Workshop: «Creative documentary: new genre, new rules»

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October 06, 2017 

Workshop: «Creative documentary: new genre, new rules»

At the beginning of June, 2017 Beat Film Festival and Marina Razbezhkina's and Michail Ugarov's school of documentary cinema and theatre held a public workshop of Martijn te Pas and David Wilson. Martijn te Pas is a programming director of IDFA film festival. David Wilson co-founded the True/False documentary film festival. Festagent has got a videotape of this encounter so we turned it into an article. 


Nowadays documentary as a genre of cinema is flourishing and transforming. Fiction, new technologies and global agenda are invading the documentary area. How the creative documentary looks like today?  How to avoid didacticity in auteur cinema?  Where is a line between fiction and reality? How do the modern media and fake news affect documentary? These and other questions were arised by workshop moderator and programming director of Beat Film Festival — Kirill Sorokin.

There also was a discussion of submitting films to festivals and criteria of selection process of two leading world documentary festivals.

About IDFA and True/False film festivals

David Wilson: We started True/False 15 years ago. Our goal was to explore a space between real (true) and unreal (false). We didn't know how relevant it would be for American politics 15 years later. Thereby for all these years we’ve been exploring a creative space, which is placed on the border between documentary and fiction. It doesn't mean that all films we show are on this verge. Many of films we show look like traditional documentaries. 

And now when we have so many «fake news» in the US, I think, there is a great filmmakers responsibility — they should think carefully about images they make and a level of honesty their works have.

Martijn te Pas: IDFA is nearly 30 years old. It was started in 1988, the documentary's world was about to die, especially on big screens. We tried to revitalize this genre. We was growing every year — in a gradual, evolutional way. We also started a forum which is also an international co-financing market. We started Docs for Sale where one can buy documentaries. Also we established now called IDFA Bertha Fund, that supports filmmakers in developing countries. Suddenly we became an important industry event. And we noticed that there is a growing need of what we do. This need exists on both sides: both on the audience’s side — audience is getting bigger every year, and on the industry side. We have over 3000 industry guests every year from all over the world. They make deals, cooperate with each other, look for financial sources. 

A few boring facts:

  • Every year we show 300 films in different programs and competitions.
  • During the last 10 years we started a DocLab — a new media section. It is big, important and it is getting more important by the years. DocLab includes VR installations and many other things. 
  • The last, but not the least is morning screenings at schools visited by more than 10000 students of primary and secondary classes. It is so important because school students watch creative documentaries, which are so hard to be seen elsewhere. There is no such possibility on TV since programs are shown late and TV itself is being watched less. Special screenings for schools are so important in this sense! Films are demonstrated in Dutch with subtitles.

David Wilson: We are very lucky that IDFA exists because we don’t have to be the place where the industry comes together. We only show 38–40 feature films and about 25–30 shorts. And since there is another platform for industry, we can focus ourself on a dialog between filmmakers.

On creative documentary

There is a mention about traditional documentary, which festivals are fleeting from and so-called creative documentary, which interests festivals more and more. Where the cinema is heading to and how does this movement look like?

David Wilson: I see things through the prism of True/False festival’s history. Perhaps 15 years ago it was enough for a film to have just a good story. Now it’s not longer true. And of course the creative form follows the technology. Im the 90-th every documentary filmmaker had a camera with fixed lens. So he had few options with that lens. And then new cameras came. Suddenly a non-fiction is able to speak the same visual language as a fiction filmmaking.

The new language appears, but those filmmakers who worked earlier also had their own one. New visual effects make filmmakers look for new experimental ways of narration that are not only journalistic. 

Martijn te Pas: We see this evolution going. In the 60-th filmmakers had a certain type of a camera. In the 80-th camera is getting smaller, also a video camera appears. And of course some filmmakers have made the career out of making so-called  hybrid movies.

On filmmakers supporting

David Wilson: If American students were sitting here, they would be shocked by the news that they have an access to some fonds. The freedom American filmmakers have is defined by an absence of the government funding. But there are a lot of money around. Someone has an uncle-dentist — that’s where money comes from. It provides a certain grade of freedom since nobody defines what you must shot. The budget you have is a very little funds. But nonetheless it provides a freedom of creativity.

Martijn te Pas: I think this tendency is understood in Europe. We see film institutes appearing in Scandinavian countries, Netherlands, Austria. They understand what’s going on, so they follow the trends and they know they should back up creative filmmakers, and not the ones that are working with TV-formated films. But the issue of sustainability is a problem worldwide — to have a career out of documentary it takes a lot of will power, determination, craziness… and a dentist (laughing).

On subjective criteria for selecting films

David Wilson: On the smallest level I think every film is a mystery. And in every moment in every film I, as a viewer, should be behind a filmmaker. I should follow him, and never be ahead of him, never knowing what’s going to be. If am safe and stable as a viewer, then you lost me because I am thinking about other things.

