By Jan Krawitz
Each year since 1978, an international group of independent filmmakers, public television producers and commissioning editors have gathered together to exchange ideas and share work at the annual INPUT conference. Neither a festival, a television market nor a competition, INPUT convenes filmmakers and public television representatives whose common goal is to create "intelligent stories." Directors present and screen their work in a forum that encourages an honest exchange of ideas and opinions. As Enrique Nicanor, president of INPUT, stated in the 1997 call for entries, "We don't differentiate between genres, timing, size of budget or broadcasting company. We just look for that quality which defines what Public Television must be."
INPUT '98 was held in Stuttgait, Germany from May 10 to 16. My film In Harm's Way (27 min., 1996) was one of six American films selected for screening. I'd previously attended 1988's INPUT through the assistance of a CPB INPUT Travel Fellowship—I found the dialogue at INPUT to be trenchant, incisive and occasionally combative, as the knowledgeable audience challenged presenters about ethical decisions and questions of content, approach and form. Among the more than one thousand people attending INPUT '98, most were independent filmmakers, journalists or individuals working in public television around the world.
For a program from the U.S. to be selected requires that the work was "produced for or broadcast on public television within 15 months prior to the INPUT '98 meeting... If the program has aired on a commercial station or network, it will not quality for INPUT. "Terry Pound , of South Carolina Educational Television, is the U.S. Secretariat, and SCETV serves as the host for the U.S. pre-selection. A panel of judges from around the country met in Columbia, South Carolina, last November to view 130 entries and forward 17 programs to the final jury selection in Turin, Italy. (Each participating country is told how many program s they can forward to the international jury.) For ten days last February, the "shopstewards"—a group of INPUT organizers made up of independent producers and television veterans from many countries (including IDA member Ralph Arlyck)—viewed 280 programs submitted from 56 countries, selecting 76 programs to be screened at INPUT '98. Of the six American films included, three were first-person documentaries (A Healthy Baby Girl by Judith Helfand, 56 min., 1997; Nobody's Business by Alan Berliner, 56 min., 1997; and my In Harm's Way); one was a dramatization based on the personal diary of a historical figure (A Midwife's Tale by Lauri Kahn Leavitt, 90 min., 1997); and the final two were short narratives (Foto-Novelas: In the Mirror by Carlos Avila and A. P. Gonzalez, 27 min., 1996; and Tenacity by Chris Eyre, 10 min., 1995). Applying to INPUT requires an agreement by the filmmaker to participate in a post-screening discussion. Chris Eyre, who directed the current feature Smoke Signals, was unable to travel to Stuttgart—so his film Tenacity, although one of the 76 programs listed in the program, was not screened.
Films were clustered into sessions organized around different themes, such as: "Shame On Your Ratings," "Tickle My Docs—The Price for Going Prime Time," "Blinded by Power" and "Beyond the Obvious." At least two films, and as many as five, were programmed for the four hour morning and afternoon sessions. Since there were four concurrent sessions at all times, it was impossible to view everything. The technical facilities were excellent and television monitors were placed generously throughout the rooms.
Each film was discussed immediately following its screening, assuring that short films were not eclipsed by longer ones, often the case in film festival Q&A periods. The dialogue with the producer was moderated by a shopsteward who briefly met with the filmmaker beforehand to get some additional information about the program. The official language of the conference was English with simultaneous translation into French, German and Spanish. Although the majority of the work was European, the films represented 34 different countries.
One of the most affecting programs that I saw was Is It Easy to Be (Latvia, 60 min ., 1997). Reminiscent of Michael Apted's 35 Up series and funded by Great Britain's Channel 4, the film assumed a longitudinal approach to its characters. Latvian filmmaker Antra Cilinska had been the editor of a 1987 film (Is It Easy to Be Young?) profiling a dozen young people. Ten years later, she tracked down these individuals (the original director had died in 1992) and chronicled the skewed trajectories of their lives. The inevitable life changes that accompany maturity are compounded by the profound shifts in the country's political and social milieu. Many find themselves ill-equipped to cope with the new society, and they bemoan their sense of impermanence. The most radical transformations are from army conscript to successful London stockbroker, from aspiring architect to Hare Krishna devotee. In one particularly affecting interview, we meet the widow of a man who in the 1987 film was single and had a job performing autopsies: he committed suicide in 1992, leaving a wife and two small children. The film provides a window onto a radically transformed society, one in which the "personal" becomes , by default, "political."
