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Documentaries for good: Dale Bell and Harry Wiland discuss the Media and Policy Center

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Based in Santa Monica, California, the Media and Policy Center (MPC) is a non-profit documentary film company that specializes in creating content addressing social justice issues for public television and educational distribution platforms. Co-CEOs Dale Bell and Harry Wiland, who both boast storied careers in film and television spanning decades, joined forces in the early 2000s to develop a media model that would combine documentary filmmaking with community education and engagement. I had the opportunity to intern in the MPC office this summer and was able to interview Mr. Bell and Mr. Wiland recently about their mission as media-makers and their current projects, “Do No Harm,” “Backfired: When VW Lied to America” and “Our Kids.”

The Stanford Daily: Would you be willing to say a little bit about the Media and Policy Center and your mission as documentarians?

Harry Wiland: I was driving into work today, and I thought about all the people in my career who have meant something to me, who have made a difference, and it turns out it’s a very small list, and at the top is this guy named Dale Bell. He was a person who, when I was looking for work, said, “Let me see if I can connect you with KCET here in Los Angeles” — a lot of people will say things like that — but that resulted in a three year a gig at KCET. And I said to myself, “This guy’s different. He follows through.”

Lo and behold, a year later we sat down and talked about a business partnership. Dale made a comment that public television largely consists of a series of meetings with projections sort of sandwiched in between those meetings and that he was looking for something different — and I was looking for something different. That led to a discussion of how we could be different. The way I saw that was that, whatever we did, it was not just a film or a program but rather an overall complementary media effort where one form of media would support the other forms. So, the broadcasts or series on public television — PBS perhaps was the leader — would complement a great deal of other material in the forms of community and educational outreach, books, video resource library and a really robust project work website. We called it the Media Model, and we both got really excited and started working together. Our first film together was “And Thou Shalt Honor” about caregiving and the challenges caregivers face.

TSD: And how about for you, Dale?

Dale Bell: I always envisioned that the camera would be the choice of weapon I would use to try to address issues of social justice. I came to that determination in college, had no idea how to pursue it, but found a job in the shipping room at ABC Television. I got out of there about three years later and joined what I considered to be the Mecca for me, a cauldron of ideas and thinking that I wanted to join. It was then called National Educational Television — it was not yet public television — in May of 1964. It became my laboratory of experience in all kinds of media-making. It was there, four years later, where I would meet Harry Wiland, a young independent producer working who wanted to try to make a film about Johnny Cash. He was a Columbia MFA student, and, lo and behold, I was in a position to be able to guide him and his team into what was then Public Broadcast Laboratory and secure some financing and distribution for them. I always admired the chutzpah and the vision of an independent producer because with children and all kinds of other responsibilities, I had to get a regular paycheck and couldn’t work independently.

It would take some years to be able to transverse through public television, commercial television, feature filmmaking, back into public television in ’71, where I found that at a station in Pittsburgh, WQED, they were already using media to leverage community engagement across the country. So, when Harry and I finally sat down together in March of 1999 to discuss working together, everything that I had done up to that point became focused through this narrow hole of not having meetings but actually making films that could be coordinated on multiple platforms in multiple layers across the country using models that I’d worked with before. Fundraising, of course, would be a critical ingredient of the whole package. But, I wanted an independent shop where we could together as a small team really try to make a difference.  

TSD: It is very unique that the Media and Policy Center not only makes films but does engage with the community across a variety of platforms.

HW: We consider ourselves not only independent producers but [also] independent journalists. Journalism is really an endangered species. It is under attack. Big corporations are not always able to be flexible and provide important information because of other issues. So, we think we hold a very strong but fragile position in this environment.

TSD: The Media and Policy Center is a nonprofit. How did you go about settling on that idea and then actually making it happen?

HW: We became a not-for-profit because, in all senses of the word, documentary filmmakers generally go hand-to-mouth, and so we decided to take advantage of that and become a 501(c)(3) because we could have some direct grants to us without paying another organization five percent.

