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The good, the bad and the alternatives

Carmela Baranowska

Carmela Baranowska is a writer and director of documentaries, including Scenes from an Occupation and Welcome to Independence.

“We make dull documentaries. We make dull feature films. We have an unsustainable structure that’s rapidly crumbling”, declared Brian Rosen, CEO of the Film Finance Corporation, to a muted plenary session at the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC). The audience’s silence reminded me of the opening minutes of The Graduate (1967), Mike Nichol’s brilliant dissection of the generation gap. Ben (Dustin Hoffman) attends a party celebrating his return home from college. One of the guests pulls him aside and says: “I just wanted to say one word to you...plastics...there’s a great future in plastics.” Are our documentaries just another ‘product’ to be selected from the supermarket shelf of Australian television? Is this why we make documentaries?

Ben’s reply echoed through many of the discussions I had with filmmakers who have recently graduated from documentary and media courses: “I’m just worried about my future…I want it to be…different.”

There was an air of gloom, depression and desperation at AIDC 2004, although this type of emotional response has come to characterise the conference in recent years. Every session seemed to be dominated by the broadcasters, the funding agencies or a highly selective pool of filmmakers (there were no independent directors under 40 for example). It was the usual elevation of the bureaucrat to the position of auteur, a weird psycho-pathology which now dominates documentary discussions. We were told that we “had to make films that the audience wanted to see”, although only the more cynical of us recalled that it had been Rupert Murdoch who first coined this phrase when talking about the delights of the page 3 girl in The Sun.

Dennis O’Rourke was in top form, a mixture of brazen outrage and quotable quotes. He refused to sit meekly on the sidelines and bravely confronted everything in his path. The broadcasters’ representatives, their hands shielding the bright conference lighting, referred to him as “the voice of god.” O’Rourke was particularly incensed that the Australian Broadcasting Authority’s definition of documentary, which excludes infotainment and light entertainment, was being used by SBS TV to justify the funding of the series Desperately Seeking Sheila, which they see as tackling “a serious social problem in rural Western Australia—the shortage of bush brides.” [This SBSi and Carlton TV (UK) co-production will see 5 rural men from WA choose 3 women each from a list of 25. Each will then take one woman back to the farm to live the life of a farmer’s wife. Ed]

ABC TV, in an adroit move, announced that its own exceptionally strong ratings at the beginning of 2004 were due to the public’s move away from Reality TV and the station’s insistence on the “documentary.” Two days before the conference began Channel 7 had released its ratings. Reality TV had bombed and there was a desperate dash to reorganise the schedule. But O’Rourke’s beef was more specific. He argued that comparing documentary to Reality TV was like comparing love-making to rape. Documentary evolves through practice and not from bureaucrats more interested in the “technocratic imperative.” He argued that TV was “electronic wallpaper” and “contaminated the possibility of transforming cinema into art.”

All this was discussed with great fervour at the networking events: the $70 Welcome Cocktail Party and for the financially solvent the $120 Boat Cruise. Money, it seems, was on everyone’s mind. The first question after the one and only documentary screened at the conference, Fahimeh’s Story (Faramarz K-Rahber) was “what was the budget?” Was this a conference or a market? It was still the AIDC (not the AIDM-arket) although realists argued that the change from a bi-annual to annual event meant that this year the focus should be on the market.

How international was the conference? Julian Burnside came all the way from Melbourne and spoke about refugees but there were no filmmakers from the areas most refugees are fleeing, such as Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. And there were certainly no films from these places. Astoundingly, there was not one Indigenous speaker. The conclusions are chilling. Even in the so-called ‘enlightened’ documentary community we are insular, isolated and yes, racist. We are Australia.

Yet despite all this I returned from Fremantle feeling up-beat. In his discussion session, Brian Rosen argued that we “needed to create excitement again.” One of his suggestions was to set aside 1 or 2 million dollars from the FFC documentary pool to inject into 10 or 20 documentaries funded at $100,000 each, without a broadcaster attached. Funding bodies and filmmakers then need to think about alternative modes of distribution.

Many documentary filmmakers are outside the broadcaster loop. The reasons are many and usually ignored by AIDC. We are not baby boomers, we do not live in Sydney and we may tackle difficult, political or—heaven forbid—personal documentaries, whose meanings are only felt by audiences over long periods of time and in many different contexts. If a broadcaster is not attached to a project the doors of funding bodies are routinely slammed shut. For those of us who have been working for years on long-term projects, Rosen’s comments provoked much passionate discussion and—dare I say it—relief. It is hardly utopian to argue for a mixed film economy which includes television, cinema and cross-platform distribution opportunities.

There are innovative ideas afoot to deal with the crisis in documentary, but these were severely under represented at AIDC. Even before the conference began discussions among informal networks had been pondering what should be done to move beyond the current impasse. AIDC consolidated some of these relationships, especially along interstate lines. One of the very few conference sessions that actually featured a filmmaker highlighted the extraordinary work in progress that is kNOT @ Home, a project relating stories from Australian families who are not at home because of a ‘knot’ at home. Phillip Crawford cited this series, involving 500 young people from 22 towns and 22 new directors, as an example of an initiative that bucks the status quo. And Melbourne independent media team Spinach7 are creating an online digital channel for the distribution of a variety of content including documentary films. If change is going to come, perhaps it will come from outside the traditional film funding channels. Watch this space.

Australian International Documentary Conference 2004, Fremantle, Western Australia, Feb 26-28

Carmela Baranowska is a writer and director of documentaries, including Scenes from an Occupation and Welcome to Independence.

RealTime issue #60 April-May 2004 pg. 16

© Carmela Baranowska; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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