Wim Wenders

There was a record attendance at the 8th Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC) in Byron Bay, held from 17 to 20 February. Eight hundred delegates, predominately practising and aspiring independent documentary makers and those who study the craft, attended the four-day talkfest and marketplace.

This ‘strength in numbers’ certainly edged the conference, largely organised by volunteers, closer to financial success during a difficult corporate sponsorship climate – corporate dollars have been an essential part of the funding recipe that has traditionally sustained staging the event. Herein, of course, lies the challenge facing the industry today – the dichotomy between corporate dollars and the drive to make and watch documentary programs. Catherine Marciniak, AIDC 2003 Conference Director, doesn’t mince words:

I think that when there’s talk of people not being interested in watching documentaries, it’s a lie. While doing research for the conference, I found that there are so many people reporting an increase in audiences for documentaries and I think that, when the ABC and SBS market their documentaries and when they’re in time slots that work for people, they always get good audiences. SBS recently reported a 47% increase in their documentary audiences. Real Life in Films report a 240% increase in audiences. Melbourne and Sydney film festivals both reported fantastic audiences to their documentary screenings.

So here we all were – a very large creative population all vying for a limited amount of money. It was a point not lost on many – and became the undercurrent that shaped much of the dialogue, in both the formal sessions and in the shade of the marquees during breaks (as one exhausted documentary maker, who had been pitching informally throughout the conference, said to me on the Wednesday: “I think I’ve got day three fever”.)

Mary Anne Reid, Policy Manager at the Film Finance Corporation, says the record attendance was evidence of the best and worst things about being a documentary filmmaker in Australia in 2003.

On the positive side, it pointed [to] what some see as a renewed interest in documentary worldwide (think of the mainstream success of Bowling for Columbine or Buena Vista Social Club) – an interest in the “actual” at a time when global brinkmanship threatens world peace, and when the feature films on offer are mostly Hollywood blockbusters with little connection to human realities.

A less appetising prospect for documentary makers attending the conference is that Australia is too small a market, and funding too limited, to support anything like the number of delegates present.

This certainly struck me, as someone who largely swam with the minions (almost literally, but more about that later). As a film industry journalist and aspiring documentary maker, I was definitely inspired, definitely learned more about the craft and definitely came away with a better understanding of what networks and commissioning editors want to buy.

When the Byron Bay documentary community bid for AIDC 2003, their vision for it – only the second in its 15-year history and to be held outside a capital city – was that it would result in significant changes in the industry and particularly for those who had a passion for making documentaries that “can make an intervention in public dialogue”.

There was a feeling that the scales had tipped too far in favour of the corporate world and that style over substance had gripped Australia’s largest screen industry forum. But that was then, and this is now. Arguably, the corporate world is today under siege and extravagant expense budgets – let alone program budgets – have been confined to history.

It was as a result of the first AIDC, held in 1987 at McLaren Vale, in the heart of South Australia’s wine growing region, that the ABC introduced its pre-sale commissioning system. The AIDC 2003 local management committee’s ambition was that this year’s conference would be a forum where similar landmark outcomes would be achieved for the industry. And Byron Bay, with its reputation for alternative living, would be the perfect setting to think ‘Outside the Frame’.

What did this undercurrent wash up? Firstly, I must say that it was a robust program of considerable substance. With up to four consecutive sessions every hour and something happening every evening, it was impossible to cover everything. Here is what I discovered.

Is it as bleak as we think?

Jane Roscoe

In the inaugural Robin Anderson ‘State of the Art’ keynote address on day two of the conference, Jane Roscoe argued that the documentary landscape is not as bleak as many would have us believe. Roscoe, who is head of the Centre for Screen Studies and Research at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS), titled her paper ‘Out of Collision’ and opened by saying that the dialogue between broadcasters and producers had often been unproductive.

Broadcasters talk about the need to review the way funding is used and distributed; there are complaints about the documentary sub-quota, and pressures from all sides to be bigger, broader and more popular. The independent producers complain that documentary is being marginalised, relegated to dead time slots with little or no promotion, squeezed into slots and strands and generally dumbed down.

Few feature documentaries are made for theatrical release and very few people can survive by making them alone. The focus always seems to be on the negative – a constant crisis. We need to ask – is the picture that bad? Are we worrying about the right things? Do we need to recognise that the world has changed and we need a new way of thinking about what documentary is, can be and should be?

