Two important philanthropies, both created by prominent members of the American Jewish community, joined forces in Atlanta last week to boost the use of documentary film to educate and inspire new audiences.
The initiative brings together the Atlanta-based Arthur Blank Family Foundation, chaired by the cofounder of The Home Depot, and Participant Media, a major Hollywood producer and Academy Award winner started by Jeff Skoll. He was also the first president of eBay Inc.
The innovative project was introduced by Kenny Blank, Arthur Blank’s son and a Blank foundation board member, who is the executive director of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. Inspired by the ideas of Blank and Skoll, the initiative will encourage and train a select group of nonprofit organizations to use documentary films to encourage grass roots political and social action. Blank Foundation Unveils Educational Film Program
“We are rising to a challenge first posed by my dad who was attending a national conference a few years ago and heard Jeff Skoll speak on how documentary film can effect change,” Blank said.
“We hope to see more funders and nonprofits deploy documentary to educate and advocate.”
The program is a partnership between the Blank Foundation and Working Films, which is based in North Carolina and has had the support of such bluechip organizations as the Ford Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
This is the second initiative that the Blank Foundation has announced in the past month to broaden the reach of documentary film.
Early in September, the Foundation debuted an extensive educational website based on the documentary, “King In The Wilderness,” which premiered on HBO in April. It tells the story of the tumultuous final three years of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as seen through the eyes of the surviving members of his inner circle.
The website makes use of the 35 hours of interviews that were recorded for the documentary, the vast majority of which was not used in the production. In partnership with Kunhardt Films in New York, the producer of the program, and the Kunhardt Film Foundation, a series of teaching modules have been created on the website to help students understand the difficulties that King encountered as he sought to expand his vision of nonviolent social change.
The educational components of the project were created by a team led by Fran Sterling, whose firm, Blueshift, was founded to leverage the resources created by social impact documentary. Earlier this week, Sterling led the first Blank Family Foundation-funded teaching training program for the Atlanta Public Schools.
She sees Dr. King’s struggle in the 60s as still very relevant to our own time.
“I think the challenge is for people not to see this as another story about Dr. King and put that in a box. This is an American story that is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago, when the country was divided by the Vietnam War. And that’s critical as we face a real division in our country now.”
Sterling has an advanced degree in Jewish Studies from The Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies at the University of Oxford and spent nearly two decades in research and teaching. She credits her understanding of Jewish thought as an important resource for interpreting King’s legacy.
“What I gained from working on this project,” she points out, “is an understanding of Dr. King’s connection to the prophetic teachings of the Talmud, and the Old Testament, and the New Testament and how they guided his moral compass. I think it allowed him to frame the struggle he was going through.”
The rise of documentary films has been one of the most significant entertainment phenomena in recent years.
Where once documentaries were relegated to public television and marginal viewing times on broadcast networks’ schedule, today they are big business. This summer, the three most successful documentaries had a combined box office profit of more than $50 million.
Two of the three had a significant Jewish angle. “RBG” was about the 83-year-old Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg. “Three Identical Strangers” was about the plight of triplet brothers, who were separated as infants as part of an infamous program run by psychiatrist Peter Neubauer, an Austrian Jew, at New York’s Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services.
What motivates the Blank Foundation and its partners, though, is the belief that documentary films can be more than just a way to spend a few hours in a darkened theater; documentaries believe they can help change the way we live.
Bob Bahr will discuss the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., in his course, “1968 – Movies, Music and Memory At A Turning Point In History” beginning Oct. 30 at The Temple.