January 1, 1999

IDC3: The Third International Documentary Congress

Getting Started in a Documentary Career in the U.S.

*Supported by the Los Angeles County Art Commission and Thirteen-WNET

A dynamic assembly of panelists—filmmakers, distributors, arts administrators, producers—talked about how they got where they are and advised the audience of several hundred students, teachers and emerging filmmakers of what lies ahead for them. Moderated by educator/filmmaker/IDA Board member Thelma Vickroy, this special Congress opening event provided hearty helpings of food-for-thought and encouragement, also a dollop or two of pessimism.

The filmmakers on the panel—Arthur Dong, Michael Smith, Jesse Lerner, David Weisman, David Lindstrom—offered insights about what and who inspired them, how they shaped their careers, and how they handled the challenges that came along. Michael Smith stressed the importance of mentors from different backgrounds, with different concepts and perspectives. Arthur Dong, who has self-distributed a share of his work, talked about the need to sell yourself in order to get your film out there.

The producers on the panel—Brenda Reiswerg, Debby Levin (GRB Entertainment), and Jackie Glover (HBO)—emphasized the need to get involved with as many aspects of filmmaking as possible, taking advantage of what a job with a production company may offer in terms of education about the medium and the business, and finding a place for your ideas and your work. Panelists acknowledged that while the cable industry has expanded exponen­tially over the past five years, the opportunities for documentary filmmakers are not as great as one might expect. While HBO/Cinemax has made a significant impact as a programmer and producer of adventurous nonfiction work, many other channels demand an assembly line of programming simply to keep themselves on the air.

Mary Schaffer, an independent producer of CD­ ROMs, Ruby Lerner, the outgoing Executive Director of AIFV, and Mitchell W. Block, President of distributor Direct Cinema, offered different perspectives on the industry. Block in particular provided the voice of reason for a few, the clarion call of gloom and doom for many more. While casting doubt on graduate film schools, most festivals, independent filmmaking as fiscally sensible directions for aspiring documentary filmmakers, he did acknowledge the promise that the Internet held for documentarians.

Also included on the program, David Lindstrom screened a clip from his film Tao of the Dumpster, which went through IDA's fiscal sponsor program and was screened at the 1997 DOCtober."' He offered perhaps the pithiest advice of the day: "If you want to be a filmmaker, you have to make a film; if you want a job, go get a job." The 3-hour program concluded with breakout sessions with each of the panelists and the program attendees. (TW)

 

Focus On... BBC Documentaries

*Sponsored by Real Screen

Laurence Rees, joint head of the BBC historical programmes unit within the documentaries and history department, filled in for Storyville head Nick Fraser by charting the process by which two commissioning editors can determine which shows make it onto the air at the BBC. Even with encouragement to balance in-house production with independent work (a full 25% must come from outside), he cited the difficulties for any project to make its way through the labyrinthian process of pitching, warning that pitches precede air­ time by at least 2 years and that programming can take 3-4 years lead time. (TJL)

 

Focus On ...Historical/Biographical Documentaries

*Sponsored by E! Entertainment Television

Godfather of this popular genre David L. Wolper moderated the discussion with: David Grubin, pro­ducer of Healing and the Mind With Bill Moyers for PBS and biographies of American presidents for The American Experience; Robert Guenette who is currently producing three series reviewing the 20th century; Susan Lacy, creator and executive producer of the American Masters series; Laurence Rees, the founding editor of the BBC's historical/biographical series Reputations; and Mel Stuart, who has produced and directed numerous documentaries, including the memorable Four Faces in November and the recent Billy Wilder. Probably the most memorable sound byte from this panel was Guenette's likening the plight of today's documentarians to the "tenant Farmer" in their treatment by most cablecasters. (TJL)

 

Keynote Address

Kim Campbell, the former Prime Minister of Canada and currently the Canadian Consul General in Los Angeles, delivered the IDC3's keynote address. Citing Canada's longtime role in the development of the doc­umentary—John Grierson, the grand old man of the doc, began the National Film Board of Canada 60 years ago­—Campbell stressed the over­whelming presence of American programming and films on Canadian television and in Canadian theaters. Looking to rectify this imbalance and move the art form forward for everybody, Campbell emphasized the role that the documentary can play as a form of "social capital" and as an agent for cultural diversity to keep democ­racies vital. With the expansion of opportunities on the Internet, Direct TV and cable television, film­makers and viewers alike will be able to participate in the process of keeping documentaries alive on both sides of the border. (TW)

 

Documentary Film Festivals Outside the U.S.

