Documentary conference on the edge

Kirsten Krauth interviews Richard Sowada

Benjamin Smoke

Benjamin Smoke

I tend to fool around the edges. I think of myself as an observer…I don’t think of myself even as a filmmaker…All I can do is capture glimpses…incidentally it has almost nothing to do with verité (which means “the truth”) but to create this feeling of being there.
Richard Leacock*

The Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC) is held every 2 years and democratically relocates around the country. The 1999 Adelaide jaunt was a successful amalgamation of screenings, conversations, deals and forums. This March the conference opens in Perth and, again, looks more tempting than most film festivals around the country with a relevant and engaging theme (The Edge of Reality), a market for filmmakers to pitch their wares (DocuMart), emphasis on evolving forms (self-funded filmmaking, reality TV, web-based storytelling, crossovers between fiction and docos) and a good-looking screening component (the REVelation film festival which will only focus on docos this year). Guests such as Ricky Leacock continue the interest in cinema verité and its implications for today’s generation (Albert Maysles spoke with Peter Sellars at the 1999 conference).

I spoke to Richard Sowada, festival director about his hopes for the conference. He chose The Edge of Reality as a theme because he’s “attracted (addicted?) to forms, styles, and filmmakers who…push the way documentary makes meaning…they hybridise the form, particularly with regard to the more political films…documentary is such a highly constructed form that it’s easy to forget that it’s all about dramatic principles and a high level of mediation.” This theme is reflected in sessions like The Art of the Narrative that will explore what doco makers can learn from writers in other areas including reality-based drama: “Reality TV is just one of those hybrids. You may like it…you may not…but the central point is the fluidity of the observational form…I am also interested in the notion of surveillance. In programming the event, this area was one which we always argued strongly about…that’s worthy of a session.”

The AIDC publicity places heavy-handed emphasis on the “new” with a current crop of filmmakers: refered to as “outlaws” and “revolutionaries.” This jargonish insistence on the current generation—Dan Gifford (Waco: The Rules of Engagement), Greta Snider (Hard Core Home Movie), Craig Baldwin (Spectres of the Spectrum) and Dennis O’Rourke—being like no other, detracts from what Sowada knows: that what’s most interesting is how filmmakers are working with forms that are evolving and re-moulding and incorporating the digital realm.

One of the failings of the Adelaide conference was limited exploration of the implications of digital technologies—for the creative process, distribution of work, opportunities for networking, self-funding—-and for documentary itself, with data storage, archiving and constantly evolving materials allowing a long life and access to new audiences. This year, a number of sessions examine these issues head on. Marcus Gillezeau hosts a masterclass, Storytelling for the Web and DVD: Space, Audience and Mediation. Sowada says, “As with other styles, we are particularly interested in the way these [web-based] works relate to the audience…the way the stories unfold and the way they explore the resources open to them. We will be running a craft session on how to use the technology for remote product acquisition (ie being in the middle of nowhere, shooting, editing and streaming) as well as a business-based session on distribution for the web…there’s a long way to go in what people consider to be web-based documentary and so I’m very keen to move this debate forward.” In addition, a series of sessions on self- and semi-funded works will explore how access to cheaper technologies—digital cameras and editing, internet for marketing and distribution—is changing filmmaking practice.

A popular component of the Adelaide conference was DocuMart, where filmmakers pitched their product to a panel of international media buyers. There was a huge turnout for these anxious, high risk, often very funny session where ideas were sold, swapped and dumped on. This year it’s on again: “…there’s no question that Australian filmmakers are compelled to make films for an international market. International market interest is the key in accessing funding. This doesn’t mean you cannot tell local stories but filmmakers have to start telling them in different ways…there is a tendency for many filmmakers to think the end point of the filmmaking process is ‘making the sale.’ Very few in the programming consultation process of the conference ever mentioned ‘audience.’ This was interesting to me and I think indicative of the powerful market forces at work…How does this encourage signature works? It doesn’t…which spells real trouble for the fostering of a unique ideas based industry…Filmmakers often feel they must tailor their work to these strands and streams and hence perhaps allow themselves to be distracted from the central issue…the story and how to tell it. There are some notable exceptions in Australia such as Tom Zubrycki and Dennis O’Rourke.”