While Roscoe acknowledged that “it is clear that documentary is financially marginalised”, she pointed out that she was talking to people who already knew this and moved on immediately. Her objective was to challenge assumptions, including:

• That the term ‘documentary’ can be conflated with ‘film’ – one is a craft, the other medium and we need to understand the difference

• That television is a second-rate medium – it has done more than we think to foster documentary culture in Australia

• That a slot out of the ratings season is a bad slot – all statistics must be examined within a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ and we need to remember that audiences do watch TV outside prime-time ratings periods

• That there is little of import to learn from the rise of factual entertainment (so-called Reality TV) – factual entertainment programs actually do inspire debate about serious issues and have also managed to produce an audience for factual programming that is large and young

• That slots and strands spell disaster for those who want to make one off documentaries of variable length in various styles – there are some very good reasons why we should support and foster slots, strands and the series format

• That documentary ‘must be’ a force of social change – this assumption and legacy is based, not on hard evidence, but on desire

• Audiences are languishing in their own apathy – instead, they are very responsive to political material if it is presented in such a way as to engage them both emotionally and intellectually.

She used figures from the Australian Broadcasting Authority, TV ratings and case studies to dissect each assumption and, after running out of time, concluded that “it is not just about the site of exhibition, we need to pay more attention to [the] aesthetics of each medium, and the relationship between texts and audiences”.

Roscoe’s view on factual entertainment programs offered some contrast to the views expressed the day before by Brian Winston (University of Lincoln) in his keynote address, during which he argued that they are flawed because they create artificial situations that don’t exist in the real world. But Roscoe’s conclusion was telling:

It goes without saying (almost) that we always want more funding for documentary, but, at a time when money will be siphoned off from public arts to keep the war machine afloat, we are unlikely to be getting much more in the near future. By necessity or design, it’s time to think more creatively about what we have got and how we use it. (The full paper is available on www.aidc.com.au.)

In the follow-up session, titled ‘For Love and Money’, Chris Hilton (Hilton Cordell) explained his company’s business model and argued that diversification – preparedness to do a little bit of everything, including corporate videos and even docu-soaps – was key to financial success. It was a packed session – with 11 speakers on the panel – and, suffice to say, there was inadequate time (or perhaps inclination) for all to respond to the issues Roscoe had raised or to discuss the merits of what each other had to contribute. Of note, Glenys Rowe (General Manager, SBS Independent) made some of the more radical suggestions, arguing that it was time to abandon pre-sale parity.

DVDs – the cash cow of the future?

In Roscoe’s introductory remarks, she said: “Technology has changed the way we produce, exhibit and distribute documentary works …Audiences have changed – fragmentation and changed patterns of viewing have led us to expect more from the form, and to want to be moved and entertained as well as intellectually engaged.”

The series of Re-Frame sessions were deliberately designed to explore other avenues to channel money into the documentary industry. But the rapid pace of technological change and changing viewing habits permeated all sessions. As Reid observed:

The most high profile international guest, director Wim Wenders, predicted a sea change in filmmaking in this decade, away from a preoccupation in the 90s with formulas and with form, towards a greater interest in content. This evolution could already be seen, he said, in the current polarisation of films into high-budget Hollywood blockbusters designed purely for entertainment (e.g. Chicago, Gangs of New York) and the growing number of low budget digital films concerned with exploring real human experience. Digital production and exhibition would facilitate the new era.

S.P.I.T - Squeegee Punks in Traffic

To this end, Peter Wintonick (Manufacturing Consent, Seeing Is BelievingHandicams, Human Rights and the News) inspired many with his examples of how responsibility for storytelling is shared between the raconteur and the audience. Fabien Piasecki attended in place of Patrice Barrat (Article Z), who had to fly at short notice to Iraq to record interviews with key people in Baghdad for delivery online at www.madmundo.tv. Later, Daniel Cross revealed himself as a documentary maker who had really managed to take a huge leap in this genre by handing over a camera to his subject – a risk that paid dividends when it resulted in the incredibly successful S.P.I.T – Squeegee Punks in Traffic. Cross has now all but abandoned the conventional documentary form and is instead concentrating on an innovative collaborative online documentary about homelessness, which he hopes will spill over to become a practical agent of social change. Chris Winter, Head of New Services at the ABC, previewed highlights of the interactive prototype of Walking with Beasts and it was captivating.

