Keith Ochwat and his friend and business partner Christopher Rufo never took a single class on filmmaking. “We kind of learned by doing,” says Ochwat.
They both had full-time jobs. Ochwat worked in politics for a U.S. Congressman and later for a legislator in Sacramento, where he is from. Rufo graduated summa cum laude from Georgetown University and worked in the U.S. Foreign Service.
They had been friends since grade school and had a shared passion for travel. On one of their advetnures to Mongolia in 2006, they picked up a camera and began shooting what would become their first documentary, Roughing It.
Two years later, they shot another film in China called Diamond in the Dunes, which was picked up by PBS. They soon discovered they might be able to turn their passion for storytelling into full-time work.
Today, at the ages of 31, they lead the Documentary Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit organization that makes character-driven social commentary films. To date, their films have reached over 5 million viewers through PBS and other mediums.
We were lucky enough to have Keith Ochwat join us as our guest on Episode 11 of the Agents of Innovation podcast to tell us more about the work he and Chris are doing with the Documentary Foundation.
Their films have followed nomadic reindeer herders in Mongolia to a baseball team in China’s Xinjiang Province (near the borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Kazakhstan) that has the dream of healing racial division. Their award-winning documentary Age of Champions follows five competitors who sprint, leap, and swim for gold at the National Senior Olympics.
“The subjects we choose … they come about in a very serendipitous way,” said Ochwat. “Our approach for all of our films is to approach the subjects that we film in our projects with respect and to let them tell their story. That’s the beauty and the challenge of documentary – you can’t script it. You can’t construct the best story arc or the best character that fits exactly what you want. You’re capturing real life.”
Ochwat details how they are able to find funding for their films. They started by self-funding their fist one. Later, they had a seed investor and also PBS. They’ve also taken corporate contributions and today they primarily seek private foundation support.
As the managing director of Documentary Foundation, Ochwat spends about half of his time raising funds and the other half of his time making the films. He and his business partner Chris complement different tasks and responsibilities for the organization.
While they are currently engaged in a career they didn’t expect to be in, as storytellers through film, they’ve each had their share of jobs that in some ways led them to what they are doing today. From working for carpet cleaning to cold-calling telemarketing to Capitol Hill, he picked up different skills along the way.
With that in mind, Ochwat leaves our listeners with some parting advice: “Whatever you are doing at that time, at that moment, just do it the best you can,” says Ochwat. “So many different things happen every day to make us who we are. You just really need to push yourself in no matter what you’re doing. If you’re working hard and you’re pushing hard, you’ll eventually be pushing forward.”
At the time of our interview, Keith and Chris were pushing forward on their next project, a film titled America Lost, which follows hope and heartbreak in three of America’s struggling cities: Stockton, California, Memphis, Tennessee, and Youngstown, Ohio. That film will be released in 2016. In the meantime, subscribers of the Agents of Innovation podcast can watch the Documentary Foundation’s first three films for free at this special link: http://documentaryfoundation.org/screeners.