Of all the challenges facing minority filmmakers today, there’s one that Jennifer Kushner sees as the toughest to overcome.
Historically white and male, the film industry can be a difficult place to make a mark when you’re, simply, not. The business model is structured around the tried-and-true: an untold story from an unfamiliar face can seem too risky to pursue. Not to mention, a formal film education is prohibitively expensive to all but the most well off students, and the equipment even more so.
As Director of Artist Development at Project Involve, Kushner is working to create access points for minority filmmakers from diverse backgrounds. Project Involve is a program dedicated to cultivating the careers of filmmakers from underrepresented communities. Each year Project Involve pairs 30 aspiring filmmakers from different backgrounds with industry mentors, and the equipment and funding necessary to tell their stories. The result is a total of six short films, each of which opens mass audiences to a new experience.
“We believe that diversity in film is a cultural imperative. It breaks down barriers between people,” Kushner says. “A film is the most powerful artistic medium in its ability to connect people to awaken empathy, to break down stereotypes and just enrich our culture.”
Project Involve was founded in 1993 to support underrepresented filmmakers wanting to work in any aspect of the film industry, from directors and cinematographers to executives and festival curators. Applicants go through a rigorous interview process that examines their skills and background, but most importantly, their stories.
“We’re picking people who we think have something to say, who have vision,” Kushner says. “These are not people who have never picked up a camera before. We’re looking for people with a sensibility and have a strong point of view.”
During the nine-month program, students attend workshops on every aspect of filmmaking from production to financing, and submit treatments for personal films. After a long vetting process, six scripts are chosen, and the students collaborate on their completion. They’re also paired with industry leaders in a mentorship program, who, according to Kushner, often get as much out of the program as the students.
“The mentors can be inspired by filmmakers at the early stages in their career and remember the spark of what made them want to do that in the first place,” says Kushner. “It can be really rejuvenating and exciting for them.”
While Project Involve has a huge impact on the individual filmmakers it supports (many have gone on to pursue long, storied film careers), the program’s aim is much broader. Kushner believes that bringing previously untold stories to mainstream audiences can ease cultural tensions. People often fear what they don’t know, but films present unfamiliar people to audiences in an accessible, enjoyable way, exposing them to ideas that they might never encounter in their everyday lives. Supporting minorities in filmmaking empowers them to tell us about their own ideas and experiences, first-hand; and who better to tell these stories? An individual sharing their own experience is more authentic than a filtered interpretation of that same experience by an outsider.
“If we just tell the same stories, we’re not reflecting the truth of our culture.” – @MissKush
“When people aren’t getting to tell their own stories about their own communities, we just end up with a lot of assumptions and stereotypes that get played out over and over again for people of color, and even women,” Kushner says.
Kushner also notes that making more diverse films available to wide audiences can show industry decision-makers that there is a desire for new, untapped stories. Turning diversity into a business imperative is one of the most challenging, but most effective tools in improving access for the next generation of artists. But even more important is the network of peers that Project Involve provides to their fledgling filmmakers. Alumni often continue collaborating long into their careers, providing professional and personal support towards a common goal: continued access into the industry they love.
“Storytelling is the way people learn to be ethical, empathetic beings.” – @MissKush
“Often, those relationships are as valuable if not more valuable than the mentor relationships,” says Kushner. “This is the next generation.”
The Lincoln Motor Company is proud to support the filmmakers of tomorrow as a sponsor of Film Independent’s 2015 Spirit Awards and Project Involve.