By contrast with most other European public service channels, Arte still keeps flying the European flag of culture.

Tue Steen Müller

Previous founder/editor of the DOX magazine.

Documentaries are number one in terms of programme volume at Arte, if you include all kinds of documentary, though the formatting of docs is also gaining ground here.

Arte 2007 is also Europe 2007- i.e. fifty years after the signing of the Treaty of Rome and the anniversary is reflected in the programming of a European channel- as is the French presidential election, the future of Kosovo and many other important issues for us Europeans. The history and future of the European Union are investigated in depth. Arte bombards its viewers with information on these matters.

In terms of German and French viewers, Arte’s 1-5% share definitely makes it a niche channel compared to its public counterparts grouped under France Télévisions and Germany’s ARD and ZDF. Yet it is a channel of utmost importance to the documentary genre in Europe. Every documentary festival programme in Europe has at least one film supported by Arte. A pitching event “must” have a representative from Arte. The channel is indeed ubiquitous and plays an important role for the independent production sector, not only in France and Germany but in the rest of Europe as well.

Today, Arte is a modern broadcaster with a website providing general programme information, links to sites relevant for themes dealt with in programmes, a forum for debates and links to all sorts of cultural events. There’s also a VOD service and Arte Boutique selling DVDs with documentary classics by the likes of Johan van der Keuken or Raymond Depardon, or newer names such as Avi Mograbi.

Innovation and Creation?

jerome-clement
Jerome Clément

Many consider that Arte struggles with an image of being “elitist” or “bourgeois” but admit also that the quality of the programming is always high. Arte France’s President Jerome Clément talks about the fight against ‘la banalisation’ of images and about ‘creation and innovation’ in his 2007 New Year’s welcoming speech (see http://www.arte.tv/fr/tout-sur-ARTE/38566.html), and he is right when he says that you can find these ambitions realised on Arte.

But not that often, if you look at Arte from a documentary perspective. The innovation lies in other programme formats like “The Night”, “Tracks” and the classic cultural magazine “Métropolis” which is now broadcast primetime on Saturday evening, because the typical, Arte-formatted documentary is rather traditional with wall-to-wall narration and interviews, always relating to a theme. Traditional in a way that could characterize Arte as an old-fashioned public broadcaster in the best meaning of the term, living up to classical virtues of the documentary genre: documentaries bring us to places where we’ve never been before or will never be able to go by giving us an experience, bringing us knowledge about art, culture, history, science and technology, and letting us meet other human beings with whom we can identify, laugh or cry.

Documentary Slots

“The Human Adventure” (“L´Aventure Humaine/Abenteuer”), “360°-GEO Report”, and “Arte Discovery” (“Découverte/Entdeckung”) all take us round the world in traditional storytelling. So does the classic “History on Wednesday” (“Mercredis de l´histoire/ Geschichte am Mittwoch”). The daily docu-soaps are character-driven, light and entertaining, whereas “Reality” (“La vie en Face/Welt in Blick”) has room for a more cinematic interpretation of sociological issues. The same goes for the thematic evenings with their abundance of documentaries that depart from the normal 52-minute slots and where young filmmakers are sometimes invited to develop their stories.

Editorially speaking, thematic evenings still contain surprises, as do “Grand format” and “La Lucarne” and, as mentioned in the article on pages 10-11, the “Faces of Europe” could also develop into bringing non-formatted alternative storytelling to documentaries. This is a refreshing voluminous initiative of more than 100 hours of documentaries a year. Their budgets have been kept low, however, by the CEs, who say they welcome storytelling experiments. The slot is screened at 6:30 p.m.

Flagship Sails Late

talesfromahardcity_941The “Grand Format” has always been regarded as Arte’s flagship of the author-driven documentary effort. In March 2007, three examples demonstrated the point: Britain’s Kim Flitcroft came with a sequel to his 1995 “Tales from a Hard City”: “Fucking Sheffield”, Bruno Ulmer focused on the huge illegal immigration from Northern Africa in “Welcome Europa” and Daniel Schweizer gave us “White Terror” about skinheads, neo-Nazis and other racist phenomena-three edgy “films” about modern-day Europe.

The “Grand Format” films are screened at 11:30 p.m. They were pushed from their former 10:30 p.m. slot by a new science documentary strand. Also, the offbeat strand “Skylight”(“La Lucarne/Spätvorstellung”) has been moved and is aired at exactly what its German title indicates, veeery late on Friday night, around 0.45 in the morning.

The tendency is clear, Arte’s documentary policy is moving away from first-person signature films- towards issue films, thematic orientation and general information. Such films give the impression of having forgotten that a documentary is a film. The documentaries are edited according to the words, there are few ‘holes’ in the narration and the image seems not to be trusted.

These sceptical comments mustn’t overshadow the fact that you can watch documentaries on Arte for hours on end every day. If you don’t mind the formatting and agree to the broad definition that the channel itself – and other channels as well-links to ‘documentary’. And if you don’t mind that a European cultural channel, dedicated to promoting cultural and linguistic diversity does not respect that many viewers would find it natural to “hear” the original version and “not” a French or German dubbed-in voice instead of subtitles!

For more information about Arte, go to http://www.artepro.com.

 


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