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Festival Puts Grant-Supported Films in Spotlight

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New York

"Stand and Deliver,'' "Roger and Me,'' and "Eyes on the Prize.''

On the surface, it might be difficult to guess what these films share. But all three are independent works made with the help of private grants, and all have been featured in the annual film festival of the Council on Foundations.

Each year at the council's conference, foundation officers cluster around a television and V.C.R., typically in a corner of the conference's "marketplace'' of vendors and information booths. Films are aired as early as 7 A.M.; showings continue until late at night.

The festival's purpose is to "celebrate and demonstrate the range of work that foundations are supporting,'' said Woodward A. Wickham, the vice president of public affairs and director of the general program at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago.

"There's everything from relatively high-visibility series like 'The Great Depression' [by the acclaimed documentary filmmaker Henry Hampton] to videos made by teenagers in the inner city of New York about their own lives,'' he said.

Typically at least three of the films each year focus on youth- and education-related issues, according to Robin Hettleman, the director of communications at the Council on Foundations, whose annual conference was held here last week.

High School Basketball

Now in its 14th year, the film festival is one of the first projects that brought together a group of grantmakers who shared an interest in media.

A more formal "affinity group,'' Grantmakers in Film, Television, and Video, was launched eight years ago by 15 program officers. Its membership is now about 50. Mr. Wickham said the group is "a loose association of foundation officers that support projects in these areas, or are considering doing so.''

Among the 15 films featured in this year's festival is "Hoop Dreams,'' which took seven years to complete and was made with the help of a $250,000 grant from MacArthur. Earlier this year, "'Hoop Dreams'' won the Audience Award for documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival, a plum recognition for independent films that is also seen as an indicator of potential mainstream-market success.

The three-hour film depicts the lives of two talented high school basketball players, William Gates and Arthur Agee, following them through high school and through the beginning of their freshman year in college.

"The film explores the narrowness of options available to inner-city youngsters,'' the festival program says, "the role of family and friends in teenagers' effort in trying to reach their goals, the allure of top-rank college basketball and the machinations of recruiters, and the qualities that youngsters must draw upon in order to succeed in any highly competitive pursuit.''

The movie "isn't really about sports,'' the film critic Roger Ebert wrote in in the Chicago Sun-Times. "It's about the elusive American Dream.''

Flicker of Independence

"Independent films, produced on a shoestring budget over many years by heroic, typically young, socially committed artists,'' Mr. Wickham said, "rarely break through the rigid selection criteria of Hollywood and commercial television.'' But "Hoop Dreams,'' he said, "is one of those rare exceptions that demonstrate what only independent work can bring to a national audience.''

Another example of this type of work, Mr. Wickham noted, is "Stand and Deliver,'' the acclaimed film depicting the mathematics teacher Jaime Escalante's efforts to help inner-city Los Angeles students learn calculus.

"We support work of this kind,'' Mr. Wickham said, "because we think it gives visibility to realities not well understood by most Americans, and presents those realities ... in their complexity.''

This year's screening committee selected the films after viewing about 30 submissions. Curator Tony Gittens, who is also the director of Washington's International Film Festival, selected them from about 135 submissions.

Also on the bill was "Lives in Hazard,'' a film by the actor Edward James Olmos about his work with gang members on the set of the film "American Me.''

Four short films made by New York City teenagers under the auspices of Rise and Shine Productions were also featured. They touched on such diverse topics as domestic violence, teenagers' feelings about their parents, and the 1992 Democratic National Convention.

Yet another selection, "Something With Me,'' examines St. Augustine's School of the Arts in New York City, a Roman Catholic elementary school where every student must learn to play a musical instrument.

"There's a very strong interest among foundations in positive youth development as an economic investment in trying to improve society,'' Mr. Wickham said. Other foundations also consider the process of making a film a way to empower students by giving them a voice to reflect on the society they are living in and growing up in.

Furthermore, the media are "a very powerful tool for getting visibility for an issue,'' Mary Leonard, the director of the precollegiate affinity group at the Council on Foundations, said. It is not unusual, she said, for foundation officers to get bombarded with phone calls from board members the Monday morning after a youth- or education-related segment has aired on "60 Minutes.''

In addition to helping make the films, foundation grants are critical to distribution, said Tim Gunn, the executive director of National Video Resources, a New York nonprofit group founded in 1990 with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. The group seeks to expand the audiences of independent films by trying to make sure more of them are made into videotapes and added to library and other collections.

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