AJ Schnack’s first film for Field of Vision is Speaking Is Difficult, in which he dispatched 20 cinematographers to locations where mass shootings have recently occurred in the United States. The landscape portraits in his film form a canvas of a country in which mass violence continues to increase while threatening to blur into desensitized memory. Schnack is a co-founder of Field of Vision with Laura Poitras and Charlotte Cook, and his new film, like his recent ones, tackles a story that occurs in numerous places. Beginning with Convention, which was filmed at the 2008 Democratic Party convention, and continuing with the feature Caucus (2013), about the tussle among Republican presidential hopefuls in Iowa, and the episodic series Midterms (2014), Schnack has directed documentaries that involve disparate film crews focusing on different elements and events that eventually coalesce into a larger narrative under his direction. In the following interview, Schnack discusses the formal, organizational, and emotional challenges of his new film.

While Speaking Is Difficult is clearly a conceptual piece, I would guess it’s not necessarily coming from a conceptual place. Can you talk a little about the chicken-and-egg aspect of thinking about gun violence in America and expressing it through this concept?

Schnack: It starts with the things that Laura [Poitras] and Charlotte [Cook] and I talked about in terms of what we wanted Field of Vision films to be. That when something would happen [in the world], we would approach it in terms of a journalistic, cinematic documentary, yet respond differently than if it was the news. And simultaneous to that, find people on the ground who can make those films. So when the shooting happened in Oregon, my mind immediately went to, “How do we make a film about what’s just happened?” I was also seeing on social media, in Facebook posts, on Twitter, echoes of the last mass shooting event. All this horror and outrage and “Why can’t we get anything done?” followed by the finger pointing and the blame, and then finger pointing from the other side of “It’s too early to start talking about this,” and “Liberals just wanna take our guns.”

The whole “stop politicizing a tragedy” loop.

Schnack: Right. And then a couple days later it’s gone. We’d be onto whatever the next thing was. One of the most powerful comments on the frequency of these mass shooting events has been what The Onion has done, which is to continually republish the same story [“‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens”].

Was this approach to the phenomenon something you’d been percolating over the years, or something that came to you recently?

Schnack: It was the Oregon incident. The first thing I did was reach out to Margot Williams, who’s a researcher at The Intercept and Field of Vision. I had this idea of doing something that was about a number of shooting events, and she brought up the [Gabrielle] Giffords shooting in Tucson as a key moment. It’s something I had thought about as well, in making films about politicians and recognizing that every single member of Congress must have put themselves in Gaby Gifford’s shoes after that — the next time they went to a Town Hall meeting with their 23-year-old aide and not a Secret Service agent — and yet they still couldn’t come together to do anything. A lot of people point at Newtown and say, “If that happens and nothing is done it means that nothing can be done,” but I actually think it was the Gifford shooting more so. Then as Laura and I started talking more about what the film was going to be conceptually, we came upon this idea of seeing these locations today, and that the audio should be police audio or 911 calls. But I really didn’t know how it would come together until we started getting everyone’s footage, and cutting the scenes, and seeing what it became cumulatively.

In reaching out to all of those filmmakers, what did you ask for in terms of visuals and style? Did you stipulate in terms of — “tripod only, no camera movement,” etc.?

Schnack: Will Lennon, who produced the film, and I sent my frequent collaborator Nathan Truesdell down to Seal Beach. There had been a shooting event at a salon there. And we had a conversation about what the approach would be. Nate and I shoot a lot of handheld verite stuff together, but I know he also is a super talented cinematographer, able to find the artistic in the everyday. When he sent me the footage, it was exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. It was also striking to me that the salon was operating, still, and under the same name, and that people were just walking around, going in and out, as if nothing had happened there. So we cut that together, and when Will reached out to filmmakers in various parts of the country, we sent Nate’s selects reel to them so they would have a sense of the kind of footage we were looking for.

Was there a variety in terms of what came back, in terms of content, framing, and mood, or was it somewhat uniform?

