Carol Nahra

Carol Nahra is a documentary producer, consultant, journalist and lecturer based in London. She blogs at docsconscreens.com.

The prestigious Democracy Project was launched more than two years ago and has been heavily promoted at documentary events around the world. The project since then has been in the dark for a while

DOX lifts the cover to provide a situational report on the project and the long process it has endured.

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Nick Fraser

It began more than two years ago with great fanfare. The team behind the immensely successful Steps for the Future project – which produced thirty-five films about living with HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa – were getting together again, this time to tackle the subject of Democracy. The newly created Steps International called for filmmakers from around the world to pitch projects tackling some of the thornier issues behind “the greatest buzzword of our times,” as the project’s chair, the BBC’s Nick Fraser called it. Ambitions were high that the project would succeed in generating a worldwide discussion about democracy by broadcasters around the world simultaneously airing ten one-hour films tackling different themes throughout the world. TV2 Finland’s Iikka Vehkalahti summed up his motivation in this magazine: “What have you done in your life that you can be proud of when you look into the mirror?”

In launching the project, the working team, led by Nick Fraser, and including TV2 Denmark’s Mette Hoffman Meyer, Arte’s Christoph Jörg; ITVS’ Claire Aguilar; Hans Robert Eisenhower of ZDF/ARTE, as well as Vehkalahti, said the films would go out in April 2006. Months later, not only have the films not been broadcast, they don’t seem to have all been commissioned yet – at least as far as most of the filmmaking community know, because getting information about the project is not particularly easy. So just what has happened to the great Democracy Project?

Severely Delayed Timeline

According to those at the centre of the project, the Democracy Project is very much on track, albeit with a severely delayed timeline. After an unexpectedly long commissioning process, the Steps International team has finalised seven films, with the remainder expected to be confirmed shortly. The new broadcast date of October 2007 is not only firm, according to project coordinator Don Edkins, but will involve some 25 broadcasters broadcasting the films simultaneously. The films will be made available for free to a number of broadcasters who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford them. DVDs will be translated into at least eight languages, and workshops on using the project for educational purposes will be offered around the world. A number of short films are also in the works, pending funding, as is a comprehensive web site (www.whydemocracy.net) and the development of educational materials.

So what is it that made the selection process take so long? According to those closest to it, finding the right spread of films from around the world, each covering a different facet of democracy, has proven extremely difficult. “When you put out a call for tender and you have a very conceptual idea, democracy, it’s very, very open. It led to quite a lot of proposals tackling the same issue,” says Vehkalahti. The team was deluged with films about election processes, but lacked stories about other issues such as the relations between democracy and religion, technology, or the future.

Commissioning a true geographic spread has also been tricky. “American democracy is rife with issues – there’s an unpopular war, an unpopular president,” says Fraser. “The greatest difficulty we had was actually dealing with apparently stable democracies like Canada or Australia or European democracies, when it wasn’t actually clear at all what people wanted to say about them.”

Development Money and Special Pitching Sessions

The initial deadline for proposals, January 2005, was extended to allow more submissions and filmmaker workshops in China and India. Around twenty films were granted up to EUR 10,000 in development money, although most of those never materialised. “A lot of them fell down,” says Fraser. “To be honest, I think people were pissed off about that. But if things don’t work well, you have to find other films. That’s what has been happening. There has been a struggle to find the best ideas, to find the ideas that really work.”

Development projects which failed to get a commission included Justin Webster’s “The Brand”, which examined a business scheme to alleviate poverty, and Hanna Yarovenko’s “Z is For Democracy”, looking at the first elections in the self-declared independent state of Z on Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

The Steps team also held a raft of pitching sessions for the project in various venues – IDFA, Hot Docs, Silverdocs in Maryland, and the Australia International Documentary Conference in Adelaide – and held workshops in Beijing and Mumbai. Nonetheless, only one film, from China, was commissioned from actual pitches, according to Edkins. He maintains that while the pitching sessions did not yield much in terms of commissioned films, they were valuable for establishing contacts which led to films. Costs were kept to a minimum because democracy pitches were added on to larger pitching sessions, while the China and India workshops were separately funded by Finland. These workshops have been deemed so successful that they have spawned an Indian project that will produce a range of films about Changing India. Vehkalahti has now turned much of his attention to overseeing the Indian project.

No Room for Other Democracy Films

While the lengthy commissioning process makes sense for those behind it, it has served as an irritant to filmmakers shut out of the project. An American producer submitted a project looking at elections around the world. “There was one deadline and everyone rushed to submit and then they changed the deadline. It was kind of like an ever-evolving process, which from a filmmaker’s standpoint is really annoying.” Like many other filmmakers, he eventually received a short rejection letter with no feedback. He has been unsuccessful in finding interest elsewhere. “The problem is the giant sucking sound, which is that anything which is now related to democracy is basically unpitchable. Because these guys have said we’re going to provide this series free to everybody. That’s admirable. However, because they haven’t narrowly defined the topic, anything which even remotely is connected to democracy is impossible to get anybody interested in funding.”

Although a number of filmmakers have expressed such discontent to the Steps team, Fraser has little patience for complaints. “It is actually quite exhausting when people get pissed off. You go to places like IDFA and they’re great, but people are saying things to you like, ‘Well, the fact you’re doing a series about democracy means I can’t get my film commissioned’. It’s very hard to know what to say to people. Should I say, ‘Well, I’m not actually going to do my job just so you can get your film commissioned,’? I’m not a sort of social worker acting on behalf of producers.”

