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DOCUMENTARY FILM AND TOTALLY DIFFERENT TELEVISION

Vit Janecek’s interview with Thierry Garrel, chief producer of documentary films at the French-German cultural channel ARTE, who took part in the Documentary Film Symposium „Documentary at it’s Best“ held in Prague in September 2004 organized by Discovery Campus Masterschool and Institute of Documentary Film, Prague.


Vit Janecek’s interview with Thierry Garrel, chief producer of documentary films at the French-German cultural channel ARTE, who took part in the Documentary Film Symposium „Documentary at it’s Best“ held in Prague in September 2004 organized by Discovery Campus Masterschool and Institute of Documentary Film, Prague.


Alongside Denmark, France is renowned for its elaborate system of funding for the audiovisual sector, extending even to the field of education. Could you describe this system from the perspective of your experience at the Institute National Audiovisuel (INA) and your role in the formation of ARTE?

During the years 1975-1986, when I worked at INA, there emerged a kind of professional structure for independent documentary film, for what we can call the creative documentary. Part of this structure was the INA, which had a special commission for the support of creative and exploratory programs, where I was responsible for the field of documentary film. Apart from that, there was established at the National Center for Cinematography (CNC, Centre National du Cinema) a fund for creative activities, which selectively allocated grants and subsidies. In 1986 the first commercial television channel began broadcasting and simultaneously the SEPT, the Societe d'Edition de Programmes de Television (Society for the Broadcast of Television Programs) was created as a cultural channel with a wider European scope. Beyond that, the Fund for the Support of Producing Programs (COSIP, Compte de Soutien aux Industries de Programme) was established within the framework of the CNC. It was therefore an entire philosophy of supporting creative audiovisual work, based on a sophisticated system, on a firmly set percentage tax on the total turnover of television stations – both public and private-owned – that was put aside into a special fund under the care of the Centre National du Cinema. From this fund television producers could draw funds for documentary work. When their film was eventually aired, it then contributed its share back into this fund. This was a very effective system for the support of new programs, one that helped me considerably by creating a network of independent producers, which, as it would eventually turn out, was crucial for the  documentary field. Before then, i.e. before the establishment of SEPT, independent documentary work featured on television only very sporadically; while creative documentary films were broadcast from time to time on France 2 and France 3, virtually the only channels that featured any documentary work, but around the beginning of 1984 this friendly model was cancelled, and for almost the following three years not a single independent documentary film appeared on French TV.

At the same time, the documentary work produced within the individual stations was increasingly more sterile and relied on a group of historically established authors, if I can call them that, whose work did not really evolve very much. So, in 1986 SEPT was established, as part of the project out of which the ARTE channel would eventually emerge, and within the framework of which my task was to support documentary work from the prospective of broadcast television, which commenced in 1989. In the course of those three years we were thus creating the conditions for the emergence of independent production, supporting in particular smaller units within production companies that were willing to search for a new outlook on the whole scope of human knowledge and cultural life through the medium of documentary. It was an ambitious project, which in its first years already produced documentaries of a total of 180 hours in length, of which I bought everything, down to the last minute. The films that were made drew subject matter from the most varied fields - art, culture, public life - and they gradually found new channels for increased distribution, on satellite broadcasting, for instance, right from its beginnings, so that the public began to rediscover documentary work, which then lead to other television channels opening up to the documentary, and again starting to practice real documentary dramaturgy, including the production of feature length documentaries. Ninety minute documentary films would appear even during prime time, although most frequently on ARTE. Nevertheless, we witnessed even in the case of other stations some degree of following, of contagion of this model.

ARTE is in all respects the antithesis of a commercial television channel, but I would still ask: did its existence and activity in France and Germany not also have a negative effect on other public channels, in the sense that the public channels would start rejecting the more demanding projects and simply referring them to ARTE, saying that it was there for that kind of work?

When the SEPT channel came into being, this view was commonly held among critics of the whole project, who tried to show that this was exactly the rationale that French TV stations would use as an alibi for getting rid of cultural and creative programming. But eventually the very opposite happened, at least in the field of documentary: as a result of support from ARTE, the quality of documentary production went up, and the public started to appreciate it more and to demand it, which did not go unnoticed by other stations, as they didn’t want to be left behind. At the outset, it really was like you said - when someone came up with an idea for an independent documentary or feature project, everyone would say, that isn’t what we do, that’s what SEPT is for, that’s where you should go. But gradually we started to bring into effect the so-called Parmentier theory. As you may or may not know, Parmentier introduced potato cultivation into Europe, sometime under Louis XIV, but according to legend, people didn’t trust the potato bulbs, and didn’t want to eat them. Parmentier therefore planted the potato in gardens belonging to the king, surrounded with a fence in Versailles, and had soldiers guard them day and night. And, lo and behold, people started to steal the potatoes at night, and, three hundred years later the whole western world eats potatoes, in all variety of ways. So we adopted similar tactics for the documentary film, which we protected carefully, thus enticing others. This tactic bore fruit, aside from other things due to a certain competetiveness between television stations, and this had salutary effects for us, since it partially removed a great burden from us. At the outset we represented the only open door, and were lords presiding over the life or death of many projects, and to have to decide to give a green light to one film at the expense of  ten others, as often happened, was not a pleasant experience. That’s why we were very happy with the situation whereupon other doors started to open for independent work, one by one.

