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Ecletic Public TV Offerings at INPUT '95

By Stephen Peet

A green overlay photo of Rollerskater Ivano Gagliardo holding his blades featured in Peter Entell's 'Skaters Hit the Town' from Switzerland

It's 9:00 in the morning in the Miramar Palace in San Sebastian in the Basque country on the north coast of Spain. In each of the Miramar's three largest rooms are over 200 delegates from some 30 countries, and in each room they are about to screen a different TV program. In one there's March of the Living from Germany and the Ukraine. In another it's 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould from Canada.  And in the session I'm attending, it's the unlikely sounding Portrait of a Serial Kisser. This entertaining documentary from Chaos Productions, Brazil, is about a man who claims to have kissed more than 400 famous people and tens of thousands of ordinary citizens. For his trouble he's been arrested and beaten by the police countless times.

The half-hour film ends with a sequence in which the seemingly harmless, eccentric "hero" manages to plant a kiss on the great footballer Pele. "The kisser is a terror," chants an ecstatic crowd as the camera pulls back and back to reveal him being carried shoulder high in their midst. The credits roll. The Lights come up. And a vigorous discussion begins with the director, Carlos Nader. Questions come thick and fast. "Do big exhibitionists like that need TV in order to exist?" "Did he get paid by TV in order to behave in this manner?" "Isn't it unethical for TV to take advantage of the craziness of this man ?" Nader answers as best he can. "We Brazilians just love to show off!" he explains.  This was one of the lighter hearted discussions at INPUT '95. We were at the start of a four-hour morning session, to be followed by another four hours in the afternoon. It was to be like this everyday for five days. For those with stamina, each day there were two evening discussions as well. And those with even more stamina could venture into viewing rooms available from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. to see, by request, any programs they had missed.

But what, you may be asking yourself, is INPUT? Surely it's not another festival. You're right. It isn't. In the words of its organizers, the International Public Television Screening Conference is "an annual forum for the exchange of program ideas among producers, programmers, and others interested in the making of quality television to serve the public." They emphasize that "it is not a market, a festival, or an awards competition, but an immersion in the ideas of professional excellence directed towards the ideal of understanding the impact of television programs on the people of all places."

It all sounds rather high-minded.  But it works. There is no competition. There are no prizes. The annual INPUT is, indeed, an unforgettable and unique experience.  It grew out of a conference held in Italy in the late 1970s that was organized by the Rockefeller Foundation and Circum (an association of television professionals) to discuss the need for exchange of cultural programs across national borders.

For the last 18 years, INPUT has been held annually on alternate sides of the Atlantic. lt has grown and grown. More than 900 delegates attended this year's conference, held in Spain from May 14 to 20. (Next year's INPUT will be the first to take place in Latin America, in Guadalajara, Mexico.) Many say it's the best programmakers' conference in the media calendar. It was created by and, amazingly, is still run by dedicated and determined volunteers, with the help of their home institutions. This year's host was Euskal Telbista (Basque Public Television).

In his welcome, INPUT '95 Coordinator Enrique Nicanor informed the assembled delegates that "every year INPUT discovers more than a hundred excellent, powerful, and provocative programs, from all over the world, to be screened and discussed at the annual conference." These discussions even more than the screenings are what make INPUT memorable. For instance, one of the many documentaries chosen for screening this year was Italy's Strippers. The brief description in our program notes said, "Made by two women, this explicit view of three Italian porno stars raises disturbing questions not only about their lifestyle but also about how far as filmmakers we should go."

Strippers was sordid. But at the same time I felt that it was made with surprising tenderness, humor, and humanity. The producer and director, Elisabetta Francia and Ilaria Freccia, were present to receive abuse, praise, and questions. They explained that they wanted to find out about the ordinary, everyday lives of these porno stars "and whether they do what they do for something other than just the money." The lively comments ranged from "The authors have no point of view at all because all they have done is just show us how these [women] live "through" It was most warm and affectionately made and done with great friendliness" to "It's nothing but a revolting porno film itself and should never, never have been shown here. "

Hurrah. This is what INPUT is all about. But, you may well ask, how do programs get chosen for screening? Well, it's a massive job, undertaken months in advance by an international group of strangely named "shop stewards" who also share the work of leading the discussions at the conference. There were 18 shop stewards this year. Their brief had been "to choose programs for their merits without regard for national pride or commercial interest... and to look for programs that innovate inform or content; are original, courageous, experimental; are unusual or controversial; and in some way break new ground. Programs which engage the audience as a problem solver or even troublemaker, and programs that help people explore their responsibilities."

Another important aspect of INPUT is the requirement that a key individual involved with the production be able to attend the conference if a film is selected for screening. This meant that there were plenty of programmakers at San Sebastian—and a chance to meet up with at least a few of them if you could find them among the swarm of 900 people.  With three parallel sessions running all the time, it was only possible to see about a third of what was being screened and discussed. As a documentary maker myself (albeit "retired"), I opted to attend sessions where the main fare was documentaries. (There were, of course, plenty of other types of programs being screened.)

For a lot of the INPUT sessions, the programs were grouped together­—sometimes a little awkwardly—into themes. One session was aptly titled "Breaking the Silence." It included two powerful documentaries: 50 Years of Silence from ABC TV Australia and Alexandra the Thin from France 3 (but shot in Chile). 50 Years of Silence is the personal story of a 67-year-old grandmother who reveals, for the first time, her dreadful experiences as one of a group of Dutch girls who were forced to work in a Japanese army brothel in Java for a period during World War II.  James Bradley, one of the film's directors, explained after the screening that this woman found it easier to tell her story to the world through the film rather than directly to her family, using television as a kind of public confessional (as is often done these days).

