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At Nordisk Panorama’s Town Hall, the industry hopes for the best but expects the worst for the future of Nordic documentaries


- While young filmmakers demand more support from streamers and broadcasters, the industry decision makers are split between envisioning a bright 2032 and a gloomy, ten-year winter

At Nordisk Panorama’s Town Hall, the industry hopes for the best but expects the worst for the future of Nordic documentaries
Kjetil Lismoen, editor of Norwegian trade Rushprint, during his keynote speech

On 25 September, the Scandic Triangeln hosted the Town Hall discussion of this year’s Nordisk Panorama (22-27 September). In her introduction, Nordisk Film & TV Fond rep and moderator Karolina Lidin wondered whether we live in the “golden age of documentary, or in that of corporate documentaries”, and addressed the elephant in the room by asking the audience what path Nordic docs were likely to follow over the next ten years.

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Next, Kjetil Lismoen, editor of Norwegian trade Rushprint, began his keynote speech by saying that “winter is coming” and touching upon how the world is seeing a suppression of free speech, mentioning the examples of flawed democracies like Hungary and Poland, and “lost causes” such as Turkey. “More filmmakers than ever face persecution all over the world, especially documentary makers,” he said, adding that the Nordic countries stand out as an “island in the stream”, but they all have their “dirty secrets”: he cited Norway’s “whitewashing of the oil business” and Sweden’s recent wave of nationalism, for example. He argued that the risk is that the rise of the far right in the West will prompt a real-life dystopia.

Director Patricia Bbaale Bandak and producer Victor Cunha spoke about the joy and suffering they went through while working on their first documentary. Bbaale Bandak acknowledged the privilege of living in a country where there is a film institute, a talent development scheme and a government that still supports film and culture, but admitted the last two years had been very discouraging. They both struggle “to see a sustainable future by making documentaries”, especially if they don’t wish to work on biographical docs about famous people, pushed by streamers through their algorithms. “How do you make a living? And how do you sustain your artistic vision? [...] After finishing film school, we felt on a real high, but now not so much,” said Bbaale Bandak.

Cunha touched upon several issues, including the risk that producers run by selling their rights for small fees and the hard time films have travelling internationally. He asked streamers and broadcasters – especially the “commercial ones” – for help. “Think about the content that inspired you, not just about algorithms. We have the stories, but we need your help to make them well developed and marketable. Right now, we’re working out of passion and love, but I need to make viable decisions for the future,” he concluded.

Sitting among the audience, veteran director Fredrik Gertten admitted that things are as hard as the two young filmmakers pointed out but added that “after winter, there’s always spring” and that “our job is bigger and stronger than ever”. Despite the challenges and the little money available, documentarians are part of “a global resistance movement” and “have more of an audience than ever”.

The representatives of a number of Nordic film institutes tried to tackle Cunha and Bbaale Bandak’s concerns. One rep of the Swedish Film Institute highlighted that 70% of the supported filmmakers are newcomers but also invited other players to think about a pan-Nordic strategy. A rep of the Norwegian Film Institute stressed, “Institutes are not publishers, but support new voices […]. We’re not taking risks, you [filmmakers] are. […] We need to find the best ways to communicate with you,” she added.

The discussion went on until the floor was given to Silje Riise Næss, recently appointed head of section for Artistic Assessment at the Norwegian Film Institute. Riise Næss sees a bright future, with more formats, more content creators and more appeal for audiences, with new segments that “we don’t even know about” being intercepted. “We’re not planning to back down. We are still focusing on film art, but more on outreach and a lot more on diversity,” she said, guaranteeing that this would happen even if their financial means may be reduced owing to political shifts. “In my 2032, there are more documentaries and documentary series for children, [and] a merging of artistic tradition and serial storytelling. […] In 2032, diversity is not seen as a problem, but rather as an asset. The future is already here when I see Victor and Patricia speaking.”

The last speaker was Axel Arnö, head of SVT’s Documentary department. “I see a future for us. We depend on you; we need to matter to our audiences, whoever they are, even if they are a small, nerdy one. We’re too small to survive on our own. We can’t get anywhere if we don’t collaborate. [...] It’s time to refuel all of the partnerships between broadcasters, producers, filmmakers and institutes,” he said.

The last part of the talk, which became even more lively, saw Gréta Ólafsdóttir, of the Icelandic Film Centre, express her concern about the government’s recently announced budget cut of one-third for the institute’s funding. Ólafsdóttir defined the situation as “schizophrenic”, as the government’s focus seems to have shifted to attracting Netflix crews and other big international productions, incentivised by the 35% cash rebate in place.

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