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The documentary: art and survival

Tom Zubrycki

Tom Zubrycki is a leading Australian documentary filmmaker.

Lyn Rule, Mobarak Tahiri, Molly and Mobarak Lyn Rule, Mobarak Tahiri, Molly and Mobarak
There has always been a tradition of screening new documentaries at the National Parliament in Canberra. So it came as a surprise when Joint House leader Bob Wedgwood, acting on the advice of the Speaker Neil Andrew, refused a screening of my new film Molly and Mobarak.

Wedgwood’s letter (leaked to the Canberra Times) stated several reasons for the refusal, including the claim that “this film promotes the theme of widespread opposition to government policy and might cause offence to a significant part of the Australian community.” The outrageous ban was subsequently overturned in 48 hours after pressure from my local Labor member Tanya Plibersek. The publicity ensured that Canberrans responded and we had a full cinema.

I’ve been asking myself what significance should be read into this petty attempt at censorship? Part of the reason for the ban is possibly bound up with the difference between documentary and current affairs. While current affairs is essentially an investigation driven by a reporter, documentary is more an exploration of the contemporary/ historical through the personal. Perhaps the film struck a raw nerve because it actually humanises refugees.

I believe the ban is also a sign that documentaries are starting to be noticed and taken seriously in the general community. Some claim this is because documentaries are appropriating the devices of dramatic story telling and bringing emotional power to the form. However, good documentaries have always done this. I think it’s more to do with a real hunger to find meaning in the post-September 11 world and a public craving for ‘authenticity’.

Last year I attended The International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA), the largest festival of its type in the world. 230 films were shown and 110,000 tickets were sold—a 17% leap in audience numbers over the previous year. IDFA is a celebration of the art of documentary and the styles ranged from observational narratives to extremely personal essay films.

The resurgence of documentary is a phenomenon few could have predicted, given its steady marginalisation on television. Since the mid-90s documentary has been separating into 2 totally different streams: ‘reality-based’ TV series and factual infotainment versus the traditional longer form social documentary, which has been pushed back to ever later time-slots. This has been a world-wide trend: in Britain social documentaries have been all but relegated to a new digital channel.

Finding reasons is not difficult. There’s always been an uneasy relationship between television and documentary. Television, by its very nature, constructs audiences as consumers. It tends to be prescriptive and concerned with ratings, creating a focus on diversion and entertainment. In contrast, documentary forces you to engage with the content and think for yourself. As well as complexity and depth, documentary films also generally have a strong and personal point of view.

Despite some important new prime-time slots, such as SBS’s Storyline Australia, long-form documentaries on television are at risk of becoming an endangered species. Certainly I would be the first to admit that without public broadcasters we wouldn’t have a documentary industry, but my concern is that we are losing the art of documentary. This year’s Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC) in February highlighted this very problem. The conference was essentially oriented around the business of buying and selling films, with the DocuMart being the core of the event. While I don’t disagree this should have been the main focus, where were the sessions about form, the discussions with filmmakers, the screenings? Only one documentary was shown at the festival, an appalling oversight by the organisers. No wonder many younger filmmakers were completely alienated by the event and saw it as a club for established practitioners. This is a poor way of fostering growth in the industry, especially in light of a shocking AFC statistic that 64% of first time documentary filmmakers never get to make another film.

The difficulties faced by the current ‘entry-level’ generation in getting a foothold in the industry account for an absence, I believe, of a variety of styles and ideas. People censor themselves, believing certain subjects are too ‘provocative’ for broadcasters to commission and elect instead to make safer films believed to have a better chance of getting funded. Broadcasters are also less inclined to take risks with first time filmmakers.

Meanwhile a crisis also exists at the other end of the spectrum. Around the world the feature documentary is being revitalised, but here in Australia we are being left behind. Just look at the long list of feature documentaries slated for our screens in the next few months. All are American. Not one is a local film!

Maybe it’s time to start thinking outside the box. In the US feature projects usually start without any broadcaster involvement. That comes later. Unlike America we don’t have private foundations to kick-start these projects. We do however have government agencies: the AFC fully invests in one feature documentary a year, the new Adelaide International Film Festival is investing $100,000 in a project for next year’s event, while the Film Finance Corporation has the capacity to invest in one feature documentary per year. Occasionally SBS allows one-hour documentaries, such as Fahimeh’s Story, to grow into features. It’s a start but there’s no guarantee these documentaries will ever hit cinema screens (or even be shown at film festivals) and that’s because broadcasters increasingly believe they will lose publicity, and therefore ratings, if they don’t insist on first run. Recently Ronin Films wanted to secure a theatrical window for The President versus David Hicks but because of its topicality SBS wanted the film to open its new Storyline Australia program instead. The film rated very well but Director Curtis Levy insists he will still press for a theatrical release later this year.

In America it’s a different picture entirely. The US cable network Home Box Office (HBO) has visibly stepped up its involvement in the cinema release of feature documentaries. Two recent examples are Spellbound and Capturing the Friedmans. Cinema exposure guarantees that reviewers and critics give these documentaries the attention they deserve, thus helping their eventual television release. At IDFA, HBO CEO Sheila Nevins noted that: “If a film doesn’t succeed theatrically it doesn’t hurt television broadcast, and if it succeeds it helps.”

Part of the problem with releasing feature documentaries here in Australia is the high cost of a 35mm blow-up. At AIDC Andrew Pike from Ronin Films referred to the box office success of Safina Uberoi’s My Mother India. The film ran for 6 months in Sydney, but barely returned its blow-up costs of around $60,000. Digital projection in Australia makes perfect financial sense, but venues for digital projection are strictly limited, which means feature documentaries finished on tape seldom attract mainstream distributors. In the case of Molly and Mobarak I was very lucky that Hopscotch got behind the film, but the release still wouldn’t have happened without a marketing loan from the AFC.

One of the resolutions passed at AIDC calls on the AFC to conduct a feasibility study into Docuzone, a European initiative started 3 years ago by the Netherlands Film Fund which could be the answer to cinema release of documentaries. Digital projectors were purchased and lodged in cinemas across the Netherlands on the condition that they screen independent documentary and drama at least 2 nights a week. The scheme was a huge success. This year Docuzone will link 175 screens across Europe via a digital network and a slate of 12 films to be simultaneously released from a central server. Kees Ryninks, who initiated the project, said at IDFA: “We need to carve out a separate space for specialist film and to protect and promote European culture.” Sound familiar? Australian documentary makers have been saying the same thing in a local context for years!

Television may be the saviour of documentary and may also be its curse. Whatever happens, documentary urgently needs to reclaim its proper place as an art form. Documentary filmmakers have an incredible ability to tell stories from the inside, exploring the contemporary through the personal using a rich variety of styles and approaches. While Reality TV has come and (almost) gone, documentaries are here to stay.

Tom Zubrycki is a leading Australian documentary filmmaker.

RealTime issue #60 April-May 2004 pg. 15

© Tom Zubrycki; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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