American Nonprofit to Invest $4.2 Million in Grants for Latin American Filmmakers

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By LatAm Reports Editorial Team

Today the Ford Foundation announced its latest round of grants for independent documentary film. With a storied history of funding social impact films for nearly 75 years, the foundation houses JustFilms, one of the largest documentary funds in the world and a part of the Creativity and Free Expression (CFE) program. Now in its thirteenth year, JustFilms is one of the few philanthropies making direct grants for independent documentary film content. In its most recent round of grants, it provided over $4.2 million to support 59 innovative film projects centered on social justice globally and in the United States. 

From this allocation, the 59 documentary films support works that reinforce Ford’s mission to reduce inequality around the world and help people live their lives with dignity. JustFilm’s grants support content that spans Ford’s key strategic areas such as natural resources and climate change, gender justice, disability inclusion and racial and ethnic justice. These films explore themes of social justice including but not limited to: women’s rights (particularly at the intersection of land rights and reproductive justice), environment/natural resources, Latin American history and culture, disability justice and accessibility, U.S. education system, LGBTQIA+ rights, criminal justice system and more. 

“Our grantees represent a diverse tapestry of narratives, reflecting deeply ingrained societal concerns and cultural legacies shaping our collective consciousness. Each documentary helps to illuminate the multifaceted experiences that define our present era,” said Jon-Sesrie Goff, program officer for JustFilms at the Ford Foundation. “In a world increasingly filled with misinformation and polarization, it’s critical to support artistic works that help to counter this and offer nuanced views of our society.”

Documentaries in this round span the breadth of human experience, resilience, and resistance, revealing the intricacies in society today, from witnesses’ heart-wrenching accounts of tragedy to societal issues. Emphasizing the continued movement toward racial justice, some films tell the stories of George Floyd and Philando Castile, who grapple with exploitation amid their family’s pursuit for justice in #WhileBlack. Other films focus on the intimate portrayal of communities torn apart by violence and hate crimes, such as the burning of a mosque in A Town Called Victoria. One explores the often-overlooked contributions of Latinx heroes, as seen in the public television series American Historia produced by John Leguizamo.

Several projects in this cohort also examine disability justice and inclusion, intertwining narratives that shed light on the stories, experiences, hurdles, and resilience of those in the community. Films like Life AfterSilent Treatment: Deaf Incarcerated People Fighting for EqualityHer Socialist SmilePatriceUnseen and Untitled Dwarfism Project act as catalysts for change, urging audiences to confront biases, dismantle systemic barriers, and advocate for disability rights within broader social justice movements for a fairer and more accessible world. Delving into the intersection of disability, social justice, and human rights, these disability-led and disability-informed documentaries spotlight the complex struggles faced by so many and showcase efforts to foster awareness, policy alterations, and societal transformations toward equity for people with disabilities. 

In its support of the larger film industry, JustFilms also champions several organizations in the ecosystem and their ongoing work to identify, support and train emerging filmmakers as well as confront systemic challenges that filmmakers face, particularly BIPOC, disabled and LGBTQIA+ filmmakers. A study by grantee Distribution Advocates, which extensively surveyed documentary feature film teams premiering at prominent film festivals such as Sundance, SXSW, and Tribeca, noted these ongoing challenges such as barriers to entering festivals, hurdles with film distribution, and trouble enhancing their public profiles. Acceptance rates at leading festivals hover around 2% to 4.2%, predominantly favoring established filmmakers. Demographic data further underscores the lack of diversity among filmmakers, with insufficient BIPOC representation, indicating disparities in financing and representation of diverse voices and stories globally. Additionally, many films failed to sell rights post-festivals and only a small percentage reported selling worldwide rights, illustrating the challenges of securing comprehensive distribution deals.

“The moment we are in calls for sophisticated responses to counter the challenges we’re seeing across the industry. It requires arts, documentary film, and journalism to include the experiences and leadership of people with lived experience and for these fields to adapt and innovate,” said Chi-hui Yang, director of Creativity and Free Expression at the Ford Foundation. “Safeguarding independent voices within nonfiction storytelling allows us to uphold democratic values and foster cultural empowerment amidst the increasing challenges facing the independent film world, including access and distribution.”

In light of these challenges, JustFilms (and the Ford Foundation more broadly) strive to continue supporting filmmakers and institutions that bring to life documentary films extending beyond commercial interests, manifesting as a philanthropic endeavor to preserve diverse narratives, amplify marginalized voices, and foster inclusive storytelling. Keeping independent voices diverse and viable in documentaries relies on rethinking these industry challenges to help these important films reach audiences and advocate for an inclusive and equitable platform where these narratives can thrive while shaping a more just and empathetic society.