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Renew Media Celebrates 20 Years

Initially it might appear that filmmakers Godfrey Reggio (Koyaanisqatsi) and Jonathan Caouette (Tarnation) have little in common with directors Kelly Reichardt or Rob Epstein. Caouette’s intensely self-referential experimental documentary footage or Reggio’s dreamlike visual-image essays differ considerably from Reichardt’s well-received narrative feature Old Joy or Epstein’s award-winning political documentaries.

Behind the scenes, however, these filmmakers and nearly 500 more have obtained funding and support from the nonprofit organization Renew Media (formerly known as National Video Resources), established in 1990 by the Rockefeller Foundation to administer the annual Media Arts Fellowships. In 2003 Renew Media assumed full responsibility for managing the fellowships, with the majority of its financial backing coming from the foundation.

In May, Renew Media observed the 20th anniversary of Rockefeller’s funding of the Media Arts Fellowships and announced the 2007 grant recipients. The organization has a history of assisting both traditional and more experimental projects — this year’s awardees span the spectrum from feature narratives and documentaries to multimedia installations and computer games.

Among 14 film and video fellows receiving unrestricted $35,000 grants were Reichardt, Caouette, Epstein and Reggio, along with six New Media fellows. Renew Media also bestowed two $10,000 Emerging Artist Fellowships and will present four $20,000 fellowships to Mexican artists later in the year. The grants are based primarily on the film, video and new-media makers’ creative vision and assist with the “creation of new work that brings innovation to the media arts,” according to the organization.

“I think that they’re among the more important awards out there,” boasts Renew Media executive director Brian Newman. “More so today than ever before, precisely because there’s been such a cutback in the amount of grant funding — or any other kind of funding — available for pure creativity.”

Renew Media confers the annual fellowships based on a closed nomination process, selecting artists from a pool of candidates recommended by film-studies faculty, festival programmers, journalists, past fellows and independent filmmakers. Committees comprised primarily of working film, video and media artists then review applications and select the honorees.

Commenting on the significance of Renew Media’s fellowships, Brother to Brother writer-director and 2002 recipient Rodney Evans says, “I think right now they’re very, very important, just because there are so few places that support risky, challenging, artistic endeavors in independent film and video.”

Renew Media fellowships have contributed to financing some of the more notable independent films of the last several years, including Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow, Forty Shades of Blue by Ira Sachs, Cheryl Dunye’s Stranger Inside and Smoke Signals from Chris Eyre, as well as established indie and experimental filmmakers like Bill Viola, Kenneth Anger, Miranda July, Gregg Araki, Jim McKay and Charles Burnett.

Writer-director Ham Tran secured a 2005 fellowship for his feature debut Journey From the Fall, currently in theaters. “It made it possible to complete the film, to tell you the truth,” Tram says. “It was a really huge shot in the arm,” recalls filmmaker Grace Lee about receiving a 2003 fellowship for her wryly humorous documentary The Grace Lee Project. “It also makes a big difference in people’s perception of your project.”

For more information on the Media Arts Fellowships, see renewmedia.org.

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