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Brief Doc Poll: 3 Questions on Trends, Funding and Reinvention

Documentary expert Sean Farnel, YLE commissioning editor Iikka Vehkalahti and Jakob Høgel of the Danish Film Institute offer their take on some of the questions currently debated by documentary filmmakers and professionals alike.


Canadian documentary expert and former director of programing at Hot Docs Sean Farnel, commissioning editor for Finland's YLE Iikka Vehkalahti, and expert of the Danish Film Institute Jakob Høgel were among the guests of IDF's Industry Programme (October 2011, Jihlava).  


1/ Changes in funding, distribution and programming have also transformed the role of producers and directors. A film no longer has to be a unique work with only two length formats, and can be readily modified for various platforms; from the get-go, director and producer work with the film's potential for crowd funding and targeted promotion in a specific niche. How should film schools respond to these shifts? How should production and directing departments work together in light of these shifts?

Sean Farnel: The role of film schools is to teach the fundamental grammar of cinema, modes of expressing that grammar, and the technical means to achieve this expression. My belief is that a classical education in cinema is the most important function of film schools. Individual students can pursue market education elsewhere, or perhaps separate programmes for producers should be more developed in the context of film schools (maybe in partnership with Business and Marketing programmes). Producing and directing are fundamentally different functions, with distinct skills. They should not be blended at film school. Too many directors are forced into being producers, and too many producers into being directors. For most people, wearing these two hats at the same time is impossible.¨

Iikka Vehkalahti: It is to return to the most fundamental question of storytelling. What is the story? What do we understand by it? And only after understanding of what the story is, shift to the question: what is the directing and production platform for the story? I have found out in my current post as a visting professor at Tampere University that, ideally, this means a very fruitful dialogue between film, radio, print media, photography and even theatre. But at the same time, it has to be stressed that this new kind of production process (where different platforms will have different productions) should not compromise uniqueness, high quality and artistic ambitions.

Jakob Hogel: Directors will increasingly become their own producers and producers will have to find new relevance vis-à-vis directors by broadening their scope into non-film/TV arenas of producing and financing.


2/ Recently, two distinct types of documentary production, funding and form have been shaping up. On the one hand, there are documentary features supported by film funds and headed for festivals and theatrical release. On the other hand, we have non-fiction programming that includes one-hour creative docs and all new derivative forms, and seeks funding at pitching forums. The gap between the two types is getting bigger as more documentaries are released in cinemas and screened even at feature film festivals, and with the impact of the internet and new distribution models. What are some of the (negative) effects of these shifts?

Sean Farnel: Festivals with markets/forums should, as their primary responsibility, create the economic conditions necessary to sustain the kind of programming which their festival presents, which for most festivals is one type of creative documentary or another. CPH:DOX does this, as does IDFA's Jan Vrijman Fund, but most do not, even if they think they do. Hence, this gap. Let markets like MIPDOC, AFM, etc. feed the broader needs of commercial, or even public, broadcasting. The survival of the feature-length creative documentary depends on festivals leveraging all of their resources and alliances toward this one goal, sustaining creative documentary...or else soon they will find themselves with diminished festival programmes.

Iikka Vehkalahti: If everything goes badly there will be serious cuts in the funding of documentary films by public broadcasters and at the same time more low quality consumption docs for the television. If it goes well it means deeper understanding that the silver screen is quite a different platform than television. So there will be more great festival films and step by step also feature docs doing quite well in cinemas. At the same time, there will be really good, strong docs done for the television as the first platform. And, of course, there will be films, which will function everywhere (just like now Inside Job on YLE, great to see it at festivals as well).

Jakob Høgel: The only negative effect is that it will be more difficult to find financing for cinema docs. The upside is that we will get more distinct films and move away from the one-film-fits-all approach that has polluted documentary in the last 10 years.


3/ What strikes you as the most positive or negative regarding current developments in documentary filmmaking?

Sean Farnel: The most positive development is the incredible wealth of creative vision, commitment and energies among the current generation of nonfiction filmmakers. The most negative development is that these same filmmakers are at the very bottom of the economic food chain within the documentary industry.

Iikka Vehkalahti: Most positive: how the documentary culture is becoming stronger and stronger outside of Europe and the U.S. Most negative: too many predictable documentaries without visual expressiveness.

Jakob Høgel: Docs are and have always been liable and dependent on political, technological and artistic currents. Documentary as a whole is stronger than ever, but has to redefine itself especially in relation to television.


This poll was first published in October 2011 in IDF's Industry Reel #1, #2 and #3.

Related Articles:
Revolution in Motion: Notes on the Future of Documentary Production