In a certain period we strategically took into account that other channels would steal our projects, but at the same time this meant that we could incite them to independent activity of their own. Moreover, in 1997 the science channel France 5 was launched, which presented a lot of documentary work. This situation lead to the forming of new production companies. At the same time cable television started to slowly take off, although compared to Germany this process was really very slow, but even here a considerable demand for documentary work emerged. So all of a sudden there was a great boom in the documentary genre, which was still supported by the COSIP fund, which also brought some negative consequences, since the fund had only limited means, that now had to be divided between far more applicants. So this system of financing went into a crisis, and then underwent certain reforms, and will probably go through even more reform, but it still exists, and we should keep in mind that in its day it produced some outstanding results. 

Could you summarize briefly the basic principles and innovations with which ARTE started out, and also try to define the most outstanding problems?

 From the beginning it was an effort to revive television broadcasting, which in France in the Eighties had but one single form, one program, which almost entirely neglected what used to be called “humanites”, the humanities. The foundation of SEPT led first of all to the rethinking of the programming scheme: immediately after the channel was founded, a programming committee was established, in which renowned intellectuals were active, such as Pierre Bourdieu, musicians such as Pierre Boulez, historians such as Georges Dubois, who was its chair. The vice-chair was Michel Guy, who directed the Festival d'Automne, also a great figure in the world of culture, and active in the committee were also for instance the film producer producer Anatole Dauman, or the famous anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. In short, a whole range of distinguished personalities, a dignified representation of French intellectual and cultural circles. Upon such a foundation we could create a very ambitious program that attempted to redefine public television, which was ailing and under attack from the commercial channels. For instance, in the sphere of cultural programs, or programs about science and knowledge, broadcasting at the time was extremely general and superficial, virtually devoid of any message. We therefore had to revise the broad focus of these programs, and enhance their comprehensibility.

We developed, for instance, a series called Palette, where each thirty minute episode was devoted to a single painting, which meant that we had to provide a highly specialized interpretation by the foremost world experts in the given subject, and at the same time we had to apply an innovative shooting technique. This demanding approach went against the common vulgarization of knowledge, and its high quality won great response from the viewers. With similar programs, we made our point that intelligence and television broadcasting were not inevitably mutually exclusive, and that an intelligent spectacle could be accessible even to viewers who didn’t have a background in culture. We tried to approach our audience from the top, rather than from the bottom, and not to underestimate their capacities. In the sphere of public life in broadcasting of that time, any contact with reality was almost completely marginalized, with the exception of news programs, which gave a rather standardized, fragmentary and curtailed image of reality, especially through reportage - relying on the power of the word – i.e. commentary - and through the power of images – i.e. sensational images. The real life of our country was being captured in a sort of standardized way, in which all sociological, economical, and political, as well as human, aspects were lost - they were in fact systematically suppressed. |We tried to go against this trend by emphasizing documentary work derived from direct cinema, but which simultaneously captured the characters from within.

At the same time, we were aware that viewers increasingly demanded programs about events taking place near their homes, in the environment they lived, alongside news of worldwide interest, of course. Our approach in SEPT was universalist from the start, meaning that each viewer and citizen needs to relate to the world not only through the superficial, clip-like form of TV news, but also through gaining insight into the great diversity of the world he or she lives in. Our aim was therefore to implement a diversity in the programs and spheres we focused on, while at the same time transforming the methods and forms of production, so as to liberate television work from stereotypes in the use of language and image.   

You are among other things a sociologist; could you define the intellectual and cultural background of an institution like ARTE from a sociological-biographical point of view? What is the cultural and intellectual context that forms the roots of the people – including you – who create the profile of this channel?

I did not actually study sociology formally, but I got involved in sociology instead out of my own interest. Although I did spend a year and a half at university, I was so bored there that I soon quit again; so I am a complete autodidact. The sociology of ARTE, nonetheless, is narrowly tied to that of SEPT, in the programming committee of which there were right from the start only people from the spehre of culture, who either like me had experience working in television, or were involved in the arts, theatre, literature or film. All of them, however, had the ability to go to the edge in their field, which gave their common work in SEPT a great dynamism, although at the beginning they were a group of just twenty-five people, which is not a lot. Eventually we created a network of about two hundred personalities, which is negligible in comparison with the initial phase of television stations of the first generation, which had thousands of people working at them, or even second generation channels such as France 2, with their vast  editorial staff, extensive news staff, and so on. From this perspective, SEPT was without doubt a third generation TV channel. After that, based on an Franco-German agreement, ARTE was created, and from the German side the staff came from already existing television stations. So it was a little different system in terms of working, and not as autonomous as in France. From the point of view of sociology, therefore, the professional structure of the German employees is different from that of the French. 

