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Robert Lang Discusses the Vital Need to Fund Underrepresented Communities

Robert Lang is a filmmaker and founder of the R&M Lang Foundation, which established the CrossCurrents Fund in 2014. We spoke to Robert about his motivation for starting the Fund, and the communities served by acknowledging the work of short and experimental filmmakers from underrepresented communities. 

Applications for the CrossCurrents Interactive/Short Stream, awarding a $10,000 CDN grant to one short, interactive or experimental work each year, open on September 28, 2016. 

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Previous grantees from left to right: 2015 Circle (D: Jayisha Patel), 2016: When the Dust Settles (D: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), 2014: Quipu Project (D: Maria Court, Rosemarie Lerner). 

Hot Docs: What inspired you to create the CrossCurrents Doc Fund for the international documentary community?

Robert Lang: I’ve done quite well over recent years in factual and documentary series work, but my heart’s always been with one-off documentary storytelling. I’ve made a lot of docs around the world, since starting out, often filming in Indigenous communities in Africa or Asia, Latin America and in Canada. Over the past decade I’ve been amazed at how many docs show up at film festivals, really good ones. But when it comes to films about marginalized people, those with no voice in the mainstream media, I’ve found that they often come from filmmakers from outside those communities. It’s not surprising, since they—like I do—tend to have access to the resources or the connections necessary to scrabble together the funds to make these docs. A few years ago, I started to wonder whether new voices might emerge if we work to, directly and overtly, support production of challenging, fresh documentary perspectives from underrepresented communities. So that’s when I approached Hot Docs to test out the idea.

HD: What do audiences gain when documentaries are told from diverse perspectives?

RL: Documentaries generally dig deep to tell stories that are fresh and revealing. As sensitive and empathetic as we are as doc makers, or as we try to be, when we immerse ourselves in cultures or communities that aren’t our own, we’re limited by our experience, blinkered by layers of culture. So getting perspectives from within those marginalized communities exposes a general audience to ideas they’ve never heard before—hopefully fostering empathy and understanding. And hopefully audiences from marginalized communities will be able see themselves represented on screen in a way they never see, which may make a difference to their sense of inclusion and empowerment.

HD: There is a new generation of innovative stories that are shaping the short and interactive formats because they allow room for experimentation, and this stream is progressive in funding those projects. What are some of the unexpected benefits of these formats? 

RL: I’ve been playing in this field for a long time—my company Kensington Communications has been doing short docs from the outset and interactive works since the late ‘90s. For most of my career, we had to rely on institutional financing and broadcast gatekeepers, but in recent years its really exciting (and daunting) to see those traditional structures break down. The upside is being able to get more innovative docs seen on many different platforms. There’s no necessity to adhere to a particular format of storytelling style, which broadcasters always insist on, but the downside is that there’s no real upfront funding, and that’s what we’re hoping to address in our own small way with the CrossCurrents Doc Fund. We’ve made room within the Fund for stories to be told in whatever ways are appropriate—be it experimental, interactive or short films (up to 40 minutes). These projects don’t adhere to a broadcast format. Whenever I’ve been able to do that in my own work its been exciting to stretch creatively and to do work that didn’t just fit someone else’s concept of what’s acceptable. And I’m hoping we’ll see more of those projects coming out of the Fund in future. Now that the CrossCurrents Doc Fund has been recently extended for feature projects through Panicaro, we hope to see even more innovative ideas.

HD: As a filmmaker yourself, what do you hope for the future generations of filmmakers in the documentary community?

RL: I’m sure there will always be an appetite for good, authentic engaging stories from storytellers who use documentary as their form of choice. But I hope the future crop of filmmakers are able to survive and thrive through having expanded sources of financial support, especially for new and creative ways of telling their stories. It’s hard to know what the future will bring, the many new ways we’ll have of getting stories seen and financed, so getting comfortable with the uncertainty will be a crucial.  

HD: If an applicant asked your advice about making a strong application that stands out, what would it be?

RL: It’s kind of simple in a way. You should just think: “ What would it be like for someone to read my application if they knew nothing about me or my project?” Have a strong understanding of what your story is and who your on-camera collaborators are. Write the treatment in a way that allows us on the receiving end to see the film you want to make. Also, show that the project is in motion and that it’s doable. One of the most important things is to explain what your connection to the subject is and how you’re invested in the story—that’s sometimes missing in many of the applications we receive.

HD: Why did you choose to work with Hot Docs to administer this Fund?

RL: I couldn’t think of a better organization or one more likely to succeed. Hot Docs is well connected internationally, but it’s also in my backyard (just a couple blocks away)! You have experience with effectively managing other production funds. And Hot Docs industry programs director Elizabeth Radshaw and executive director Brett Hendrie saw the potential of the Fund right from the outset, saw how it could fill a need and be complementary to other initiatives they have on the go.

For more information on Hot Docs Funding Opportunities Click Here.

Interview conducted by Madelaine Russo. 


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