Industry Report: Documentary
Tue Steen Müller, International consultant on Documentary
NOW is the Golden Age of Documentaries. This is my answer when I take part in workshops and festivals around Europe. The answer to the big question about the state of the art: the European documentary.
I say so as a documentary addict whose profession has been to follow the development of the genre since 1975 when I started working at the National Film Board of Denmark. Until today I have been watching loads of documentaries to be updated on quality and diversity. I teach in film schools and have big pleasure in bringing to the students new films by Finnish directors as Pirjo Honkasalo, British as Kim Longinotto and Molly Dineen, French as Nicolas Philibert, Slovak as Peter Kerekes, Russians as Viktor Kossakovski and Sergey Dvortsevoy, Lithuanians as Arunas Matelis and Audrius Stonys.I definetly believe that the documentary today has its star auteurs.
A changed public image of documentaries is one of the reasons why Golden Age Documentaries are no longer understood to be only tools for education and information. Or pure propaganda. Today, thanks to Michael Moore and many others who invested in promotion, documentaries are entertaining and openly provocative, and thanks to the technical developments they can be watched in a variety of situations from the computer to the big screen in the cinema. Or, of course, at festivals that in these years are growing like mushrooms.
I have seen many brilliant and entertaining documentaries projected from a 16mm Bell&Howell machine. The whole documentary film history, actually, starting from Flaherty, Grierson and Jennings to Marcel Ophuls, Stefan Jarl and Juris Podnieks.
But excellent films did not used to cross borders as they do today.
The internationalisation of the documentary has given a lot of filmmaking inspiration, and it seems that everything is "allowed" today when it comes to do the storytelling. The documentaries take from the feature film, the so-called reconstruction in documentaries is no longer discussed, films are being told in 1st person and the desire for playing with the classical dramaturgy is very present.
Many co-productions are being set up. This does not necessarily mean better films, but it means bigger and more ambitious films.
You can argue that the Golden Age started in the late 80s. The French documentarians got their ‘La Sept Arte’, that later with the Germans on board became the European cultural channel Arte, that still has documentaries as an important programming element.
The Monday night Grand Format of Arte, headed by Thierry Garrel, was for many years the crown jewel of feature documentaries. Other broadcasters followed internationally with co-productions or acquisitions, with a very important support from the EU, whose MEDIA Programme (started in 1990) has played a central role in the building up of a sound structure for the development of the European documentary industry.
Thus, there is a support from EU to the development and distribution of documentaries; for the training of producers for international cooperation through programmes like Eurodoc, Documentary Campus and Ex Oriente; and for festivals and markets like IDFA in Amsterdam, Sunny Side in la Rochelle, Jihlava in Czech Republic and DOK Leipzig in Germany.
But there is a backside of the coin. A paradoxical one, actually. The history of the European documentary in the last decade may be that of a genre rescued by television, but at the same time it has seen the introduction of a standardization that has made it more difficult for creative documentaries to find an exhibition window in television. And consequently money for production from TV. The final cut, i.e. the right to put the finishing touch before a film is declared completed, no longer belongs unequivocally to the director. Today this right may belong to the producer or TV commissioning editor by dint of the contract or simply because he or she assumes it.
On top of that you see a domestically growing within the public broadcasters programme policies. Why buy a brilliant documentary about a social problem abroad, when we have the same problem here? Argued in the name of competition with commercial channels and a constant hunt for ratings. And why to produce a creative documentary when it is much cheaper to have a quick reportage on the same subject? That leaves many producers to hope for solid public funding through film institutes or directly from the ministry of culture.
There are, to be fair, public broadcasters that are active internationally - YLE Finland, svt Sweden, BBC4 with Storyville, the Catalan TV3Š and small channels in Holland and Belgium, but if you go through the Eastern European channels (except for TVP, Poland and ETV Estonia) it is very difficult to be optimistic. The challenge is to bring huge bureaucratic mechanisms into the modern world of co-production with independent producers, who are the ones providing originality and quality.
The paradox is that there is an audience for creative documentaries but they do not watch television. In most countries they have given it up, and they find their films elsewhere. Which brings back the optimistic tone.
There are more and more digital cinemas, meaning that if you want to have a film screened at the cinema, it is not any longer a necessity to make expensive 35 mm prints. You can show it digitally. This stimulates the distribution of documentaries at cinemas. There are many films which deserve to be screened in cinemas and watched by many people, but we should not overestimate it. The audience is relatively limited, but still it is bigger than five or ten years ago.
It is important for the promotion of the documentary as a genre that you get the film to the cinema, get reviews in the newspapers and have people talking about it. This is the way to create a public opinion about the importance of documentaries.
Otherwise cyberspace will be working for the genre! Robert Flaherty said in the early days of documentary that it is as easy to get hold of a film as it is to get a book. His dream came true with DVD's to buy and with internet downloads, as the VoD. But still, the big screen as well as festivals play a very important role today. When I started to go to festivals, way back in the 70s, these were mostly for the few happy film enthusiasts and professionals. This perception is completely different now. Today in fact the so called ordinary people who buy a ticket to sit with other people and watch a documentary. Without forgetting that there is a huge difference between sitting in front of your computer and sitting with 500 other people in a cinema hall. Laughing, sighing, crying. As the French say: Le documentaire est un film!