In the past, my father would make up fairytales for me while driving, to pass the time on the endless journey full of turns and mountains, from Athens to Galaxidi (Delphi municipality). The fairytale was made for me only: I suggested the ingredients (a fox, a forest, night time, etc.); the budget was zero. It was a story in which he interweaved many elements from everyday life – all that he was concerned with, and all that he wanted to tell me.
Today, when I’m not making stories myself, I seek them out by reading or going to festivals and watching documentaries. I believe that the documentary is a new (or perhaps old) kind of independent journalism (in a very broad sense), and that festivals and their selections are a place for public debate, similar to the one created by news. Meanwhile, I’ve established a festival addressed to a very demanding audience – children and young people, to familiarise them with the creative documentary and to foster media literacy, highlighting issues and encouraging public debate with educational programmes and activities for an audience in the making.
«I imagine a festival as a spaceship, an ark full of images and stories from one planet – that of the filmmaker, landing on another – our own.»
In this context, I have attended many festivals over the last 11 years, and I always wonder: What more can a festival be? What other needs can it fulfil? Why do documentary festivals keep growing and expanding their audiences?
I regard a festival as a spaceship, an ark full of images and stories from one planet – that of the filmmaker, landing on another – our own. A place to communicate, to meet. And perhaps to change something. When I was six years old, my parents sent me to a summer school in Germany, where I spent a month interacting with children from all over the world, speaking German (though I picked up quite a bit of Italian along the way). I returned there for seven summers, up to age 13. The colourful world (the ‘industry’ people) gathering at documentary festivals felt intimately familiar to me; I knew the code – it was just like the world of my childhood.
Documentaries as complex newsroom
Yet festivals are much more than a meeting point. Why do we – professionals and public alike – gather at festivals? To belong, to watch, to be informed, to do business, to learn, to change, to be where the different gazes on the world in which we live are gathered. Independent, varied, diverse gazes. A wealth of alternative information, beyond the news and ‘consumer’ journalism, bound to the fleeting reality of breaking TV news, for which I worked for ten years, where news ceases to be new the moment you announce it. The documentary takes its time, looking at things from a distance, or from a different angle. That’s why documentary festivals serve – in my opinion – as a huge, complex newsroom. I brought my journalistic experience to bear there. Yet, if this is so, what do they reveal about the Earth to someone unfamiliar with it? What do they convey? What are the issues, and, perhaps, the solutions on the basis of what the films show? Problem-solving was not the main goal at any of the festivals I attended over the years, yet there were many debates, panels and masterclasses, which are a source of knowledge and inspiration. There were also some films (an ever-increasing number) whose screenings run parallel to curated campaign promoting impact, outreach, and audience development.
«What if my father’s storytelling could now be augmented automagically in real time, retrieving and arranging relevant images from the web that I’m known to like?»
Science as a topic is always current in documentaries. As is art and technology, although it’s yet to be discovered, or to be recognised as more than just popularised technology, or simply a better version of educational television. At this year’s CPH DOX festival in Copenhagen, there was a special pitching forum on science (which sold out); in Halle (north-eastern Germany), SILBERSALZ introduced a similar science festival for the first time in 2018 as part of a Europe-wide Documentary Campus, and a documentary developing workshop in sessions over one year.
Science for documentaries, but science also within them – as in everything. And how is the documentary business changing and adapting to the use of AI? If computer software is able to generate stories, what changes are imminent in documentary-making and viewing? How are festivals preparing for this? There will be films, but who is going to be making them? There will be reviews, but who will be writing them? There will be ticketing, but what will be the shape of it? There will be subtitling, but who will be translating? Are new kinds and forms of tributes and surveys required? This is the era of Apple’s facial recognition phone, where AI can search for and select photographs on specific subjects and translate to other languages, while augmented reality can superimpose any digital image in a live view of our surroundings. The new generation of sensors will be able to detect feelings through our eyes.
What if my father’s storytelling could now be augmented with images automagically in real time, retrieving and arranging relevant images from the web that I’m known to like? Further to that, if in the future our thoughts can be turned into tweets, why not turn a dream or a fantasy into a scene, and several scenes into a film? Consider the fact that autonomous selfie drones – able to follow specific persons – are already in the market: Might that be the next way for us to ‘follow’ our characters (with or without a permit)? Would that change the face of cinema, documentary and storytelling forever? What about the ethical repercussions? What is expected of a documentary festival in this context?
Why make documentaries?
The Washington Post introduced Heliograf with a twofold goal: To grow its audience. Rather than target a large audience with a small number of stories written by humans, Heliograf can target very small audiences with a huge number of automated stories covering specialised (niche) or local news. The machine has the ability to not only check facts, but to tell stories based on what is important or understandable to a specific audience. Now consider this process in the context of the documentary-making industry, which is so closely related, and keep the ‘humanised’ machine and human connection. Are these perhaps some of the films of the future? How can the big data produced by festivals and markets be harnessed? Are they recorded to start with? Are they evaluated, and how? What are the results, in addition to viewers, tickets and budget? Who drafts a synthetic report after each festival? What would such evaluation mean for future festivals? How to scale a festival by downscaling?
How to popularise the latest developments in the time of AI/machine learning? Another issue in this ever-developing documentary-making industry is that funds keep shrinking. Another neglected issue (by documentary festivals and involved parties) at a time when funds for documentaries become scarce, is films which are produced but never find their way to the public.
Taking IDFA 2018 as an example, I realise how indispensable it is to have a commanding overview of what the festival has to offer in order to create your own, personalised agenda. If we aspire to move beyond the social-media paradigm, then our programming cannot be drafted by a Debater (a machine); a whole different approach is needed, and what might that be?