Documentary film funding: filmmakers share their best advice

Past recipients of the Canon Video Grant – Short Film Documentary, Michaël Zumstein, Camille Millerand and Irene Baqué, share their experiences.
Four older women with beauty facial masks covering their faces sit in a line in front of a yellow and red wall, in this still from a documentary short by filmmaker Irene Baqué.

Irene Baqué's short film, made with help from the Canon Video Grant, follows 14 retired sex workers who live in Casa Xochiquetzal in Mexico City. In this scene, some of the women are wearing face masks as they are taking part in a beauty session. "When they were together, they would talk among themselves and the style was more observational," says Irene. © Irene Baqué

Very few people go into documentary filmmaking to get rich or famous. A documentary filmmaker is driven to uncover stories that matter and share them with the world. There are growing audiences for documentaries, with non-fiction series finding their home on streaming platforms where they rival the biggest movie blockbusters for viewing figures. But no-one reaches that point overnight.

Launched in 2020, the Canon Video Grant – Short Film Documentary offers emerging international photojournalists and videographers a head start in the form of a cash grant and a loan of Canon gear to shoot a short film on ​​a social, economic, political or cultural topic. Here, Michaël Zumstein, Camille Millerand and Irene Baqué, three previous grant recipients, talk about their experiences of funding and realising their projects.

In a shaded courtyard, a man dressed all in black holds an award, standing with two men and a woman who are all smiling at the camera. The people are Jean-François Leroy, Claire-Anne Devillard, Michaël Zumstein and Lucas Menget.

As the Canon Video Grant's inaugural winner, Michaël Zumstein (pictured here in a black shirt holding his award) saw his documentary film premiere at Visa pour l'Image in September 2022. He's seen here with (L-R) Jean-François Leroy, Director General of Visa pour l'Image, Claire-Anne Devillard of Canon France, and Lucas Menget, a member of the Video Grant jury and Deputy Editorial Director of Franceinfo. © Sébastien Riotto

What is your documentary experience and how have you been funding that work?

Irene: "I worked in-house as a documentary maker at The Guardian for six years before going freelance in 2019. When you work for any newspaper, there are certain stories they want to cover and I wanted to explore my own style, to make work that was longer and allowed me to spend more time with subjects."

Camille: "I co-directed another documentary, Derwisha, with Leïla Beratto. The film tells the story of a roofless two-storey house located 30km from Algiers where about 30 people, mostly Cameroonians and Ivorians, lived on their way to Europe. We self-funded the project for three years before teaming up with Lumento Films, a French production house, for the editing, colour grading and post-production. Often, I manage to finance my scouting via photo orders from the press, which allows me to write a note of intent, and then I try to meet producers. Also, obtaining scholarships related to photography allows me to switch to a documentary film project."

Michaël: "Usually, I make documentaries for TV channels such as France Télévisions and ARTE. I always work with a producer who manages the funding and budget, and they are responsible for finding a TV channel to finance the project. The producer normally has everything planned out before you start filming – expenses, travel costs, salaries. As an independent video maker you are not set up as a company so you can't pay salaries or pay taxes. TV budgets are higher than in photojournalism so there is more at stake. A channel won't want to take a risk on an independent filmmaker. If something goes wrong in the filmmaking process that might lose you money, the producer deals with it. I've always worked with the same producer, who happens to be my wife, and her colleagues. With a producer, it's not just about the money, it's also about working with someone you trust."

What do filmmakers spend their budgets on?

Irene: "Flights and accommodation, also hiring the sound recordist and fixer. I'm going to edit my current project myself, but I'll spend a little more on colour grading and sound design."

Michaël: "In the case of my latest project, my budget went on travel and accommodation for two trips – the first for six days, the second for two and a half weeks. Things can take a while when you work in Africa because there is a lot of administration to do. The funding also went on paying my fixer and an editor."

Camille: "Time spent scouting, renting microphones, writing sessions with a documentary scriptwriter, and for me, writing a sequence for a 52-minute version of the film. Taking time to write was a luxury. But it also opened doors, giving us access to the production company 416 Production and that of the TV channel ARTE."

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In a small room, a young man wearing a black shirt opens a blue locker, in this still from Camille Millerand's documentary short, The Invisibles, made with help from the Canon Video Grant.

Camille Millerand's The Invisibles shines a light on the lives of illegal workers, who, despite their official status, nonetheless play a significant role in the French economy. Makan (pictured) works in the kitchens of a chic brasserie on the Champs-Elysées in Paris. "In this shot, Makan is at the end of his shift in the changing room of the restaurant where he works," says Camille. "It's 3am." © Camille Millerand

Two women, one holding a camera and one holding a mic, film a man in a small bedroom, placing clothes from a wardrobe onto a low bed.

Canon Video Grant winner Irene Baqué directs and self-shoots a scene for her documentary with sound recordist Karina Villaseñor. Her chosen camera was a Canon EOS C70, which she praised for its compact frame and cinematic output. © Paula Vilella

What made you apply for the Canon Video Grant? And how did you feel when you won?

