Documentary Realities:
Screen Edge Forum 2014

Talking China co-productions, our obsession with time, pop culture/zombies, fiction vs. reality, and the future of radio at the annual Screen Edge Forum.

I’m not a documentary maker and I’m easily intimidated by meet-and-greets with “industry professionals,” especially if I admire their work. Nevertheless, when the chance arose at the Screen Edge Forum to pitch my ideas in a one-on-one chat with Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters, Life Itself), I found myself floundering towards the empty seat. I didn’t have any ideas per se, but in a moment of wild abandonment I trusted that the words would come, and would no doubt leave a profound impression on him. Come they did not. With all of the elegance of a teenager with a celebrity crush I blabbered out a vague, poorly executed pitch of a friend’s idea. He sat there, listening patiently, and eventually pitched in with, “so what’s the point, exactly?” In the face of such detached poise I lost my nerve and all but ran from the room, leaving any shadow of integrity behind.

So began the learning curve that was my foray into the world of non-fiction narratives. Whilst the Auckland-based forum was primarily geared towards documentaries, the organisers championed a “pan screen-industry” approach to include a diverse range of genres and platforms. During the two-day event several guest speakers, many of whom had films screening at the Documentary Edge Festival, offered their views on how filmmakers can adapt their craft in response to technological advances and increasingly accessible means of production.

First up on day one we unearthed the hidden treasures that are co-productions with China. Steven Seidenberg and Leland Ling from LIC shared their experience of an industry heavily guarded by state gatekeepers. The government has been careful to maintain control over broadcasters and the means of distribution ever since production technology became so readily available in the 1980s. And despite the annual doubling of theatre screens and the 3600 television channels on offer, there are only a limited number of dedicated documentary slots. Furthermore, these are largely occupied by educational “school docs” and historical programming, so there’s little room for creative programming.

But that’s not to say there aren’t significant budgetary opportunities for those willing to put in the hard yards researching the market. Watching Chinese cinema is a good start, as is knowing your ultimate purpose for the co-production so you can find an appropriate partner. Do you want eyeballs? Find a distribution company. Do you want funding? Find a production company that has experience with internationals and can help you find investors. According to Allan Xia, who has recently facilitated the funding of the first NZ-China co-production film, The Wonder, good partners can also help you to navigate the murky waters of cultural misunderstandings and overcome censorial barriers in content surveillance. A prime example of such can be found in Unmade in China, a behind-the-scenes look at a Los Angeles filmmaker’s attempt to direct a thriller in Xiamen, where the villain’s weapon is downgraded from a handgun, to a knife, to a mere bicycle pump.

Next up Keva Rosenfeld, director of All American High: Revisited, examined our obsession with time, and the merits of refreshing old content for modern audiences. His film looks at the day-to-day lives of Senior High students in the 1980s through the eyes of his original subjects, interviewed 30 years later. He noted how easy it was to capture sincere observations of classroom dialogue in the original footage, shot in a time before cell-phones and social networking infiltrated the realm of identity and self-awareness. Needless to say this would be difficult, if not impossible, in the “selfie” age. Yet interestingly, the questions being raised back then are still topical today, a prime example being the students’ heated discussions on gun culture in the U.S.

The director of Doc of the Dead, Alexandre Philippe, offered an alternative perspective on archival footage. He discussed the practical difficulties of acquiring permission from actors’ agents for the use of short film segments. It’s one thing to pay Brendan Gleeson $850 for a fleeting glimpse of his mug, but when every agent demands the same fee that’s an expensive five second clip. There’s the Fair Use act in the States, which allows documentary makers to skirt around similar hurdles in the same way that an author would use footnote references to prove a point. Slightly disturbingly, no one in the room knew the New Zealand equivalent until someone took the initiative to look it up—on Wikipedia.

