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Documentary Association of Europe, Post-Launch: A Conversation with Founder Brigid O'Shea

By Sevara Pan

Brigid O'Shea (left) addressing the audience at the launch of Documentary Association of Europe in February. Courtesy of DAE

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the world, forcing the cancellations of film festivals and transforming the documentary industry as we know it, the formation of a new documentary association in Europe seems urgent and ever more timely. Berlinale, one of the few film festivals that took place before coronavirus restrictions were put in effect, was the official launch site of the Documentary Association of Europe (DAE), on February 22.

The new documentary association comes as the European Documentary Network (EDN) finds itself in disarray since a loss of funding from the Danish Film Institute (DFI), the appointment of Dutch entrepreneur Jan Riemens as chairman, and a string of what some have described as regrettable decisions, culminating with a general assembly meeting during the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in November, where a reported 18 of the 600 EDN members voted to dissolve the organization.

While EDN's fate remains unknown to this day, what is undeniable is that documentary professionals in Europe and beyond, who are facing continuous challenges within the nonfiction industry, remain in need of a support and lobby group that would represent their interests on a pan-European level.

Documentary spoke with Brigid O'Shea, one of the founders of the Berlin-based DAE and Head of DOK Industry at the International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film (DOK Leipzig). This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DOCUMENTARY: How was the idea of founding DAE born? And why do you think now is the right time for establishing such an association?

BRIGID O'SHEA: The Documentary Association of Europe—we call it DAE, like "a new day," for short—was born in the minds of a few people in October last year. But it is something that many people had been thinking about for the last two or three years.

The people who founded EDN in its original form also probably had similar thought processes to people who were thinking about starting DAE in that we find ourselves in these unprecedented times; documentary filmmakers in general are much more used to working in times of restructure and crisis than they are actually in stability. What we all have in common is that we live in a time where it is no longer possible to finance your film from one source. So we need to have relationships outside our own borders, and we need to have a space where we can [work] with our colleagues from all over Europe.

While I am so grateful for all the work that my colleagues who formerly worked at EDN did over the years, and I think they took important steps, it was clear, I think, that EDN was not really doing the job that it was supposed to do. And that was work as a members' association with the lobby that was also working on a pan-European level to ensure that documentary filmmakers had access and the rights to the resources that are clearly theirs. And maybe we were no longer participating in political discourse in a way that was representing its constituents, namely European documentary professionals but also [those] working outside of the European Union who were also interacting in the European marketplace.

So our wish is that DAE creates a space that brings everybody back to a metaphorical kitchen table, where we can not only exchange information on best practices but also prototype a vision for how we all are going to go through the next 25-30 years of working in the audio-visual sector and the nonfiction audio-visual sector, while the world changes rapidly around us.

One of the [issues] that DAE is concerned about is making sure that people who have felt traditionally excluded from this kind of discussion feel very welcome to take part in them. We see—not only in the documentary industry but also in the audio-visual sector and in society more broadly—that we live in a time of enormous inequality: gender inequality, economic inequality, generation gaps, an intergenerational discourse is not happening, a concept of experts from the global North coming to educate the global South on how they organize their businesses and films. It feels like in 2020, at the beginning of a new decade, it is the time to really analyze these power structures and create a space for people to feel like they can come together and exchange their ideas and expertise on a more level playing field. So that is why it felt really important to start a new association, freed from the burdens of the old structure, where we give people who felt that they have not had access to these resources the opportunity to step in, I think, for the first time.

D: In what way does DAE depart from existing documentary associations?

BO: Its first mandate towards the members is to make sure that it is participating in media and political debates on a pan-European level. And we plan to work closely with existing networks, especially on a national and regional level, to make sure that the organization is speaking in one clear voice in those kinds of discussions. I think what sets DAE apart is its first mandate: entering and influencing discourse, which I do not think is really happening on the European level.

So that is a really exciting time to step into this debate, especially because now we find ourselves in a completely different world compared to in February when we launched. We had planned to make DAE a grassroots movement, in that we would acquire members at film festivals, and now all of our work has suddenly switched to the digital role, and we find ourselves already trying to collect data so we can start participating in new conversations in a much quicker way than we expected. I thought maybe the status quo would be maintained for another year so we would have time to build this structure, but actually it feels like we are going to have to re-prioritize and make sure that we are participating in these very important conversations about life and business in the time of the coronavirus.

