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.
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.”
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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