Schnack: It was somewhat uniform. We obviously had a lot more options than we had time for — I think the longest of the calls is maybe 40 seconds long. You would get like all these beautiful shots, and maybe you would only have room for six or seven. I mean, [coordinating] 20 cinematographers in 25 cities is already an amazing producing job, but so is the fact that they all came back really capturing what these places feel like. I think you could put all of them together with a piece of music, without the IDs of what happened there, and it would be this portrait of America. But then you put the calls in and it is a very different portrait of America.

You’re working with both presence and absence here. This idea of the frame being absent of a subject, but what’s present in the frame is still expressive of what’s missing. Did the filmmakers experience that duality in shooting in those places?

Schnack: A lot of them, even though they film stuff all the time, said this was one of the few times that they felt really uncomfortable being in a space and filming. Because a lot of [the incidents] were still very fresh. We shot in Oregon, then a couple weeks later, we added — before we went to Sundance — San Bernardino and Colorado. They had just happened. There were still police units there, there was police tape, there were memorials. Then, as the film goes along, since the film goes backwards in time, you reach a point where it’s just back to normal.

Yet, even so, you only go back five years. Farther back, there’s a sense that something historic happened here but not everyone knows it. You’d think something like that would redefine the space forever, but not necessarily.

Schnack: In some locations it has. But when I did the Midterms series in 2014 [covering the Congressional midterm elections for Al Jazeera America], I spent a bunch of time in Aurora, Colorado, and while there I learned that the Century Theaters had reopened, and that people were watching movies there. I don’t know if that says something about our resilience, or something about us being ostriches.

I just watched the film with an audience for the first time, and I’ve been thinking about the way time is deployed in the film, and how you accumulate evidence over that time. Unless you’re staring at your watch — or, if you’re at your computer, the timeline — you don’t know how long you’re going to be there, you don’t know how far back the film is going to take us. That tension, building along with each location, creates an almost overwhelming anxiety.

Schnack: The first time I watched it through, even in a rough form, the relentless repetition of it was effective even for me. I knew that we were onto something. The challenge was to feel what it would be like for an audience. [We couldn’t only include] the worst of the calls — it had to have a flow that built and receded, and then let you take a moment. Because otherwise — it’s hard to watch, I think it’s fair to say, but it could be impossible to watch. So finding that balance was part of what was creatively interesting to me about the editing process. Because even now when I watch it there are moments — like when a caller is so terrified, and you can hear the fear and uncertainty in such a dramatic way — that just hit me every time. You want those moments to be able to stand as they do, and surround them with things that let you take a moment [to absorb them]. Then at the end of the film, there are a few in a row that are probably the hardest, and it had to build to that.

If it’s just the worst possible things over and over, there’s a danger of us tuning it all out, of finding some defensive walls to put up against it. Instead, you make it so that we’re listening actively. There was some point where I felt a sense of comfort in the fact that one of the audio clips contained an unidentifiable, almost machine-like sound. I thought — at least that’s not a gun. And then you hear it again more closely, and that’s exactly what it is. It’s probably what it’s like to be the 911 dispatcher in those situations, trying to make sense of and distinguish these sounds, that heightened awareness.

Schnack: It really made me respect 911 dispatchers a lot. Because people might be mad or afraid or whatever, but they need the information and they have to calm the person down. I don’t know how they do that.

Did you cut audio clips to match the pictures, or did you cut picture to fit the length of the calls?

Schnack: The audio tracks were always done first for each of the incidents, and then we’d put the visuals with it. For me as an editor, cutting to sound is really creatively fulfilling. It was remarkable to me how similar this editing process was to About a Son, in terms of having dual tracks of audio and video.

Is it a muscle you hadn’t exercised in a while?

Schnack: Yeah, because I’ve been cutting verite footage, which isn’t about where the sound is coming in, it’s about what you’re seeing, and you’re cutting to moments you have video of.

Did you shoot any of the segments?

