Since its launch in 2015, the Ford Foundation’s Creativity and Free Expression (CFE) program has worked collaboratively to invest in creative organizations and storytellers shaping a more inclusive, just world across three areas of focus: arts and culture, journalism, and documentary filmmaking through its JustFilms initiative. To assess the impact and alignment with the changing needs of the field, the foundation is conducting a series of evaluations around each area of focus under the CFE program. This evaluation report on JustFilms is one in a series of three evaluations to explore how arts and creative sectors can address inequality thoughtfully.

The Challenge

Film is a powerful force in shaping social narratives and public discourse, but historical marginalization, silencing, and exclusion of certain groups and communities ensure that many important stories are ignored, untold, or relayed in ways that reproduce harmful narratives. With greater investments and resources, today’s documentary ecosystem can advance social justice, expand artistic freedom, and ensure economic sustainability among documentary practitioners at the global, regional, and local levels.

What We Did

At its core, JustFilms believes that independent films play a powerful role in building a more equitable, democratic, and joyful world. To that end, JustFilms supports the production, sustainability, and engagement of social justice documentary filmmaking. Its grantmaking focuses on content funding (support for creatives working on specific films and regranting funds),  organization support (general operating support and core support for key field infrastructure), and institutional strengthening support (multi-year grants through the foundation’s Building Institutions and Networks [BUILD] program for field-stabilizing organizations). Other types of support include: network-building, leadership development, research and advocacy,  and criticism, curation and archiving initiatives. In 2021-22, a one-time Social Bond supported a select number of organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic to stabilize and strengthen key organizations.

Between 2017 and 2021, JustFilms:

  • Awarded $27.3 million to 187 films through 223 content grants
  • Awarded $44 million to 88 organizations supporting documentary infrastructure and filmmaking, including $25.2 million to eight organizations through the BUILD program
  • Hosted or sponsored events to connect networks of individuals and organizations and provide space for creatives, thought leaders, and journalists to share ideas,  identify collaborative opportunities, and advance new narratives through film projects

What We Learned

  1. JustFilms provided crucial funding to innovative documentaries and emerging media that were primarily created by diverse artists working to advance social justice stories consistent with Ford’s priorities.

JustFilms-funded films’ project leads were diverse with respect to gender, race and ethnicity, and career stage. For example, 63% of grants had BIPOC project leads; this representation significantly outpaces the rest of the industry where BIPOC filmmakers only accounted for 29% of a U.S.-based sample of documentary professionals1.  JustFilms funding played a critical role in maintaining the independence of filmmakers’ creative choices, was fundamental in allowing grantees to engage in thoughtful and meaningful work, and influenced filmmakers’ capacity to attract new funding. 

  1. JustFilms is broadly advancing equity and inclusion in the independent nonfiction film and emerging media fields through its financial support of BIPOC and People with Disabilities (PWD)-led organizations in the field.

By funding a wider array of BIPOC and PWD-led organizations, JustFilms aims to decentralize decision-making and reach individuals and organizations from communities historically not supported by the broader independent and commercial media ecosystems. Many interviewees, including programmers, curators, producers, scholars, and peer funders see these organizations as challenging the mainstream documentary world and influencing not only the narratives being created, but also the economic and ethical models of how films are created. Ninety-four percent of surveyed individual filmmakers and 78% of surveyed organizations described JustFilms’ contribution to the inclusion and centering of creatives of color in the documentary field as “significant” or “transformative.” JustFilms also supports emerging leaders through the Rockwood Documentary Leaders Fellowship, which brings together leaders working across the documentary field.

  1. Justfilms funding and support helped connect audiences with social justice documentaries and emerging media.

JustFilms is especially important in the streaming age, according to interviewees,  who note that many streaming platforms, despite their global reach, in fact limit access to content and impact campaigns and are not sufficiently inclusive.  JustFilms grantmaking is helping advance social justice and narrative shifts through film, both in near-term change (e.g., building support for policy initiatives) and long-term change (e.g., encompassing bigger-picture narrative and cultural shifts). JustFilms’ support is significant for grantees wanting to contribute to social change and public engagement through their work.  At JustFilms, impact is defined broadly and determined by the filmmakers themselves. This can make it more difficult to measure “impact” and audience engagement with a single metric since the outcomes achieved by grantees are not tied to commercial market or mass media tools of measurement. JustFilms has supported a wide range of impact campaigns and is actively exploring new exhibition and distribution models that can reach a diverse audience beyond the mainstream in an effort to advance social justice.

  1. JustFilms is contributing to more resilient networks of independent creators addressing field and social justice priorities from and focused on marginalized communities.

There is a great opportunity to coordinate resources and learning across the global documentary ecosystem, to create greater resilience, sustainability, impact and inclusion. JustFilms’ grantmaking and programming supports an emerging and expansive global network of individuals and organizations invested in collaborating on shared solutions to field-wide challenges. In particular, Ford’s BUILD program bolsters key field-building organizations and fortifies the resilience of these organizations to better serve their constituencies, and collaborate.

1 Borum, C., & Harder, B. (2021). The State of the Documentary Field: 2020 Study of Documentary Professionals, Complete Data for Global and US Respondents. Center for Media & Social Impact, American University School of Communication, in association with the International Documentary Association, 14.