Geoffrey Gilmore, Program Director of the Sundance Festival, monitored a panel of impresarios from around the world, including Ally Derks from the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, Amir Labaki from the It's All True Festival in Brazil, Debbie Nightingale of the Toronto-based Hot Docs!, and Alex Cooke of the U.K.'s Sheffield International Documentary Festival. These festivals vary in age, audience size, breadth and mission. The documentary festival is a relatively recent phenomenon—Amsterdam, the oldest fest represented on the panel, is in its eleventh year—but with increasing demand for documentaries, festivals can play an important role in changing the profile of the genre, instigating a more accessible marketplace for filmmakers, and sustaining the passion for the art form. The panelists, hailing from different economic markets and cultural regions, debated about the extent of that role, but all agreed that while a festival can, and should, double as a marketplace, without being market-driven, its primary function as a forum for discovery and debate should not be undermined. (TW)

 

Focus On ...Reality Bites/True TV

*Sponsored by CBS Eye On People

Moderated by International Documentary's editor Timothy J. Lyons, the panel considered various sides of television's preoccupation with expose and "reality" program: Steve Cheskin (TLC), Harry Ganz (HBO's Taxicab Confessions), John Rieber (E! Entertainment Television) and Steven Rosenbaum (BNN) wrestled with the ethical implications of their work, including the producer's neutrality (and possible support for subjects such as the Ku Klux Klan and militants) and subject consent (informed, perhaps, but for eternity?). (TJL)

 

EU and NAFTA-Documentary Co-Production Allies?

*Sponsored, in part, by A&E Networks

Moderator Chris Haws (Discovery Network Int'I Europe) dispatched with the EU, GAIT and NAFTA aspect to focus on co-productions, international productions and international co-financing and the ways in which it's possible to continue to produce high quality documentary work. No stranger to co-production, Haws had worked with the European Documentary Network prior to his appointment to Discovery Europe. Other panelists included Brian Donegan of Devillier Donegan Enterprises, Jan Rofekamp of Films Transit and Vikram Jayanti, standing in for Andre Singer of Cafe Productions. For 90 minutes the panelists grappled with issues of maintaining the integrity of a film and getting it financed, the extent to which market research dictates program running, cultural barriers to international co­-production, the advantages of identifying a European partner, the possibilities for digital television and pay TV, the advantages of owning your film and licens­ing vs. selling your film directly to broadcasters, and the challenges of accommodating different cultures with different versions of your work. Closing the session, Haws foresaw a bright future for the documen­tary and for documentarians, given the proliferation of channels throughout the world and the attendant need for high-quality programming. (TW)

 

Focus On... Natural History Journeys

*Sponsored by Discovery Channel

Thom Beers, formerly series producer for TBS's Wild!Life Adventure, moderated a spirited discussion with Barry Clark (Mandalay Media Arts; HDTV's Sahara: Seasons in the Sand), Howard Hall (cinema­tographer for IMAX's Into the Deep, Maureen Lemire (Discovery Channel) and Mark Lewis (Rat and Animalicious). Panelists debated the distinctions between "natural history" and "wildlife", commenting upon the various specializations that individuals carry from their choices of subject matter and their styles of treatment. As Barry Clark noted , documentaries from natural history and the wilderness become "moral tales, about us." (TJL)

 

DOCS ROCK

*Sponsored by Eastman Kodak Company

"Rockumentary'' as a subgenre has been praised, maligned and parodied, but there's no question of its enduring power to capture the magic and mystery of rock'n'roll artists at work and at play. The advent of sync-sound 16mm cameras in the early 1960s enabled documentarians to capture the intensity of live performances as they happened, and a genre was born, a decade after the birth of rock'n'roll itself.

Tomm Carroll and Andrew O. Thompson conceived and curated the program, and film critic Elvis Mitchell hosted the evening. Beginning appropriately enough with works featuring the Beatles (Let It Be), Bob Dylan (Don't Look Back) and the Rolling Stones (Gimme Shelter), the makers of those respective works—(on hand for the evening's program) Michael Lindsay-Hogg, D.A. Pennebaker and Albert Maysles—captured moments of the legendary at their most human. Whether it was one of those happy accidents of filming Bob Dylan typing out lyrics or a horrific one of Mick Jagger witnessing a murder while performing at Altamont, these filmmakers broke down the walls, allowing viewers a series of warts-and-all profiles of our rock'n'roll heroes. 

