There’s a consensus among critics that the present moment is a “golden age” for documentaries. Theatrical releases are commonplace, to the point that docs are squeezing out foreign-language films. The pervasive home-based platforms (especially Netflix) actively back and promote current-events docs to the masses. On Oscar Night, an ever-increasing chunk of the viewing audience has heard of (if not seen) at least one of the doc nominees.
Speaking of viewers, a sizable segment recognizes that broadcast and cable television news divisions have abandoned investigative journalism altogether, and that doc filmmakers are the only ones stepping into the void. A subliminal yet important factor is the way digital tools have enabled consistently excellent production values regardless of budget, subject matter, location and recording conditions.
It’s a rosy picture, all right, expect for one thing: It’s still an arduous undertaking to raise the funds (from foundations, streaming platforms and/or crowd-funding initiatives) to make a documentary. Consider that the bargain-basement budget for the most-constrained one-hour doc is in the neighborhood of $300,000, and you see that the barriers to entry have not fully dissolved.
In 2009, some pragmatic yet ambitious folks created the Berkeley Film Foundation to raise and disburse money to Berkeley, Oakland, Emeryville, El Cerrito, Albany and Richmond filmmakers. (The world-renowned local doc scene has shifted significantly from San Francisco to the East Bay in the last 15 years.)
Over the ensuing decade, the BFF has handed out $1.7 million to 150 films, a result worth infinitely more than its weight in gold. What’s extraordinary about the BFF, by the way, is that it’s a public-private partnership between the city of Berkeley and a couple of Berkeley-based entities, the Saul Zaentz Company and Wareham Development.
Berkeley Film Foundation: Celebrating Ten Years of Local Filmmaking, a BAMPFA retrospective of six powerful recent films screening through Oct. 27, is a pointedly political affair—which is not surprising given the doc community’s venerable social-justice tradition. If they escaped your notice on original release, mark your calendar for Dogtown Redemption (Sept. 22), Inequality for All (a free outdoor show on Oct. 10), In the Image: Palestinian Women Capture the Occupation (Oct. 13), The Whistleblower of My Lai (Oct. 22) and The Pushouts (Oct. 27).