodes who’d spent 15 years editing festival films including Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.—and focused on honing her skills in the cutting room. The fellowship also provided financial support that was “really substantial compared to any other program,” according to Guggenheim.

The Concordia Artist-in-Residence program has 14 current fellows and five alums, including Bradley, Bing Liu (Minding the Gap), and Nadia Hallgren (Becoming). Aside from the directors, there are editors, producers, and visual artists all working on upcoming film and TV projects. Taylor has expanded the model built around Bradley, diagnosing each of the 18 subsequent fellows’ pain points and fears, and hand-crafting a personalized residency to fit. The Concordia fellowship is well-funded without rigid guidelines, made possible by the vision of Taylor and the largesse of Powell Jobs. “Usually the fellow has to adapt to the fellowship,” Guggenheim says. “But I think what’s unique is this fellowship adapts to the fellow.”

On an afternoon in February, ten fellows and Taylor sat in on a Zoom MasterClass hosted by the documentary filmmaker Pete Nicks (Homeroom). Parts of the conversation felt like a traditional Q&A, but by the back half of the hour-and-45-minute session, Nicks shifted into filmmaking minutiae. The fellows lapped up Nicks’s thoughts on how to persuade a police force, a hospital or a school to give a director access and final cut; how to stay in touch via text with dozens of teenage subjects; when to start the camera rolling. He also told the fellows to remain focused on why they became filmmakers to begin with. “It sounds cliché, but you do have to be true to your passion and vision,” he said. “That’s going to result in the best film, period.”

Money is still a taboo subject in the nonfiction space, but the topic arose near the end of the session. “There’s this notion where you’re supposed to be this kind of auteur who is far and above the business side, and it’s just absolutely ridiculous,” Taylor says. “When I was in film school, you were barely even allowed to understand how a festival works, let alone anything else. So, to talk about making the industry more accessible to diverse filmmakers, if we’re not talking about the business and we’re not talking about sustainability, then we’re just full of it.”

To run a nonfiction fellowship at this moment is fruitful but fraught: the entrance of Apple, Netflix, Amazon, and the other streamers has created a boomtime for documentary, but the algorithmic pull has also threatened to change the genre. The podcast Serial begat a widespread true-crime boom throughout nonfiction, but the power of the streamers’ dataset has birthed derivative products that are increasingly targeted but sometimes hollow. The path from niche obsession to meme to miniseries has become a superhighway.

In many ways, Time serves as a proof-of-concept for everything Guggenheim and Taylor are building. The black-and-white, lyrical film about the psychic cost of a father’s prison sentence on a family is lightyears from Netflix’s Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer or Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. And yet, the film sold to Amazon Studios for $5 million and has been seen by millions of people since it premiered on the platform last fall.

“Rahdi is always balancing this idea of thinking big, developing the artist from within, and also saying, How is this going to work inside the world?” Guggenheim says. “She’s creating this precious kind of womb, where all these artists can grow, while always keeping in mind that these incredible people have to be functioning and powerful out in the real world. That’s our job.”

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