What's the MacArthur Foundation Really Looking for in Documentaries?

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

Indeed, it's one of the most overused and cliched phrases in the English language, and we're actually surprised we haven't used it sooner. But that's because we were waiting for just the right opportunity, which just happens to be now. Because Charles Dickens's quote provides a conveniently pithy explanation of the current state of documentary filmmaking in America.

Think about it. There's no shortage of great stories out there. Filmmakers can complain about a lot of things, but the lack of compelling material isn't one of them. At the same time, the field has become increasingly crowded thanks to the proliferation of affordable digital production equipment. Now anyone— at least theoretically— can be their own crusading documentary filmmaker.

And more filmmaking means more filmmakers vying for finite funding, further underscoring the importance of securing grants from philanthropic organizations. So it is within this context that we took a deeper look at the MacArthur Foundation's recent round of grant offerings. The foundation awarded nine documentary filmmakers a total of over $1 million dollars, and the pressing question poised by filmmakers is this: what was the foundation looking for? And how can filmmakers parlay that knowledge to secure future funding?

To answer this, we need to first lay out some organizing principles. While there are no hard and fast rules, the International Documentary Association lists six different documentary categories:

  1. Political (e.g. Michael Moore)
  2. Historical (e.g. Ken Burns)
  3. Environmental (e.g. Al Gore)
  4. "Shock Doc" (e.g Nick Broomfield)
  5. Personal (e.g. Terry Zwigoff)
  6. Auteur (e.g. Errol Morris)

And upon reviewing the nine winners of the MacArthur grants— out of over 400 submissions, no less— the takeaway is obvious. The foundation seems to be most interested in political (#1) and environmental (#3) stories. Indeed, the winning documentaries are not for the faint of heart. They boldly speak to the collective zeitgeist of the time, which encompasses environmental ruin, rising income inequality, and rapacious capitalism. 

Charge, for example, documents lithium extraction in Bolivia and a recent series of uprisings over control of the country’s natural resource wealth. American Exile, meanwhile, looks at the US government’s attempt to deport two brothers, both Vietnam War veterans, to Mexico after 60 years in the States. (While "American Exile" is, to an extent, a "personal" story, it's more of an indictment of the U.S.'s immigration system.)

A few films take a more lighthearted approach, but nonetheless do so within the context of larger socio-economic trauma. Landfill Harmonic, for example, shows viewers a youth orchestra in Paraguay whose instruments are created from recycled trash.

The bottom line: if you're a documentary filmmaker willing to take risks and tackle complex socio-economic issues, the MacArthur Foundation will likely be a sympathetic audience. For IP's more thorough take on the foundation's approach towards funding documentary filmmaking, click here.