Belgian producer Paul Pauwels and commissioning editor Jakob Høgel of the Danish Film Institute attended a workshop and festival in Belgrade last April. Tue Steen Müller asked them their opinion of the state of the art and the future for documentaries from S.E.E. countries.

Tue Steen Müller
Previous founder/editor of the DOX magazine.

TSM: What is your impression of the films that you have seen?

Paul Pauwels
Paul Pauwels

PP: Most of them are mainly trying to reach domestic audiences by dealing with local situations and trying to come to terms with the serious problems confronted by filmmakers in recent years; therefore they do not travel easily. Others are more open and have the potential to reach a wider audience. I saw a lot of craftsmanship, and I particularly loved the sense of humour and poetry in some of the films. It was surprising to see how a certain style seemed to be fitting for a certain region. In comparison to the films I watch at home, I would say they are less story driven, but in many cases the filmmakers are very talented at capturing the atmosphere in a very cinematographic way.

TSM:  In terms of production and creativity, what are the weaknesses and what are the strengths in this region for filmmakers who want to go international?

PP: The people from S.E.E are confronted with a financial problem. The budgets for producing a documentary over here are clearly lower than in the rest of Europe. This weakens the negotiating position of S.E.E. filmmakers. I have seen many very creative films made by obviously talented people, but they must realise that the competition is fierce and there are only a limited number of available slots for showing their films on European television. I would urge them to look for general human-interest stories that can attract a broad audience, but to try to preserve their very imaginative and unique storytelling techniques. They should by all means avoid copying films from Central or Western Europe, but keep their own style.

I think it will be necessary for filmmakers to become well organised and make sure they have an excellent infrastructure, in terms of both production and funding. If they want to become players in the international market they will have to adapt to the rules, which calls for strong, reliable production companies with the potential of becoming healthy partners for broadcasters and co-producers.

Jakob Kirstein Høgel

JH: Can new filmmakers revive the kind of short film that is not targeted on commercial, slotted TV? Or is it about time to succumb to the Market, which is not yet fully operational in South East Europe? That to me seemed the major choice facing young filmmakers in the region. I found it impossible to advise the talented participants on which way to go. It is vital that the developments in South East Europe are known throughout Europe and beyond, and many of the filmmakers have strong backgrounds and good training in filmmaking. Why not let the talent and stories of the South-East meet the slots and money of the North and West? First of all, because it is not as easy as it sounds. We all know that the deals in the European doc market are based on long-term relationships between production companies and commissioning editors. Often the selling point relies more on the ability to deliver than what is eventually delivered. Few of the people we met had production companies, and for most the aim was to produce films, not to deliver them. Second, there is a limited scope for diversity in styles and storytelling when presenting documentaries to well-paying broadcasters.

TSM: If co-productions are the solution, what conditions should be met by West and East Europeans respectively?

PP: Is co-production the solution? Is it? For some people it will be, for others I’m not so sure. I have met people whose talent will certainly be destroyed if they try to adapt to the vulgarity of Western television. In future, I hope that producers and production companies embodying both aims will develop: after making mainstream (but well-made) documentaries that travel well and are popular, they will be prepared to spend some of the money they might make from these popular films on films that are less easy to produce and to distribute. It is extremely important that the filmmakers retain their own identity – this is what makes them interesting and gives them an advantage. Do not sell your soul to join the Western assembly line. Someday Western audiences will get fed up with the easy, dull formats we have to watch today, and then the treasure chest filled with S.E.E imagination and storytelling talent will open in earnest and be in great demand.

JH: When participating in workshops like the one in Belgrade, should our aim really be to standardize documentaries to suit slots, pre-, post-, watershed distinctions and other TV fads? With the risk of being a romantic, I think not. If co-production is to make sense, we have to include strong regional filmmaking traditions and the choices of new generations in the equation. Undoubtedly there are a wealth of ideas and talented and accomplished documentarists in South East Europe. Whether they (re)build a regional documentary tradition or focus on the demands of the West, or both, is their choice. Whether good documentary filmmaking is acknowledged as such, be it told in ‘our way’ or not, is the choice for all of us who commission, buy and watch documentaries in the West.


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