Home Cannes 2024 Cannes Docs Interview: Jenni Wolfson, CEO, and Kiyoko McCrae, Programme Director of...

Cannes Docs Interview: Jenni Wolfson, CEO, and Kiyoko McCrae, Programme Director of Chicken & Egg Pictures

Jenni Wolfson, CEO, and Kiyoko McCrae, Programme Director of Chicken & Egg Pictures

So what came first? The Chicken & Egg Pictures CEO, Jenni Wolfson, and Programme Director, Kiyoko McCrae, make it clear that their priorities remain as they were in 2005, when the organisation was founded: to provide financial and creative support for women and gender-expansive non-fiction directors who face bias in the field due to their gender.

This year marks the first time that the company has officially attended the Cannes Festival. Both Wolfson and McCrae are taking part in panels as part of Cannes Docs.

“At IDFA we met with Pierre-Alexis (Chevit) who runs Cannes Docs. He was just really interested in us being there and so we started developing a relationship and thought that we could contribute to some conversations around the work we are doing and the impact that we are trying to have,” McCrae explains what is drawing them to Cannes. “It [Cannes Docs] seemed like a good space to be in.”

Wolfson will be moderating a panel on “Redefining Success on Our Own Terms” (Sunday May 19, 2pm). Her panelists will be filmmakers Alisa Kovalenko (from Ukraine) and Ilinca Calugareanu (from Romania), both recipients of Chicken & Egg support.

“One of the things Chicken & Egg Pictures focuses on a lot in our programmes is not just supporting a film but supporting a filmmaker and their career. We know how hard it is to develop and sustain a career as an independent documentary filmmaker,” Wolfson reflects on the subject of her panel. “There is no one model…artists from around the world cobble together different ways in which to build their careers.”

The panel will consider the barometers for measuring success and why they need to change. 

“If you’re defining success just by getting that hard-to-nab streaming deal, a lot of filmmakers are going to think they are not successful. But actually, success can be defined by the kinds of audiences you might reach, the impact you might have exploring alternative models of distribution. We thought it would be interesting to hear independent filmmakers talk about what is success and how they define that in their own terms,” Wolfson continues.  

Ukrainian Kovalenko’s new film Frontline is screening as part of the East Doc Platfor Showcase. The documentary looks at the director’s experiences fighting with the Ukrainian army in the war against Russia. 

“She was thinking about her own mortality. If she didn’t make it back home, what would her son know about her and her reasons for going to the frontline. It was really beautiful to hear her talk about that. Initially, the impetus was not necessarily to make a film. It evolved into a film but it came from a very personal need to capture this moment,” McCrae reflects on the challenges that confronted Kovalenko as a filmmaker and mother. She had been questioning whether or not she should be continuing to make films at all and talked about “losing the ground under her feet.” 

The Chicken & Egg programme director believes that the award for Kovalenko gave her an important boost at a difficult time. “It’s a way of validating her voice and the work she is doing.”

McCrae will be speaking on a panel entitled “Towards a Universal Values System in Documentary: Dismantling Borders for Greater Equity” (Monday, 2pm).

“There’s an interesting question being posed by this panel around who gets to tell what stories. Increasingly, we are thinking about what it means to be accountable. If you’re a filmmaker and you’re not from that community [you’re filming], how are you accountable to that community?”

It is a thorny subject. McCrae speculates that the rise in deeply personal documentary could be partly in response to questions of accountability. She asks again: “are there ways filmmakers can work ethically and accountably when they are not from that community?”

Wolfson partly answers her colleague’s question.

“You [as a filmmaker] don’t have to be from the community. You don’t have to be directly impacted by the story you are telling but who are you building your team with so that you really understand the complexity and nuances of different situations and different parts of the world? Maybe you’re a filmmaker from Brazil making a film in Bangladesh but your producer, your consulting editor [are from Bangladesh]. We want to understand the full picture and not just who the director is, but who the team is.”

Chicken & Egg Pictures is a non-profit organisation working globally and supported 100% by “contributed income.” The aim is to support women and gender expansive filmmakers. One of its core beliefs is that who gets to tell the stories matters as much as the stories themselves.

The organisation has a huge range of supporters including foundations [among them MacArthur Foundation and Perspective Fund], streamers [Netflix] and individuals.

“Last year, we gave out $1.84 million. This year, it will be about $1.35 million. It does vary from year to year depending on how our fund raising is,” Wolfson says. Across the programme, the support goes to approximately 55% international projects, 45% US-based.

The outfit’s new Research & Development Grant Award is backed by Netflix’s Fund for Creative Equity. This enables support to be given to filmmakers at the difficult early stages of their projects.

“If you look at the history of 20 years of Chicken & Egg Pictures, supporting 500 filmmakers, we are able to show a slate of not only successful, impactful films but also programming and mentorship, and access to people in the industry that help a filmmaker catapult her career,” the CEO adds. There’s also strong camaraderie between these filmmakers. 

As Chicken & Egg prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary, plenty of new programmes are coming out of the coop. One idea being conceived is a producers’ programme (likely to be launched next year). The idea will be to provide slate funding for the producers. The organisation is also continuing to “think creatively” about how to solve the distribution crisis facing documentary. (Project: Hatched already offers backing for filmmaking teams to launch impact campaigns).

Wolfson acknowledges that it is “worrying” to see other prominent organisations that have funded documentary “close their doors,” like Participant Media. She emphasises, though, that Chicken & Egg isn’t driven by commercial imperatives. “We don’t have a bottom line. We don’t need to prove that documentaries we support will make millions of dollars. Our goal is to support independent filmmakers to tell stories we feel reflect the complexity, diversity and social justice struggles of the world we live in…we are completely reliant on funders who believe in that model.”

The CEO and her team are still fighting as fiercely as ever for a more equitable industry. “There are probably as many women documentary filmmakers as there are men or gender expansive but when you look at distribution, a recent study shows that 70% of documentary films that are on streaming, public TV or broadcast, are helmed by men,” Wolfson notes. “There is change that still needs to happen…”