July 2, 2003

International INPUT into Public Television

From Michael Busse's 'Storming the Summit (Gipfelsturmer).'

Whether you think that INPUT is a festival for innovative television programs, a workshop for creative television programmers or an extended therapy session for People Who Care Too Much about Public TV probably depends on what you do. Or possibly on the day of the week during this annual, week-long, extraordinary event.

Every year, for the last 26 years, people who treasure the notion that public television can serve the public in its widest sense gather in a different city to test the limits of that idea. Programmers, producers and administrators sit down together to, as the current coordinators put it, "discuss and evaluate cutting-edge public television programmes from around the world, thereby producing a unique and exciting professional development opportunity for those working in television."

This last May, INPUT was hosted by Danish public television with Scandinavian partners including Danish universities in the college town of Aarhus. "I'm happy to see that such an important platform for international exchange continues," said James Day, retired public television stalwart and one of the founders of INPUT. 

Some 87 programs, which had aired on television in 33 countries, were shown in themed programs. In each case, the program maker was present to host a post-screening talk, and often the commissioning editor or programmer joined the discussion. (If a program maker fails to attend, the program is dropped.)

The tradition of INPUT leads one to expect these discussions to be frank, even contentious, and this year did not disappoint. Programmers and producers alike were capable of grilling makers on their choices of subject and style, and of arguing among themselves. For instance, veteran German investigative documentary producer Michael Busse's superb Storming the Summit generated a debate that threaded through the event. Busse's film terrifyingly shows Italian political manipulation of the anti-globalist riots in Genoa in 2001, linking fascist party politics with thugs who wantonly wreaked havoc. Some viewers questioned the film's balance—where was the interview with authorities? Others heatedly critiqued the questioners, praising a program that did not indulge in pro-forma "balance."  

Panel discussions were held on a range of topics. A panel on TV coverage of the war in Iraq, sponsored by CNN, generated comparisons between European TV, al-Jazeera and CNN. True to form, the irrepressible Nick Fraser of the BBC documentary series Storyville offered to purchase any project that could promise funny outtakes from the embedded journalist experience. Other sessions featured a survey of the Danish filmmaker manifesto Dogme and—of course—the perennial topic, whither public service television. Both in sessions and out, the parlous state of public television internationally was a constant theme. As well, programmers and producers alike eagerly sought opportunities to partner.

The program menu was stunningly diverse. Some producers sought to make the most of the reality TV trend, with shows such as Wife Swap (you get the idea, but is there some reason it's not called Husband Swap?) and Faking It (a punk rocker must become a classical orchestra conductor in four weeks), both shown on UK's Channel 4. Others reached for new formats—the Swedish series, Wicked Words, on language usage, or Styrk Live, a Norwegian MTV-ish approach to a religion-themed talk show. Some producers found a nurturing force in public television for artistic experiment, evident in Peter Forgacs' A Bibo Reader, which introduces viewers to a Hungarian philosopher, or Canadian Kevin McMahon's McLuhan's Wake. Television's voiceless were celebrated—German maids in Judith Keil and Antje Druska's Queens of Dust, murdered Mexican working class girls in Lourdes Portillo's Señorita Extraviada, English prisoners in Brian Hill's Feltham Sings.

Among the surprises of INPUT viewing was South African François Verster's Lion's Trail. He tracks the song known in the US as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"—one of the most lucrative songs of all time-back to its creator, a South African who was paid only a token. It's an enraging lesson in globalism and the music industry, and deserves a US audience-maybe after someone gets bigtime copyright holder George Weiss to respond to the film (he refused to be interviewed). Another powerful work was Caucasian Prisoners, by Yuri Khashchavatsky. He combines outtakes of Chechnyan war coverage from freelance cameraman Eduard Djafarov with remarks on war by Tolstoy, to tragic effect.

US entries included Johnny Symons' Daddy and Papa, Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco's Daughter from Danang and Monteith McCollum's Hybrid, as well as Señorita Extraviada. The largest number of entries came from the UK (eight), Canada (seven) and France (seven).

INPUT is an all-volunteer organization (www.input-tv.org), with both an international board and national coordinators selected by the board.  It also has an archive (www.inputarchive.org). Next year's meeting is in Barcelona. Several members of the Independent Television Service and KQED attended this year's INPUT, in preparation for hosting INPUT in San Francisco in 2005.

 

Pat Aufderheide is professor and director of the Center for Social Media at American University in Washington, DC.

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