Neff’s fes­ti­val puts fo­cus on films from non­prof­its

In sec­ond year, fest ex­pands to 3 days, will fea­ture 32 films

Austin American-Statesman - - LIFE & STYLE - By Matthew Odam Amer­i­can-States­man staff

I’m sur­prised to hear David Neff’s fuel of choice on the morn­ing we meet is a sim­ple sin­gle-shot cap­puc­cino. Jug­gling du­ties while he splits time be­tween his pub­lic re­la­tions work at Ridge­wood As­so­ci­ates and Lights. Cam­era. Help. — the film fes­ti­val he and two part­ners started last year — I’d imag­ine Neff would need as much liq­uid as­sis­tance as pos­si­ble.

As it turns out, the fresh-faced non­profit pro doesn’t need the caf­feine boost. Sit­ting down at Flip­notics re­cently to dis­cuss the film fes­ti­val, Neff ex­udes a perky en­ergy that can be only nat­u­ral. It’s the kind of pas­sion I as­sume is req­ui­site when work­ing in the non­profit world.

Af­ter serv­ing for al­most a decade as di­rec­tor of Web, film and in­ter­ac­tive strate­gies for the Amer­i­can Can­cer So­ci­ety, Neff re­al­ized that there was in­for­ma­tive and en­gag­ing film­mak­ing com­ing out of the non­profit world. The films he saw were in­creas­ingly artis­tic and orig­i­nal, and moved be­yond the tra­di­tional talk­ing-head cliché of cor­po­rate doc­u­men­taries. The prob­lem was these mes­sages were not reach­ing a big enough au­di­ence.

Though doc­u­men­tary and fea­ture films

have the ben­e­fit of count­less fes­ti­vals around the coun­try, non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions gen­er­ally rely on peo­ple vis­it­ing their web­sites to see and hear their mes­sages. Not many peo­ple want to go to South by South­west to see a short about hur­ri­cane re­lief ef­forts, and not ev­ery or­ga­ni­za­tion can af­ford to run ubiq­ui­tous 30-sec­ond spots fea­tur­ing a tear-jerk­ing sound­track from Sarah McLach­lan.

In an ef­fort to shine a light on these de­serv­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions and their films, Neff or­ga­nized Lights. Cam­era. Help. in 2009. Af­ter mod­est suc­cess as a one-day event in its inaugural year, and thanks to the power of so­cial net­work­ing, the film fes­ti­val has ex­panded to three days and in­cludes 32 films from six coun­tries. In an ef­fort to of­fer the broad­est op­por­tu­nity, there is no en­try fee for sub­mis­sions, of which there were 235 for this year’s fes­ti­val.

Un­like most film fes­ti­vals, which (at their best) help film­mak­ers find dis­tri­bu­tion deals or (at least) cre­ate buzz, the pur­pose of the cause-driven Lights. Cam­era. Help. is more spe­cific, its goals more con­crete.

“Watch­ing some­thing like this can flip a switch in peo­ple’s brains to go out and do some­thing,” Neff said. “Even if they don’t end up go­ing to vol­un­teer for the spe­cific or­ga­ni­za­tion they saw in the film, it may get them to do­nate money or vol­un­teer their time for some­thing sim­i­lar in their com­mu­nity.”

The fes­ti­val presents works in three cat­e­gories (fea­ture, shorts and pub­lic ser­vice an­nounce­ments), with the win­ners in each, as named by a panel of three judges, re­ceiv­ing cash prizes. At­ten­dees can ex­pect to see works from na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the Red Cross as well as a film about earth­quake re­lief made by long­time Burn­ing Man at­ten­dees.

Skep­tics of the idea of cause-driven film should not worry about be­ing bored to tears or have their heart­strings yanked re­lent­lessly, Neff said.

“It’s in­ter­est­ing. … I think com­edy works re­ally well,” Neff said of the films. “As with reg­u­lar fea­tures, the things that work best are movies that tell a com­pelling story and have a res­o­lu­tion. The dif­fer­ence with our films is there’s a call to ac­tion at the end: ‘Do you want to pre­vent this from hap­pen­ing? Get up and vol­un­teer. Do you want to make this change or help us pass this law or solve this prob­lem? We need you to tell 10 peo­ple to do­nate $10 or get out your cell phone and text right now.’”

As a re­sponse to au­di­ence in­quiries fol­low­ing the inaugural fes­ti­val, Lights. Cam­era. Help. de­cided to broaden its scope to in­clude ed­u­ca­tion and match ser­vices.

Neff and his team of­fer film­mak­ing classes to non­prof­its along with an in­ter­ac­tive data­base that al­lows or­ga­ni­za­tions to link with cre­ative tal­ents.

In ad­di­tion to his work with Ridge­wood and his at­tempts to grow Lights. Cam­era. Help., the pre­vi­ous win­ner of the States­man’s So­cial Me­dia Award is writ­ing a book about the fu­ture of non­prof­its and the in­her­ent chal­lenges and op­por­tu­ni­ties they will face.

He’s prob­a­bly go­ing to need a re­fill on that cap­puc­cino.

Matthew Odam

David Neff started Lights. Cam­era Help. to show­case fea­tures, shorts and pub­lic ser­vice an­nounce­ments made by non­profit groups.

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