Cal Humanities

"The understanding of a culture comes from hearing the language, tasting the food, seeing personal interactions, experiencing the traditions, and so much more in context."

— Elizabeth Laval & Candice Pendergrass, Sikh Youth Public History Project

"The understanding of a culture comes from hearing the language, tasting the food, seeing personal interactions, experiencing the traditions, and so much more when it is in context."

— Elizabeth Laval & Candice Pendergrass, Sikh Youth Public History Project

Congratulations to the 2020 California Documentary Project Grantees

16 new projects have been selected to receive a total $420,000 in awards through the 2020 California Documentary Project grant program. Twelve of the awards are for Production Grants, totaling $380,000, and four are for Research and Development Grants, totaling $40,000. From the first feature-length documentary to cover mothers of children who have been victims of racist violence, to a virtual reality project bringing to life the experience of a Japanese American teen in an incarceration camp during World War II, to a seven-part podcast and radio series exploring the people and culture of the San Joaquin Valley, these new projects add to a rich and diverse set of stories about California people and culture.


The California Documentary Project (CDP) is a competitive grant program that supports high-quality humanities-based media productions that seek to document California in all its complexity. Projects use the humanities to provide context, depth, and perspective; enhance our understanding of California and its cultures, peoples, and histories; and should be suitable for both California and national audiences. Since 2003, California Humanities has awarded over $5.5 million to film, radio, and interactive documentaries that inform and engage broad audiences through multiple means through the California Documentary Project.


In 2020, with 168 proposals submitted requesting a total amount of $5.3 million, California Humanities was able to fund roughly 9.5% of applicants, allocating the most funding for CDP grants in the past five years.

California Humanities would like to thank all of this year’s CDP applicants and the many reviewers who contributed their time and expertise to help make the selections.


Research & Development Grants

Project Director: Debora Souza Silva
Sponsor Organization: Kovno Communications, Inc.
BLACK MOTHERS is the first feature-length documentary to examine the “Mothers of the Movement”, a growing, nationwide network of mothers whose children have been victims of racist violence. With unprecedented access, the film follows the journeys of women working to disrupt the cycle of violence, including Wanda Johnson, a California mother who channels the pain of the murder of her child, Oscar Grant, into organizing for justice and accountability.


Project Director: Jen Gilomen
Sponsor Organization: The Performance Zone, Inc
In the US, more and more women, especially women of color, die in childbirth each year. This feature documentary will investigate why, following women from all walks of life—pregnant mothers, midwives, researchers, and leaders—who are building a movement to achieve “birth equity.”

Project Director: Delbert Whetter
Sponsor Organization: Film Independent
This documentary tells the story of how fledgling punk rockers in the late 1970s, desperate for a friendly venue at which to play their then-nascent punk rock, found an unlikely partner in the perpetually cash-strapped San Francisco Deaf Club. Faced with their surprising commonalities, the two marginalized groups work together to reinvent their lives and cultures. 

Project Director: Elizabeth Ai
Sponsor Organization: Women Make Movies
NEW WAVE is an historical coming-of-age documentary about displaced Vietnamese refugee youth who fled their country by boat and then in the 1980s redefined their identities in suburban Orange County, California, through New Wave music. Through intimate accounts from Southern Californian Vietnamese music industry veterans, viewers will learn of how they healed and transformed by building a raucous music scene that the Vietnamese diaspora and fans worldwide still celebrates today, nearly 40 years later.

Production Grants

Still from CITY LIGHTS.

Project Director: Starr Sutherland
Sponsor Organization: Media Process Educational Films
One scrappy independent bookstore has survived the changing tides of the publishing world for seven decades—City Lights. A mainstay of San Francisco’s bohemian North Beach neighborhood since 1953, it is among the nation’s oldest independent bookstores and an icon in the industry. It also holds a special place in American literature as the rebellious publisher of unique voices, from the Beat poets of the 1950s to US Poet Laureates and a new generation of artists, poets, and activists keeping the City Lights spirit alive today.

Still from DOG WALK HOME.

Project Director: Vicki Topaz
Sponsor Organization: International Documentary Association
Set in Northern California, DOG WALK HOME tells the story of three US military veteran families struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the highly trained service dogs that help alleviate its symptoms. Within the context of an ongoing national crisis in veterans’ mental health care, the film explores how alternative treatments such as canine therapy can provide an unexpected and meaningful solution to the legacy of PTSD. 