Irene (2022 winner): "I only discovered in 2021 that there were documentary grants you could apply for. Compared with some, the Canon Video Grant is quite open in terms of what you can pitch, and I decided to apply with a story I wanted to shoot in Mexico. It was amazing to win. I've since managed to find quite a few grants to fund my documentaries. It's never a lot of money, so I tend to invest all the grant in getting a good team to make the film and balance my income with directing commercials. I'd advise younger filmmakers to try to always have some work on the side to balance the incomes and to research grants online."

Camille (2021 winner): "I couldn't believe my ears. I was so surprised to have won. Before I applied for the grant, we scouted for locations, which was self-funded. The grant changed that."

Michaël (2020 winner): "I felt fantastic. The whole application process was really smooth, unlike when you're trying to get a documentary approved by a television channel which can take a long time. This was the first grant I'd come across for documentary. In my 20 years as a photojournalist, I'd shot stills with Canon, and I was curious to explore Canon's video equipment."

Tell us about your Canon Video Grant films and how you shot them.

Camille: "My film tells the story of Makan Baradji, a Malian worker who has two jobs as a kitchen dishwasher and delivery man in Paris. We follow him for one year during which he obtains his official papers and finds his family that he's not seen for four years."

Irene: "I filmed with the residents of Casa Xochiquetzal [a retirement home for sex workers] in Mexico City. I got access to film there through a fixer before I won the grant, but hadn't met any of the women at that point. I used to shoot everything myself and then when I went freelance, I started working with DoPs with bigger cameras. But this was an intimate film and my relationship with the women is part of the story, so I went back to shooting solo, although I worked with a sound recordist and fixer. I did interviews with the older women in their rooms and shot observational scenes."

Michaël: "I was interested in exploring how Chinese enterprises are working in West Africa. I wanted to report on young people in Senegal, a former French colony, who don't feel a connection with France but now look to China as a route to find work. I thought a powerful way to show this was by following Senegalese students learning Chinese at the Institut Confucius in Dakar. I hired a fixer, Abdullai, who worked as my assistant, translator and driver. There was one day where I was really sick and lay on the floor while he did everything as I directed. He was so important!"

An older woman wearing a blue top and scarf holds up a piece of fabric to the side of the shot in this still from a documentary short by filmmaker Irene Baqué.

"The women who live in Casa Xochiquetzal fought for 20 years to have a place where they could retire when they could no longer work," says Irene, who went in with a preconceived idea of how she would shoot the film but ended up "going with the flow". In fact, the final film has a comic side that Irene didn't anticipate. "I thought it would be more dramatic. But many of the women are proud of their lives. I guess if they have had traumas, they have healed them with humour. They're always making jokes to each other." © Irene Baqué

A person watches football on their phone in this still from Camille Millerand's documentary short, The Invisibles.

Based in France, Camille made his name as a photojournalist working for newspapers such as Le Monde. His work in stills and video has taken him to Algeria, Ivory Coast and Cameroon. In this shot, Makan – the main focus of Camille's documentary short – watches a football match on his phone during a break at work. © Camille Millerand

How important was kit choice in achieving the results you were after?

Irene: "I really liked the Canon EOS C70 camera because it's small but still a cinema camera, with a Canon CN-E24mm T1.5 L F lens. For me it was important to show how the women lived and had organised their rooms, so this wide angle, fixed lens was perfect for moving around in a small space."

Camille: "We shot with the Canon EOS C70 and two lenses: a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM and an RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM. We preferred the EOS C70 because of the mini-jack stereo sound input, and chose the 24-70mm and the 70-200mm lenses for their complementarity. The first to have wide shots and medium shots, the second to look for gestures in the kitchen and facial expressions of Makan."

What advice do you have about documentary film budgeting?

Camille: "To establish a budget and manage all aspects of the film, it's good to work with a production company. You can't manage everything alone. You have to focus on the story you're telling."

Michaël: "When you're making a short documentary film like this, you don't have a lot of time so you must be really organised. Do a research trip first to find your characters. Make sure you have included everything in your budget. And know your kit. You have to trust your camera, to trust your mic, because you can't afford to lose one day if they are not working."

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Cars drive down the Champs-Élysées at night in this still from Camille Millerand's documentary short, The Invisibles.

Makan's workplace is located near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. A 52-minute version of the documentary will be shown on ARTE, a French-German TV channel, in summer 2023. "I don't know what's next but what is certain is that I really want to continue telling stories drawn from reality by making films," concludes Camillle. © Camille Millerand

Any cinematography tips for filmmakers on a budget?

Irene: "There are simple things you can do such as use available light. Think about where you position people within the room. Sit them by the window, open or close curtains and doors, turn on a bedside table lamp or whatever. That added to some colour grading will help to make your film look more cinematic."

To find out more about the Canon Video Grant – Short Film Documentary, read our Canon Video Grant article.

Rachel Segal Hamilton

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