DOX’s Willemien Sanders reports from an 18-month workshop. This is the first of three reports from the Amsterdam-based Binger Filmlab

Willemien Sanders
Dr. Willemien Sanders, lecturer, department of media and culture studies, Utrecht University.

The Amsterdam-based Binger Filmlab 1) Named after Dutch film pioneer Maurits Binger, 1868-1923 has been organising post-academic training and education for feature film makers since 1996. Recently it launched two initiatives aimed at documentary filmmakers: Docu Coach (individual coaching on demand) and Doc Lab, an 18-month workshop aimed at developing documentary projects from start to finish.

Selection criteria included having a producer onboard and preferably some funding in place, an idea with a strong narrative drive and an innovative style as well as cultural and/or social relevance. In the end, nine out of thirty projects were selected and the first meetings and workshops, aimed at developing the project, took place last June. DOX was there:

“I was hitting a wall, until I realized I was in the wrong place.”

Christy Galrand, Pietra Brettkelly and Jasmina Fekovic are three of the nine participants. Christy (1968, Canada) has made comedies, drama and documentaries. She summarizes her wish to participate as “trying to find a tribe”.

Canadian filmmakers form a small community but everyone is struggling. Christy: “On my travels, I noticed that there is a tightly knit community of people beyond competition. I saw films from Denmark, Norway, and Holland, and wondered: How have these been funded? I was hitting a wall, until I realized I was in the wrong place.” Now she’s back in training to raise the bar. Her project is called Racing Bastards and is on birdsong competitors in Guyana.

Pietra Brettkelly

Jasmina (1976, the Netherlands) is a film academy-trained documentary filmmaker and postgraduate in the visual arts. Documentary is her perspective, which she uses for all her activities in the arts. Jasmina: “I wanted to go back to documentary filmmaking for my current project, which I really want to approach as an artist. I have done some workshops here. Fiction film directors I know who have followed training here at the Binger have learned from those and have grown, even though they were already quite accomplished. So it seemed the right place.” Jasmina’ project is on art collectors and collectormania.

Pietra (1965, New Zealand) has been making documentaries for 16 years, during which she worked with just about every genre and format, and was at a point in her life where her options were to either leave the documentary world altogether or get inspired: “I took a 1000 km walk in Spain and decided to opt for the latter and get some education. I actually applied with another project but got so inspired that I am developing two now, though only one within the framework of Binger. Also, I was inspired by the group of people involved, loving how their http://blog.s106.com Dutch filmmaker and Doc Lab participant Balster van Duijn will keep a blog on his experiences.  His project focuses on his efforts to restore his relationship with his estranged father, who once asked him: “How long do you plan to stay angry with me?” approach to documentary is quite different to mine.” Pietra’s film is on a smart and ambitious but young Maori who wants to go to Yale but needs his father as a chaperone.

Jasmina Fekovic
Jasmina Fekovic

So how about their expectations? Pietra: “I hope to get challenged in other forms of storytelling, forms I cannot think of myself now.” Jasmina hopes to be able to reflect on new ways of making documentaries: “As a director I don’t want to hide behind my subject, but find a more personal approach in interacting with my main characters.” Christy hopes Binger will help her get her film out properly: “How do I communicate with the industry properly?”

In June, the development workshops of the 18-month course took place. Dutch VPRO television commissioning editor Barbara Truyen kicked off with a meeting on the do’s and don’ts of applying for funding from broadcasters and other sources. She confronted the Binger participants with their audiences and with what commissioning editors want to read in a 2-page proposal. “Sobering”, Christy calls it: “She gave us a clear sense of what is required to get it past the default ‘no’ towards a ‘maybe’.” Jasmina adds: “She was quite hard on some people about their treatments and this really woke us up. The atmosphere at Binger is very loving, but this is not always the fact in the documentary business. You have to be able to deal with that.”

Secondly, New York-based filmmaker Jennifer Fox gave a workshop on presence instead of performance in front of the camera and the role of the filmmaker in achieving this.

Dutch documentary filmmaker John Appel was taken on to help find an adequate style for each specific project and help develop the narrative. Pietra: “John’s work preceded him. John focused on the drama in a film and, personally, he helped me relax about the fact that not all projects I work on need to be driven by the level of drama. Drama in documentary films can be subtle, a shift in the relationships, scenery or situations.” Christy adds: “dramatic moments can occur in the smallest increments, in a shift in a character’s emotions, or a registering of something changing in their inner life.”

Fox, Appel and formere commission editor at Danish Film Institute, Michael HaslundChristensen, also act as personal advisors on the nine projects. Each Doc Lab participant had one of them assigned to her/his project for continuing advice and coaching. Apart from these tutors, the group experience is vitally important for these three participants. The idea is not to teach filmmakers how to make their films, but to offer them a range of ideas and possibilities, with which they can experiment and from which they can pick what suits them – or their project – best. Part of the Doc Lab set-up is to create an atmosphere of trust, intimacy and support within the group, a safe environment where filmmakers can experiment, test new ideas and find inspiration: a place for sparring. As Christy says: “During the first few days, we were encouraged to form bonds on a personal level, and to try and understand what life experiences have brought us all to documentary filmmaking. This has resulted in a rare experience for workshops – the absence of competition and criticism, replaced by a strong feeling of protection and support for other filmmakers and their projects.”

Pietra says: “It all seems very carefully curated, Binger seems protective of the atmosphere. We all had to do personal presentations: ‘Why are you making films? Why this film? Why through film?’  Immediately everyone becomes very vulnerable, but that also creates trust. Everyone is tough but gentle, considerate of where people are coming from. It will ensure that whatever crazy or wild moves I make in the production of my film, I will never feel embarrassed in bringing them up and discussing them with this group.”

Christy Galrand
Christy Galrand

However, getting all this input from experienced professionals as well as from fellow Doc Lab participants, how will they manage to balance the input they get from the professionals and their colleagues with their own (original) ideas? How will they make sure it will still be their project?

Christy: “The fear of losing the uniqueness of your own project to the influence of ‘masters’ and other filmmakers’ ideas occurs consistently in filmmaking, whether its documentary or drama. The strength of a film depends on how a director makes the most of collaboration without letting it get in the way of a singular voice telling one story. You’re always pulled in many directions, your confidence is put to the test, and you question your own creativity and judgement against the experience of others. If anything, I think the Binger actually provides us with the maturity, and trust, to deal with that kind of pressure”.

Pietra agrees that the length of the course and returning home and to the films will create the distance she needs. Jasmina adds: “It is more about creating time and space to reflect on your own ideas with other filmmakers.”


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References   [ + ]

1.  Named after Dutch film pioneer Maurits Binger, 1868-1923