Schnack: I shot Cupertino. It was actually something we shot late. I don’t take a cinematography credit, but I was feeling jealous that everybody else got to shoot something.

With Convention and Caucus, the Midterms project and what you’re coordinating around 2016, you’ve got a lot of experience coordinating crews in multiple places at once, and remotely. But I can certainly imagine wanting to get your hands on a camera, to represent a link in the chain.

Schnack: And emotionally, I wanted to have my feet on the ground. Not just in a sort of circling overhead.

With the reverse chronology that you employ, you don’t know where the film is going to end. It feels like it could keep on going, tragedy after tragedy. But then it does end, and at the end you put forth a statistic, a statistic that we’ve just witnessed and experienced through film, over this time, and it gives the film a very powerful design in retrospect.

Schnack: Sometimes you can feel something, but the statistics don’t bear it out. It may be just a thing that you perceive, you feel that this is happening more often than it used to — and then to actually find out that that is demonstrably true, that it is happening more frequently, is important for people to know. The only way that people can have a conversation about it is if you’re armed with what’s really happening. It’s not just a feeling, it’s not just a perception, it’s like — these are the facts on the ground.

There’s also the power of the places and dates, and the realization of how quickly certain attacks follow previous attacks, and how faint some of them now seem — that we’re losing track.

Schnack: You can hear that with an audience. There are ones they remember particularly well — here’s Newtown and there’s Aurora and Charleston and a couple others. But then one comes up that they don’t know about, and you hear — I mean you can feel it in the audience — people just being like, “What!? When did that happen? How did I not know about that?” The fact is we [cover] 25 in this five-year period. And though that’s many of them, there are still others that we don’t. If we actually did every single [location], it would have been a much, much longer film.

Yet you’ve also decided to make this a living document, with the opening possibly changing over time?

Schnack: We are going to add to the film if these events continue. And unfortunately I cannot be optimistic that they won’t.

IF/Then Shorts, in partnership with Hulu Documentary Films calls short-documentary filmmakers based in North America to take part in the Inaugural IF/Then x Hulu Short Documentary Lab. This lab will channel Hulu and IF/Then’s shared vision of creating a new pipeline of diverse talent and incubating strong voices who will be the next class of non-fiction storytellers.

Program Details:

Four filmmaking teams will be chosen to participate in a one-year lab focused on short-documentary production and career training. For the first six months, filmmakers will be individually mentored through production by IF/Then staff and take part in monthly virtual cohort trainings, consisting of keynotes from industry heavy-hitters and edit consultations. Upon rough cut of their projects, filmmakers will be invited to debut their works-in-progress to an invitation-only audience and receive feedback. For the remainder of the program, filmmakers will finalize their cuts and receive high-level festival and distribution strategy consultations, along with guidance creating their publicity materials, and pro-bono legal support. Hulu will have the right to review the projects for potential acquisition or further development.

Each team will receive a $25,000 grant to use for the production of their film.

This opportunity will be open to individuals living in/from North America, with an emphasis on Black and/or Indigenous filmmakers, people of color, women, LGBTQ+, recent immigrants, and individuals who identify as having a disability. We will welcome any and all stories from underrepresented voices, with a strong preference around subjects related to gender, the LGTBQ community or issues unique to the BIPOC community.

Project Eligibility:

  • In addition to the identity eligibility of the maker and the theme, eligible IF/Then Shorts projects must meet the following criteria:
  • Be an original short documentary with a final duration of 10-20 minutes
  • Be completed within six to nine months of receiving the IF/Then Shorts grant
  • Be factually accurate, follow best practices in documentary ethics, and be designed for a U.S. audience
  • Be driven by (a) compelling character(s), with access to the character(s) secured
  • Be presented in English or subtitled in English
  • Have no prior distribution attached and be able to participate in the IF/Then Shorts distribution initiative
  • All stories and storytellers coming from countries and territories in North America. This includes the United States and its territories (Puerto Rico, Guam, US Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa,) Canada, Greenland, Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, and Venezuela, and countries in the Caribbean: Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, The Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, Bonaire, British Virgin Islands, US Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Clipperton Island, Cuba, Curacao, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Montserrat, Saba, St. Andres and Providencia, Saint Barthélemy, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Martin, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Sint Eustatius, Sint Maarten, Trinidad and Tobago, and Turks and Caicos Islands.


