September 1, 1996

INPUT '96

The 19th annual INPUT conference did not begin promisingly. You arrived at the ultraplush Continental Plaza (replete with heat-seeking air conditioning and toilets that flush themselves as soon as you stand up), in the middle of Guadalajara's sterile Expo suburb, miles from the center of town and anything Mexican. It felt like something out of Godard's Alphaville.

This was too bad, because May 26-31 marked the first time that INPUT, the International Public Television Screening Conference, was held in Latin America (or anywhere outside Europe, the United States, or Canada). Fortunately, the antiseptic site was just about the only down side to the event. It was strikingly well run by Margarita Sierra and her friendly staff, and people in Guadalajara really know how to throw a party (it was the first time the usually lugu brious opening ceremony included a racy performance by a Cuban singer and delegates dancing in front of the stage).

But I digress. What is INPUT? It's always been easier to say what it isn't—not a festival, not a market, not a showcase offering prizes. It's a screening and discussion conference based somewhat on the Flaherty Seminar model. The idea is to get producers and programmers to think and talk seriously about what they do and to expose them to provocative work from all over the world. The theory is that this kind of cross­ fertilization will eventually lead to more broadcast exchanges between countries, coproductions, and the like.

The reality for most American independents is that such results are a bit of a stretch. Coproductions still tend to be big-ticket items, beyond the reach of most of us, and almost none of the foreign programming shown at INPUT ever finds its way onto U.S. public television. There is a large body of conventional wisdom to explain this phenomenon—American audiences won't sit still for subtitles, it's too esoteric, it's "paced for European sensibilities," et cetera—but the truth is that we are a blazingly parochial people, and many of us have a hard time focusing on anything American beyond New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., let alone on foreign lands.

Fortunately, there is a core of people at CPB, PBS, and a few stations who believe fervently in the ideals of INPUT and who, together with Patricia Boero at the MacArthur Foundation, work to maintain the United States's participation. The Rockefeller Foundation was involved in the founding of the organization and continues to support it. These institutions and people keep this genuinely Olympic flame alive by finding programs to submit, getting an American public station to host the event every few years, and providing travel money for independents to accompany their programs. INPUT is a totally volunteer organization, with no permanent home, staff, or budget. Miraculously, it comes together every year because key people in a dozen or so countries refuse to let it die.

This year's event was structured according to the customary three-ring­ circus format—programs and discussions ru n ning concurrently in three ballrooms of the Plaza—so that, as a delegate, you never got to see more than a third of the material. The monitors were plunked down around the rooms on pedestals, Stonehenge style, which meant that sightlines were excellent for screening but problematic for talking.

Nineteen "shop stewards" from 16 different countries (I was an American representative this year, along with Marisa Leal from the National Latino Communications Center in Los Angeles) select the programs, plan the themes, and lead the discussions. The selection and planning phase, complete with Franco-Anglo rivalries and subplots, happens in Turin, Italy, i n February, when we all argue around the clock and are whipped into shape by the cantankerous cofounder, Sergio Borelli.

In Guadalajara this year, most of us felt that the talk in the screening rooms was a bit too kind and gentle. INPUT discussions can be quite heated, and producers—particularly less experienced ones—sometimes feel as though they've walked into a minefield of journalistic and ethical questions, but most of the exchanges this year felt courteous to a fault. Hard to know why this would be the case; perhaps i t was because a few of the more notoriously obstreperous delegates stayed home in '96.

American independent Peter Friedman caused a few sparks by expressing dismay at ITV's insistence on receiving a cut-down (58 minute) version of his 70-minute Death by Design, a remarkably inventive "science film" that uses unpredictable techniques to look at what happens within the walls of human cells, both healthy and ailing. Friedman is an American independent who has actually been quite successful at finding co-production money (the film receiving funding from a number of European sources as well as ITVS), and it was because his 70-minute version was submitted to INPUT by the German branch of ARTE that it found its way to Guadalajara, despite having been passed over in the U.S. preselection.

The most frequently requested program in the "on­ demand" room (where delegates can screen "high buzz" programs they've missed) was Born in the Wrong Body by Pieter Kramer of the Netherlands. The subject is a Dutch farmer who decides he is, fundamentally, a tribesman from Zaire and, with the help of his family and a therapist trained in such anthropo­ logical transformations, physically and mentally makes himself over into the latter. This turned out to be a highly crafted fictional program disguised as a verite documentary—a send-up of the genre, of sex-change vernacular, of the "therapeutic community" and several other institutions and conventions. It was extremely well conceived and acted, funny and also touching at moments, and quite a few members of the audience were taken in. This led to a stimulating discussion about the legitimacy of playing with an audience's emotions to such an extent.

The Spanish Transition was part of a 13-part series that looked at critical political developments in Spain between 1973 and 1977. The series was six years in the making, included material that had never been seen on Spanish television, and was a major media event in Spain. But a portion of the INPUT audience was less enthralled. A number of delegates found the program manipulative ("smelled of Françoist propaganda") in its use of an omniscient narrator who told the audience "what had really happened." The argument was over whether or not it is still possible to examine history in a television style that seems to lean exclusively on "objective facts."

Dan Reeves introduced his stunning personal family history, River of Light, and, like Friedman, expressed dissatisfaction with the need to present an abbreviated version. His hour-long tape Obsessive Becoming had been shortened for the American series New Television, which submitted the 30-minute version, retitled River of Light, to INPUT. Jackie Kain of PBS station KCET in Los Angeles said that if Reeves didn't like the shortened version, he should never have agreed to make one. This led to an animated discussion of the financial exigencies of television and the compromises that have to be made when fitting programs into slots.

Other American programs (plus their presenters and sources) screened at INPUT were: Blown Sideways Through Life, a documentary of a performance by Claudia Shear (American Playhouse); Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter, Deborah Hoffman's Oscar-nominated personal documentary about her mother's struggle with Alzheimer's (P.O.V.); Paul Fierlinger animated Drawn from Memory (American Playhouse); the biographical documentaries Richard Avedon and Rod Serling, executive produced by Susan Lacy (American Masters); Joshua Blum's The United States of Poetry (ITVS), an eclectic tapestry of the poetry scene across the country; and Frederick Marx's Hoop Dreams (Kartemquin). A Frontline production, Waco: The Inside Story, had been selected but had to be canceled in Guadalajara because the producer was unable to attend.

The next INPUT will be in Nantes, France, in May 1997. A question frequently on the minds of American producers is: "Can I sell my program or get a new co-production deal by attending INPUT?" The answer is that you may be able to if you're very good at that sort of thing, but it's not the best reason to go. Most delegates come away from the week feeling that screening the programs and talking about them is what has energized them and given them a much wider perspective on what they do. Some of the things you see are just plain inspiring­ and they remind you of why so many people in so many countries jump through so many hoops to get this stuff made. As one delegate put it, "I feel less alone now."

 

Ralph Arlyck's iconic essay films have been broadcast on PBS and the BBC and have been featured at INPUT and at top international festivals. His current project is Sean the Elder, a feature-length revisit with the once-four-year-old flower child Sean, the subject of Arlyck’s 1969 award-winning film of the same name.

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