Is it a coincidence that Austin’s film scene, and its nonprofit community, have both been growing at seemingly exponential rates the past few years? Perhaps. We’d like to think it has at least a little something to do with groups like Lights. Camera. Help., a film festival and educational program that highlights the importance of art with a message.
Year-round, the Lights. Camera. Help team runs events, lectures and SXSW panels on the nonprofit film industry, assisting artists with an interest in cause-driven projects. They also offer advice to nonprofits on how video can help them attract a larger support base, focusing on easy steps an organization can take to increase their profile. This weekend, they'll spend three nights celebrating selected works at their third annual film festival.
What exactly is “cause-driven” film? It’s video highlighting efforts of nonprofit agencies or human rights groups, documentaries that explore cultural struggles, biographical shorts, geographically-diverse PSAs that publicize issues from around the globe. (Scroll down for clips from this year's top picks.)
“No one wants to go to the ‘About Us’ page of a nonprofit and download a 15-page .pdf of what they do," explains Lights. Camera. Help. founder David Neff. "That’s quickly becoming extinct. What people want to do is watch your mission, they want you to show them your mission, they don’t want to read it. They want to see it, and that’s what Lights. Camera. Help. is all about.”
The festival is enjoying an increase in interest, submissions and visitors, and will likely attract a record crowd this weekend. Neff is excited about another milestone: the record number of submissions received from local documentarians.
“There are a lot more international films, which we are really proud of. And this year, central Austin in particular blew up. We got a ton of central Texas films, which is great.”
In fact, there were so many entries that narrowing it down proved difficult for this year’s screeners.
“We had a rough and tumble time judging them,” says Neff. “People on our film selection committee were voicing their opinions and fighting over entries. The quality was so amazing this year, everybody had a favorite and everybody was fighting for them.”
After winning a spot on the lineup, films compete in the weekend-long festival for several grand prizes.
“We take the profit from the film festival and we give it to the winning films as a cash donation, so the top three films from this year’s festival will actually get a large percentage of our ticket sales, kind of as a grant, for them to go out and keep doing amazing film work.”
This year, Lights. Camera. Help. will be giving back even more. “We’ve lined up some really cool stuff for after the film festival,” Neff explains. “Winners will be featured on YouTube, they’ll hopefully be featured in the NonProfit Times, which is a huge industry newspaper. We’ve also teamed up with a clothing company out of LA called Apliiq, and they will actually be making a clothing line based on one of our top three films and then donating a percentage of every piece of clothing sold to the winning organization. So it’s kind of the gift that keeps on giving.”
The festival begins on Thursday, July 28th and wraps up Saturday, July 30th. Over three nights, audiences will view selections that follow Philippine educators, Haitian recovery efforts and Austin’s own Inside Books Project, among many others.
“Our big balance between is that we can basically only have a feature a night, so we have a lot of PSAs, a lot of short films under 30 minutes and then, each night, we feature one of our big, heavy-hitting films.”
Here are a few of Neff’s festival favorites:
DN: Shot here in Austin, Texas, this is an amazing feature length documentary.
"Shot entirely on location in Southern Indiana and Austin, Texas, Paradise Recovered attempts a modern-day retelling of the parable of the Good Samaritan while addressing hard questions involving faith, tolerance, and spiritual abuse in modern culture."
DN: This film tells the story of Massey Energy, in West Virginia, where a huge coal fire that killed 29 people; this documentary takes place before all that happened.
"Coal River Valley, West Virginia is a community surrounded by lush mountains and a looming toxic threat. ON COAL RIVER follows a former miner and his neighbors in a David-and-Goliath struggle for the future of their valley, their children, and life as they know it."
DN: Urban Roots is all about the movement of city farming, and how Detroit's reimagining itself as a green, farm-friendly city, instead of just the Motor Capital of the World.
"Urban Roots is the powerful story of the rise of the urban farming movement in post industrial Detroit. The diverse citizens of Detroit have come together to create hope and community through small, independent farms grown in the city, that make fresh food available to people, many for the first time."