Another highlight of the week was an Israeli first-person documentary by Dan Katzir called Out For Love... Be Back Shortly (Israel, 55 min., 1997). What began as a student production eventually evolved into a project spanning several years of Katzir's life. The conceit of the film, like Ross McElwee's Sherman's March, is that the filmmaker is searching for a relationship. His quest serves as a point of departure for an expansive look (albeit through a personal prism) at a society divided by politics. Soon after the film begins, Katzir meets Iris, an 18 year old who is about to begin her compulsory military service upon graduation from high school. Katzir's narrative straddles his family's story (there is the delayed revelation about his grandfather's death by Japanese terrorists), his developing relationship with Iris, and the story of Israel in the wake of the Rabin assassination. The film seamlessly integrates intimate, personal scenes with observational scenes that reflect the pulse of the nation.
A lively discussion followed the screening of United Kingdom: Working for the Enemy, (United Kingdom, 55 min., 1997). Commissioned by BBC2, it is a verite portrait of Kevin Rudefolth, a 35-year old artist who, by choice, has never held a steady job. Like Robert Drew's Living Camera series, we meet Kevin in a period of crisis: he is being forced to participate in "Project Work," a pilot scheme introduced by the Conservative government to get the long-term unemployed back to work. The film follows Kevin and his girlfriend for several months, chronicling the vicissitudes of their personal relationship and his resistance to Britain's version of workfare. Working for the Enemy was shot by filmmaker Sean McAllister using a DV Cam and radio mike. This working method, coupled with the trusting relationship between filmmaker and subject, resulted in a candid presentation of Kevin. Following the screening, both Kevin and Sean participated in the discussion and not unexpectedly, most of the questions were directed towards Kevin. He maintained his persona from the film, entertaining the audience with his irreverent attitude. At 35 years old, he has held a job for a total of four weeks in eighteen years. He agreed to be filmed because he felt that attitudes like his are never aired on television. An additional incentive was that he was reimbursed for "expenses and hospitality" during the shooting period.
The production strategy of the series United Kingdom highlights opportunities available to independent documentarians in Great Britain. The series director, Colin Luke (counterpait of a series "executive producer" in the U.S.), was present for the discussion and he briefly outlined his method of collaborating with independents. United Kingdom is a 16-part series with films ranging from ten to sixty minutes, and an additional twelve films lasting one or two minutes. The programs are farmed out to independent producers who research, shoot and direct the programs. Luke solicits ideas from independent filmmakers and if the idea has potential, he gives the filmmaker a camera for two days, pays him/her for the two days, requesting that he/she bring back "something of interest." If the project is approved based on this mini-shoot , the producer/direct or is given the green light and receives a daily rate during the shooting period and payment by the finished minute when the piece is broadcast. After McAllister pitched the idea of a film examining "Project Work," he researched for four months before choosing Kevin as the film's subject. He then shot for nine months. Unlike work produced by independents for a public television series in the U.S., the filmmaker does not supervise the editing. McAllister turned over his rushes to a staff editor at BBC2 who cut the film under the aegis of the series director. According to Luke, the "filmmaker only enters the cutting room by invitation, but I show them the assembly, the rough cut and the fine cut and invite their comments." Editorial control resides with the series director.