French cinematography and criticism were among the first who articulated and appreciated the value of style in cinema. The sixties, however, are very much different from the present – producing a film is considerably easier today, and the number of films which are made far greater. In history a situation has reocurred where the beauty of speech is valued above its meaning, i.e. when style predominated over content.  In documentary film, I consider this tendency rather problematic. You may not agree with me, but for me this tendency is exemplified in the British documentary screened yeasterday, This is a True Story. In what way does ARTE – where precision of style is a condition that goes without saying – provide against making films which are brilliant but futile exercises in style?

Firstly, I believe that form and content are one and the same. They represent what we in France call handwriting (ecriture). There is no difference between them. There is not content on one side, and its carrier or mover, i.e. language on the other. Language is the thing itself, and if we forget this in documentary, we may start to believe that there are well-established recipes, patterns or templates along which we can work, or even formulas and stereotypes that can be repeated, by just changing the subject matter of the film. The true recipe, however, for documentary work lies in the invention each time of a new way of writing, a new ecriture. On the other hand it is true, for instance, that in yesterday’s film which you cited the search for expression was too formal, too self-enclosed, and the human or sociological content then becomes neglectable. When we select individual projects and discuss them with their authors and producers, we try to see the nature of their ambitions, in order to avoid precisely this kind of film. I find far more value in projects springing out of a strong personal motivation, from a specific field that these people have perhaps devoted their life to, and have reached great skill in, rather than mere skill in filmmaking. I believe that many professional filmmakers in France are able to make films about almost anything; but I have always been an advocate of auteur television, based on the people who create it and who express their opinions through it. I have always tried to promote authorial creative work, which has of course brought with it a certain difficulty, because among these authors, each one is different, and it is sometimes not easy to organize their work within some set programming schedule.

Some TV channels that I’d rather not name spend considerable financial and technical means on the activity of their own production groups, which then produce films in fact just to show some activity and to make use of the technical equipment that they have. Their films are usually made according to an identical template, recording what we have seen and heard a hundred times before. This kind of television work is no good. Fortunately there are channels that want to see things in a new way, that take into account the abilities and desires of their viewers, and their work is distinguished by a credibility and soundness on which one can build in the future.

Thanks to its prestige, ARTE is undoubtedly snowed under with project proposals for both realization and broadcasting. I would like to know more about the degree of active dramaturgy on the part of ARTE. Does it exist at all, or does it consist mainly in developing programming slots and themes? Or do program dramaturges address commissioning editors? Address concrete authors, depending on the nature of theme or subject matter, which the station creates itself?

Generally speaking, with my team I try to generate a kind of friendly structure betwen the authors and the television channel, and vice versa, between the channel and authors. That is the first step, and its aim is to support creative work on a general level, in the synergy of the authors, the producers, and us, as a codistributor. Creative and production functions should, in all this, remain separate, which is very important, since with independent filmmakers these functions were mixed together; now they exist separately, meaning that they have specific approaches, different motivations, as well as different fields of competency. This cooperation makes room enough for all the participating parties in terms of the evaluation of submitted projects, in promoting common ambitions as well as in furthering debate about improving our common work. As for the project themselves, as soon as we started to support independent filmmaking, there appeared a number of capable young filmmakers who offered their work, so there was enough to choose from. In two fields, however, the situation was different. First, there existed entire large segments of reality, where practically none of the projects we received ventured spontanously. For instance five years ago, when the significance of economics in the process of globalization became apparent, very few projects dealt with the relationship between economics and power. We therefore issued a kind of challenge to documentary filmmakers in the form of a proposal for a cycle of films called “The Stock Exchange and Life.” Another undesirable bit was the world of the media, which plays an ever greater role in our lives. So there was no spontaneous interest in some themes, but we still wanted to feature them in our programming. That was one field, in which from time to time we had to announce themes of required projects ourselves.

A second and no less important area was our programming framework, which we update every two years and which is always the result of long debate, in the course of which we again realize all the possibilities we have at our disposal, i.e. the volume of our finances, the various genres and types of programs; and of course we also solve the reoccurring tension between the individual genres, especially between documentary, fiction film and theatre, so that we can produce a well-balanced program structure. At the same time we also have to take into account things such as that in Germany prime time, i.e. the peak broadcasting time, starts at 8:15 PM, whereas in France at 8:45. It was therefore our task to find an appropriate solution to fill the half hour gap between them, and to do this each workday, since on weekends this slot was filled by regular weekly programs. In the end we opted for the genre of a documentary feuilleton, chose a group of authors and producers, a kind of working group, and assigned them a broadcasting slot of five times twenty six minutes a week, in which they were to rediscover every time the possibilities of documentary filmmaking. Based on these encounters within working groups we thus supported a range of various specific projects.

