What impressions of the documentary industry can 100 seminars in one week at the festival DOC/FEST give?

Truls Lie
Editor-in-chief, Modern Times Review. Also head of the Norwegian monthly newspaper NY TID. Based in Oslo/Berlin.

I am at Doc/Fest in Sheffield without seeing any of the movie theatre screenings. I avoided around 100 docs and 50 shorts. Just didn’t plan to see them.

Actually yes, I saw one. The opening film Searching for Sugar Man is about the musician, Sixto Rodriguez, the man who failed to make a breakthrough with two Dylan-esque albums in the 60s. But without his or the producer’s knowledge, bootleg albums were mass distributed in South Africa – where the musician became better known than Elvis. We hear the myth of the man, the depressive who killed himself on stage. The film is a seldom example of a well-edited documentary that uncovers bits and pieces of a deeper story as it goes along. So I’m not going to tell you about the old man who played guitar before an enthusiastic audience here in Sheffield last night…

As I said, I don’t get any theatre tickets although I have a free pass as journalist. And the films are not bad. For example Marina Abramovic The Artist is Present is a touching film about the call of an artist, who through pain tries to come closer to what is essentially human; touching without touch, as seen recently when the performance artist sat gazing with her sad eyes at one stranger after another across a small table day after day for three months in NY. People waited in long queues, often they let their tears fall in front of Abramovic. I didn’t see the film, since I had already seen the masterpiece at DocAviv.

Neither did I sit in the outdoor cinema in the rainy weather – that would have been too cold and wet.

But let me mention Vivan Las Antipodas!, which I didn’t see on the big screen either. The film made by Victor Kossakovsky is a visual masterpiece from four parallel axes around the globe – for example from a little Argentinean shepherd’s hut and the surrounding desert-like quiet, it cuts directly to the noise and speedy metropolitan life of Shanghai. Spain and New Zealand. Hawaii and Botswana. Russia and Chile. I seldom experience a film that spellbinds me in a few takes, like the musical composition as a big bird circles round and round in front of the hillside, before it maybe swoops down on its prey. Kossakovsky’s use of a helicopter makes the turning of the globe’s surface possible before your eyes, where the other half of the globe is edited into the other half of the image. The director himself was behind the camera – fascinating, beautiful images without any explicit story. I am ashamed to admit that I only saw the spectacular, large-scale images in the library at DocuFest. Headphones on, sitting at a row of computers, no, that does not do justice to such visuality. But I had no choice, because of the following “masterclass”:

But neither did the director do justice to the audience who came to see the Russian. Kossakovsky is busy, as depicted in the doc Where Condors fly. The condor chose not to fly to Sheffield. The man labelled the “Rembrandt of documentary”, met us instead on the screen, via Skype. Irritatingly enough, the connection was repeatedly lost. The prize-winning director just told us that people don’t need film anymore, and that he himself should stop making them. But as he said when once he came back online, he cannot sleep, and has to do something, like films. Then the screen went black again. When he returned on his Barcelona line, his computer showed some accidental shots of the streets, ordinary people – I didn’t see any condors – before we lost him again.

I was wondering if he had had trouble with his computer or if he had really wanted to say something with these images. The experienced moderator, Peter Wintonick, looked desperate a couple of times. When a member of the audience asked the guy in Barcelona if he had a reason in Vivan Las Antipodas! for not doing close-ups of the big dead whale on the beach, Wintonick added “are you afraid of death, Victor?” – but – Then the screen went black again. As I’m leaving he is back, and tells us that since everyone can make a film today, a film must be more than a film if it really has to be made. Saiys the man who many times had to sacrifice a close friendships because of his art.

So what can around 100 seminars and workshops tell us about the documentary industry? When I speak to the British director, Henry Singer, he tells me, a Norwegian, that in his doc he had to show the dead bodies from the massacre at Utøya last summer. Asking if it easily becomes too speculative, his answer is that the world must know what the Norwegian Breivik did, since people easily forget – the murderer must be emotionally remembered for his misdeeds.

