Cannes Docs – Marché du Film & CPH:DOX on «Documentary Production now – and beyond!»

    The Doc TalkCPH:DOX Panel titled «Documentary Production now – and beyond!» at this year’s virtual Cannes Docs – Marché du Film featured four of Denmark’s most knowledgable when it comes to navigating the suddenly upended documentary landscape. Stepping into the role of Zoom moderators were Katrine Kiilgaard, CPH:DOX Deputy Director and Head of Industry, and Tereza Simikova, Head of CPH:FORUM, posing their own questions, as well as some from the online international audience that tuned in live on June 22nd.

    And answering those inquiring minds were veteran producers Monica Hellström of Final Cut for Real, and Sara Stockmann of Sonntag Pictures, both with impressive resumes and projects in the pipeline. Hellström, one of this year’s «Producers on the Move,» is also one of the forces behind Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Cannes-selected Flee. In addition, she’s currently producing Simon Lereng Wilmont’s A House Made of Splinters, the Peabody Award-winning director’s follow up to his Oscar-shortlisted The Distant Barking of Dogs. While Stockmann is in production on Frederik Sølberg’s Hana Korea – which just won the Eurimages Award at CPH:FORUM – and is behind Jannik Splidsboel’s Being Erico, which nabbed the Nordic:DOX competition at CPH:DOX 2020.

    Their process

    As a way of introduction, Kiilgaard noted that they would not be showing any trailers during the talk, fearing the Zoom format might undermine the quality of the work. She then asked the two producers to elaborate on their respective backgrounds in nonfiction filmmaking. Stockmann, who launched her career in narrative work but «hasn’t touched a fiction film» in 15 years, posited that documentary «blends reality, storytelling and the visual arts» in a combination, unlike any other art form. Hellström agreed and likewise ranked the cinematic element as the key ingredient in the docs they both produced.

    When it came to the strong international aspect of their work, Stockmann theorized that the «Scandinavian tradition» of pursuing coproductions stemmed from the need for international financing. (Kiilgaard added that the 90s heralded the Scandinavian focus on international filmmaking, while most doc-making was national in years prior.) Hellström emphasized the importance of international workshops in networking. She stressed the need to meet with colleagues over lunch or a drink as a way to build trust, and to develop an atmosphere conducive to wanting to work together.

    documentary «blends reality, storytelling and the visual arts» in a combination, unlike any other art form.

    Hellström went on to discuss her current production A House Made of Splinters – which, like The Distant Barking of Dogs, follows the war zone children of Eastern Ukraine, but is set in an orphanage this time. Coproducing with Sweden and Finland, and possibly Ukraine, they are still hoping to finish by next spring. Stockmann spoke about her hybrid doc Hana Korea – which follows a newly arrived North Korean refugee transitioning to South Korean society – noting that it’s a South Korean co-production.

    A House Made of Splinters-Doc Talk-MTR
    A House Made of Splinters, a film directed Simon Lereng Wilmont
    & produced by Monica Hellström

    The effect of 2020

    As for the pandemic’s effect on those various productions, Stockmann admitted that she was initially worried specifically because Asia was the region to get hit first. They’d been selected to pitch at the CPH:FORUM, and travel restrictions meant that her coproducer would now be unable to attend. Of course, the panicked producer soon realized that the coronavirus was fast-becoming a global threat – and thus everyone worldwide would have to make the adjustment to online pitching.

    Happily, Stockmann reported that ultimately she got a lot out of those virtual meetings – even winning the pitch award. That said, she made clear that dealmaking was productive only with those she had a prior relationship with – otherwise it was a « «bit more demanding» with folks that her team didn’t know. Even so, due to the pandemic, shooting in Seoul was now postponed. Instead they are «going into depth with the development and scriptwriting,» while continuing to raise financing.

    On the positive side, doc-makers are often having to change their production plans on a dime, Stockmann added, so the pandemic didn’t present any new challenges in the way it has for narrative filmmaking. Also, she hypothesized that because they aren’t rushing the development phase now, the forced slowdown ultimately might end up improving the quality of the work. She noted that with another project her team is producing, they’d actually converted the shooting time into editing time. In other words, the coronavirus crisis gave them the excuse to do what needed to be done, and at the best possible pace. Stockmann also expressed relief that she has a co-production partner on the scene to keep the momentum going – another perk of coproducing in this pandemic age!

    everyone worldwide would have to make the adjustment to online pitching.

    To which Hellström added that it’s crucial to have a director on the ground eventually, though – as one can’t totally rely on partners for an entire production. That said, canceling recent shoots for A House Made of Splinters has allowed for more editing time – which in turn has given Lereng Wilmont the chance to see what he needs to film now that he’s back in Ukraine. Simply put, slowing down translates to an increased focus. Though on the downside, Stockmann mentioned hearing that some projects are indeed in trouble – especially ones in which, for example, youth are involved. Kids grow up quite quickly, and every day of missed shooting affects the film’s outcome. She suggested more flexibility from film funds and broadcasters. Can they move money and projects around to help out struggling productions?

    Which prompted Kiilgaard to note that things have gone relatively well for these two producers because they already had established connections. So did this mean they would now forgo future in-person dealmaking? Stockmann was doubtful, as she missed «the conversation that starts not at the pitching table but at the coffee machine,» deeming it «just as important.» She pointed out that physically meeting someone renders that person more permanent in one’s mind – «a book versus an ebook.»

    Relaying a question from Brazil via chat, Simikova then asked how a producer knows when to start working with international partners. Hellström suggested starting small – and nearby. Are there countries in your region that share a common interest? She added that producers gain a lot when there are other eyes helping to develop a project in a more international way. The caveat, of course, being that taking on a coproducer also increases the overhead.

    However, Simikova noted that online pitching ultimately saves money on travel expenses for producers. «I’ll see you in two months at IDFA is not an excuse anymore,» Stockmann agreed, “now that everyone can connect on Zoom.» Simikova wondered, though, about the impact that «being connected all the time» has on the industry. Hellström predicted that the ubiquity of Zoom meetings will mostly provide for a good excuse to travel less.

    Hana Korea-Cod Talk-MTR-featured
    Hana Korea, a film directed by Frederik Sølberg & produced by Sara Stockmann

    Our new pandemic normal

    As for our new pandemic normal, Stockmann found encouragement in the fact that documentaries have never really relied on box office revenue – and thus haven’t taken the financial hit that fiction filmmaking has. That said, she still worried that sales agents and distributors might be more reluctant to take risks now. As for online versus IRL premieres, Stockmann said that she chose to go the virtual debut route at CPH:DOX expressly because she wanted to support the festival. The concept of «togetherness» was important to her. Consequently, this allowed for a wider audience for the film – while admitting that the «buzz» of a premiere cannot really be replicated in the online world. And on that note, Kiilgaard closed with the hope of reaching a broader audience digitally – as more participation can only be a plus. Whether engaging with big international premieres or even just this intimate talk.

    Lauren Wissot
    A US-based film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer.

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