Occasionally, work gets programmed at INPUT for reasons beyond innovative technique or conceptual sophistication. Some films are included specifically to incite the audience and stimulate contentious debate about issues of form and content. Such was the case with Vulsani (Hungary, 23 min., 1997), a documentary produced by Hungarian television. The film focuses on an orphanage in the Ukraine, close to the Hungarian border. Shot in three days, it depicts an institution where severely retarded, physically disabled—also healthy—orphans are warehoused in unspeakable conditions. Similar in tone and content to Luis Bufiuel's Las Hurdes, the film is exceedingly voyeuristic and shows little evidence of any rapport between the filmmakers and the patients and staff of the hospital. Despite (perhaps because of) its ponderous approach, the broadcast resulted in an outpouring of donations and supplies to the institution. The kamikaze approach of Vulsami contrasted sharply with the intimate access afforded Danish director Thomas Heurlin in The Gangster's Son (Denmark, 64 min., 1997). The documentary was one in a four-part series that profiled individuals recently released from prison to explore the problem of recidivism. The producer followed Lonne, a 47-year old career criminal , during his first year as a free man after eight years in prison. He moves in with his girlfriend, has a baby, and has his resolve tested when the baby experiences brain damage from "shaking baby syndrome." Like most compelling documentaries, the film presents complex characters that alternate between eliciting sympathy and causing revulsion in the viewer. Heurlin remarked in the discussion that The Gangster's Son was regarded by some European intellectuals to be "social pornography. " Apparently, European audiences lack the appetite for sordid human drama that fuels American viewers. An unusual contribution to the video diary genre is The Chamanov Column (France, 52 min., 1997). The documentary was created from footage filmed by a Russian soldier in the assault forces dwing his third tour of duty in Chechnya. Because his camera was ignored by his fellow conscripts, Konstantin Kamroukov was able to record acts of barbarism, absurdity and com passion. Using Kamroukov's images, the film was "directed " and edited by a French production team.
The most hostile discussion that I observed followed the evening screening of the hybrid film Unmade Beds (United Kingdom/France/U .S., 95 min., 1997), directed by Nicholas Barker. The film was a co-production of the BBC, HBO and La Sept/Aite. Barker hired a research staff who combed New York City for potential characters to appear in a film about the singles scene. Barker then directed his "cast" under feature film conditions, writing and re-writing a script based on the characters' own words. Despite an opening explanatory text that described the approach, the audience felt abused by its hybrid characteristics. Rather than a "mock documentary," Unmade Beds is ostensibly a documentary masquerading as fiction. In Barker's press materials he states, "I'd say 90% of the script was based on the actual behavior and language of the four principal characters. The rest is a pack of lies." The discussion veered off into a debate about filmmaker responsibility, and one producer related a story about a German filmmaker who was jailed for falsifying information in a documentary.
In additional to regularly scheduled sessions, INPUT offered a "video-on demand" service whereby delegates could view programs that they might have missed. These ancillary screenings were held in small screening rooms in response to individual requests. The daily schedule was posted, so people could sit in on a session even if they had not requested the film themselves.
Although the primary focus of INPUT is the screening sessions, there were also nightly dialogues with commissioning editors and panel discussions on various topics. One such panel focused on future directions for independent work on public television. David Liu, executive in charge of programming and development at ITVS, lamented the lack of specificity in the treatments that he receives. Robin Gutch, a commissioning editor at Channel 4, suggested that American producers align themselves with a British producer when approaching Channel 4 because the British producers are typically more successful at navigating the British funding system. Sandie Pedlow, a Senior Program Officer at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, suggested that a future PBS channel for digital transmission may open up opportunities for new programming. She maintained that both CPB and ITVS are actively funding independents and that the greater problem resides in carriage for these programs.
INPUT is a user-friendly environment in which to present and view work. It provides an opportunity to share ideas with other filmmakers about issues other than funding and distribution. Several months after leaving Stuttgart, those documentaries that offered a compelling narrative, memorable characters and a panoply of human emotion stay with me. I will remember the "intelligent stories" long after the screen goes dark.
In 1999, INPUT will be held April 25-30 in Forth Worth, Texas. The CPB INPUT Training Fellowship Travel Grants are available for qualified applicants to attend the conference even if their work is not selected for screening. Some of this year's recipients shared the following comments: "All producers should get a yearly dose of this... it's invigorating and inspirational... One thing I've come away with is to really challenge myself to take more risks, to think outside of the box and to dare to be different in the programs I produce."
JAN KRAWITZ is Professor of Communication at Stanford University. Her work was profiled in the magazine's June 1997 issue.