Now it is fully back in business, becoming a new important meeting point under the dynamic direction of Claas Danielsen, whom DOX met at the 2005 DOK Leipzig festival for a talk about East and West, TV and author-driven docs and the competition in between festivals.
FI: Before 1989, Leipzig was the most important festival for documentary films in Eastern Europe. Today, Eastern Europe is no longer a specific entity like it was in the past. What is DOK Leipzig today?
CD: DOK Leipzig is a truly international festival screening films from all over the world. But we put a special focus on the dynamic regions in Central and Eastern Europe. By so doing, Leipzig continues to serve as a bridge between East and West – a role which has become even more important after the disappearance of old borders and ideologies. At the same time we are looking further east. We have established a partnership with the Chinese GZDOC, the Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival.
FI: This year, the Grand Prix went to Lithuania (“Before Flying Back to the Earth” by Arunas Matelis). How do you feel about East European filmmakers: where are they right now? Are they the same people they were ten or twenty years ago, i.e. long shots, no voice-over, beautiful observational documentaries, Russian school and so on, but no chances in television …?
CD: The strength of east European documentary lies in its quality and diversity. But the situation differs from country to country. The quality of the films not only depends on the filmic tradition but also on the working conditions, the level of training (which is still very good in those countries with a long tradition, such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Russia, etc.) and the funding opportunities. It has taken a long time to establish new funding bodies and media laws in many countries, which has had a devastating effect in some places.
European institutions like EDN, funds such as the MEDIA Plus Programme, the Soros Foundation or Eurimages and the different training initiatives have stepped in to fill the gap and helped many professionals to survive by going international.
Nowadays we see very good films from some of the few remaining old masters and many great documentaries from young filmmakers with a fresh approach. Arunas Matelis is in between-he is deeply rooted in the Lithuanian or Baltic documentary tradition and has been able to adapt to the changing times. Before Flying Back to the Earth is a traditional documentary in the best sense of the word-patient, beautifully observing, poetic, humorous, tender, no voice-over. But it is also modern: shot on video and using video diary elements. The film is a jewel rarely found on TV nowadays. It was made with the support of ZDF/ARTE but had great difficulty getting television support, which reflects a dangerous tendency in European public television.
FI: I have seen several events connected with television during the festival. On the other hand, in the selection you could sense that author films are the main focus of the festival. Are you planning to bring together TV documentaries and author-driven films on the same platform?
CD: In the same way as I try to build bridges between the geographical areas, I also try to bring together the so-called creative documentary with television and new talents. Television will lose its significance if it will not support and broadcast ‘real’ documentaries. And the author-driven documentary can often profit from a little TV-injection in terms of having an audience in mind or incorporating new storytelling methods and new technologies. The border between TV and documentary is an artificial one. Let’s face it, hardly any ambitious documentary can be financed without television. And in the past decade a lot of innovation came out of TV.
In 2004 we presented a special on documentaries bordering on fiction, animation, soaps, etc. Last year I introduced a special called Best of TV where we presented the documentary profile of an international broadcaster that supports the genre very effectively and tries to be at the forefront. The special was dedicated to YLE. In 2005 we focused on subjects such as political documentaries or courageous programme initiatives for better, innovative public television.
My mission is to promote excellent, surprising, emotional, complex, well-told documentaries and to make them available to a broad audience. I want to change the often still poor public image of the genre and to make decision-makers in television aware of how exciting, entertaining and indispensable docs are.
FI: There are many film festivals but the significant documentaries produced in one year are somewhere between five and ten. How many actually premiere in Leipzig? The DOK Leipzig is one of the most important European festivals for documentaries. Together with the final pitch at the Discovery Campus Masterschool, this festival resembles a big event like IDFA. Is it a mistake to imagine a rewarding competition here?
CD: We are of course glad if we discover an outstanding documentary and can present it as a world premiere. This year we had several European and five world premieres in our international competition. One example is Before Flying back to the Earth which received the Golden Dove’at DOK Leipzig and was then awarded the Silver Wolf Award in Amsterdam. As we are unfortunately close to IDFA we have to compete for films. Many festivals such as IDFA usually require a world premiere. To be honest, I think this is a huge waste of energy. And what is worse, it harms filmmakers as well as their films. But it is hard to escape this dynamic. I have to compete with Amsterdam-whether I want to or not -and IDFA feels the competition from the big feature film festivals, etc. What is the result? Films are stopped from travelling, they are held back for months until they are too old for festivals that come later and audiences in many countries never get to see them.
Festivals should serve filmmakers and not stop their work from being shown to as many people as possible. My audiences don’t care if a film has already been shown in Nyon or Paris, but they might care if it has already been shown in Berlin. For that reason we require a German premiere for our competitive programmes. And if we have to decide between two excellent films-a premiere or a film that has been on the festival circuit-the decision is obvious. But we had no single film in our competition that was mediocre just to get a world premiere.
I took over the Leipzig festival in 2004. Since then I have introduced a whole range of new industry offers and there are several more to come. Why? To support good new projects, to foster talents and to improve the quality of documentaries. But also to compete with other festivals for the best new films and to access new financing sources for the festival.
Nowadays, it is not enough just to show good films. As a producer I want my film to be discovered and sold, I want press coverage, I want to meet colleagues and to network, I want to learn and broaden my mind and I want to promote my next project. I had always longed for an event in Germany that brought together all these elements. And then I was offered the job in Leipzig! So I not only tried to put together a strong festival programme for the general documentary-loving audience, but also started to create new platforms for the professionals: DOK Market where the best entries are presented to buyers; DOK Ideas: pitching and networking for new projects; DOK Summits: discussion and brain-storming; DOK Campus: workshops and master-classes for young talents; and DOK Funds: to support innovative, courageous, risky and exceptional films. The latter are still to be launched and I hope that the German recession will not stop me before I’ve reached this aim. In a way, DOK Leipzig is two festivals under one roof plus a slate of industry events -operating on a third of IDFA’s budget.
FI: You are a former filmmaker. Has your life as a festival manager and former head of the Discovery Campus Masterschool buried the artist inside you? Do you, Claas Danielsen, still have something to say to others? What are you in this moment: manager, bureaucrat, producer or even a kind of politician or are you still a filmmaker?
CD: I’ve often thought about that. I am still a filmmaker in my heart-this has strongly influenced the way I built up Discovery Campus and how I do my festival work. Yes, I have to be a manager, fundraiser, film promoter and, to a certain extent, a politician in this job – not a bureaucrat. But serving as the artistic director of DOK Leipzig makes it a very creative job, too. I only wish I could spend 75% of my time on watching films, meeting directors and thinking about concepts-not the other way around.
I refrained from filmmaking for the last eight years not only because of a total lack of time, but also to avoid a conflict of interest. You can’t sit on both sides of the table. But directing also requires a totally different mindset. I hope to be able to nourish this intuitive way of thinking and go back to filmmaking in a few years. I am curious myself if I will be able to forget about slots, festivals, technology or distribution and regain this certain innocence and naivety which is needed to embark on the long, painful journey of getting a real documentary film made.
Florin Iepan is a Romanian filmmaker and former student of the Discovery Campus Masterschool. He has made “The One, the Only, the Real Tarzan” (2005) and “Children of the Decree” (2004).
Login or signup to read the rest..If you do not have subscription, you can just login or register, and choose free guest or subscription to read all articles.