The other thing I was going to bring up is our internship program. We invite people to apply for internships, and it’s a very important part of what we do, which is to try and prepare the next generation of independent journalists to be media-savvy in all its different forms. And we’d like to continue that.  

TSD: Definitely, and you’re a small enough company that you are able to really interact with and teach the people that you bring into your office. Could you tell me a little bit about the projects that you currently have on air?

HW: “Do No Harm” about the opioid epidemic took just about three years to try to find funding, then produce, and then try to get distributed. It’s in two formats — there are three one-hour episodes currently being distributed on public television as well as a 90-minute version being distributed by Gathr for special theatrical releases.

Additionally, I led a panel recently at the Reel Recovery Film Festival, an organization based in New York that highlights, films, television and books that deal with the issues of addiction and recovery. More importantly, because of our media model, “Do No Harm” is not just a program that comes and goes. Kanopy films is distributing all three hours plus short films that have been created on the topic throughout the country. Kanopy has a very unique distribution system where library members can download a film directly onto their computers, or whatever instrument they have, for free.

TSD: Kanopy’s a very powerful tool. I use it all the time here at Stanford, and it’s really great.

HW: Distribution is really changing, and we don’t know what’s going to happen in five years. Certainly 10 years ago there was PBS, and then there was educational distribution, and that was it. Now with streaming and the chance to distribute your films or television productions globally, the potential market has increased enormously. I’d also like to mention that our senior advisor for the program, Dr. Andrew Kolodny out of Brandeis University, who heads their addiction research and services institution there, was enormously beneficial in the making of this film.

TSD: Dale, could you say a little bit about “Backfired”?

DB: Sure, at the same time that we began production of “Do No Harm,” the Volkswagen scandal broke in September 2015. When I read about it in the paper, I looked to my wife Liz and asked “Isn’t this the time to call your friend Mary Nichols [chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board]?” And she nodded, and I called, and Mary said, “Yes, this would be the time to start a program that focused on the VW scandal and also at the role California had been playing in the environmental movement since the oil spill in Santa Barbara in January of 1969.” So, within weeks I was on my way to Paris as the unofficial cinematographer for the California delegation, including Governor Brown, Governor Schwarzenegger and Mary Nichols and about 25 other people very much addicted to climate change issues.

The VW scandal project, when we finally finished it, was named “Backfired: When VW Lied to America.” It deals with issues of climate change and tells the California story, tells the story about women, issues of corporate corruption, ethics and what the individual can do in order to make a difference in this field of environmental policy. It has been sent to all public television stations across the country as of the middle of September. We are also being distributed by a company called BullFrog Films that handles environmental issue films in Europe, and around the world we’re being distributed by Palatin. We’ve got one sale, and we’re looking for more.

HW: I’m sure you know what our current project is.

TSD: Yes, I had the opportunity to work on “Our Kids” [a film series about the opportunity gap in America] this summer.

HW: Well, “Our Kids” started because Dale and I are readers. If there’s one thing I see in upcoming generation, it’s that people don’t read enough books. It was literally a book review on “Our Kids” by Robert Putnam that prompted me to go hear Putnam when he was at UCLA giving a talk — the book had just come out — and I read the book beforehand and thought it would make a great series. I knew nothing about the opportunity gap, and neither did Dale, but we managed to meet with Putnam, and he said, “Well, you know, there’s a competition. My agent said there are as many as eight other companies vying for the rights to the book.”

Well, our proposal won the competition. We were able to raise enough money to do about a year of research and development. We wrote proposals to a number of major grants and foundations, and we’ve been in production for over three years. There will be four one-hour segments, plus additional materials and a companion book. But, this is the kind of topic that sometimes flies under the radar. Most people have no idea or don’t think about how there’s such a disparity between wealthy and impoverished children. Thirty million kids — our national treasure — [who] are either at the poverty level or below don’t have the same advantages or chance in life. As a country, we’ll lose what they have to give.