The application portal will open on January 15, 2021 and close at 11:59pm EST on Feb 15th.

  • January 15, 2021: Open call for IF/Then x Hulu Short Documentary Lab
  • March 31, 2021: Finalists announced
  • April 5, 2021: Virtual Program Kickoff


Submissions are now closed.

Please direct any questions regarding this application to ifthenshorts@fieldofvision.org

Starting July 22, IF/Then Shorts has a new home at Field of Vision. Joining Field of Vision will be IF/Then Shorts Program Director Chloe Gbai and Supervising Producer Caitlin Mae Burke. Founded in 2017 with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, IF/Then Shorts is a fund and mentorship program that supports storytellers in breaking barriers to access, exposure, and sustainability in the media landscape. IF/Then works with creators who experience inequity based on factors such as race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, ethnicity, age, citizenship, and/or geography.

IF/Then Shorts taps into the need for broader geographical representation in the stories that get told through its regional pitch events. It holistically supports short documentary storytellers in their creation of compelling, character-led, community-inspired stories that embody the breadth and diversity of the people and places they represent.

The program addresses the imbalance of representation, perspective, power, compensation, and career longevity among independent filmmakers and media artists. IF/Then Shorts leverages access, expertise, network, and brand to address these challenges. Through grants, mentorship, industry connections, and professional development, IF/Then Shorts helps to ensure that storytellers from a multitude of backgrounds have access to the resources and tools they need to tell their stories, connect with audiences, and thrive in their careers. IF/Then Shorts was previously part of the Tribeca Film Institute, which is planning to pause operations indefinitely in September. "IF/Then Shorts is an incredible program, and one that’s vital to the field," said Charlotte Cook, Field of Vision's Co-Founder and Executive Producer. "We’re so glad that they can find their new home with Field of Vision. The program’s values align perfectly with Field of Vision, and further our overall commitment to shorts and advocating for filmmakers. Chloe and Caitlin are phenomenal, and I feel so lucky that they’ll be joining our team."

IF/Then Program Director Chloe Gbai said of the move: "We’re so excited that thanks to the MacArthur Foundation and Field of Vision we can keep this funding and development pipeline open to diverse, creative nonfiction talent past TFI’s pause this September. This program will have a new life and is ready to uplift the voices that we need to champion during these interesting times."

Supervising Producer Caitlin Mae Burke added: "As a former Field of Vision filmmaker myself, I know how beneficial it is to work with these trailblazers in the short documentary space. I'm overjoyed that all of our active projects and future supported filmmakers will benefit so immensely from this move, and we look forward to the tremendous growth potential for IF/Then possible under the Field of Vision umbrella." IF/Then is currently holding an open call for the North Shorts Grant and Fellowship, in partnership with Points North Institute, The Screening Room, Jigsaw Productions, and the LEF Foundation, for regional filmmakers in the American Northeast. About Chloe Gbai Chloe Gbai is the Director of IF/Then Shorts. Previously, as the POV Shorts and Streaming Producer, she launched POV Shorts, which earned POV its third documentary short Oscar® nomination, two News & Doc Emmy nominations and an IDA Awards nomination for Best Short Form Series.  She has previously worked at Teen Vogue and Viacom, as well as served on review panels and juries for the National Endowment for the Arts, Sheffield Doc/Fest, ITVS, IDA Awards, Black Public Media, Creative Capital, and various other film organizations. She is a member of Brown Girls Doc Mafia and a member-in-residence of the Meerkat Media Collective.

