Q&A with Global Film Initiative Chairwoman Susan Weeks Coulter
Published on January 10th, 2012 | by Ryan Wells0
Cinespect recently spoke with Susan Weeks Coulter, the founder and chairwoman of the Global Film Initiative (GFI), a nonprofit organization that promotes cross-cultural understanding through film.
Coulter is in New York this week for the premier of Global Lens 2012 at the Museum of Modern Art (Jan 12-28). The series, in its ninth year, will then be presented in over thirty-five cities across the United States and Canada throughout the year. This year, Global Lens includes ten award-winning narrative feature films from Albania, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Rwanda, and Turkey.
Congratulations on your ninth year of Global Lens. Tell us a bit about this year’s film selections.
Thank you! Well, this year, like the ones in the past, we have a really strong selection of thought-provoking works with cultural and economic authenticity, mixed with strong storytelling.
Where I think we really stepped outside of the box is with a film we discovered during our granting program period called “Fat, Short, Bald Man” from Colombia. It uses rotoscoping throughout, which makes the viewer really concentrate on the audio culture of the country. It’s a very unusual looking film. And we thought it brought a new element to the series this year.
So many films in the series speak to political changes that are changing in their countries. “Amnesty” from Albania and “Grey Matter” from Rwanda really capture this in particular. Political climates aren’t the only subject matter that causes us to select a film, but it’s a popular category. This year’s stable of films are an extremely strong bunch and we’re very proud of the filmmakers that produced them.
You also chose a film from Iraq this year (“Quaratina,”directed by Oday Rasheed), which is excellent to see, as Iraq’s film industry doesn’t exactly appear to be a top priority in what’s covered or discussed about the country. Are you getting a lot of grant applications from Iraqi filmmakers?
Iraq is definitely one of those countries where it’s challenging getting funding to get films made. We tend to have better luck getting grand money for films that are already completed, especially if they’re from a country where there are not a lot of sanctions interfering with the process of producing and distributing films.
Generally speaking, what’s the granting process like at GFI?
Each year, we award 15-20 grants at up to $10,000 each. These films are essentially focused on giving an insightful experience of the human experience. We grant twice a year (summer and winter). We receive around 80-100 applications per cycle. We will accept a film based on script alone, but we cannot grant money until we see rushes, indicating that the film will actually be made. We are now in our ninth year and have passed the 100 grant mark. So we have granted over 100 filmmakers money to get their films made in over 50 countries. We’ve really come such a long way. And filmmakers have come such a long way. One thing that I think has changed dramatically is the efficiency of how we all do our work. In Asia, for example, they really have adapted strongly to technology, with a particular focus on digital filmmaking, for instance. Africa, on the other hand, tends to be technologically challenged, unfortunately, but that seems to be changing. Nevertheless, our work is to connect filmmakers in, say, Rwanda to filmmakers in Iraq. And this is only manageable through these terrific technological advances in filmmaking and communication that have been taken up in recent years.
Based on applications alone, are there certain regions submitting a lot more than others?
There’s been a huge spike in applications from China. Lots and lots of young filmmakers are showing up and tackling a lot of post-revolutionary stories. These are filmmakers that with a digital camera and a laptop can create a really compelling film. It’s a trend we’re seeing more of.
But generally speaking, we’re always looking for a mix of a very strong screenplay but also effective uses of the visual elements of cinema. It’s this balance that’s very important of a strong story that also has striking cinematics. Africa, for instance, is very strong in storytelling–it’s a culture rich with oral traditions. Yet, we often—but not always—find that visually the filmmaking isn’t terribly arresting. In West Africa, for instance, there’s French influence that’s affected the cinema styles there, particularly in Senegal and Mali as a couple examples.
How else are these films used with GFI?
Well, we like to think of education being a lifelong pursuit. We have strong relationships with high schools where a lot of these films can be taught in global studies classes, for instance. And all of the films in our catalogue have robust study guides you can access and download online for free. The goal is to give viewers a more meaningful experience whether they’re in high school or elsewhere.
And with Global Lens, the series travels in the US and Canada only, right?
We distribute in both the US and in English-speaking Canada, not internationally. But we have partnered with, for instance, the Asia Society and have allowed them to screen our content in Mumbai and Manila and a range of other places off shore.
What does cross-cultural understanding mean for American viewers in the cities where you show the series?
We’re living in an ever-changing world. All of our neighborhoods are changing. I would hope that at some point, whoever is your next door neighbor is, you’re more curious than fearful. And many people in the US don’t have the means or interest to do a lot of international travel. The series is one way, I think, to experience a little bit of the world without leaving your community.
Has there been a trend in audience reception based on the region where you’re showing Global Lens?
It’s hard to pinpoint really. But there’s always a resounding demand for more comedies. It’s interesting to me because it’s typically hard to find something really funny in a war-torn country. But what’s funny in one culture might leave another culture scratching its head. I have been at screenings in, say, Africa where the audience members are on the floor with laughter. And I don’t get it! It’s tricky.
But I think the thing that has kept us pushing the envelope is the feedback we get letting us know that our films tend to be thought provoking. When our audiences leave the theater they’re talking about the film with whomever they came with, not “where are we getting coffee?” The student interaction is similarly strong. They’re conversation starters, these films.
Taking it back to the beginning for a minute, how did GFI get started?
We were living in a post-9/11 world then. I was abroad a lot myself, but I noticed that with Americans there was a resounding “why don’t they like us?” in regard to ideas of foreign attitudes. There was a huge disconnect and misunderstanding.
Initially the people who helped formulate GFI met with me in China. And we had talked about how the Chinese government was unsuccessful in luring in foreign capital for getting films made, because of issues with censorship and such that then affected international distribution and festival circuit potential. So a lot of really compelling films from China weren’t getting proper reception abroad, for example. And after 9/11 it wasn’t only about China.
We also discovered the Hubert Bals Fund in the Netherlands, which has been doing since the 1980s what we wanted to do. So we contacted them and they helped us get started. They are probably the preeminent model for international and developing world grant money. So they gave us the blueprint and we opened our door three months later.
And how about the next nine years?
If you asked me this in 2003 I couldn’t have even predicted how far we’ve gotten. As technology changes I’d like to see global films being streamed into every high school in the country. I’d like to expand our granting program in a way that in nine years hence, we’re not necessary anymore. That we’d create an international industry network for film that would be self-sufficient enough so that our job as a non-profit is done. That would be my greatest hope.