One of our recent joys has been digging into the relatively new and frequently awesome blog of Hot Docs programmer Sean Farnel, particularly last month as he was sending nearly daily dispatches from a non-stop tour of European documentary festivals. The whole blog is great, filled with fascinating insights into the festivals themselves, as well as the way that programmers view and decide to book films for their festivals - so consider this a suggestion that you grab a coffee or a cocktail and spend the next hour digging through the blog to date.
But, to whet your whistle, I thought I'd run a few excerpts from his European tour.
"Jihlava has also been presenting the works of several photographers, and in the evening I attended a presentation by Adam Broomberg, featuring his work with collaborator Olivier Chanarin. I found Broomberg’s slideshow talk completely engaging and compelling, and it sparked many thoughts about the relationship of still photography to moving image documentary. Broomberg and Chanarin have a stated mistrust of their form, an anxiety or doubt about images (see Errol Morris). They particularly grappled with ways of representing conflict, including that between Israel and Palestine. During the section of the presentation where Broomberg discussed photographs from their “Chicago” project, documenting an artificial Arab town built by the Israeli Defense Force, a man in the audience shouted: “Why don’t you stop this propaganda, this is a film festival!” Another shouted back at the man to let Broomberg speak, and Broomberg himself asked the heckler to stay and that he be pleased to answer questions during the Q&A. “Fuck off!” the man yelled, storming out."
"The Jihlava and Leipzig festivals collaborated to charter a bus, lugging about twenty-five documentary vagabonds from one event to the other. So, here we are, reality addicts on a German tour bus. Weary from long days of screening and pitching, and long nights of everything else. Jan Rofekamp, snugly attired with his black addidas jumper, pecks away on his laptop, preparing his IDFA brochure; a Ukranian producer screens a colleague’s trailer; we all gossip a little and the business melts into pleasure, personal stories. A pit stop brings some Czech beer on board, and snacks, sweet and salty, to fuel the camaraderie for the remainder of the five hour journey."
And offers insight to the programmer's methodology:
"I’ll screen in the market for four hours today, and as always will jot notes on 4×6 inch index cards. I have ten years of these cards in my home office. I capture quick initial impressions, content reminders, and subjective remarks. Most of the time I use one card, front and back, for each film. In the case of (Heddy Honigmann's) OBLIVION card above, the back has most of my subjective thoughts (”deeply human,” “sublime” “an engaging people’s history” are some of musings on this particular card). I try to clear my head with each blank card as I press play. I ask Hot Docs programmers to be open and generous to each film, and follow my own advice. Yet I admit some (many?) of the cards have thoughts which aren’t so generous. The volume of work we see is overwhelming, and most often comes in very concentrated spurts, at the festivals we visit, and then during the intensive ten week process which ultimately yields the Festival programme..."
and comes up with a screening dogme:
1. Whilst watching one film I decided on the next by looking for thematic or formal or completely high concept links and segues of my own design.
2. I couldn’t watch films from the same country consecutively (I was going to try Continents…but that’s too severe in a European dominated programme).
3. I could only take a pee or coffee break following a long take (which I defined, for the sake of this particular exercise, as a shot lasting more than two minutes. Actually, this wasn’t so severe, given the fulsome selection of films from Switzerland, Austria, German and France. In fact, I had ample coffee, and ample opportunities by which to expel it.)"
My own opinion has been that premieres are irrelevant (except to Festival directors) or at least should be a low priority variable in the decision making process. Its much more of important, I believe, to present the highest quality programme possible to Hot Docs audiences and attending Industry. The fact is, on the Industry side, one is not capable of seeing every film at a festival, and we need other chances to view work that may have been missed at a previous event. That, and to cut through the clutter certain films deserve the opportunity to play in a critical mass of high profile festivals. The quest for premieres often negates these opportunities."
And after watching Sheffield's version of a pitch forum, the MeetMarket, Farnel offers advice to filmmakers:
Next, it was off to Copenhagen, where we got to join Sean in our hotel lobby for some wine:
And finally, Amsterdam and IDFA, where Farnel caught the season's biggest buzz title, BURMA VJ:
The footage is gripping, reminding me of THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED in its visceral depiction of a citizen’s uprising. Beyond providing a narrative context, the first person voice-over delivered by one of the DVB reporters is also effective in giving the film a resonant emotional core. I was moved by the commitment and courage of these activists. Later, I was discussing the film with an Iranian ex-pat living in Amsterdam. He hadn’t seen the film, though was quite interested in the work of the DVB reporters. He had been a documentary filmmaker who, due to his own reporting, is no longer welcome in Iran. “Good tactics,” he mused, when told of how the DVB smuggled footage of Burma. BURMA VJ is a film with work to do in the world, a field guide for media revolutionaries."
And with that, a well deserved rest and return to Canada.