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Filmanthropy and Torey
by Jerome Weeks 9 Mar 2010

Torey Harrah is one of three kids followed in the remarkably moving, Texas-made documentary Torey’s Distraction. Each child has Apert Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. But how the film got made also makes it noteworthy. Jerome Weeks reports on ‘filmanthropy.’


A new documentary is screening at the Magnolia Theatre Tuesday evening, a documentary that hopes to raise awareness about a medical issue. But KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports that the way the film was produced also makes it noteworthy.

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Moviemakers and actors have often helped raise money for social change. Melina McKinnon does both at once. She fundraises for a movie and the cause that’s the subject of the film. Then she uses the finished documentary to educate people and raise more money for the cause. McKinnon is the founder of M3 Films. What she does has been dubbed “filmanthropy” – combining independent filmmaking with philanthropy.

Dallas, McKinnon says, is a good town for this combination.

McKINNON: “Dallas is such an incredibly philanthropic town. And the time and energy that’s spent toward the arts here? We feel that this is fertile ground to have this concept planted and grow.”

The idea is not unique. Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Capitals hockey team, bankrolled the film Nanking two years ago with much the same goal, the same term.  (In fact, Leonsis’ company, SnagFilms.com, has an online  library of more than 1,000 cause-oriented docs which viewers can watch and support.) There was even a Filmanthropy Festival last fall in Los Angeles.

But McKinnon has established her project as an ongoing business model – and not a one-shot deal for a favorite benefit. She’s working on three documentaries she hopes will inspire audiences. The first completed one is Torey’s Distraction, directed by Tisha Blood. It’s about Apert Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that leaves infants with skulls that are fused and can’t expand as the brain does. The families come to North Texas for the dozens and dozens of craniofacial surgeries needed as the children grow up. Andrea Harrah is the mother of Torey, whom the film follows from birth to adolescence:

ANDREA HARRAH: “When I first had her, they said we should just put her in a home because she won’t amount to anything. She’d probably just lay there like a vegetable.”

But Torey had a different verdict:

TOREY: “Na-na, a-boo-boo! You can’t catch me!”

McKinnon’s two other filmanthropy projects concern the bone marrow bank for transplants and the civil war in Sierra Leone. Both are currently in development.