We have already been offering individual consultations for free for members and non-members alike. We are organizing group hangouts on Friday afternoons for members and non-members alike, where people can come together to describe what this organization should do and in which discussions it should be participating, but also giving people in our industry the opportunity to interact with each other as if they were at a festival networking cocktail [event].

D: How have individual consultations and group hangouts been going so far? What kind of questions have film professionals had and what issues have you addressed together?

BO: So the individual consultations at first were to help people through the panic of "Help! The festivals are all going online!" And at that point, it was very hard to say that this is the right choice to make, either participating in a digital festival with a world premiere or withholding a film for an opportunity to show it in the cinema somewhere further down the line. We really just wanted to give filmmakers and rights holders the opportunity to have a neutral sounding board about their hesitations as well as provide therapeutic advice that indeed we are all in the same unknown boat right now.

Now as time has moved on and we have more experience, we can be more focused in our advice, and also the subjects have become more varied, from sharing advice on preparing for online pitches and dramaturgy of financing events to connecting filmmakers with industry partners to help finance and distribute new films.

The online hangouts, which have around 70 regular participants, are broken into topic groups: festivals of the future, online distribution and VOD, making new information resources for independent nonfiction practitioners and a group of filmmakers who share their films and develop their productions together. These groups started as a social gathering for filmmakers feeling isolated and have quickly developed into goal- and solution-oriented think tanks. Online offerings, however, are also not without their disadvantages. It is impossible to find a time that suits everyone. We settled on Friday afternoons, but this is a huge challenge for parents at the end of the week. In this sense, we are hyper-aware of not being exclusionary or reappropriating exclusionary practices in digital spaces. But it is a huge challenge, as is Zoom fatigue. So we are really grateful for the group hosts holding their groups together and providing not only information exchange but also moral support. These activities are also open for members and non-members alike; for now we do not make a distinction because we want to be open for everyone.

We are really concerned about filmmakers being paid in marketing exposure for sharing their films in digital festivals and curations, and this is something we will be actively working on in the coming months.

We plan by the end of May to share our first online resources: a directory of international consultants and a new calendar with important dates and events. In the coming weeks, we will be announcing partnerships and special deals with Cannes Docs, Sheffield Doc/Fest and Sunny Side. We are also awarding prizes at Visions du Réel, DOK.fest Munich, DocsBarcelona and Docudays. Despite the lockdown, we are very active.

D: How will DAE tackle challenges in the current production and distribution realities in Europe and beyond? And what other challenges in the documentary field will DAE address?

BO: When we had the foundation meeting at Berlinale, in the opening remarks I said that we live in exciting times where we have a lot of reason for optimism for European documentary, when you look at Honeyland being nominated for two Academy awards or so many strong films from smaller European countries also participating in festivals like Sundance and breaking into the North American circuit.

And now suddenly we find a whole landscape suffering seismic shifts through travel bans, self-isolation and social distancing. I think the most important thing at the moment is to remain vigilant about which parts of the industry are still working, which parts are in this moment completely destroyed, and holding financiers and funders accountable to be spending money if they can in order to try and keep the distribution chain happening.

I think with DAE it is not our responsibility necessarily to work on a national level other than to support national associations that already exist or in the process of being founded as we speak to lobby to local governments, but to [give] a big-picture overview of the situation and speak in one clear voice to both public and private funders about the needs of the independent sector. And then of course, working on a more individual level in this individual consultation setting to share information that our members have with other members and non-members alike in order to help people make informed decisions about the next 12 months. So it is about watching and listening at the moment before we can formulate exactly what our needs are because we are really just at the beginning, I think, of something that is going to have long-term and shocking effects on our industry, both good and bad.

D: What steps will DAE take to redefine the European documentary?

