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Doyennes of Doc-TV: European Television

By Anette Olsen

Doyennes of Doc-TV: Alison Palmer Bourke, Nancy Abraham, Pat Mitchell, Paola Freccero, Cara Mertes and Lauren Lazin

The presence of women commissioning editors and buyers of documentaries in the European television landscape is quite remarkable. Although heads of channels or units are most often men, if one takes a quick look at the number of commissioning editors and buyers on some of the major public broadcasting stations in Europe, women are in the majority. (Source: EDN TV-Guide,

Since the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the '90s, women have become more visible in the media in general; more women work as journalists, filmmakers and producers, and occupy administrative posts in the audio-visual sector. Also, the documentary field, more than the feature movie business, which is still a male-dominated world, seems to appeal to women and offer the kind of jobs that women are good at: multi-tasking, working intimately with people, organizing, being attentive to details, etc.

The women interviewed for this article have been in the documentary business for a long time. They come from different cultural backgrounds and have contributed to the development of the documentary genre by virtue of their personalities and enthusiasm. But what does it take to do the work of a commissioning editor, and does gender play a role in the way these women go about their jobs?

"When you deal with documentaries you are not selling products," says Madeleine Avramoussis, one of the commissioning editors of the "Theme" evenings at ARTE G.E.I.E in Strasbourg, France. "You have to bring other qualities into the business, because when you deal with a creative process your attitude must be a different one from the aggressive, production-selling attitude. You have to create the facilities for a creative process to happen and you have to accompany it. It has to do with giving and making room."

Avramousis comes from a background as an independent producer of investigative documentaries and has been with ARTE since its start in 1992. She has never felt that being a woman was a problem. "I work differently because I'm a woman," she says, "but I play on the same ground as my male colleagues. I believe it's a matter of sensibility rather than a male/female thing. I think oppositions are challenging. I don't like the opposition of male/female, though; it's too restricted. I like the dynamics of a threesome; it's more open."

Leena Pasanen, head of cultural and documentary programs at YLE Teema in Finland, started out in journalism, news and current affairs. She has been working with YLE since 1992, first as a reporter and later as the head of in-house documentaries on YLE TV1. Pasanen is used to the rougher side of the media business, and she has experienced the way her age has influenced how people have dealt with her. "The biggest problem with me has been my age," she admits. "I started working when I was at the university, so I have a long track record that helped me get new positions. I was only 22 when I worked for the Finnish News Agency full time. If I go to some southern countries in Europe, people sometimes ask me if I could present this or that to my boss when he arrives. Ten years ago people would think I was the secretary, but that doesn't happen anymore. Luckily I'm getting older!"

Pasanen has commissioned films like The Gates by Al Maysles, about Christo's latest project in New York City's Central Park. But she is also known for her interest in innovative documentaries that challenge form. "I'm not as careful as women normally are," she admits. "I do take risks with programs and I try all kinds of things that nobody else would try."

Finland has a tradition of women working, occupying positions in the public field (the president of the country, Tarja Halonen, is a woman) and of creating equal opportunities for women and men. "Typically for YLE and probably to Finnish TV in general, many women work there," Pasanen notes. "We have women as heads of departments, as anchors and even as heads of channels. Also in commercial TV, there are female directors of channels."

In Germany opportunities for women in management and programming have changed for the positive over the years. Dagmar Skopalik, head of international relations at ZDF, worked for ten years as a TV journalist and producer with ZDF and was then appointed the first equal opportunity officer of the organization. This position allowed her to get an insight into all areas of a company and deal with issues such as development of personnel, management and company policies in general.

"On the one hand, there has been a big influx of highly qualified women [as journalists, producers, etc.] in the last 20 years; and on the other hand, a gradual change of attitude and awareness towards this female quality boom can be noted," Skopalik observes. "Today no one would dare to claim that female journalists/producers lag behind their male colleagues when it comes to education and qualification. Still, that does not mean that we have reached the stage where women have the same opportunities to climb the career ladder and reach higher positions."

