Ferraro Blogs from Skoll World Forum

Ferraro Blogs from Skoll World Forum

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Day 1

Today at the Said Business School at Oxford University, England, the 2009 Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship kicked off, and with this year's edition comes a partnership between the Skoll Foundation and the Sundance Institute that sends four doc filmmakers to the forum.

As the Skoll Foundation describes the conference, "Each year nearly 800 delegates from more than 60 countries convene for this premier gathering of the world's leading social entrepreneurs. Prominent figures from the social, academic, finance, corporate and policy sectors engage for three days and nights in a series of debates, discussions and work sessions focused on accelerating, innovating and scaling solutions to some of the world's most pressing social issues."

Sundance describes their initiative with Skill thusly: "It is a $3 million, three-year initiative designed to explore the role of film in advancing knowledge about social entrepreneurship. In essence, there are activists who want to draw attention to social issues and there are filmmakers looking for compelling stories to tell. Sundance Institute brings the two groups together. Film is the medium for modern storytelling. Storytelling drives social change."

The Sundance Institute's Ken Brecher and Cara Mertes are attending the forum this year and they brought with them four doc filmmaker fellows supported by Sundance, who will observe the proceedings and network among the attendees. The filmmakers are Robert Kenner (Food, Inc.), Gayle Ferraro (To Catch a Dollar: Muhammad Yunnus Banks on America), Greg Barker (Sergio), and Joe Berlinger (Crude)

Gayle Ferraro will be guest blogging here this week, relaying stories of the people and ideas she comes across at Skoll. Here is her first post.

As more extraordinary things happen with making this film - too intimate and unusual to get into here… I have been invited by Sundance Institute as their guest to attend the sixth Skoll Social Entrepreneur World Forum here at Oxford University.

Since I am in the final stages of production and into post on a feature doc (To Catch a Dollar -WT) portraying 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Grameen Bank Founder and the patron saint of all social entrepreneurs (according to Patricia Finneran Sr. Consultant for Sundance Institute) Dr. Muhammad Yunus AND the film project is a recipient of a generous grant from the Skoll Foundation (Sundance/Skoll Stories of Change) - one could say that it is quite fitting that I participate in this event. Add to that I briefly attended Oxford ten years ago (before switching up for Harvard) and have some familiarity with the University and surrounds so it is an experience I feel very comfortable and engaged in as I arrive on site.

Cara Mertes (Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program Director) has assured me that it is a truly amazing experience with brilliant speakers and ideas. It seems that it could be a great place to find different points of inspiration as my editor (Keiko Deguchi) and I find our way through our rough assemble. Inspiration and renewed belief are good things even though everyday seems to be in no short supply of the former when you are looking at over 200 hours of events and travel with Yunus on your edit screen. It is nice however to step out of that exact context and be exposed to others who are finding their way and in the sense of how much work it all takes and appreciate what that means as I learn about others in the next few days.

I have a short clip and presentation this first afternoon. I don't know what I am going to talk about yet. I sense that no matter what I decide beforehand - I'll wing it in the end. I really like the spontaneity of going with the energy of the room. This seems like the doc filmmaker in me.

From there it is off to the Opening Plenary where Jeff Skoll (Skoll Foundation founder and first EBay President) and Sundance Institute Executive Director Ken Brecher will be making opening remarks. After which we are all 'assigned' to College Dinners for networking with the 700+ delegates!

It's all good……

- Gayle Ferraro, April 28, 2009, Oxford, U.K.

Day 2

The days keep getting better and I am feeling like I have known my fellow filmmakers and the Sundance folks for a long time. It is funny how that happens before you know it. We filmmakers all have code names, an affectionate shorthand, for the people we have all spoken with - the rat guy, the French guy with the cell phones, the water guys….

For the first part of the day I was a bit distracted trying to coordinate an important shoot in Queens, New York for the film while participating in the Forum. The shoot came up last minute and puts closure on a central storyline so it had to be covered.

