The Documentary Film Business
Belzberg received a B.A. in 1991 from the University of Colorado, Boulder and an M.A. in 1997 from the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University. She received the Columbia University School of Journalism's John M. Patterson Enterprise Award in 1997 for her documentary short "A Master Violinist," about a Chinese political refugee. Belzberg made Children Underground with assistance from the Soros Documentary Fund (now the Sundance Documentary Fund). The film won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival (2001), and received the Best Documentary Film Award from the International Documentary Association (2001), as well as nomination for an Oscar. Her 2005 documentary, Gymnast, studied three American female gymnasts preparing for the Olympic Games. In 2005, she received the MacArthur "Genius" award, about which she says, "This is life-altering and seemingly unfathomable. It provides a documentary filmmaker with an incredible amount of freedom."
She lives in New York City, where she has been a frequent guest lecturer on urban reporting and documentary filmmaking at the Columbia School of Journalism, and has also taught at NYU.
Question: What inspires you to make a documentary about a particular subject?
Edet Belzburg: Love for the story. Honestly, it has to just be something that you believe in, that you want to tell, because you’re going to be living with it for a very long time. And there are many obstacles, whether financial or personal or, I mean, there’s so many obstacles with documentary filmmaking that, I think, there has to be a deep love for that subject matter in order to really propel you through.
Question: Where did you get funding for your first documentary film?
Edet Belzburg: I think, with Children Underground, I was actually right out of graduate school. And I was actually interviewing for jobs, and I had to pitch story ideas. And then I came across an article about prostitution among street children in various countries, and I started doing more research into it. And I realized that, my god, this is-- I don’t want to pitch this for a ten-minute, you know, news piece or enterprise piece. I wanted to do a long-form documentary on it. And so, at that point, I really started fundraising through grants or finding individuals who were interested in that subject matter. But with Children Underground, I think I was, my god, in the beginning, I was temping for a while as I was doing it and finding all sorts of ways to make ends meet until I received a grant from the Soros Foundation. And that was really what enabled me to make the film and support myself, or, live at the same time. And then once I received that, then more funding came in. But I think it’s doing what you need to do in order to start. And then once you start and you build momentum and people start getting involved, then you figure out a way, I think, to do it and find certain foundations and people who are interested in it. But with my first film, without the support of, I mean, I had applied to, you know, dozens, probably, you know, close to 100 different foundations before I actually received that one grant, which enabled me to make the film. So yeah.
Question: Is it hard to find a balance between artistic integrity and financial success?
Edet Belzburg: Documentaries, 30 million, I don’t understand how the two go together. I think you need to stay true to your subject matter and stay true to the film and stay true to your story and your vision. And if you start thinking about the money it’s going to make and how-- then I think that it’s a different beast entirely. And I think that the most important thing is telling the story in the truest way and keeping your focus in that way and not thinking about how much money it’s going to make in the box office. I mean, that has a place as well, you know, for certain films. But I think even-- I think that the focus has to be on the storytelling and your objective. Because with the films that I’m dealing with, you’re dealing with people’s lives and it’s completely different, I think.
Question: Do you have any advice on how to gain industry attention?
Edet Belzburg: For me, that’s putting the cart before the horse. I mean, I think the focus for a young filmmaker is really just following a story that you feel is so important to tell and you feel passionately about that. I think that has to be the first thing. Once you lose that then I think that you are a part of the millions who are just trying to get something out there. But I think people respond to honesty and to the filmmaker’s passion. You know, and I think that comes through the storytelling. So I think that that has to come first. I think that if you put that first then everything else will follow and then you’ll figure out a way to get it out there. And people will respond to what you’ve done. But it’s difficult for me to actually think of it that way, or, not difficult but, I think-- yeah.
Recorded on: 07/16/2008
Edet Belzberg is still confused about how documentaries make money.
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