When it comes to the issue of "women and power," Skopalik believes that "Women who get to decision-making positions are still expected to wield power in a traditionally feminine way—by sharing it in a ‘power through,' or more indirect approach. Whereas men are expected to wield power in a traditionally masculine way—by being authoritarian, or having ‘power over,' a more direct approach.

"Judging from my practical experiences," Skopalik continues, "I observed that women tend to be more objective-oriented, rather than status-oriented. They are more focused on problem-solving and act more as team-players than their male counterparts. At the same time women in decision-making positions are as oriented to strategic thinking and as willing to take risks as men in decision-making npositions."

For 30 years, Jannie Langbroek was head of acquisitions for the Dutch Broadcaster VPRO, and was also commissioning editor over the last 15 years. She purchased films like Shoah by Claude Lanzmann and all of Werner Herzog's works. Langbroek retired from her post earlier this year but is still active in various committees and funding bodies. She has had the experience of becoming the boss to former colleagues.

"The people I worked with were mainly women," Langbroek notes. "It's easy to become friends with colleagues you have worked with for years and sometimes it's difficult to keep the distance and tell people if they do something wrong.

"I was one of the few women directors," she continues. "The top in the VPRO were, and are, men, and most staff people were women. There is now a female programming director." 

VPRO is one of the main sponsors of International Documentary FilmFestival  Amsterdam (IDFA). The festival was and still is very much a woman's project. More than 80 percent of the IDFA staff is women, but according to Ally Derks, initiator and director of the festival since its very beginning in 1988, this has nothing to do with favoring women. "When we hire someone, we take the best," she says. "I'm not choosing according to gender; we take someone who fits with the team.

"When I started IDFA 17 years ago, we had four theaters. We needed 16 projectionists and there were simply not that many available," Derks recalls. "The men projectionists were not used to changing reels during a festival, so we trained projectionists and they were all women. Some are still with us.

"I think women are very good producers and organizers because they are good at taking care of the little details," Derks notes. "Women are good at multi-tasking; it's probably something in our genes. We are really different from men in a lot of aspects."

Avramoussis believes that women should go for the opportunities when they present themselves. "I think women should discover their own style, find their own way of understanding what they want in their life," she stresses. "Nobody is going to give them anything; they have to find their opportunities by themselves. And articulate their needs. It's all about building confidence; women should build confidence about their assets, learning, training. It's a great way for women to go into training of others to have more assets."

One thing about working in the documentary field is that no one can expect to get rich. Generally speaking, would women be more willing to work for something they believe in, rather than earn a lot of money?

"I would say that the main difference between male and the female pattern for this matter is that women have a more developed sense of work being a part of their life, not separate from it," Skopalik observes. "This applies not only to the dimension of having children to care for, but also to the other dimensions of life that are and cannot be covered only by their professional life. In that respect women seem to function multi-dimensionally, whereas men show more tendencies to a one-dimensional attitude that is to draw their satisfaction from their work life."

"I think you have to have certain qualities to be able to lead an uncomfortable life, because you're not going to make a lot of money," Avramoussis notes. "It all depends on the lifestyle. I think making docs is a lifestyle. It's like a traveling circus. It's wanting to work with people very closely to go through intimate experiences; it's a piece of life."

"It would be difficult for me to think I could work in commercial channels because what they are doing is so different to what I want to do," Pasanen says. "So the reason I do this job is because I want to work with documentaries."

"I wouldn't do something if I didn't believe in it," Avramoussis maintains. "I wouldn't be interested in working in commercial channels because they would push me into things that I wouldn't want to do."

With regard to choosing programs, everybody agrees that it is not a question of whether the filmmaker is a man or a woman, it's the quality of the program that counts. Gender awareness, however, is no longer confined to feminist discourses; it has been integrated in business strategies because it pays off to portray men and women in an egalitarian way. And commissioning editors are aware of that.

"I sometimes see documentaries where women are reduced to being decoration or to saying something touching, not being valued in the same way as men," Pasanen notes. "Those films will never make it into YLE. It's not that I'm seeking feminist documentaries. It's an automatism built inside me and when I see patronizing, male-dominated film, it bothers me. In that sense I am picky."


Anette Olsen is the editor of DOX, an international magazine published by the European Documentary Network.