SPAA Fringe: independence contested

Clare Stewart

DV soothsayer Peter Broderick’s key-note address at SPAA Fringe left the audience savouring the taste of New Digital Freedom while swallowing the hyper-syncretic rantings of a peachy preacher who didn’t seem attuned to the irony that Independence is now a Hollywood by-product. President of US-based Next Wave Films, Broderick channelled a course through the recent history of digital cinemas, assimilating a disparate collection of films and filmmaking practice into the general rubric of New Digital Cinema (for list of films see: www.nextwavefilms.com/ulbp/bullfront). A self-help guru for filmmakers disenfranchised by the American Studio system, Broderick’s motivational lecture celebrated the impact of DV on traditional filmmaking models without exploring the more problematic aspects of self-financing and access, essential tenets of DV practice as upheld by Next Wave Films.

A company of the Independent Film Channel (managed and operated by Bravo Cable Network), Next Wave Films is a decidedly sticky phenomenon. More a leaking, sugar-syrup residue than a wave, it offers an “alternative universe of filmmaking” in a paradigm that posits New Digital Freedom in an antithetical relationship with Hollywood (see: www.nextwavefilms.com/metaphor). Next Wave simultaneously (and in contradiction) presents itself as a training ground “created to help exceptionally talented new filmmakers launch their careers” through that dreamed-of portal to Universe LA.

Unlike the Danish movement Dogme 95 (which inspired it) there is nothing renegade about Agenda 2000 (Next Wave’s digital cinema funding program). As the difference in nomenclature suggests, Dogme was/is a philosophised, collective approach towards a new filmmaking practice made possible by technical developments, while Agenda is a commercially driven response to Dogme and other DV practices that have subsequently emerged. Next Wave’s focus on scouting for new talent, providing finishing funds and promoting output, suggests a simple motivation towards maximising profits while minimising investment. As an operational mode, this hardly embodies the spirit of New Digital Freedom.

Like Next Wave Films, SPAA Fringe wants its cake and eats it too.

The Independence-is-Next-to-Godliness attitude which sustains the cult of the new and emerging filmmaker is widely supported in Australia by the activities of IF Media (publishers of IF Magazine/Inside Film and producers of the IF Awards), Popcorn Taxi, Tropfest and various other short and long film festivals. Despite aligning themselves with the spiritualism of New Digital Freedom and the dirty glamour of Guerilla filmmaking, these organisations also sustain a filtering system that benefits funding agencies and industry (SPAA) proper. If the multitude of wannabe filmmakers are conveniently encouraged to self-fund, using unpaid cast and crew etc then the agency or producer (like the Hollywood Studios) is free to perv from the wings, ready to assimilate “exceptional talent.” In this framework Independence is complicit with (or a by-product of) the commercial industry.

SPAA Fringe contributes further to the filtering process: pitching itself in the language of Independence, “invent your future”, while producing a conference in which the “telling it like it is” approach overshadows the “imagine how it could be.” The conference brief, to “demystify the fundamentals of development, funding, production, post-production, marketing and distribution” provides limited scope for innovation and is designed primarily to re-institute current practice. Ironically, as the conference progressed, Broderick’s oracular pop-fizz (of which he was veritable fountain as both panel and audience member) became a progressive, refreshing antidote to the acerbic, anecdotal dryness of the same-old pantheon of local experts whose prime purpose is to tell all the wannabes to be just like them.

“HDTV: the future is now” convener John Collette (Digital Media, College of Fine Arts, UNSW), in a brave attempt to counter the religious zeal of the oracle, contested “The future is never now, now is only ever now.” His fellow panellists John Flemming (AAV), John Bowering (Lemac), Martin Gardiner (Planet X) and Dominic Case (Atlab) seemed determined to prove that “now” should only ever attempt to emulate the past in a session that never made it beyond high technical definitions and ruminations over HD’s capacity to replicate film. Any genuine engagement with the possibilities of the new medium (aesthetic or otherwise) or discussion of HD’s position in relation to the low-fi end of Revolution DV was sadly absent (as Broderick pointed out from the audience).

The documentary panel was supposed to focus on the very relevant topic “new technology and new markets: exploring the future of documentary.” While John Hughes (then Commissioning Editor, Documentary, SBS) articulated the changing scope of new documentary forms with a concrete example and Rob Wellington (producer of the Native Title Revolution CD-ROM) discussed the potential of forms which encouraged “the user to find their own stories”, the response from other speakers was surprisingly tepid. Facilitator Susan MacKinnon’s (Film Finance Corporation) final summary of the discussion was a disappointingly retrograde: “the technology is irrelevant, what matters is a good story.”

The funding bodies did their annual show-and-tell on recent policy and funding initiatives. The AFC’s National Digital Access Initiative, a program designed to supply mobile digital production equipment through the Screen Development Organisations in each state, is a proactive attempt to address issues of access in relation to DV. It also conveniently overshadows equally pressing issues to do with the ever diminishing focus on short film funding and the move away from active, responsible development of entry level production. ScreenWest was the only agency, Federal or State, to articulate a position which remotely encapsulated the spirit of New Digital Freedom and to provide a funding strategy for the development of DV production.

The panels that attempted nothing beyond “telling it like it is” were ultimately the most satisfying (which of course says nothing for our capacity to “imagine how it could be”). Simply pitched at an audience of filmmakers who need concrete information and case studies to inform their own practice, “Know Your Music Rights” and “Marketing Tools” were engaging and relevant forums. Vincent Sheehan (producer of Mullet) did an excellent job of facilitating the potentially dry discussion on music rights in a manner which encouraged the audience to be very active (few of the panels left adequate time for questions, a big oversight in a conference designed for new and emerging filmmakers).

The most invigorating moments of the conference spanned the spectrum of emerging (the Fringe Pitch) and established (Jan Chapman’s closing discussion). Craig Palmer’s truly inspired (and winning) pitch for Wheeler & Bent, a television series about 2 physically challenged cops, was a bitter, sarcastic take on the whole pitch process and cleverly gave very little away about the actual project. Palmer’s perfectly sustained comic critique of standard commercial practice was echoed in Jan Chapman’s intelligent and generous conversation with Laurie Zion that closed the conference. For Jan, “Independence is something you fiercely hold onto.” It is not, in other words, a place you hang out until you find that elusive portal to Universe LA.

SPAA Fringe 2002 needs to work on its pitch: provide a productive training model which sustains industry entrance, or actively and aggressively pushes for new forms of Independent filmmaking. Both these options can be packaged and sold without recourse to the easy and overused hype of New Digital Freedom and Guerilla Glamour; and without exhausting Peter Broderick’s welcome by using him as a key guest 4 years in a row.

SPAA (Screen Producers Association Australia) Fringe, The George Cinema, Melbourne, Nov 12-14. www.spaa.org.au

RealTime issue #47 Feb-March 2002 pg. 17

© Clare Stewart; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2002
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