ARTE is statutorily defined as a cultural channel. In the Czech lands this kind of definition is a little problematic – for instance, we have a good cultural radio, or a decent newspaper called the “Literary News” (Literarni noviny) but a lot of people ask these “culture media” not to broach controversial topics and to stay away from politics, and to attend instead to reflection of culture such as is produced by artists, personalities in culture and cultural institutions… is not the programme of ARTE rather limited by its being “culture”?

We respond to everything. I believe that the question of human life is a political question. The foundation of politics is life in the polis, that is, life together, in a community. And in my opinion, it is documentary filmmaking that attends to the life of human beings within a community. We could say that everything is politics, even culture and arts, and that there is also an inquiry into the state of the world, the situation in international politics, which may be the subject of everyday newscasts, but it is for precisely that reason that we have to see things in a broader point of view, think about them in depth, create a perspective. In this, documentary film is irreplaceable. Nothing human is alien to it, as Montaigne would say, so even in dealing with politics it can be engaged and subjective, but it should always derive from one’s own personal, original worldview.  

When you make decisions about the realization of a documentary, do you take into account a certain concept of a viewer, or do you support also projects that you see as important for the future, although at the present time might have little potential for an audience?

I see the television viewer as my brother, and try to treat him accordingly. He may not be the same as me, and perhaps I have the advantage of an earlier attained cultural background in culture that allows me to better understand certain things, but these relationships make it possible to turn in creating programs to each viewer separately, and only then to the viewers en masse. Therefore I try to be careful in documentary films about using codes and approaches that lead to maintaining cultural castes and privileges. I believe in a certain universality of the audiovisual language, I believe in communication capacities that transcend explicit contents, i.e. the capability to comprehend the complexity of things and at the same time to retain a certain empathy, respect for each other. Interest in the other, I believe, is one of the few things we may share with others, because the other often scares us, and it is precisely documentary films that offer us a possibility to come to terms with hte other and with the world, and to find one’s way of relating to it. This of course changes nothing in the fact that TV broadcasting addresses hundreds of thousands, even millions of viewers at the same time, each of whom is unique, but who taken together can behave as a mass. And it is precisely this mass behavior that presents an opportunity for documentary filmmaking, which cannot find a broader audience in cinemas, but on television can address large groups of people and create a faithful audience.

This is also a question of dramaturgy: how do you provoke the viewer’s curiosity, how do you make accessible even more complex and difficult themes, how do you involve, each time anew, an audience worn out by thousands and millions of television images? How do you entice them to spend time together? This is very important, because documentary film not only works with time, but is itself, apart from other things, also an object in time, with its own temporality, a segment of time in which a confrontation with the world takes place. In short, how do you involve an audience not just on the surface, not just in numbers, but in quality, in depth? Our viewer doesn’t have to watch TV every day, but he or she should be able to chose from a wide and diverse selection.  

Here in Prague you are taking part in the Discovery Campus, one of several European organizations of the new type, something between a traditional school, a conference and a lobbying agency, with one of its main activities being networking. How essential are channels of this sort for the creation or broadcasting of a film project?

I am convinced that the interlinking of the various European cultural traditions is of great significance, and the production of ambitious documentary programs which transcend a narrow national context can play an important role in this process. It is essential that some programs get into circulation at an international level, and therefore I welcome all activities and structures that help new filmmakers to develop and which create economical, publishing, technical or artistic networks with the aim of creative production with a Europen-wide reach. There have appeared various kinds of thse meetings and forums - we have the Eurodoc, the Discovery Campus, the Documentary Forum in Amsterdam, and there appear solid bases for documentary work, such as for instance in Marseille or Amsterdam. All these efforts are extremely positive in that they make possible meetings between filmmakers, producers and distributors from various regions, support the search for a common language and common ambitions, facilitate the emergence of friendly networks and groups of friends.

How many projects come to being as a result of such organizations?

A very high percentage. Within Eurodoc we did a balance, and it transpired that nearly all the projects presented in the shortlist were eventually broadcast. This means that the system works and that it really makes it possible for films to be produced and broadcast. In my opinion this also shows that documentary films have a far more international reach than feature films, which are too marked by the habits, cultural patterns and social modes within individual nations, perhaps with the exception of a few masterpieces with a universal validity.

Thierry Garrel was interviewed by Mgr.Vit Janecek, and translated into English by Bara Stefanova and Keith Jones.