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of profits and prophets

dan edwards at AIDC 2007


IF THIS YEAR’S AUSTRALIAN INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY CONFERENCE (AIDC) LACKED SOME OF THE UPBEAT BUZZ OF THE EVENT IN ADELAIDE TWO YEARS AGO, PERHAPS IT’S BECAUSE MANY OF THE PROFOUND CHANGES TO THE DOCUMENTARY SECTOR PREDICTED IN 2005 NO LONGER SEEM QUITE SO RADICAL. NEARLY EVERY PROJECT IN THE PITCH SESSIONS, FOR EXAMPLE, TOOK AN ONLINE COMPONENT FOR GRANTED; THE MORE SAVVY PRODUCERS WERE TALKING OF MULTI-PLATFORM EXTRAVAGANZAS INVOLVING FILMS, WEBSITES, GAMES, REAL-WORLD COMPONENTS AND VIRAL MARKETING CAMPAIGNS.

Whether the possibilities of this brave new digital world are actually being realised in Australia is another matter, relating back to two depressingly familiar concerns that kept cropping up at this year’s conference: a lack of funds in the documentary sector and the claim that too much power rests with a handful of local broadcasters.

terms of trade controversy

The friction at the conference was set in the opening keynote by UK PACT Council Chair Alex Graham (PACT is Britain’s producers’ association). Graham outlined a drastic shift in the terms of trade between independent producers and broadcasters that has underpinned a recent boom in UK documentary production. Since 2004 UK producers have retained most rights on the programs they make—investment now simply gives broadcasters UK television rights for five years. This has provided producers with a financial incentive to actively sell their programs across different platforms and territories, as well as pursue spin-off products such as books. According to Graham, the new terms of trade have seen £500 million flooding into UK independent documentary production, fuelling an annual sector growth rate of seven per cent. The arrangement has had a positive effect on Britain’s terms of trade, fostered the accrual of capital for producers and increased employment—all at virtually no cost to government.

As Graham pointedly noted, this is a fundamentally different model from the one used in Australia, where funding bodies and broadcasters generally take all rights in all territories in exchange for investment that rarely covers the full cost of production. Using Film Australia’s terms of trade as an example, Graham argued that the philosophy underlying Australian funding models was more suited to the UK of the 1970s, or even the Soviet Union! He pointed out that project-by-project funding in exchange for universal rights simply provides no means for producers to build sustainable businesses.

Needless to say, a model which shifts power away from broadcasters and government agencies was always going to ruffle feathers, and the ABC’s Head of Television Kim Dalton made a stinging rebuke to Graham’s keynote in a speech at the AIDC opening drinks. It was unclear why Dalton thought the UK approach would be incompatible with the Australian production sector, although he later stated in The Australian that the tax rebate currently being considered by government to attract greater private investment in the local film industry would have been a more appropriate keynote topic (Sandy George, “Filmmakers edged out of the picture”, March 1).

Perhaps the most important lesson for Australia in Graham’s keynote was the fact that the UK terms of trade are the result of years of patient, sustained lobbying by a unified industry. In contrast, the ‘Great Debate’ immediately following Graham’s speech brought all the familiar fault lines running through the local industry to the surface. The topic was “Is government agency delivery of public funds stifling Australia’s content creation industry?” The attitude of Nick Murray of Cordell Jigsaw Productions, opening speaker for the affirmative, revealed why coherent industry lobbying is difficult. Murray argued that government bodies not only stifle creativity, they suck the life out of producers and embalm them. His proposed solution—shutting down all the funding bodies and giving the money to the broadcasters—ignored the fate of the non-documentary sector in such a model. Producer Michaela Perske, as the second affirmative speaker, passionately echoed Alex Graham’s keynote in proclaiming that “content providers need to be set free.” Meanwhile, the negative team of the FTO’s Tanya Chambers, the ABC’s Dasha Ross and the FFC’s Brian Rosen ran a routine set of ripostes, which at least made the point that the main factor stifling the industry is a basic lack of funds. The suggestion was made by both sides that there are simply too many filmmakers—hardly helpful since New Zealand manages to sustain a similar-sized documentary sector with one-fifth of our population, as the final affirmative speaker Chris Hilton pointed out. Nobody got to the core problem of a fundamental lack of investment in the Australian creative industries.

small voices, prophetic films

After the drama of AIDC’s opening day, it was deeply refreshing to begin day two with some films and a panel of filmmakers. The Podlove launch saw five five-minute documentaries examining the impact of technology on our lives and relationships. The series is a joint initiative between SBSi and the Australian Film Commission. The standout Podlove project was Virtual Freedom by Gef Senz, a simple but heart-wrenching story about a Burmese dissident living in Melbourne. While Senz’s film was a personal favourite, all the Podlove works were surprising and highly entertaining.

In contrast, most of the other sessions at AIDC 07 were dominated by commissioning editors and agency representatives—a sign of the conference’s increasingly market-orientated tenor. One important exception was the Perspectives on Alternative Voices session on day four. Filmmakers Dan Monceaux and Khee-Jin Ng (whose Feet Unbound screened at the concurrent Adelaide Film Festival) showed excerpts from their work and discussed how they produced their self-funded low-budget films. However, it was Safina Uberoi’s input that was most revelatory. She screened segments from a film that grew out of her attempts to make a documentary in the early 1990s about Islander youths living in the Sydney suburb of Macquarie Fields. She eventually decided to give the camera to the boys and let them represent themselves, resulting in a fascinating and disturbingly prescient depiction of life in a suburb recently racked by violent social unrest. Yet when Uberoi took the film to the ABC, they rejected it on the grounds that they “couldn’t understand the boys’ accents.” Uberoi concluded her talk with a five-minute work made by a child in a refugee camp in Lebanon, one of nine films made by children there with the help of an aid worker using low-cost technology. Uberoi summed up the feeling of the session by concluding that digital technologies are allowing the articulation of “small voices to which we need to become much, much more sensitised...these people are prophets.”

limited means, internecine struggles

If there was an overall impression created by AIDC this year, it was of an industry hamstrung by limited means, but also perhaps limited in its ability to find more effective ways of operating and lobbying for change. Space precludes further discussion here, but there were several sessions following on from Alex Graham’s keynote that gave the sense that Australia is increasingly falling behind the rest of the world in building sustainable creative industries in the digital age. Unfortunately, rather than fuelling a coherent push for change, the lack of capital in Australia’s creative sector all too often generates internecine struggles that do little to address the fundamental issues holding us back.


Australian International Documentary Conference, Adelaide, Feb 23-26, 2007, www.aidc.com.au

RealTime issue #78 April-May 2007 pg. 22

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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