Doc Conference at TIFF: Doc Makers’ Insights and 3 Minute Docs
The three year old documentary conference at Toronto International Film Festival offers an unusual opportunity for reflection in the middle of one of the busiest industry hot spots of the year. This year, the conference kicked off with a conversation between Nick Broomfield (Sarah Palin—You Betcha!) and Morgan Spurlock (Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope). Broomfield professed to be resolutely old school, one idea at a time, and artesenal; he was a tad rueful about changes in the field including the decline of 16mm film. Spurlock is diving into new distribution strategies (Comic-Con is going out on Xbox Live for instance), is working on “five or six projects” at a time, and is an enthusiast about new possibilities. It’s “the golden age of documentaries,” he said, even though he noted that theatrical sales are down. What Broomfield and Spurlock have in common is an irreverent first-person perspective, which they both said was a strategy to help them tell the best story. “The process of getting the story is usually more interesting than anything else,” said Broomfield. “If you can make someone laugh you can make someone listen,” said Spurlock.
The short film is making a comeback, according to participants on a panel at the Toronto International Film Festival’s documentary conference. Services and incentives are starting up to leverage the accessibility of digital video. CINELAN for instance licenses and syndicates three-minute-long documentaries, by the unknown and the big names alike. CINELAN’s Karol Martesko-Fenster explained that three minutes was the outer limit of attention on mobile devices, where he imagines the future lies. There’s also work for hire, with companies that use film for promotion. The sell-your-craft web platform Etsy contracts with producers to make low-low-budget, three-minute portraits of makers, descriptions of craft process and how-tos, among other things. Etsy wants the work, which is licensed under Creative Commons, to travel widely; Beth Levison noted that one filmmaker used the work as a calling card for a lucrative commercial contract. Electric Artists’ Marc Schiller showed how a partnership between The Economist magazine and PBS Newshour is showcasing excerpts from completed films relating to news topics. Still, no one is talking about making very much money.
In the afternoon, after a fairly familiar session about crowdsourcing funding,
Lucy Walker (Devil’s Playground, Blindsight, Waste Land, Countdown to Zero) showed a 40 minute portrait of Japan post-tsunami. The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossoms expertly works the contrast between devastation and rebirth, and manages to be hopeful without being sappy.
I chaired a conversation between David Van Taylor, who is completing a four-part history of documentary, To Tell the Truth, and Mark Cousins, whose 15-part The Story of Film is showing all week. They discussed the challenges of filmically representing the history of film. They both struggle to represent both the artistic choices of the artist and the shaping forces of the historical moment. The series challenges simplistic notions of documentary as a simple transcription of reality. Van Taylor showed several clips, including a discussion of British propaganda films from World War II. In it, elderly makers recall their strategic selection of truths to include. They wove a narrative of British pluck and quiet endurance under German air attack, portraying a deeply class-divided society as united and one where panic and dread were a constant as equable and indomitable. And they do not apologize for their work, which they regard as a contribution to the war effort.
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