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Latin Rhythms: Buenos Aires Hosts International Meeting of Documentary Co-Production

By Richard Shpuntoff

The International Meeting of Documentary Co-production, held in Buenos Aires, Argentina on September 26 and 27, 2007, was more about than just individual producers and filmmakers trying to find a way to fund their next documentary; it was about taking the first steps towards building a Latin American network of documentary professionals.

Guillermo Rossi, head of planoLATINO, the documentary distribution company that organized the meeting, is unabashedly frank about why he organized the meeting.  "What needs to be set up in Latin America are the wheels of business to establish a real documentary production industry," he says. "We don't even have a Latin American film market." For Rossi, who cut his teeth in the music industry and later worked in banking, one of the victories of the meeting was that professionals in the industry were willing to pay to attend. "They were willing to invest, and this is not common in Latin America," he notes. "People here are used to attending things for free and not taking them seriously."

What did attendees get for their fee?

They got two days of focused panels (with simultaneous translation in Spanish, English and Portuguese) that addressed topics such as pitching, the perspectives and priorities of television programmers and the role that television production companies can play in co-production. Presenters included Michaelle McLean of Toronto Documentary Forum (Hot Docs), Jordi Ambrós of Television Catalonia, Mary Ann Thyken and Klara Grunning-Harris of PBS/ITVS, and Fernanda Rossi, whose column "Ask the Documentary Doctor" appears bi-monthly in Film Arts (formerly Release Print). And possibly most importantly, the International Meeting afforded the time and space to network with 147 producers and filmmakers from nine Latin American nations including Colombia, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador and, of course, Argentina.

Viviana Erpel, president of ADOC Chile, as well as a professor at the University of Chile and a film producer, maintains that the meeting created a space for making connections. "The film communities in Latin American have little physical connection with each other. We seem very far apart from each other, and this was an opportunity to open doors." 

The meeting also revealed a lot of the gaps between Latin American filmmaking and the markets in Europe and North America. While many of the foreign presenters made great efforts to be accessible to the audience and offer an upbeat message about the possibilities for co-production, local presenters were much more critical of the current reality of documentary production in the region.

Octavio Nadal, vice president of international markets for the Patagonik Film Group, argued that Latin American producers and filmmaker had to think in terms of building an industry, and taking into account the demands of the market and the commercial realities of making documentaries that are economically viable. He was also critical of Argentina's National Film Institute (INCAA), which provides funds for film production, for not supporting the commercialization and marketing of the films that it helps to produce.

Hugh Castro Fou, a lawyer and film producer who was one of the heads of Matanza Cine before creating his own production company, Lagarto Cine, talked about the need for creating regional networks of producers that could send "lobbies" to film festivals in order to present their films as a block and create a larger presence than they might individually. "We shouldn't think simply in terms of national borders," he said. "Even though a producer from Salta [a state in the north of Argentina] and I are both Argentine producers, the realities and challenges she or he faces are probably more like those faced by a producer in Bolivia or Paraguay than the ones that I face."

A lot of tension was generated by a question that has a big impact on the kinds of network or networks that can be built in Latin America: To what extent should we be working to build an industry that meets the needs of the television documentary market, and to what extent should we be fighting for national policies that support documentaries as a cultural good, regardless of the market's demands? While this is hardly the kind of issue that can be resolved, its constant reappearance as a discussion topic in panel after panel was a testament to its significance for documentary professionals in Latin America. In fact, Marcelo Céspedes, co-founder and co-director of Cine Ojo, Argentina's oldest documentary production company, decided not to attend the meeting because, as he put it, "The meeting was about producing documentaries for TV. We produce for theatrical release."

Fernanda Rossi discussed the idea of "reversioning" films, a common practice in the US, and it became clear that this was not something documentary makers in Latin America considered or did; the director's cut is sacred here. When Klara Grunning-Harris talked about how ITVS works with producers to develop formats and versions of documentaries, most of the audience didn't know what to make of it. "It's hard enough for us to finish a film, much less try to make different versions for different markets," one documentary screenwriter said to me.

Following the meeting, Grunning-Harris and Mary Ann Thyken agreed that the next step would be to meet with groups of directors and producers and discuss these processes more profoundly and clarify what they need to see from a producer and at what stage in the process. Grunning-Harris and Thyken felt that something closer to a workshop, rather than a panel discussion with Q&A, would reveal that the possibilities for co-production are not inaccessible to Latin American producers and filmmakers.

Still, even though the meeting was seen as a first step, it was clear that many people had benefited from it. María Carla Piacenza, a young Buenos Aires-based filmmaker, observed that, "While on one hand the sensation I got was that making a co-production is even more difficult than producing a film alone, especially as there is little interest in documentaries that deal with personal, local or regional issues, on the other hand, the meeting generated a lot of ideas for me, broadened my understanding of the professional landscape and motivated me to consider the full spectrum of media available for producing documentaries."

Originally from New York City, Richard Shpuntoff is a filmmaker and translator living in Buenos Aires, Argentina.