Philippe also delved into some bold assertions on the value of popular culture, along the lines of, “the news is about what divides us […] whilst pop culture unifies us.”  If the purpose of art is to move people and communicate ideas, he said, then popular culture succeeds better than most contemporary art forms at achieving this on a basic visceral level. Monsters, superheroes, and zombies are all a reflection of us, and the societies we live in. Even the gratuitous spin-offs, in this case of the zombie genre, can be forgiven because they’re entertaining, and like any satirical commentary they provide a platform where people can make fun of each other without causing personal offence. In fact, he tells us, the proliferation of zombie movies is testament to the health of the genre. It continues to evolve despite the purists and naysayers. We should be critical of popular culture, he concluded, “[but] to dismiss it as trivial misses the point. We should give it a bit more respect.” This may be true, but these genres thrive with funding models that perpetuate audience demand by appealing to the lowest common denominator. This produces a flow-on effect for the screen industry that is restrictive to say the least. 

Some of the greatest documentaries draw on elements from popular culture and other storytelling forms to offer an original perspective on current events. To this purpose, Robert May (Kids for Cash, The Station Agent) discussed the difference between investigative documentaries and news stories. His view is that unlike news stories, documentaries can present multiple perspectives that follow the more traditional story structure of the hero versus the villain. But being real life this begs the question, how close does the filmmaker need to get to their subjects in order to accurately portray the story?  And what level of mutual trust is required to do so?

Steve James was prompted with the same question. His documentaries bring social, class, and race relations to the fore with powerful narratives of the underdog versus the system, often with a sports theme attached. When asked about working with subjects he doesn’t admire, he responded that his goal as a documentarian is to understand people and situations, not figure out right and wrong. The inevitable flipside of this coin is the agency a documentary maker has in alleviating their subjects’ hardships. When Arthur was kicked out of the esteemed St Joseph’s High School in Hoop Dreams for failing to pay his tuition fees, could James’s team have stepped in to help? There’s pride at stake, said James, not to mention the integrity of the story. In this particular scenario, maybe they could have pitched in for another term, but could they have prolonged the inevitable? I imagine this is a moral dilemma he’s been forced to confront several times in his career, and while his well-oiled response is likely a product of that, more than anything it brings attention to the messy grey area that is documentary ethics.

As his was a masterclass in style and story, James also dealt with the techniques he uses to highlight dramatic moments during shooting and post-production. He said it’s important for him to build close relationships with his key subjects so that he may capture sincere interactions within their social environments. By taking on a “no-big deal” approach to the presence of the film crew (which usually consists of James, a DOP, and the occasional sound operator), his subjects are then able to facilitate sensitive situations on his behalf. In The Interrupters, when the crew first met the charismatic but occasionally volatile Flamo, with camera in hand, the on and off-screen tension of their company was eased with the calm indifference of the film’s lead, Cobe.

A discussion panel about blue chip television brought us closer to home with all the nuts and bolts of programming in a rapidly evolving digital age. The outlook for New Zealand television remains optimistic, with viewers apparently still checking in regularly for schedule-based appointments, prime time shows, local documentaries, and multi-night series. Yet despite the traditional model working with the very young and the old, youth ratings continue to drop out, and the consequences of such a shift are not yet readily apparent. Whilst research is proving that On Demand remains to be a minor access point, there is a general consensus that multi-platform presentations are the way of the future. In response to this, broadcasters are in the process of reviewing their policies, and the Loading Docs scheme is a good example of where this could lead. The NZ on Air funded initiative produced a handful of short format documentaries that received an impressive viewership online. Such an outcome may have been difficult to achieve during an afternoon television slot.

The hardest job for broadcasters, I learnt, is making space for new and original programming that will attract viewers. Whilst the tendency is to rely on familiar formats that have proven successful in the past (reality television being the obvious culprit here), every so often an original treatment will sneak under the radar and prove its worth. Such was the hope of the fledgling documentarians that presented their ideas to a panel of screen industry representatives at the Doc Pitch Session.

