Blogging Hot Docs: Will Online Platforms Save Documentary Film?
Filmmaker Paul Devlin worries about distribution, talks about story structure, and sees some good films.April 26th, 2008 | Paul Devlin
Film festivals can be a rollercoaster of highs and lows.
A premiere can be an ecstatic experience, but there’s a bit of a hangover the next day. Now what? Will the movie get in more festivals or is this it? Is this movie going to sell? Will we make our money back?
Similarly a documentary film festival celebrates and elevates our work. This is a common vibe here, one that I heard at the Conference Session “How Online Platforms Will Save Creative Documentary:”
Documentary filmmakers are amazing. You’re the only ones willing to take big risks and follow your story for years. You’re so dedicated in the face of adversity, so smart and talented. You surprise and delight us as you continue to innovate and to expand the boundaries of the form. Your work blows away most independent fiction; it’s much more accomplished, entertaining, and informative. Essential in fact, as it emerges as News of the World in a media landscape that has surrendered serious, in-depth reporting. Your work is the dissenting voice we need in the face of Media Conglomerates who seek to manipulate us through control of information. We admire you SO much.
But the realities of the current marketplace cut us off at the knees at the same time:
Oh and by the way, we can’t pay for your movies. Please keep doing them for free.
Panelists at the conference included reps from Joost.com, joiningthedots.tv and AOL True Stories, all of whom want to market films online. But they seem to acknowledge that nobody really knows what they’re doing at the moment, there is no money yet in this model, and it will be many years before economic viability is established. But somebody will figure it out... someday… definitely.
Joingthedots.tv based in the U.K. had the most effective pitch. I plan to take a look.
Here’s another high-and-low mod that emerged at the festival:
It is extraordinary how the low-end filmmaker has access to such high-end images. The technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace and non-fiction filmmakers now have compact, inexpensive cameras that can deliver the most spectacular HD imagery on the cheap, with editing software alongside that gives non-fiction films high production value unimaginable even a few years ago.
That happy thought is then followed by this one:
Oh and by the way, these films are going to be compressed and shown in low-resolution on audiences’ cell phones.
I was on a panel at Hot Docs that was part of the daily “Coffee Talk” series. Our topic was “Big Story, Big Film: How To Tell a Bigger Story from a Big Story or Big Subject” Other filmmakers on the panel included Mette Heide, producer of Milosevic on Trial, Patrick Reed of Triage: Dr. James Orbinski’s Humanitarian Dilemma, and John Walker of Passage. The panel was refreshing because the focus was more on the craft and the challenges of making the films, rather than the financing, which too often seems to dominate discussion. How we structure these films was of big interest to the audience, and the panelists seemed to agree that taking cues from classic fictional narrative structure was helpful with big-scope material.
Fictional elements are most important to John Walker’s Passage, which presents a very bold and unusual mixture of fiction in a documentary. The story seeks to set straight the history of who really discovered the Northwest Passage. The director juxtaposes costume drama set pieces with the discussions in rehearsal of the historical characters motivations, with heated debates between British and Inuit experts on the accuracy of historical accounts. The lead actor follows the Arctic path of the real explorers, killing caribou along the way, and we even get an official apology to the Inuit nation from the great, great grandson of Charles Dickens. When I saw the film to a more-than-sold-out house, I was struck by how I reacted so different emotionally to the fiction and factual elements
When the panel discussion turned to editing, we learned that the Milosevic on Trial had 2,000 hours of footage and took about a year to edit. And I thought I had a lot with 200 hours! BLAST! took almost a year as well, and I think that news shook up the audience a bit. They asked how that kind of lengthy schedule could be avoided, and Mette and I agreed that we did not think it could. Just watching through the footage can take months, and you have to earn the ability to tell the story with a big investment in absorbing the material.
John contradicted us though and said Passage only took four months to edit. Of course he acknowledges that the fictional elements meant there was much less footage. He also revealed another reason: When his editor estimated that it would take 9 months, John called him a “baby” and insisted it get done in four. So, that’s the answer to cutting down the edit schedule: Call you editor names. The audience got a laugh out of that.
I stopped in to catch Wild Blue Yonder, Celia Maysles’ search for her father, acclaimed documentarian David Maysles. I enjoyed the movie and it seems to represent a genre that is emerging of personal video diaries that are elevated from home movie status, with accomplished editing, effective use of music and intelligent structure. It was very personal, and at times I felt like a voyeur in a family spat that was none of my business, as Al Maysles denies his niece access to the David Maysles’ films. Clearly talent runs in that family.
I also had a chance to see Second Skin which is a truly fascinating look at the gaming culture, most notably those obsessed, even addicted to World of Warcraft. The movie cleverly interweaves many threads, including a couple meeting physically for the first time after establishing a relationship in a game, a frat-house style bunch of guys living together only for gaming, and a man on the verge of suicide as a result of his addiction. The juxtaposition of the real life characters with their animated game personas is dazzling and the information about gaming is revelatory, including “gold farms,” sweat-shop style operations in China, where laborers rack up game points to be sold to gamers in the U.S.
It is an impressive movie, but I noticed that there was no funding information on the credits. I spoke to the director Juan Carlos Pineiro after the film and he told me that they were able to establish Fair Use for all the gaming graphics in the movie! Then he said that he was not able to raise funds to get it produced, and it is self-financed. This is not too surprising since he is a filmmaker in the United States, where public arts funding is minimal. What could I do, but shake his hand? I did the same on my first film. And my second.
We are compelled to do it, and as long as talented filmmakers like Juan Carlos Pineiro continue to emerge and to make these sacrifices, the industry may never find it necessary to pay us properly for our work.
We admire you SO much. Your work is amazing. Please continue to do it for free.
This model is unsustainable. We’ll need to work together to develop alternatives or this dynamic moment for the documentary form may be fleeting.
Watch the trailer for Celia Maysles' Wild Blue Yonder.
Watch the trailer for Juan Carlos Pineiro's Second Skin.
Watch the trailer for John Walker's Passage.
Watch the trailer for Paul Devlin's BLAST!.
Read Paul Devlin's posting on his film's world premiere in Toronto.
Read Devlin's posting on his executive producer, Nick Fraser of BBC's Storyville.
Read Devlin's posting on the opening day at Hot Docs.
Visit the Hot Docs website.
Visit the BLAST! website.
Read about the process of making the film BLAST! at Artistshare.com.
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