Secrecy

Another annoying aspect for the filmmaking community has been the seeming veil of secrecy around the selected films. Although a shortlist was scheduled to be announced in 2005, none has materialised, and the Democracy website does not include a list of commissioned films. Edkins says that, rightly or wrongly, he wanted to wait until all ten films had been commissioned before putting out a list. Another factor was the sensitivity of some of the subject matter, which made him reluctant to spread the word of what filmmakers in some of the countries were up to.

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Mette Heide

Vehkalahti attributes many of the problems surrounding the project to lack of resources. “I would say the expectation and reality have in that sense been quite far from each other. At the same time we haven’t had bad intentions, we’ve tried to do our best in the face of a lot of mistakes and lots of problems with human and financial resources.” The project employs two staff members: Denmark’s Mette Heide, who works part-time, and Edkins, who serves as executive producer for all of the films. They are producers for some of them and coordinate the broadcasting contracts and development of supplementary materials.

Seven Films Commissioned

Edkins is finally almost ready to publicise the final list of commissioned films. It includes a film about Chinese children holding a competitive election for class monitor by Weijun Chen (“To Live is Better Than to Die”); Rodrigo Vazquez (“Condor: Axis of Evil”) on the rise of ethno nationalism in Bolivia; Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”) on the US which touts democracy while it practises torture; Nino Kirtadze (“The Pipeline Next Door”) on Russia’s “managed democracy”; Jehane Noujaim (“Startup.com” and “Control Room”) with a film from Egypt about a group of women in the Muslim brotherhood; Karsten Kjær on the Danish Cartoons scandal; and the UK’s Kevin Sim, on political demonstrations. The eighth film will likely be on introducing democracy to Liberia, while the ninth film will be one of two projects being developed in India. The team hopes the tenth film will come from Japan. The average budget of the commissions is around EUR 220,000.

Argentinean Rodrigo Vasquez was in the unique position of having one film commissioned and a second film shortlisted. After Nick Fraser – who screened Vasquez’s “Condor: Axis of Evi”l on Storyville – encouraged him to submit an idea to the Democracy Project, Vasquez obliged with a film about the rise of ethno nationalism in Bolivia. He initially received development funding, which led to a commission to follow Evo Morales during the election. He has returned eight times to track the progress of Morales as he transitions from candidate to elected politician.

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Rodrigo Vazquez

It was in his second project, a film about Hamas, that Vasquez saw some of the drawbacks of the Democracy Project’s commissioning process: “You have 15 commissioning editors voting for the project and deciding what to do and it’s a little like the United Nations: it’s difficult to reach consensus. And so particularly with the Hamas project they took a long time to decide.” The working group recently rejected the Hamas film.

Democratic Commissioning Process

Indeed, there are many parallels between the democratic themes investigated in the films, and those that have plagued the Democracy Project. According to Edkins, the democratic principles behind the commissioning process slowed it down considerably.

“We’re not just two people making decisions. We’re seven, eight people who make the decisions. And that becomes unwieldy in the sense that as a democratic institution it’s a bit slow to make decisions. There’s a lot of discussion but in the end there is consensus. The check prevented someone from pushing a particularly preferred film from either his or her own country or a preferred filmmaker – it had to be a group decision. But that meant that a number of projects which were brought in by commissioning editors were actually not accepted.”

Vehkalahti agrees it is the democratic nature of the commissioning process which has so delayed the project: “Nick sent me a message one day asking, ‘Why is this Democracy Project so difficult?’ I replied, ‘Because of that: democracy.’ When you try to take into consideration everybody’s opinions, you try to have meetings with twenty, thirty, forty people, you try to make common decisions. Trying to work democratically is very, very time-consuming, nerve-racking and stressful.”

But Fraser himself is quick to dismiss the idea that the commissioning process should be entirely democratic. “There was a certain bizarre, very European-style confusion surrounding the project at the beginning, where people thought that, because it was about democracy, it should have a democratic commissioning process. And that doesn’t follow at all. We never took votes because I was very, very opposed to that.”

Despite being chair of the Democracy Project, Fraser did not have the final say on films. According to Iikka, “Democracy is very much Nick Fraser’s idea but I think we have turned down four or five films that Nick has proposed very strongly. They have really been shot down very cruelly. That’s why I say it’s democracy. Personally for me, it would have been the most ideal (if Nick had made final decision). But it’s not like that.”

Judged on the Quality of the Films

For his part, Fraser has found that the tortuous process of choosing the Democracy films has given him a new outlook. “I have a completely different view of politics now. I actually respect politicians much more. Because nobody ever told me that it is practically impossible to get anything done if you’re in a non-coercive situation.

If I’m employed by the BBC, the BBC can tell me to do things, otherwise they can fire me…In something like Steps, it is all voluntary and consensual, and it is actually much harder to get people to make decisions in common, which is my job as chairman.”

When all is said and done, the difficult path of the Democracy Project, and the friction it has caused within the documentary community, will likely matter very little in the long run. Filmmakers will continue to court the business of the commissioning editors involved in the project, and the project itself will be judged by the quality of the films, and its success in fostering a global debate about one of the most important and difficult concepts of the modern world.

Fraser, although he admits he’s unlikely to tackle such a project again, has few regrets: “From time to time, you have to try something completely different. It’s an interesting laboratory and an interesting experiment, and that’s why you do it.”

Vehkalahti agrees: “I have met so many filmmakers who are pissed off. At the same time, I’ve told them that if we hadn’t done anything, you wouldn’t be pissed off – but we wouldn’t be doing anything either.”


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