About Caitlin Mae Burke Caitlin Mae Burke is an Emmy-winning producer. Her films have screened and won awards at top tier festivals including Sundance, Berlinale, and Tribeca Film Festival and have been broadcast across the US and around the world. Her work has screened at MoMA, The Museum of the Moving Image, and in movie theaters internationally. She is an inaugural inductee to DOC NYC's "40 Under 40" and alumna of Berlinale Talents. IF/Then currently has funding opportunities available for filmmakers. Please find more information here.

Field of Vision has partnered with Doc Society and Sundance Institute to launch Independent Documentary: Filming in the Time of Corona, a new Risk Assessment Guide for independent documentary filmmakers who are considering starting or resuming production during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

Many filmmakers are asking themselves — and others in the documentary field — the big question: Should I be filming at all?

As our field discusses and debates this particular question — and its ethical and and public health implications — Field of Vision, Doc Society, Sundance Institute, and our co-signatories are offering a “living document” that provides guidelines, a checklist, and questions for independent documentary film teams to ask themselves, each other and their partners. It is our hope that this guide will help filmmakers make informed decisions and help keep everyone safe.

We’d like to acknowledge our gratitude to all of the the co-signatories of the Risk Assessment Guide, who helped consult on, and improve the guide: Asian American Documentary Network (ADoc), Asociación de Documentalistas de Puerto Rico (ADocPR), ACOS (A Culture Of Safety) Alliance, Ambulante, American Documentary/POV, Black Public Media, Brown Girls Doc Mafia, Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), Chicken & Egg, DOCUBOX, Impact Partners, Indian Documentary Foundation, Latino Public Broadcasting, National Association of Latino Producers (NALIP), Pacific Islanders in Communications, Perspective Fund, Scottish Documentary Institute, Topic, Vision Maker Media: Native Stories for Public Broadcasting, and others.

This is a rapidly changing situation as well as a long-term reality. Those of us in the documentary field will need to be mindful, flexible, and diligent as our risk assessment continues to evolve in order to keep not only our community safe but also the communities we collaborate with in the stories we tell. This new normal is unprecedented, but our documentary community is nothing if not committed to responding to this profoundly unique situation.

The guide will be updated as the situation develops and as we receive additional feedback from filmmakers and support organizations.

The final round of funding is now closed.

For this final round of funding, we will continue prioritizing providing support to filmmakers of color and filmmakers from other marginalized communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Field of Vision and Topic Studios have created a $250,000 fund to provide grants for freelancers working in the Documentary field. The fund will distribute unrestricted grants of up to $2000 to support personal financial needs during the COVID19 pandemic to freelancers who have experienced hardship from loss of income or opportunity as a result of the pandemic

Dates and Deadlines


The fund will be open for applications from Wed April 8th from 9am ET until Friday April 10th at 6pm ET or until we reach 1,000 applications. You can find the link to the application at the bottom of this page.


The fund will be open for applications from May 6th from 9am ET until May 8th at 6pm ET or until we reach 750 applications.

Notification of grant approval will be within 20 days of the fund closing, and payments will be processed within 30 days of notification of a grant. June The fund will be open for a final round of applications from June 10th from 9am ET until June 12th at 6pm ET or until we reach 500 applications.


Be able to demonstrate work as a freelancer within the documentary field in roles such as:

- Directors - Producers (This includes Associate Producers) - DPs - Editors - Sound Recordists/Designers - Researchers - Assistants - Critics & Writers who have covered documentaries - Publicists

Other freelance roles will be accepted if they meet the rest of the criteria

Provide a link (examples - IMDB page, Film Review, Direct link to project) that shows professional work in the field.

The fund is eligible for artists internationally, however you must be able to receive funding electronically (we are not able to issue checks), and priority will be given to countries and regions of which there isn’t government freelance assistance that you are eligible for. If you have not been eligible for government assistance, please state that in your application.

Students who are currently enrolled are not eligible.

People who are currently in employment are not eligible.