Alexandra the Thin is also a public confession—but even more chilling, for it is told, not by the victim, but by the perpetrator of crimes. "La Flaca Alexandra" was once a leader of the leftist revolutionary movement in Chile. In 1974 she was arrested. She eventually broke under torture and betrayed the cause. For 18 years she worked for the intelligence services of Pinochet's army. In 1993 she changed sides again and made a public apology. Among those she had betrayed and sent to their death in 1974 was Miguel Enriquez, head of the Resistance. Enriquez's companion, Carmen Castillo, managed to get away to France. Twenty years later, now a filmmaker, Castillo returned to Chile to make a film with La Flaca. And together, back at the scene of the crimes, they talk. On film, the informer tries to explain how she broke under torture and betrayed her friends-and all that meant and still means. After the screening Castillo told us that it has been shown in France and elsewhere but not on Chilean TV: "The authorities say that people 'want to forget."'

But public television around the world is making it its business to see that people don't forget. Perhaps that is one of the many reasons that it is under threat in so many countries! One of the things that public television documentaries do so well is the unveiling of unpalatable truths.

There was, for instance, a screening of a brilliantly made U.S. big-budget Frontline program produced by Thomas Lennon for WGBH. Tabloid Truth: The Michael Jackson Story revealed the whole sleazy world of tabloid journalism, particularly in Britain.  Shots of the slavering excitement of news hounds and news editors—on both sides of the Atlantic—were sickening to see and made me ashamed to belong to the human race.

And there was an unexpected film from Denmark called The Rainbow Man, produced and directed for Nordisk Film by Michael Klint. It too sought to reveal unpalatable truths, of a very different sort. The Rainbow Man questioned some of the actions of the environmental protection organization Greenpeace. It is a film that, not surprisingly, has run into legal troubles. I found myself disturbed, but only partially convinced, by the film. After the screening it was heavily criticized for a large variety of reasons, includ­ing, oddly enough, it's plain, pedantic style. It seems that when you take on a sacred cow like Greenpeace, the findings must be presented in a faultless and extra-convincing manner.  The last speaker in the lengthy discussion stopped us in our tracks. "Would any of us be finding fault with this film," he asked, "objecting to its style or querying its ethics, if it had been exposing something that we know to be wrong, like the work of the Mafia?"

Discussion about protecting the environment also came up in an Australian film, The Last Magician, produced and directed by Liz Thompson and Tracey Holloway for ABC TV.  It was shot in the Trobriand Islands, off the northeast coast of Papua New Guinea. A conflict as to whether the islanders should preserve their traditions or embrace development is played out on a human level in the form of an ongoing discussion between two chiefs who hold diametrically opposing views. One pleads, "You have to go back to go forward," and the other insists, "Immediate economic development is the only solution." And there is a third protagonist, their uncle, an elderly traditional chief who is worried about where his spirit will go when he dies: to Tuma, the traditional place of the dead , or to the Christian heaven? This chief is renowned for his magic—hence the film's title.

Those Australian filmmakers were obviously on very good terms with the people with whom they were making the film. And this is something that came up frequently in discussion: the vital importance of establishing mutual trust when making documentaries. It shows on the screen in a positive way. But if relationships have been strained, there can be an uneasiness on the screen and, often, an uneasiness in the audience.  Some documentaries shown at INPUT I found very poor indeed. And said so. And yet, looking through my program notes, I find that two I thought were dreadful seem to have won critical acclaim, even awards, in their home countries. I find this worrying.

But I digress. Let's get back to this business of mutual trust. It was clear to me that a good relationship had been established-well before any shooting started-with the people in the documentaries Euthanasia: To Die to Live, Honeymoon, and Skaters Hit the Town.

Euthanasia: To Die to Live, a Spanish film directed by Laura Palmes for TVE 2, was a sensitive and intimate story of a 50-year-old Galacian who has spent 25 years paralyzed from the neck down as the result of an accident. He is seeking the right to have this painful situation ended legally: euthanasia as "an act of love." A brave man—and a brave film to make in Spain.

Honeymoon, directed by Alice de An­drade, was made in Cuba for the British Channel 4 series South. It managed, with great humanity, to balance on an uneasy line between romantic comedy and social comment in following the adventures of two Cuban couples who challenged the rationing and economic crisis by having fancy wedding parties during the "difficult period " of 1992.

I fear that many of us, not so deep down in our subconscious, think of  Switzerland as a staid, quiet, law-abiding, and rather humorless place. So when Skaters Hit the Town, a very well crafted and enjoyable film directed by Peter Entell for Television Suisse Romande, suddenly came on showing the inhabitants of the city of Lucerne having a bit of anarchic fun on rollerskates, it was a delightful and shocking pleasure.

For me, at that moment, it was the best film of the week. In retrospect I'm not so sure. But that's totally beside the point. INPUT is a place for sitting back and letting things hit you. It's a place for exchanging ideas. It's a place for seeing what others are doing and learning from them. If anyone ever suggested that there should be some sort of INPUT prize for the best program of the week, they would be laughed out of court!

Londoner Stephen Peet has worked in the documentary industry since the 1950s. In I967 he created the world’s first oral history TV series, the BBC’s Yesterday's Witness. Now he is a peripatetic trainer in documen­tary filmmaking.