Martijn te Pas: What I would like to add is that film has to be multilayered. You should leave some holes for the audience so they could see their own things. And of course there is so much more to say. It’s also important that film should keep audience’s attention so you wouldn’t lost it in 5–10 minutes.

David Wilson: A film is often too long in the beginning. I could turn on the film in 10 minutes after it started and it’s more interesting. Many filmmakers thought I need a lot of early explanations to enter the story.

Martijn te Pas: And it’s a visual art so it’s interesting what you see. We see so many shots of cars running by, people that walk the streets, but often it is not so interesting.

David Wilson: If you want your film to resonate with people from all over the world, you should base it on character' core. If you want to tell a story about a reconstruction which is happened right now in Moscow — then in America we wouldn’t know the background of it. But if you want to tell a story of a single worker and his life then we may connect with that work.

About rough cuts

David Wilson: I do not think any programmer, even the very experienced one, could watch you rough cut and know what your film is going to be. So if you are submitting your film to festivals, send the completed movie.

Martijn te Pas: I often get calls or emails asking if it’s possible to submit a film after a deadline. I say: «Stop it! There are many festivals. Maybe it’s not in our interest to say it, but their is also life after IDFA and before». Make your film — it’s the most important thing. Make it really well. Time is so important to keep thinking about your film, to make another decisions, to invite another editor. So take your time.

About advices

Martijn te Pas: Maybe you should ask for advice people who work internationally and have another kind of a view from the global prospective. This is to be done just to check whether certain things in your film work for different audiences and different cultural codes.

David Wilson: I think there are talents and ideas in this room that are able to create a specific language of filmmaking. All of you can create a kind of a film that other people can not. So you should speak to audience elsewhere without losing your own specificity. 

About festivals attitude to Russian cinema

David Wilson: «The road movie» is an interesting example because it tells me a story of Russia that, I think, you know very well but I don’t. Even the revelation that everybody in Russia has dashcams — that’s not true in the US so that’s interesting and different and makes us think about what it says about the culture. This movie feels like an anomaly for me. It works very well in US, but it’s not the model to repeat.

Martijn te Pas: There is Viktoria Belopolskaya in Moscow. She has been a kind of a scout for IDFA during the last 10 years. Every year she sends us 30 films with reports on them. Of course it’s up to us to decide whether we want to pick some of them. We also have good relations with Vitaly Mansky, with the Saint Petersburg’s film school. And we are always looking for talents. We are so hungry to find new directors and screen their works in our student competition or in First Appearance program.

About continuing searching for talents and new names

David Wilson: On of the greatest myths of festival programing is that festivals only show works of famous directors like Viktor Kosakovsky. It’s frustrating to think so. But the opposite is true. If I am a programmer and if I want to look good and impress people then I have to find a filmmaker that nobody has ever heard of.

There are different ways of bringing films to festivals: scouts, sale agents or national representatives. Even though sometimes there are the same films shown on Sundance and True/False (that is true because these films are good and everyone wants to show them), we always look for new names whom we could introduce to the world.

Martijn te Pas: It is so important to have different voices coming from anywhere and telling something we have not seen — especially nowadays, in the time of monoculture when we see media giants like Netflix. Festivals should keep screening those films making them heard and seen. That is really our main task, I think.

About unobvious ways of submitting films to festivals and how to draw attention to your film

Martijn te Pas: First of all you have to make a great film. You can also try to smooth up to us, giving us a drink in the evening, but it would barely work out.

David Wilson: It is easier to talk about bad ways. Some filmmakers in US are trying to promise us that they will bring a D-level celebrity to our festival if we show their film. But we don't care about that. Every film we get is watched be at lest one member of 20-person committee. And if you think your film is right for True/False since you have watched films we showed in past and have seen our old schedules then Marina may send your film to me saying that it is worth my time and attention. Of course I listen to people who are smart and knowledgeable and whose opinion I trust. Either this person is a sales agent or a distributor, or a head of a school, I will listen. If they say «David, you will like this» I listen. But if they are wrong a bunch of times I'll stop watching what they say.

Martijn te Pas: And it is really important to research the festival you are going to apply. There are so many thousands festivals in the world who have different specifics of working with films. And if you research what they do, you'll get an idea if you have a chance. There are so many films submitted to our festival that make us think: «Why? Don't they know what the level is, what kind of films we accept». It is a lot of work to research festivals but it is worth it since you will save a lot of money for entry fees. It is very good to visit many film festivals and see what they do, what kind of programs they have, what the level is. Thus you will have a sort of your own catalogue.

David Wilson: And I'd like to give you advice about entry fees. You can always write to a festival and ask not to fee. And if you write to us, and you write early and you are very nice than you have a chance. The same for IDFA.

About factors affecting choice of festival programmers

David Wilson: It'worth saying about shorts since we work with them as curators. It's important for us that film is to be good. But it's also important that films «fit» each other and come together into a full program.