DB: “Our Kids” will be broadcast across public television stations starting in mid-April 2019. We expect that we will be organizing national partners, as we’ve done before, and local coalitions. We want groups to gather together to look at the film and see in the film some solutions that they might be able to replicate in their own communities. Obviously, in four hours you can’t cover the entire country with film, but we profiled eight communities, following about five strands of content throughout the eight communities, watching process succeed, get muddled, in some cases fail, but in the end, triumph. We hope and expect that viewers can watch these inspirational and aspirational stories and become involved in working in their own communities and become strategic bridge-builders to close the opportunity gap where they see the struggle taking place in front of them. “Our Kids” is a celebration of localism, nonpartisanship and working together to find common ground and building blocks that will succeed in this bridge-building effort.

HW: It’s important to note it’s not a mirror of the book. The book really sets the table and discusses the issue, but it doesn’t really provide solutions. “Our Kids” is about solutions. As Dale just said, sometimes programs fail; maybe they fail more times than they should, but because they’re local and inspired by the community, they have a greater chance of success, and if we can show that, then other communities can look at the eight model communities and say that if they can do it in Riverside or New Hampshire or Columbus, then we can try it ourselves.

TSD: MPC also has some projects in early stages of development and production. Could you just say a couple of things about those and how you discovered those topics?

DB: We are wishing to produce a sequel to the movie “Woodstock” to celebrate Woodstock the event and “Woodstock” the movie, with the movie’s 50th anniversary coming up in the next 12 months.

TSD: And for people who don’t know, Dale, what was your role on the original movie?

DB: I was one of two producers on the original movie. My official title was associate producer. I had given Michael Wadleigh, the director, his first job in 1966, and we had hung together on and off until the summer of ’69 when we decided that maybe we had to do something about this rock festival. We organized some 50 people to go up to the site in a couple of days and realized that if we did not film it, nobody would, and if we did film it, then people would come to us to help finance whatever we had captured with our 15 camera crews. If you have possession of the negative footage that is often nine-tenths of the battle, and in our case, it was ten-tenths. Within two days of the festival, before the festival was even over and before Jimi Hendrix played his rendering of the “Star Spangled Banner” on Monday morning when so many people had already left, we had a deal with Warner Brothers. So being bold, being daring, having chutzpah and being scared is a very good motto for success.

HW: We have another project that is in the very, very early stages, but it’s always one phone call away. We’re looking into a non-partisan but scientific and technical approach to reducing gun violence. There are a couple of key people in the United States that have sparked an interest and agreed to be filmed.

TSD: We need that more than ever right now.

HW: The polarization of that issue is a tragedy, but by taking it out of that context and exploring different approaches to make guns safer, or smarter, who could be against that? And this is where being a 501(c)(3) is key to be able to remove it from this polarization. We’re trying to get to the truth and have people look at it and make their own decisions without the overlay of polarization.

TSD: As documentarians, you don’t have to participate in the daily news cycle in a way that a lot of journalists do these days. I think that that can be a really powerful thing for the public to be able to access stories about key issues presented in a new and more robust way.

HW: It’s interesting. I recently met a group of people who work at a recovery center in Arizona, and they deal with all sorts of addiction and mental health issues, and they said they were afraid about what they are seeing right now with the legalization of marijuana. Because the strains are so much more powerful than they were in the 1960s, there are people having mental breakdowns who come into their recovery center because of this, and it was a huge shock to them. The marketing of marijuana is essentially that it’s free, that there are no risks, which is what happened with opioids when they said there was no such thing as addiction. Well, here, there are severe mental health issues are on the horizon, and these people are on the front lines. So, we have a chance to hear about these things that are really under the radar for mainstream journals and media.

TSD: I had no idea. I think all of these issues are important for younger generations to engage with, too.

DB: What we do attracts young people, and we hope inspires young people to look in the mirror and make a difference themselves and hopefully increase the level of social justice in this country.

 

Contact Hayley Hodson at hhodson ‘at’ stanford.edu.