Upon arrival at the forum's day two I joined Cara Mertes (Director, Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program) at a press announcement for the Sundance/Skoll Stories of Change as a Grantee. I spoke a few minutes about my film on Dr. Yunus and the Grameen start-up in Queens and was then off to attend my first session: "Winning Hearts and Minds, The power of a well told story." It was packed - no surprise given the speakers, Susan Collin Marks (Sr. VP of Search for Common Ground), Amitabha Sadangi (CEO Intl Development Enterprises- India) and Greg Barker, (Director, Silverbridge Productions). Reading their bios is impressive and the presentations hit it home with everyone.

From there I hit another two sessions in the afternoon, "Power to the People" and then "Expansion Finance For Social Impact." For sure this sounds deadly dry, but trust me it was fascinating if you like to know who is doing what in the world and how it is working. These are committed people who are really smart and know a lot if you get into listening. The audience questions are really right-on and everyone rightly so wants publicity for their projects.

At the break I tried to hide (brain turning to mush) but I found myself with Heidi Khun (Roots of Peace) who worked with Yunus ten years ago so we have an easy connection. As we are having tea she is pulling together a half dozen women who are all working in Afghanistan doing something or other to put together a collation to meet with Obama. These are powerhouse women and they are combining forces.

The Awards Ceremony followed with the nine awardees - each receiving grants of around one million cool dollars to further their vision of a social enterprise they have brought into creation. Jeff Skoll and Sally Osberg (President and CEO, Skoll Foundation) presented the awards to the grateful recipients. Here is the thing: you may think that these guys/gals just showed up last year or the year before and hit it out of the part. No, everyone I spoke with has been hard at it for 15 years or more - except Kiva brainchild, Matt Flannery, who after three years managed to get a grant and raised $100M on the microcredit website.

Then it was a reception, dinner and the party - I had been storing up the sleep hours so that I could splurge. We started the evening by entering a packed reception hall at the University Examination Hall. We (Sundance Execs and filmmakers) took one look at the crowd and opted to head directly to the Brasserie to get a start on our drinking and conversing. The venue shifted at midnight to the third floor party at the Castle (Malmaison) where it probably went on most of the night but I don't know as my fellow filmmakers and I backed as inconspicuously as possible into the elevator and pounced into a waiting cab to get some necessary shut-eye.

Day 3

No sleeping in after the late night, this is the last day and a short day at the forum so we have to get moving. The morning sessions were again a great offering. I opted for one called "We are the government and we are here to help," which had a funny ring to it even though I had no real idea what it would be about. At the session, Barry Coleman from Riders for Health, whose work is delivery of health care services with motorcycles, said of his approach when entering a new village, "You look for the woman in glasses and she probably does all the work." Something about that was not lost on the women in the room.

Our Sundance Team regrouped for a debrief lunch on our own. We gave feedback on our experiences - all very positive and how we thought it could be improved in future years. We walked around Oxford center doing our last minute obligatory gift shopping, stopping for tea at a pastry shop (like we needed yet another meal...) and just enjoyed the time off for a few hours before the final night tapas in town with our Skoll hosts.

As I head out in the morning for NYC I have to reflect on what a wonderful experience this had been for me - meeting the other filmmakers and spending time with them; the Sundance Institute and the detailed care they took of us; the Skoll Foundation and the fascinating organization pushing for unusual and meaningful changes in so many ways; and the countless impressive social entrepreneurs I spoke with. At this point I have little else except my admiration and appreciation of some very dedicated, talented and future-thinking people. Thanks for bringing me along.

About the Filmmaker

Gayle Ferraro, founder of Aerial Productions, brings personal accounts of extraordinary and socially compelling stories to the film circuit. Ferraro has independently produced and directed three feature documentaries: SIXTEEN DECISIONS (2000) an intimate look at one young woman's challenges in rural Bangladesh to change her family's life of extreme poverty, ANONYMOUSLY YOURS (2002) shot clandestinely in Burma follows the harrowing world of sex-trafficking through the stories of four young women, GANGES RIVER TO HEAVEN (2003) where with unparalleled intimacy the film explores dying in the holy city of Varanasi, India. She received Masters Degrees in Public Administration from Harvard University and Mass Communication from Boston University, and studied International Human Rights Law at Oxford University. Ms. Ferraro owns Gymnastic Academy of Boston/Cambridge, which funded her first three films.