Project Director: Elizabeth Mirzaei
Sponsor Organization: Film Independent
Each year thousands of California prisoners serving life sentences fight to get parole; one resolute Dominican nun has made it her mission to see them succeed through a training course of mock hearings and self-critique. HOW TO ESCAPE FROM PRISON traces the threads of four interwoven lives as they navigate California’s fractured criminal justice system. Through these stories, the film amplifies the often-unheard voices in the conversation on recidivism, restorative justice, and prison reform.

Still from LUSO-FORNIA.

Project Director: David Grabias
Sponsor Organization: Filmforum, Inc.
Set in California’s Central Valley, LUSO-FORNIA takes an impressionistic view of the relationship between humanity, nature, and spirituality. The film focuses on generations of immigrants in an isolated town who turn to their Portuguese heritage to find meaning and community through an annual religious and cultural celebration that culminates in a “bloodless” bullfight. LUSO-FORNIA documents and celebrates California’s dairy lands and the often-overlooked beauty of its residents’ lives.

Project Director: Lee Romney
Sponsor Organization: Independent Arts & Media
November In My Soul is a ten-part podcast series told through the voices of people who are incarcerated or civilly committed due to mental illness and their families, experts, and scholars. Grounded in legal, medical, cultural, and social history, the series contextualizes one of the greatest philosophical dilemmas and public policy challenges in California and throughout the US.  

Project Director: Krystal Tingle
Sponsor Organization: International Documentary Association
The gospel music mega-hit “Oh Happy Day!” made international history when its joyous sound broke into mainstream radio in 1969, the first gospel song to achieve such heights. Behind the record’s meteoric rise is a little-known story about the Hawkins family and their unassuming youth gospel choir from Oakland, California, who first recorded the hit. At the height of the civil rights movement, the teenage choir shattered walls of racism, religion, and homophobia and revolutionized gospel music.

Project Director: Alice Daniel
Sponsor Organization: Valley Public Radio
This seven-part podcast and broadcast series features in-depth audio storytelling about the people and culture of the San Joaquin Valley. Through reported pieces, interviews, and first-person narratives from each of the seven counties served by Valley Public Radio, the series brings listeners stories of life in a part of California that is at times overlooked by other media outlets. The station will conduct community engagement sessions for the series, and each episode will feature a segment driven by the voices of local youth.

Still from SONG OF SALT.

Project Director: Emma Baiada
Sponsor Organization: Center for Independent Documentary
This 90-minute film is a haunting yet hopeful glimpse into the everyday life of a small California desert town as it grapples with economic despair, isolation, and recovery following a series of powerful earthquakes. A microcosm of contemporary rural America, the town of Trona, California reflects the complexities, hardships, and small beauties that are revealed when we look beyond prevailing stereotypes to more closely observe a community’s struggles and celebrations. 

Project Director: Nonny de la Peña
Sponsor Organization: The Alliance for Media Arts + Culture
Using cutting-edge, immersive media, this virtual reality project brings to life the story of Japanese American teenager Stanley Hayami. Told through his letters, wartime diary, and personal artworks, the project traces his journey from home in the San Gabriel Valley to life in a concentration camp and military service during World War II. The interactive exhibit will on display at the Japanese American National Museum and online.

Project Director: Leila Day
Sponsor Organization: Left of Center Gallery
THE STOOP is a podcast and radio series featuring stories from across the Black Diaspora that explore issues of identity, race, and questions that both African American and black immigrant communities are curious about. Using a combination of journalism, storytelling, music, on-location interviews, and creative sound design, THE STOOP is hosted by two black women journalists—an African American, and an African immigrant—based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Still from THIRD ACT. Photo courtesy of Robert Nakamura.

Project Director: Tadashi Nakamura
Sponsor Organization: LTSC Community Development Corporation
THIRD ACT is a documentary about 83-year-old filmmaker Robert (Bob) A. Nakamura, “the Godfather of Asian American film,” as he reflects on his influential 50-year career, the intergenerational trauma and psychological wounds resulting from his family’s incarceration during World War II, and his recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease. Directed by his son Tadashi, the film poses a question at once personal and universal: how can a father and son say goodbye? 


Project Director: Vivien Hillgrove
Sponsor Organization: Swell Cinema
When veteran film editor Vivien Hillgrove starts to lose her eyesight, she embarks on an unconventional endeavor to create her own documentary memoir. Beginning in a home for unwed mothers in the era before Roe v. Wade, Hillgrove careens through San Francisco in the 1960s and reflects on her adventures as an editor and 50 years of Bay Area filmmaking. On her personal odyssey, she redefines kinship, conjures ghosts, develops a sensory survival manual, finds her artistic voice, and reminds us that disabilities can also open doors.

See a list of all past recipients of California Documentary Project grants.


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