BO: I do not think it is about films, necessarily. I do not think it seeks to redefine how people make films. In the European landscape, we are so lucky to have wonderful training initiatives and organizations that are already working in this field. So I think if DAE is going to be participating in the redefinition of the industry, what is also very important to us in our code of conduct—people first and films second. So for us the function of the Documentary Association of Europe is to protect, sustain and enrich the members, and the members are people.

Ironically, one of the [aspects] that we wanted to think about was defining the role of traveling to film festivals in our work and in our lives because we know that for our environment it is unsustainable to keep up this kind of practice. There are also so many markets and activities now to take part in, which does not mean saying, "Nobody should attend this or that festival or this or what market because it is irrelevant." Quite the contrary, it is more about helping people make sustainable plans and decisions about essential and non-essential actions in their lives and their businesses. So I really hope that DAE will play a defining role in those kinds of discussions. I also hope that it will be a force that will unify the fractures and fissures that I think are evident in the audio-visual sector. I hope that we will also encourage film professionals from smaller markets to feel that they are being heard and seen, so that nobody feels that one discourse is more dominant than another in the lobbying power. And I really hope that the association will provide a neutral territory that will give different key stakeholders in our industry an opportunity to hold each other accountable as well as to inspire and share with each other in order to strengthen the ties across borders and across professional fields and make sure that the documentary in the European context can thrive. I think it is also important to say that we consider European to not be a passport or a nationality or a place of residence but really rather a state of mind, which at the moment is also in the process of being redefined as the European Union is in a fragile state as well. That means we are looking for members from all over the world who agree that diversity is to be respected—linguistic diversity, storytelling diversity.

D: In an earlier interview, you mentioned that DAE is about "closing the gaps" in the documentary field, which we all can agree is of vital importance. How does DAE plan to do that?

BO: There are other organizations that are doing terrific work, with whom we are definitely going to be partnering to tackle some of the bigger, more systemic issues. But again, it is about making sure that the political voice of this organization is participating in an effective manner in certain conversations, especially in Brussels, inside the European Union and the European Parliament, but also with other players outside of Europe, including in places like Los Angeles. Making sure that we are in dialogue with the big, new platforms and players as they come to take up more market share because one of the things that I find worrying is how we protect linguistic and film diversity if we are all pitching to one or two platforms in the future, which might be an inevitable part of these seismic shifts that are happening around us right now.

But also again, [it is about] shifting the idea of who is the master and who is the student. I think that is something that can change the systemic inequalities that we see around us—empowering the members to take on responsibility for training and mentoring other members, so that people feel like they can be part of the discussion, rather than the discussions happening behind closed doors in some kind of exclusive space about setting up the agendas, which we will be then trying to influence.

One of the things that we wanted to do at film festivals, which has now been shifted online, is that we want to take the opportunity over the next 12 months to meet with potential members and really listen and understand their reality on an anecdotal basis and also organize a study this year so that we can have a more concrete data about who European professionals are, how they structure their businesses, how they distribute, co-finance or finance their films, really look to make sure that we reach people outside of classically accredited guests for big festivals, like DOK Leipzig, IDFA or Sheffield, and reach professionals who are working in a different kind of socio-economic context or a different geographical context for whom it is not easy to travel. COVID is completely terrible, as we cannot meet face to face. I think that the most beautiful part of the documentary industry is how good we are to each other and how social we are as human beings, but being forced to go into these digital spaces is really great for us because it means that we are reaching people whom we might otherwise not meet at film festivals.

There are no right or wrong answers right now. Everybody is just trying their best to get through this situation. Festival programmers do not want to have online film festivals; they want to show their films to their audiences. Film funds and commissions do not want not to grant permits to shoot in public spaces. It is not that anybody wants production to grind to a halt like this. But here we are in this situation. So we just need to use the swarm mentality to be sharing, sharing, sharing as much information as we can.

I just think that if we are all trapped in our apartments and we cannot do the things that we would usually do, which is travel to festivals and be together despite all the hardship and struggle that documentary filmmakers go through and will continue to go through in the next 12 months—it will be a nightmare for so many people—I think all we can do is to go into reserves of human kindness and spend as much time online together as possible.

Sevara Pan is a Berlin-based journalist and film critic.