by Michael Fox
Born in San Francisco and raised in Marin, filmmaker Cassandra Herrman was imbued at a young age with dreams of a specific, faraway place. “My dad was a pilot, and he gave me West With the Night by Beryl Markham,” recalls Herrman, now 44. “Then I saw Out of Africa and I had this idea of going to Africa and living there or volunteering. I did that; I lived in Kenya in my 20s. So in many ways I feel I’m empathetic to the perception that many Americans have, because that was my own experience.”
Since earning a master’s degree from U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2001, Herrman—who speaks conversational Swahili—has produced and shot stories in Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Darfur (the last one receiving a National Emmy Award nomination) for PBS’s Frontline/World series.
But getting an independent documentary off the ground, even for an established, experienced producer like Herrman, is an uphill proposition. Consider her ambitious new project, How to Make a Film About Africa, which seeks to demolish narrow perceptions and anachronistic myths about the continent, and to replace them with portraits of next-generation African pioneers. Sounds like a subject whose time has come, yes? Particularly in the wake of the Joseph Kony 2012 video that became a viral phenomenon.
Alas, the competition for U.S. foundation and public television money is incredible (even in a good economy), and funders generally attach a higher priority to social issues closer to home. And How to Make a Film About Africa, says Herrman, whose partner on the film is South Africa–born writer Kathryn Mathers, “is a difficult film to fund in some ways because it’s an essay film, it’s a thought film.”
Enter the 4-year-old Berkeley Film Foundation (BFF)—an important new grant-giving institution primarily funded by the Saul Zaentz Company, the real estate group Wareham Development, and the city of Berkeley, and charged with supporting local filmmakers. To Herrman’s great relief, this year the foundation included How to Make a Film About Africa among the 23 projects it supported out of more than 60 applicants.
“Receiving the Berkeley Film Foundation grant has been a turning point,” a grateful Herrman declares, “giving us the financial boost we needed to film additional scenes with our characters, cut a more complete trailer, and show funders our vision for the film.”
The 2012 Berkeley Film Foundation awardees vividly reflect the politically engaged, culturally diverse citizens of Berkeley—as well as those of Emeryville, El Cerrito, Albany, and Richmond, whose filmmakers became eligible this year for foundation grants. Pratibha Parmar’s Alice Walker, Beauty in Truth, Deann Liem’s Geographies of Kinship: The Korean Adoption Story, Maureen Gosling and Maxine Downs’s Bamako Chic: Threads of Power, Color and Culture, and Avon Kirkland’s Triumph and Tragedy: The Life of Booker T. Washington focus on individuals and subjects largely ignored by the mainstream media.
“It’s easy to get discouraged,” says Herrman, whose energy and enthusiasm belie her comment. “I think How to Make a Film About Africa is a provocative idea, and it’s really timely, but it’s easy to get discouraged. So [the grant] is psychological—a push, a reminder to keep knocking at the doors.”
But let’s not paint an overly sunny picture. The Berkeley Film Foundation’s beneficence, roughly $150,000 a year spread over some two dozen projects, has both a real and symbolic effect, but it isn’t enough to carry a film all the way to the finish line. For that matter, very few entities in the United States fully fund documentaries. The vast majority of independent filmmakers engage in a three-to five-year marathon in which they’re continually raising money so they can continue shooting and, when the time comes, editing. So every clutch of coins, especially early in the process, is critical.
“Support from the BFF provides credibility for the film and the filmmaker as they go out into the jungle of fundraising, and it shows that a reputable organization believes in the film and the filmmaker,” explains Abby Ginzberg, head of the film foundation’s board, one of six members of the grants review committee, and a veteran filmmaker herself (Cruz Reynoso: Sowing the Seeds of Justice ; Soul of Justice: Thelton Henderson’s American Journey ).
It’s well worth noting that a vote of affirmation from the foundation isn’t only of value to younger filmmakers without a track record spanning decades. Even award-winning directors with wide name recognition have to get in line at the big foundations and hope that their project has the requisite mysterious, ephemeral, and (sometimes, it seems) magical appeal. A timely subject is often the deciding factor, and that usually has more to do with providence than planning.
Berkeley’s Rick Goldsmith, 61, has two Academy Award nominations to his credit—one for The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (co-produced/co-directed with Judith Ehrlich and released in 2009), the other for Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press (1996). But Goldsmith, too, is essentially starting from scratch with Mind/Game: The Unquiet Journey of Chamique Holdsclaw. A profile of the outstanding college and professional basketball player whose struggles with depression led her to become a spokeswoman and activist on mental health issues, the project received Berkeley Film Foundation support this year.
“The BFF grant is a great starter grant for me,” Goldsmith says. “It allows me to do some out-of-town production, get some valuable footage in the can, perhaps improve my trailer. In short, it helps push the project forward, and forward momentum is invaluable, always.”
