Global reach: Global Film Initiative funded 'I am from Titov Veles,' by Teona Mitevska, Macedonia. (Photo courtesy GFI)

Global Film Initiative: Funding the Bigger Picture

Robert Avila August 12, 2008

Cinephiles and cineplexers alike, hungry for something new, could do worse than The Legend of the Holy Net Potato. The forthcoming first feature by young Kerala-based filmmaker Vipin Vijay (winner in 2007 of Rotterdam’s prestigious Tiger Award for his Malayalam documentary, Video Game) concerns a cyborg vers ed in black magic with a sideline as a computer hacker. Mixing an epic sensibility with a shrewd grasp of the man-machine age, the script blends local storytelling traditions, autobiography, the occult and Internet piracy into an idiosyncratic journey of self-discovery that promises to be as polymorphously postmodern as it is inherently particular. Indeed, despite the global-village tint cast by the computer screen, it is its cultural rootedness and local flavor that make Potato anything but everyday cinematic fare—and manna from heaven to an outfit like the Global Film Initiative.

Vijay’s difficult-to-categorize offering was just one of ten full-length feature film projects awarded completion funds this spring as part of Global Film Initiative’s twice-annual granting cycle, which targets filmmakers from countries in the developing world. The other grantees hail from China, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Peru, the Philippines, Somalia, and Turkey. Not every film you’ll find in GFI’s granting lineup, or see in its yearly Global Lens film series (a traveling ten-film curated festival), is necessarily as offbeat as Potato, but chances are each will be distinct in its perspective and genuine in its approach. GFI’s founding mission rests on an appreciation for authenticity of voice, artistically and culturally speaking, and for stories that tell, in cofounder Susan Weeks Coulter’s words, 'familiar tales made exotic by their settings and the unexpected twists arising from very different human experiences.' The hope throughout is that in such stories 'we may find one language that we share.'

The San Francisco-based nonprofit Global Film Initiative was founded by Coulter and Noah Cowan (the latter of the Toronto Film Festival) in 2002 to build bridges of cross-cultural understanding across increasingly fraught borders. The timing was not coincidental. As Santhosh Daniel, GFI’s director of programs, affirms, "It began with a conversation that stemmed from the 9/11 attacks. There was this conversation in the arts world about why America was so amazed by the rest of the world’s impression [of] the United States. The idea was not so much to try to change everybody else’s viewpoint in the rest of the world, which is what the government tries to do, but instead to try to make everyone here in the United States more aware of what’s outside our borders."

Cinema, perhaps the most powerful and successful storytelling medium, seemed a logical place to concentrate. "We’ll go out and support filmmakers and filmmaking cunities around the world by giving them grants to produce their films," explains Daniel, "and afterward we will bring those films here into the United States and give them a platform by which we can have some better vision of the world as a whole, look at ourselves as a group of people rather than as us and them or East versus West or American versus Mexican. That was the general idea."

has crafted four complementary programs to this end, of which grants to filmmakers is one. The others include an acquisitions program, which purchases rights (on an annually adjusted flat-fee basis) to films from the developing world that would not otherwise find extra-festival exposure in the U.S.; a distribution program (tied to the aforementioned Global Lens series and a partnership with New York-based First Run Features for access to theatrical, semi-theatrical, television, cable and home entertainment markets); and an education program. The last reaches out to secondary schools across the country through a combination of GFI films (distributed in partnership with First Run’s sister company, First Run/Icarus Films) and a set of related online and downloadable pedagogical aids it develops itself and makes available for free through its website, Most recently, GFI has launched a supplement to its education program called Bluescreen, whose online offerings include free screenings of GFI films to students in the U.S. and Canada.

Modeled on the Hubert Bals Fund of the Rotterdam International Film Festival, GFI has always seen funding and distribution as complementary parts of the equation. But partly in an effort to insure the quality of its annual Global Lens showcase, the organization eventually decided to separate out granting from distribution. "I think we effect more people by not having distribution and granting programs tied together," says Daniel, "because every year the granting program gives out 20 grants and then we acquire 10 films, that’s 30 films total. If we gave out the grants and distributed them at the same time it would be less."

Although the inspiration for GFI comes from a desire to provide average Americans, including American students, with a cinematic passport to a multicultural world—one promoting dialogue and understanding across local ethnic lines and larger geopolitical ones simultaneously—the model it has developed over the last six years has also helped seed indigenous film industries globally and, perhaps as importantly for the health of those industries, provided filmmakers from the Global South with crucial access to the otherwise impermeable, Hollywood-dominated U.S. market. Thus, GFI has been issuing cinematic visas too. Moreover, its conscientious attention to underrepresented areas of filmmaking around the globe—including savvy targeting of information as well as funds in places like Africa (where film fests are scarce and cinema-related networks of communication correspondingly weak)—has placed its relatively modest operation in an increasingly conspicuous position alongside an international funding pack that includes Fond Sud, World Cinema Fund, and Sundance.

"I think a lot of it is because we don’t have any restrictions on the money we give out to filmmakers. That’s not a criticism of any [other funder], and I wouldn’t want anybody to read it that way. But we put a lot of trust in the filmmaker to complete his or her film according to the vision that they’ve specified. We don’t say that you have to use this person for your production; we don’t say you have to premiere your film here. We don’t really require them to do anything other than create a film. So even though we’re not the biggest funder out there, we have a significant impact because I think people respect what we’re trying to do."

Daniel recalls with particular satisfaction the appreciation extended to GFI last fall in Latin America, when Chile’s Valdivia International Film Festival sponsored GFI’s attendance in recognition of its support of the country’s film industry. "After years of our bringing Chilean perspectives to audiences in the U.S., the [Chilean] industry was now bringing our perspective to their audience," he notes, adding that the moment "seemed to exemplify the kind of cultural exchange we hope can be achieved through our programs."

Even as ordinary people—and in some cases world renowned filmmakers—find it increasingly difficult to pass the physical border into the United States, GFI’s programs help channel the stories, voices, and human faces of people from the developing world to American audiences.

"We represent a door that opens to the United States," says Daniel, "and to U.S. distribution. It’s probably the most important thing that happens for filmmakers: The minute they receive a grant from us it goes out in a press release, people know about it and it puts them within the U.S. distribution market. People become aware of them. They can use our grant to receive more funding elsewhere. It’s sort of a seal of approval."

And hardly small potatoes.

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