The events called Woodstock, Wattsstax, and Monterey Pop documented both the thrills of live performances and the deeper resonances of the subcultures that flocked to these festivals. Dale Bell (Woodstock), D.A. Pennebaker (Monterey Pop) and Mel Stuart (Wattstax) recalled the challenges of toting the new­-fangled equipment around the festival grounds and capturing extraordinary happenings, Jimi Hendrix's magnificent tour de force at Monterey among them.

The "Performance/ Documentary as Art" section, featuring Andy Warhol's The Velvet Underground and Nico, Julien Temple's The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle, Michael Ritchie's Divine Madness and Phil Joanou's U2: Rattle and Hum, brought to the stage the latter three filmmakers. They all tread the fine line between capturing something wonderful by accident and filming a performance that's been set up beforehand.

Rounding out the evening were two films about scenes, trends and genres—Penelope Spheeris's Decline of Western Civilization, which profiled the L.A. punk rock subculture, and Doug Pray's Hype!. which examined the effects of media overkill on the Seattle community and its music scene.

The unofficial whipping boy of the evening turned out to be MTV, which has been a force in defining the image of th rock'n'roll star. Al Maysles saw it from the very beginning: "MTV changed a lot of things everyone got more careful about how they were going to parcel themselves out." (TW).

 

New Media: Documentaries Beyond TV & Film

Conceived by new media producer Mary Schaffer, this panel had all the characteristics of a session on cutting edge technology: an on-line presentation from Cindy Johanson, VP, PBS Online, was killed by a missing connector in the projection equipment—a reminder that the best products of new technology are still at the mercy of an indifferent delivery system. New computer-based, interactive media have much to learn from the traditions of documentary filmmaking, according to Curtis Wang, manager of Microsoft's Next Media Research. At the same time, new media offer a different sensibility, a different timing, and greater opportunities to mobilize local audiences. Cindy Johanson told of ways in which PBS has used the TV documentary as a catalyst between audience and Internet, where visitors are eventually invited to create content. Rob Semper, executive director of the San Francisco Exploratorium, illustrated the excellent fit between museums (as venue and medium) and interactive documentaries. And David Weiner, director of the Benton Foundation's Richard M. Neustadt Center for Communications in the Public Interest, addressed the challenge of explaining complex social issues to an audience habituated to dramatic plot and character. Craig Southard of Selavy Studios moderated the discussion. (JMH)

 

Focus On ...Eastern Europe

John Marshall (JMA) and Chris Haws (Discovery Int'l) reviewed the dramatic development in social and political alliances since the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union, events that have given rise to hope and concern, joy and alarm, as the turbulent change become subject to study and analysis by both native and foreign documentarians.

 

Making Money Saving Movies

*Co-sponsored by Amblin Entertainment, Archive

UCLA Dean Robert Rosen engaged a discussion of stock footage from viewpoints of archivist, film­maker and distributor. Panelists include filmmaker Les Blank (Burden of Dreams), producer Robert Drew (Primary, Drew Associates masterpieces), Barry Dagestino (Film Bank), David Seevers (manager, ABC News VideoSource) and attorney Michael Donaldson. All insited that footage shot by filmmakers will remain a valuable commodity for protection and future earning power. (TJL);

 

Focus On ... Pacific Rim

*Sponsored by D Network

Former Hawaii Int'l Film Festival Director Jeanette Paulson-Hereniko moderated presenta­tions by Nick Deocampo (The Philippines), Dai Sil Kim-Gibson (Korea), David Bradbury (Australia) and Gerry Flahive (Canada). The discussion centered on what differentiates Pacific Rim documentaries from those of other cultures.

 

Focus On ...Africa

Blackside's education director Judy Richardson presented Anne-Laure Folly, lawyer and native of Togo, who has made over twenty documentaries, many of these on socio-political topics in Africa. The session include a screening of selected works by Ms. Folly and her discussion with audience members.

 

Ask the Filmmaker Experts About the Future

*Sponsored by IMAX, Inc. and MacGillivray Freeman Films

Oscar®-winning filmmaker Lynne Littman (Number Our Days) sonted through questions provided by IDC3 participants, for response by Nick Broomfield (Kurt and Courtney), Marina Goldovskaya (House on Arbat Street), Werner Herzog (Little Dieter Needs to Fly), Alec Lorimore (The Living Sea) and Frieda Lee Mock (Return with Honor).

