When Heather Cassano MFA '17 first began shooting The Limits of My World—the feature-length documentary about her autistic brother, Brian—she was footing the bill herself.
Cassano wanted to get started on the project and needed something compelling for her Kickstarter page. She found that the costs just kept piling up. “There were a lot of shooting expenses, like food, extra equipment, and batteries. These things all added up super quickly. I ended up spending a lot of my own money. And then the grant came through, and I could kind of pay myself back,” she said.
The grant she was referring to is the Virgin Unite Social Impact Films Fund at Emerson College, formed through a partnership between the College and Virgin Unite. The fund assists Emerson students in making documentaries that shine a light on social issues.
The fund is powered by alumna Andrea Barron '87—an impact film producer and former Virgin Unite board member—and awards three to five Emerson students a total of $10,000 per year to make films in collaboration with a nonprofit or grassroots organization to address a social justice topic. The project helps various “for good” groups meet their individual goals, while helping Emerson and its students fulfill their mission of civic and global engagement.
“I’ve seen the truths and transformations that emerge from documentaries—the crucial influence generated by a documentary, leading to significant positive social changes,” Barron said when explaining why she wanted to fund nonfiction film.
“The process of making a documentary is a learning experience in the art of listening, cooperation, research, budgeting, connectivity, visual storytelling. Aligning with Emerson’s 4C’s: creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication,” she said. “These are skills that need to be nurtured, and in today’s world, are often left behind.”
Students can apply and receive funding from the grant at any stage of production. “They need to have a letter of support from a charitable organization that will be able to use the finished product in their mission,” said Marc Fields, Visual and Media Arts associate professor, graduate program director, and coordinator of the fund at Emerson. Fields and other documentary instructors at the College vet the applications and award the grants.
“The College can’t provide a lot of material support to student films beyond lending equipment, so students without a lot of personal financial resources are at a disadvantage when making really ambitious thesis projects. I think [the fund] definitely attracts and supports our most engaged socially conscious students,” Fields said. “It certainly encourages a more diverse participation in media making.”
For Cassano—whose film follows her brother after transitioning from a residential school for kids with autism to an independent living environment—receiving the grant meant she could produce a polished trailer to show on Kickstarter. The campaign ended up raising $18,000 for the film. The Virgin Unite fund gave Cassano $2,500 for production and $2,750 for post-production. “I don’t think I would have made as much money off Kickstarter, because the more professional the film looks, the more likely people are to give money, which is kind of a Catch-22,” she said.
But it’s not just Emerson students who benefit from the Virgin Unite fund; the graduate film program has also reaped rewards from the grant. “Since we’ve had this program, there have been more students doing documentary [filmmaking],” Fields said. “We started using the availability of funds as a recruitment tool. It’s part of what we use to distinguish ourselves as an MFA program.”
To be sure, interest in nonfiction filmmaking has been building for a while, as students are increasingly seeing the need to give voice to marginalized groups of people.
“I think, also, since there’s such an emphasis on commercial production, not just at Emerson, but also other film schools, this is providing a means of making media art that is not dependent on a big corporation or big budgets, or expensive equipment,” Fields said.
Barron said since creating the fund in 2009, she’s noticed a rise in students’ social consciousness and compassionate critical thinking. She sees recipients going on to mentor other documentarians and envisions a group of alumni who advance the field of nonfiction filmmaking, thanks to the strong foundation they got through Emerson and Virgin Unite.
“I have no doubt that an Emerson student, encouraged by the Emerson Fund, will go on to be nominated for peer recognition awards and bring further encouragement and inspiration to the important field of the slow, patient, courageous truth-seeking and truth-telling,” she said.