Martijn te Pas: There are 300 films in IDFA's different sections every year. In this year we are going to reintroduce the short's competition which is going to include animated movies. We have a sort of different sections divided by film's length and not be themes. It's not excluding any subjects and matters. It is important to have a variety of topics in each section so our jury has to make a choice and talk about what's important in modern cinema, what's worth to be awarded.

About IDFA DocLab New Media Program

Martijn te Pas: Last year we celebrated the 10-th anniversary of DocLab. And of course those years were like Wild West years: there was no industry yet, funding was difficult. It has been growing up and it is called New Media still — I do not know why, we should have invented a new name, like old new media.

We have special locations for this program where we can run installations, VR screenings. We also have the «DocLab live» section where we bring installations or projects back to the cinema.

About IDFA Forum

Martijn te Pas: IDFA forum is a three-day international pitching event. You have 7 minutes to present your film with trailer. The decision makers will talk about the project. It's the central pitch but there are also round-table pitches, which are often even more effective. The forum is not just about getting a money — it is also about making the industry to know about your film. It's like the domino effect, then more and more people know about your project — it's also very useful for your crowdfunding. Sometimes the effect is not immediate. 

Just to say, some films are not really good for the forum. You have to be stubborn sometimes and knock ten coproducers asking for backing you up, saying «You have to make this kind of a film». If you want to make art — make it, event without a forum, finding some other founding possibilities like uncle-dentist or some art fund. So IDFA is not a holy grail.

About «golden age» of documentary filmmaking

Martijn te Pas: There are a lot of documentaries on «mixed» festivals like Berlin, Venice, Cannes, Toronto or Sundance. I think people are fed up with just an entertainment and they want to see films that in some way are related to their lives, or at least «tickle» their brains.

About the border between fiction and non-fiction

David Wilson: For me fiction and non-fiction issue looks like a football field. Films may start at one side, having a camp and living there. But many films come towards the middle and we see fiction and non-fiction films mixed. And so there is no line, there is only the middle ground where these films may interact with each other.

Martijn te Pas: Lust year I saw a polish film about therapy session with mother and daughter. The teraphist was real and these two, mother and daughter, were not. The hole film you thought they were real — and only in the end there was a credit saying what the matter is. It was fantastic. I brought this film to my colleague and showed it to him. But the end credit was in Polish so he didn't read that and thought that everything was real. When we have got it selected for the main competition I said what the case is. My colleague was angry for a minute but then he thought that it was great.

David Wilson: Hopefully you saw a film «All these sleepless nights». The director of this film combines fiction and non-fiction in a lot of complex ways. And the matter I liked the most is that the director payed for dancing lessons for the main character.

About inner censorship 

Martijn te Pas: It is always a very complex question. I saw a film for Tribeca's program last year. It was called Vaxxed and it was about injection problem — whether it's worth doing injections to prevent diseases. The film was pro non-injection. Such point of view could cause a negative consequences — people who watch this film could refuse injections so their children would die. We decided not to show it. And another example is a film we screened at IDFA. It was about a young woman about 25 years old who wanted to die — she was very depressed, she thought that there is no way out other than die. A filmmaker student followed her in her preparations. In the end she commits suicide — without a camera present, but she said goodbye to all her friends, she gave a party and it was quite heavy. We had a kind of introduction speech before the film because we didn't want people in audience to think that this is the way to do. Sometimes there are difficult situations when you have to do something extra.

About actual topics and what's the best of them

David Wilson: For my festival film's topic is secondary. We want to see a great filmmaking about any subject in the world. Of corse some topics are more interesting individually for me. But I try to push this aside and focus on the story I have been told.

Martijn te Pas: Some films are referring to itself or to an art form and they can be exciting for a certain audience. Some films are about the current state of the world — political, social, anthropological, whatever... Lust week I read funding proposals for our fund. And I have got some projects from Russia and Belorussa. Lots of them are about villages that are getting deserted. It's a bit harsh to say, but this theme has already been done. So you should know what was done on this topic before. And you have to find a fresh focus.

David Wilson: Another useful strategy in making a film is when you have one character standing for many others. There is a film called «Last train home». It tells a story of just one family in the annual Chinese New Year emigration home. A lot of people think that they have to find eight characters to show every different aspect of a story. But it's often better to pick one character and trust him, your audience and your own voice to tell a story.

Martijn te Pas: Recently when I was a jury member of CPH:DOX festival I saw a film called «69 minutes of 86 days». When I read its synopsis I thought that it is just another story about refuges going from Greece to Sweden. But I was amazed by what I saw because it was a real cinema. A filmmaker followed a 4-year girl and her dad in their way from Greece to Sweden. It has an amazing cinematography! The director had to be on his knees for 86 days to shoot it. I was so touched by the subject. And the girl was really inspiring — she was playful and she coped with the situation even better than adults. Of course there were many films on this subject before, but here it was written fresh. That's what I meant when I spoke about villages. You can make a film on any subject that has already been done before, but you should do it differently.