This seminar entitled “Self-shooters”, about directors doing the camera work themselves, made me ask him if he had really got there that fast himself…
Interestingly enough, this seminar centred on tips for filming in dangerous situations: for example, the use of small tape strips to mark the buttons your hand has to easily locate when your eye is on the lens. Like when Singer was outside a hospital in the West Bank in Israel, suddenly  actual shots, real bullets  came from all angles – the camera was ready in a second. As a self-shooter you must know your camera, during the “shooting” is too late. A piece of advice: shoot everything you feel is important, and deliberate the ethical choices later – like the terrifying dead bodies he came across in the depths of the Congo, which he later omitted in the edit.
Another tip: always bring a second camera, you never know when a trip could take longer than planned and you end up with a broken camera. Like when Singer walked for eight hours to meet a guerrilla group who waved their weapons around in front of the camera. One little hit, and your camera is broken.

This makes me think of the director of 5 Broken Cameras from the West Bank, who also participated in a seminar here in Sheffield. In his film, Israeli soldiers actually shot directly at his cameras.

The seminars end with a warning not to get too carried away by the gear – self-directing is much more important than self-shooting. And discussion with the DOP or assistant makes you aware you have to verbalise what you are going to do. The images must enlighten, not just illustrate.
The next seminar did not happen. A visit by a Chinese TV delegation was highly promoted since it was the first time such a thing has happened at an international doc festival. But the ten Chinese heads of important TV channels, stayed where they were, in China. The “official” reason we heard was the festival screening of the Chinese protest artist in the film Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry. So instead of the opportunity to get a billion people to see your film, the festival gave us BBC veteran Nick Fraser instead. His “Why Documentaries Matter”, from his short book on the topic [See next issue of DOX] tried to answer the question. Yes, documentary as a genre matters because it is “constantly surprising, a democratic expression for all, and underestimated as an art form.” Showing historical examples from Max Ophuls, Pennebaker, Werner Herzog, Ian Palmer, Errol Morris, Andrew Rossi and Harry Freeland his eyebrows told us how well he thought of  them.
The veteran Fraser is the man with the aristocratic British accent known for scaring young filmmakers in the pitching forums with phrases like “I don’t see what this film is about, where is the story?” or “I am absolutely not interested.” This man, who is in charge of the BBC’s Storyville slot, declares in the absence of the Chinese this afternoon, that the BBC’s main task is to challenge with difficult questions – and stop people from becoming stupid.

The Sheffield festival co-runs the seminars with the organisation Documentary Campus – and focused mainly on themes such as how to finance, how to distribute and how to be an activist.

One seminar addressed female producers, but the simultaneous celebration of the Woman Make Movies organisation made me think it was not topic-oriented enough. “Secrets of Successful Producers: Lessons for Women and Other Filmmakers” disclosed very few secrets. This was confirmed by the woman beside me who whispered complaints while pointing at her empty notebook.
Another seminar/debate between Arabic filmmakers was really interesting. The Arab Spring, or what many now call the Arab Winter, created a lot of filmmakers and film activists. This was confirmed by the head of documentary at Al-Jazeera, Mostafa Nagy. He underlines the importance of the TV-channel for the development of documentarists in the region. A region of 300 million people, they show 2600 hours of docs and factual programmes per year. He also informs us about how docs have changed from pleasant and beautiful, to become critical. When I ask about the role of foreign directors coming to the region, one answer was illuminating: Nadim Mishlavi from Lebanon mentions the fiction Syriana (the one with George Clooney) as an example – you don’t use Sunny Muslim music when the action is played out in a Shia-dominated territory! A local filmmaker would never have done that.
Since I am making films in the region, I ask how they think Arabs would like English-speaking Arabs – which is required if you want a global or American audience. No problem answers the man from Al-Jazeera, we just dub it…
We leave the seminar with the understanding that Arabs are 22 nations and groups. So making a film about the “Arab” is like making a film about the “European”. Nobody does that.

Before leaving, after a week in Sheffield, I attend the seminar “Dying to tell the Story”, where the panellists emphasise how ill-prepared a lot of directors are for filming in dangerous areas or war zones. They die. With a little first-aid knowledge many could have been saved. Several have died as self-shooters the last years. For example, Tom Hetherington died in Libya, and his collaborator, Sebastian Junger, has now created what is being called a “Safety White Paper”.

In the corner after the debate, I talk with the British photographer Giles Duley2 who now has an artificial arm and metal legs. He stepped on a landmine in Afghanistan when he was following a US military patrol. That patrol saved his life, flew him out in one of their helicopters. But I have seldom seen such commitment, such a good disposition. He is soon ready to travel again, to shoot more. Obviously this is what gives his life meaning – being out there, behind the camera, facing all kinds of destinies, on missions where the risk is high. A self-shooter.
A lot more exciting than being at a festival, I presume.

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