The documentary screenings that are an important part of the conference will come under the banner of the REVelation film festival. Criteria for selection is that films “have to try something different…We are screening all manner of works from 3 minute micro-docs to 2 hour epics and ranging from the most low-fi to the incredibly lush…but ultimately they have to speak to an audience…Even if sometimes as an audience member you don’t quite get it…Over the past few years, the strongest REVelation performers have been documentaries and so we anticipate our selection meeting with a high level of public interest and success. For the filmmakers, this interaction is of major importance. Seeing how audiences respond to your work is a rare thing…usually with documentaries audiences are sitting in their lounge room and it’s the broadcaster telling you what they like and what they don’t. With a public film festival, you can actually look into their eyes. It is also particularly important in an environment like Perth (which is sometimes fairly underserviced in screen culture) that audiences have a chance to experience a fine selection of international works.”

A lucky dip into the screening schedule pulls out Cinema Verité: Defining the Moment, where conference guest Peter Wintonick traces the history of cinema verité (cinema direct, Cinema Eye, free cinema) while also considering its legacy in fiction/non-fiction crossovers like Blair Witch Project, Cops, Homicide Life on the Streets, and implications for a human rights organisation like Witness that trains activists to use digital cameras to capture and expose injustice; their advertising slogan: “you can’t say what you just saw never happened.” Blair Witch producers Gregg Hale and Robin Cowie play with this slogan in fiction, understanding the power of verité to simulate reality: “this [cinematic] language you inherit…it’s there.” They argue that the home video (of family events) is today’s “aesthetic of reality…often shaky, badly framed and sometimes out of focus.”

Spectres of the Spectrum (conference guest Craig Baldwin, experimental filmmaker from San Francisco, uses found footage in video collage) promises a history of speculative science in the shape of a pirate TV broadcast, where propaganda from the 50s is manipulated to examine the “culture of worship” of the latest gadget: “I call it a jujitsu move, to use the weight of this absurd, preposterous, blind belief in technology being the big fix and [I] turn it around and critique” (interview with Ed Halter, “Science in Action”, New York Press, www.nypress.com/fram.cfm?content_id =414, 13/01/01). Another interesting contender is Benjamin Smoke (Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen), a biopic about Atlanta band Smoke and lead singer Benjamin, his voice and lyrics a mix of Waits, Ginsberg and Ellroy, wavering between brain-mashed incoherence and exceptional insight into HIV, addiction, small town life and creativity, cross dressing, music and death. Fast forward frenetic domestic scenes intercut with slow sensuous songs echo Benjamin’s druglaced life; you need patience for this film’s raw power. His perspective truly embraces the edge of reality, an artist who “wasn’t trying to get to a place where people liked what I was doing.” One person who does count though is his hero Patti Smith and she gives him the ultimate dedication, in lyrics that outlive him: “Have you ever seen death singing…in the straw coloured light.”

Although the AIDC program is still to be finalised, the elements are adding up to a vibrant and challenging mix. Sowada seeks to encourage a culture of debate by merging interests and practitioners in areas often kept predictably separate: “it is crucial to really look hard at the craft…I think we have a strong critical foundation. Many of the attending academics will be chairing what are traditionally more market sessions in an attempt (I hope) to spin things a little differently. We have highly respected academics such as Michael Renov (documentary theorist, University of Southern California) and Joe Camacho (University of California; his focus is on Indigenous filmmaking in Southern USA and Micronesia) attending…We have attempted to embrace all industry sectors, providing them with platforms and allowing them to engage in discussion which I think affects all filmmakers.”

*Leacock quotation from an interview with Chris Buck, “Do Look Back: the story of Cinema Verité”, Popped, www.popped.com/articles98/cinemaverite/ veriteleacock.html, 12/01/01. [link expired]

Australian International Documentary Conference, Sheraton Hotel, Perth, March 6-9, www.aidc.com.au

RealTime issue #41 Feb-March 2001 pg. 15

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2001