The Berkeley Film Foundation sprang from the collective efforts of the Saul Zaentz Company (founded by the Oscar-winning producer of Amadeus and other films), Wareham Development (the real estate company that purchased the Zaentz Media Center, once known as the Fantasy Building, in 2007), and the numerous filmmakers who’ve had their offices in the iconic building on 10th Street in Berkeley for as long as anyone can remember.
Today, the main financial support for the foundation’s grants continues to come from the Zaentz Company ($45,000 a year, including $20,000 for the annual Saul Zaentz Award), Wareham ($25,000), and the city of Berkeley ($25,000). The remaining third is provided by local businesses such as Meyer Sound, Berkeley Patients Group, banks and law firms, individual supporters, and an annual gala fundraiser. This year’s bash, featuring the trailer for Jacob Kornbluth’s Zaentz Award–winning Inequality for All as well as a speech by its subject, U.C. Berkeley professor and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, is scheduled for Nov. 14 at the David Brower Center in Berkeley.
“One thing that we’re hoping for, and we’re working on, is to broaden the base of support for the BFF among other organizations and businesses within Berkeley and the larger East Bay,” Ginzberg says. “I do think there’s a sense of people wanting to support the arts in general, and understanding that arts funding is shrinking. We now have a track record of supporting engaging, successful films, and we’re seeing films get completed and make a difference in the world.”
One of the agreeable strings that’s attached to a Berkeley Film Foundation grant is a public screening, after the film is finished, at the Zaentz Media Center’s Alan Splet Theater, with the filmmaker in attendance for a post-show Q&A. The collected admissions go to the foundation’s coffers—which is to say they’ll be disbursed in the next annual round of grants.
“We want people to invest in these films that they will ultimately be the audience for,” Ginzberg says. “There are film lovers and film supporters [who] pay $10 to see a film at the Zaentz Center or wherever. But we have to make people understand that for these films to get made, they have to pony up a little earlier.”
With her global perspective and personal investment in bridging the gulf between the West and Africa, Herrman represents the kind of non-commercial, out-of-the-box filmmaking that the Berkeley Film Foundation is designed to foster.
Her journalistic experiences in Africa in the 2000s heightened her interest in the way the continent is represented in U.S. media, and led to her partnership with Kathryn Mathers, author of Travel, Humanitarianism and Becoming American in Africa (Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), on How to Make a Film About Africa.
“There are characters but it’s not just a character-driven film,” says Herrman. “We think of it as a road trip film, a road trip through the American imagination and a road-trip journey with our characters in the U.S. and Africa. It’s a physical journey in the sense that we’ll travel with them but it’s also a journey of imagination.”
The road trip is designed to counteract the prevailing conceit that all ideas flow to—not from—the developing world. And the characters, not incidentally, are African. They’ll be front and center throughout the film, as opposed to the prototypical approach, routinely embraced by movies such as the well-meaning Hollywood drama Blood Diamond, which presumes that American audiences can only identify with a Western protagonist. While the African lives and African stories in such movies—and, all too often, cable news segments—are mediated by outsiders, one of the quietly subversive aims of How to Make a Film About Africa is for audiences to realize only afterward that there weren’t any foreign talking heads.
“This is specific to Africa,” Herrman says, “but the larger message is how we perceive the other in society, how prejudice is constructed, and how media and advertising and pop culture reinforce that.” Consequently, Herrman envisions the finished film being used in a wide range of educational settings, including the training of foreign policy-makers and international development specialists.
Herrman, whose latest television segment is a piece on Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour that aired Oct. 5 on the PBS series “Sound Tracks,” admits that she and Mathers face a long road to completion with How to Make a Film About Africa.
“It’s very developed in the sense that we’ve been thinking about it for a long time and we have a treatment, but we need scenes to convince funders of what the meat of the film will be,” Herrman says. “And that’s been our challenge. I think it’s a very provocative subject, but we don’t have the material to show where we’re going to go with it. And that’s why the [Berkeley Film Foundation] funding was so helpful at this point.”
The Berkeley Film Foundation holds its annual fundraiser gala Wednesday, Nov. 14, 6-8:30 p.m., at the David Brower Center, 2150 Allston Way, Berkeley. For info and tickets: (510) 549-7040 or berkeleyfilmfoundation.org.
Michael Fox is a San Francisco film critic, journalist, and teacher who has written for The Monthly since 1989.
Found money: Thanks to a grant from the Berkeley Film Foundation, filmmaker Cassandra Herrman (pictured on p. 20) can proceed with a movie titled How to Make a Film About Africa. Above, a scene with Zine Magubane describing American pop culture views of Africans. Photo by Cassandra Herrman.
“. . . It’s easy to get discouraged. So [the grant] is psychological—a push, a reminder to keep knocking at the doors.”—Cassandra Herrman, 2012 Berkeley Film Foundation grant recipient. Photo courtesy Cassandra Herrman.