 

Focus On ...China

*Sponsored by KFC

Len McClure, Hong Kong based documentarian and teacher, was joined by veteran of Asia-themed documentaries Merle Linda Wolin, emerging Hong Kong filmmaker Jennifer Stephens, and Wang Xiao Ping, producer with Shanghai TV; also Clarissa Dong, of Shanghai Int'l Film Exchange, who brings works by Chinese filmmakers to American audiences. Discussion led to bureaucratic obstacles faced by "foreign" filmmakers in China. Wang recommended co-production and/or collaboration with the Chinese government's film board; other panelists suggested guerilla production and the international art of haggling. (JMH)

 

Optimizing Your Image—Visual Technology Now and Later

*Co-sponsored by the American Society of Cinema­tographers (ASC) and Panavision

Steven Poster, cinematographer and ASC Vice President, moderated this panel of legendary camera persons. Ricky Leacock (Happy Mothers Day) and Buddy Squires (Frank Lloyd Wright) had a lively yet amicable debate on whether to use lighting in docu­mentaries, Leacock insisting that putting up lights affects the reality of the situation and hinders the sub­ject from delivering an honest "performnce." Al Maysles (Concert of Wills) said that the format (video, digital or film) is not as important as what the cinematographer catches: he told a story about being on a bus with a woman whose movements only he noticed, because as a cinematographer his eyes are open to the more subtle and compelling images of life. Jon Else (Cadillac Desert) stated that both format and lighting choices are made depending on the requirements of each individual project. Greg MacGillivray reviewed the difficulty of shooting with the bulky and heavy IMAX cameras and how the viewing process of the huge screen affects cinematic choices at least as profoundly as content does. Marker Karahadian closed the session with a clip of various formats (digital video, beta, high­ definition) transferred to 35mm. (CS)

 

Focus On ... Latin/South America

This panel turned out to be not only a multicultural experience but a bilingual one as well. Panelists were Ricardo Dias (Brazil); Carmen Guarini (Argentina); Marisa Sistach and Juan ''Paco" Urusti (Mexico); and Paul Espinosa ("Latin America begins in the U.S. borderlands with Chicano ci nema's solidarity w ith Latin American ftlmmaking"). "Latin" cinema, long associated in the mi nds of American audiences with economic underdevelopm ent and political rebel­ lion , seems to have abandoned the collective public voice and moved into more i nti mate, idiosyncratic spaces. The clips of the panelists' work, in their variety of style and subject, demonstrated how the umbrell a l abel "Lati n/South America" obscures the countries and cultures of an entire conti nent. Inevitably, the discussion turned to the influence of their neighbor to the north . All of the panelists deplored the fact that while American progranunin g was well-publicized, easily available, little was being done to make their work known in each other's countries. In spite of their changing sensibilities, the Latin filmmakers revealed themselves to be politically conscious. The session was moderated in two languages by Cuban­ Uruguyan filmmaker Patricia Boero who i s now Director of Jnt'I Progra ms for the Sundance lnstitute. (JMH)

 

DOCS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD

*Sponsored by The New York Times

Underscoring the theme of the evening. Todd Purdum of The New York Times referred to Mathew Brady's photographs from the Civil War as one of the first modern instances of the "elite's way of reaching the masses." Just as Brady's photos conditioned America 's thinking about that terrible conflict, the documentary form has, over the past 100 years, helped shape the way we think today.

Moderator/curator and IDA Executive Director Betsy A. McLane shepherded a century's worth of clips from defining documentaries, to select some not for their influence or acclaim but as examples of the power that the medium has to create "demonstrable public change." The evening was divid­ed into six parts, each represent­ing a seminal period in modern history, and each presented by a distinguished figure who contextualized and commented on the clips. Eric Barnouw, preeminent historian of the documentary, commented on early newsreels and archival footage of the wreck of the U.S.S. Maine in the Spanish-American War and the fall of the Romonov Dynasty, as well as a clip from the classic Man with a Movie Camera. Veteran filmmakers George Stevens Jr. and Rabbi Marvin Heir discussed clips from World War II and the Holocaust, including Triumph of the Will, Churchill's Island, Frank Capra's Why We Fight, and Alain Resnais's Night and Fog. Commenting on the clips from the Civil Rights movement, Judy Richardson, Education Director for Blackside, Inc., praised the power of documentaries and news footage not only for validating the African American experience, but for exposing the movement to the world, changing the African American world view and revising how African Americans view themselves. Gordon Quinn of Kartemquin Films, credited Hearts and Minds for putting the Vietnam War in proper historical context, using archival footage and new footage. "People who control the irnagesare the ones who have the power," Quinn reflected. Former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell lauded If You Love This Planet for raising the international consciousness of the dangers of nuclear proliferation, removing the issue from abstraction and making it real. David Schulman, an internationally recognized expert on AIDS law and policy, praised Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt for giving voice to people with AIDS—and with teaching everyone how to grieve. "Common Threads accelerated the process,"' Schulman noted. "We're fools if we don't learn from what came before." (TW)