Please note: We have made every effort to reduce the amount of information, paperwork and requirements for funding and have tried to make the fund as open and accessible as possible. We are largely operating on a trust-based system and really urge you to work with us on being able to maintain this. It’s extremely important to us to be able to get funding to the freelancers that need it the most. Please answer all questions thoroughly and accurately so that we can ensure the funds are allocated to help as many people in need as possible.

Information Needed:

- Demonstrated professional work within the field - Usual income source - Description of situation - Maximum amount requested - Minimum amount requested - What the funding would be used for - Location

Please note: It’s important to include a maximum and minimum amount requested. Also, please note that grants may be taxable as income under the law that applies to you. We will issue Form 1099s for grants of more than $600.

The Process

As always, it is important to us that filmmakers lead how we operate and respond, and so the process will begin with a blind review of applications by a panel of filmmakers and producers, with a simultaneous review by the Field of Vision and Topic Studios teams. Those recommendations will then provide the recommended list for funding, which will then be reviewed once more before contacting the fund recipients.

We will only be contacting those who have been allocated funding.

On receipt of the grant acceptance please expect up to 30 days to receive payment. In order to issue the grants we will need a W-9 or W8-BEN tax form and an invoice which includes wire transfer details.

UPDATE: Our first 200 meeting slots have been booked. However, you can still sign up for the waitlist at the links below as we work to add additional appointment times. Coming this spring, the Field of Vision team will again offer a virtual "office hours" service for the documentary community. As we’re in a moment of uncertainty, we want to make ourselves available to filmmakers in any way we can. We understand that the industry is experiencing a lot of upheaval, and that this is a particularly difficult time for freelancers and people working independently.

We will be allocating time every weekday to have video meetings and calls. We’ll be prioritizing filmmakers who’ve been affected by festival postponements and production changes, but will also be available to offer a range of mentorship and consultation around a variety of areas.

At Field of Vision we like filmmakers to lead and improve how we work. We were inspired by Jeanie Finlay, who has opened her time to mentoring after an upcoming film shoot had to be cancelled. Jeanie is working on a new film that we’re extremely honoured to be supporting. 

We are a small team and will try our best to make ourselves available to as many filmmakers and producers as possible. If any other members of our community would also like to donate their time, we are happy to facilitate this as well, so please feel free to reach out to us.

The areas which we would like to offer consultation on are below: 

  • General mentorship
  • Feedback on proposals and grant applications
  • Project Development
  • Online Distribution
  • Digital Engagement
  • Partnerships
  • Pitch Training
  • Editing
  • Technology & Digital Security
  • Distribution
  • Editorial Feedback
  • Festival Strategy
  • Career Guidance

This is not just open to filmmakers wanting to submit work for us to review, or filmmakers we have worked with before. If you feel you would benefit from time with our team on any project you’re working on please feel free to reach out. There are more details on how to take part below.



If you would like to have a virtual meeting about any of the above, please follow this link to book a time: https://bit.ly/waitlist-fov-virtual-consult

(We will also be adapting to demand, and will create a waitlist, and/or increase availability if needed.)

Submissions & Pitches

While we are still managing and prioritizing our regular submissions system, we would also like to make time for project and pitch meetings.

To sign up for a pitch meeting with us, please make sure you have submitted through our system prior to the meeting, using the link below:  fieldofvision.org/submit

Once you have submitted through our submissions form, please sign up for a meeting slot here. NB: We won’t be able to take any meetings around potential projects until you’ve submitted through the system. If you’re not ready to discuss a specific project, or are looking for more general advice, please use the first form.

Please bear with us as we begin rolling out our virtual office hours service. This initiative came together very quickly, so there may be hiccups. We just wanted to offer something to start. 

As we navigate these uncertain times, what is certain is that we are a strong community of creatives and storytellers. We have shown time and again how resourceful we are, how dedicated we are to our craft, art form and field, and how supportive we can be of each other. 

Please stay safe everyone, The Field of Vision Team


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