The pitches covered topics on marijuana, dog whispering, midwifery, corporate tax on churches, immigration heartbreak, nuclear testing protests in French Polynesia, the history of Tuhoe, World War One postcards, and the shady dealings of the “Tickle King.” The feedback across the board was a testament to how difficult it is to attract the attention of broadcasters and funding bodies.[1] For most projects it was a case of being not quite up to standard, whether that be because the story is lacking in direction or simply the idea is not novel enough to justify financial backing up front. Some were advised to look into alternative funding options such as the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, various newspaper groups, or acquisitioning once the film is finished.

The “best pitch” award, along with the 10k+ worth of prize money, was given to local media personality David Farrier for Tickle King. Unlike the other fastidiously prepared players, Farrier swanned in last minute and seemingly ad-libbed the whole thing. The cynic in me was somewhat riled that he won, especially considering his is the only project that could easily get off the ground without third-party help (thanks to a successful Kickstarter Campaign). Nevertheless, I was just as sold as everyone else by his pitch, and I have no doubt that Tickle King will get made and it will be good.

In Radio Documentary 101, Justin Gregory and David Steemson of Radio NZ teamed up with academics Peter Hoar and Matt Mollgaard to discuss “the last bastion of public broadcasting in New Zealand.” There’s a certain irony in watching radio regulars talk about the merits of listening. The ease at which they spoke gave the bizarre impression that their voices were detached from their bodies, lending weight to their words and lulling the audience into an agreeable stupor. Compelling radio engages not only our hearing, they said, but also our imagination and visual senses, in a way that evades the necessity for interpretation. Background sounds become characters in their own right. Not to mention there’s something about hearing a person’s voice that feels very intimate, as if we’re listening as individuals rather than en masse. And in terms of audio documentaries specifically, it’s easier to get an earnest response out of subjects with the unobtrusive presence of a humble microphone than it is with a camera looming large. Together, the panelists offered a few basic practical tips for budding radio documentarians: Know the difference between a topic and a story (the golden rule for any medium); let people talk the way they want to talk; and don’t underestimate the value of silence and letting locations speak for themselves.

It appears that the trials of radio mirror those of broadcast television, in that listenership with the younger generations is dropping off. However, a couple of key creatives behind the popular New York-based storytelling hub, The Moth, were in the audience, and they were quick to rebuke these statistics. It’s not that young people aren’t listening to the radio, they said, it’s just that they’re more likely to tune into podcasts and streaming sites. Such is the times, and I suspect the listenership of Radio NZ is hardly representative of overall trends. Yet the panel members were fixed in the opinion that the reign of public radio broadcasting is far from over, and producers are chasing multi-platform channels to keep people interested. Shows are being archived and supplemented by online content to these ends.

The organisers of the Screen Edge Forum set out to rouse momentum for documentary making in New Zealand, a feat they seemed to achieve through the sheer breadth of talent and topics covered in the sessions. But whilst there’s something refreshingly noncommercial about the documentarian, with all of his altruistic convictions, it was hard to ignore that the forum’s guest speakers were here to promote their films in the ancillary festival. The reverse of this lurking advertorial rationale is the networking opportunities that arise from it, a bonus for any participant and often the reason people attend these industry events in the first place. Whilst I usually steer clear of such hustling, I did attempt to redeem my earlier hiccup by engaging Steve James in a conversation spurred on by his talk. It wasn’t profound or eloquent and I was still a fumbling mess, but eventually I realised that the cool indifference I had sensed in him before was mistaken. Here was someone who looks outward to understand the world before judging it. And I think no matter where New Zealand documentary makers find themselves in the sea change of technology and the media radius, they’ll do fine as long as they stay moored to this basic ethos.

The Screen Edge Forum, held in Auckland during the Documentary Edge Festival, is an annual two-day film, TV and all media industry event focused on innovative ways to create and fund screen productions. Melinda Jackson attended courtesy of the organisers.

MAIN IMAGE: A pitch session in progress at the Screen Edge Forum. Source: Facebook.

[1] For the record, neither TVNZ nor TV3 are picking up one-off documentaries at the moment.