 

Ask the Executive Experts About the Future

President of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Meryl Marshall moderated a panel of executives to respond to questions submitted by Congress participants: Nancy Abraham (HBO), Geoffrey Darby (CBS Eye on People), Andrew Gellis (IMAX), Chris Haws (Discovery Europe) and Sandy McGovern (National Geographic Television).

 

Focus On... Writing for the Documentary

CableACE award winner, Carol Fleisher gaioed panel-wide consensus that in documentary writing, "the only thing that doesn't go out of fashion is good storytelling." Perhaps an obvious maxim, butas these panelists ' perspectives and experiences demon­strate—in the practice of documentary storytelling, there are no consistent development steps one can follow nor any self-evident formulas for success. With this conventional wisdom foremost in mind, the documentary writer may more effectively rise to the kinds of challenges presented by the contemporary documentary project. Panel moderator, Mark Jonathan Harris referenced his 1997 Academy Award®-winning The Long Way Home to exemplify the challenges of finding and effectively incorporating oral testimony clips in historical documentary. Roger Holzberg, Walt Disney Imagineering senior producer/director, emphasized the increasing impor­tance that writers must afford to visuals given the wealth of modem advances in imaging technology. Jim Milio, whose credits boast considerable nonfiction fare on television, stressed the influences upon docu­mentary writing by the modern television landscape of channel surfers and multiplying, often competing producer/buyer programming outlets. Other topics addressed included: the "trick of the tease" from where documentary ideas originate; what is needed to sell an idea; impacts of new technologies upon writing and production logistics; the limits of reenactment; documentary rewriting; writer-producer tug of creativity wars; the writer-editor affinity; and the future of documentary writing .

Freedom of Expression/Responsibility of the Maker

Chris Haws, senior vice president and executive producer of Discovery Networks Int'l, moderated a panel, with: David Bradbury; Nick Deocampo, the Philippines' leading documentary filmmaker; and S. Krishnaswamy, documentary writer, producer and director, and co-author, with Erik Barnouw, of the book Indian Film.

 

Focus On... On-Line Action

The computer, the Internet, the World Wide Web... what roles can the documentary play in these new delivery systems? Moderated by new media producer Mary C. Schaffer, panelists included James Buch, president and CEO of Classroom Connect; and Tom Neff, documentary filmmaker and co-creator of The Documentary Channel.

 

Focus On ...Israel

Filmmmaker Michèle Ohayon (Colors Straight Up) moderated a discussion with Udy Epstein (7th Arts Releasing), Micha X. Peled (San Francisco/Israel) and Ilan Ziv regarding the current state of documen tary in this Middle East country.

 

Model Pitches

President of the Banff Television Festival, Pat Ferns, moderated a lively session, in which pitchers R.J. Cutler, Vikram Jayanti and Jonathan Stack tried out their ideas for Nancy Abraham (HBO), Larry Greenberg (Showtime), Chris Haws (Discovery Europe) and Jan Rofekamp (Films Transit).

 

Reports of JDC3 sessions provided by the following:

CS: CHRIS SHERIDAN is a filmmaker and IDA webmaster. His most recent (docwnentary) ftlm, Walk This Way, won a Student Academy Award® in 1997.

JMH : JAYASHRJ M. HART is a Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker. Her most recent film, Roars in the Sand, is being distributed by NAATA and slated for PBS airing next year.

JR: JOHN RAMJREZ is an Associate Professor of Film and Television Studies at California State University, Los Angeles.

TJL: TIMOTHY J. LYONS is Editor of for International Documentary magazine.

TW: THOMAS W. WHITE is Assistant Editor of International Documentary.

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