However, when all else was said and done, I was left with the impression that distributors, networks and some commercially astute documentary makers had already set their sites on the ‘great promise’ for the industry – DVD emerged as the medium de jour. There seemed considerable enthusiasm for this medium among the independent producers with whom I spoke, at least because it is seen by some as the natural prelude to, and training ground for, interactive television.

Having said this, independent new media producer Keren Flavell (Springtime Productions) and her lawyer Karen Goodwin (Marshall & Dent) dampened some of my enthusiasm when they explained the very difficult copyright terrain anyone working with less than six figures would have to negotiate to make documentaries for DVD distribution. Documentary makers not only have to get their heads around new technology; they have to establish digital rights’ management strategies at the outset.

So, back to the minions. There was some isolated criticism in the lead-up to the conference that it had little to offer new and emerging documentary makers. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Not only were ‘upcoming’ producers and directors amply sprinkled across the program, there was genuine recognition of the need to foster the next generation of documentary makers and very serious debate about the importance of initiatives that seek to match emerging makers with experienced producers. I hope that this will be one very beneficial outcome of AIDC 2003. Personally, I found that high profile speakers from both Australia and overseas were more than willing to listen, encourage and offer practical support to those who, like me, didn’t yet have the ‘right’ track record. There were offers from several successful, larger production companies to take emerging makers under their wings. There was interest from the networks in commissioning teams comprised of those with a mix of experience (and the AFC’s and ABC’s online documentary and broadband initiatives are encouraging this in a broader context, by bringing together new media producers and filmmakers).

Australian DocuMart

The Australian DocuMart, sponsored by the FFC, was held on the Wednesday and attracted an audience of more than 400. Seventeen pitches were made to a panel of 38 commissioning editors and sales people. There were 21 international panel members from the UK, Germany, Ireland, Canada, the USA, Japan, France, the Netherlands and New Zealand. Many of the pitches (by lunchtime, almost all, although enthusiasm dissolved somewhat after lunch) attracted genuine interest from the panel. David Curl’s pitch for Shadows of Uluru received interest from CBC, NHK, NDR, S4C and the BBC.

Earlier, Melanie Ansley walked away from lunch on the Tuesday with $20,000 development funding for her documentary, Shanghai Bride, following the ABC/CBC Pitch ‘n’ Punt.

That many Australian delegates were at AIDC 2003 to finance their projects comes as no surprise. This is why sessions that gave independent producers the opportunity to gain some insight into what commissioning editors want were so popular. So popular, in fact, that after day one the ‘Meet the Networks’ sessions were moved into the (much larger) lunch marquee.

Held outside the confines of a five-star hotel or conference centre and instead in a resort by the sea in Byron Bay, AIDC 2003 achieved its goal of creating a different flavour for what will probably now become an annual event (in a break with the biennial tradition, Perth is hosting the next AIDC in 2004). Huge marquees and portable air-conditioning units were trucked in for the week. After a long drought in Northern New South Wales, the heavens burst on days three and four of the conference. Fortunately the emergency truckload of straw that arrived just before lunch on the last day (very ‘Byron Bay’) meant no one was washed away.

Many delegates, however, were not prepared to let the energy of the conference evaporate into thin air. The plenary session on the last day was extended to allow for discussion and voting on a number of significant resolutions. At the time of writing, most of these resolutions have yet to be finalised. However, the day after the conference a media release was issued concerning delegates’ opposition to a war on Iraq. The resolution challenged the mainstream media to “oppose the distortion and manipulation of one of the first casualties of war – TRUTH”.

A second resolution called on the international media to resist the propaganda machinery of the US and its allies and to accurately report the views of those who dissent:

The Australian and international delegation insists that broadcasters look to independent sources to reflect the diversity of opinion.

We call on the media to always acknowledge when material comes from a pool source and when it is not genuinely and independently sourced.

We challenge the international media to hold the freedom of information as their greatest responsibility in the lead up to and in coverage of any possible conflict.

We as documentary makers ask the broadcasters to take responsibility for the role they play to create a peaceful and sustainable future.

Statements from a range of individual, high profile delegates supported the two resolutions, including independent documentary maker Molly Dineen (UK) who produced Tony Blair – A 10 Minute Portrait and The Lord’s Prayer. “As the filmmaker hired by Tony Blair to propagate his image prior to his election I feel betrayed and deeply saddened by his total lack of interest in the majority of public opinion,” she said. It was reassuring and inspiring to know that documentary makers were prepared to take a stand.

Disclosure: Kerry Sunderland was a member of the local management committee for AIDC 2003 and produced the AIDC web site.