‘I feel like you are making us sound smarter than we are. Really we are focused on trends. We see what other markets are doing and we are responding rather than predicting.’
Alice Burgin is deep in organising the next Australian International Documentary Conference, focused on tactics rather than strategy. But the work of Burgin and the Board is still shaped by fundamental issues; documentary is more connected to our changing culture than any other form of screen storytelling.
To begin with, she tells me, ‘The broader strategy we have worked with for the last couple of years is to increase the sustainability of the industry moving forward. Diversity is something that we’re thinking about and we know that the industry is thinking about it a lot.’
This year the theme is ‘Collective Intelligence’, which refers to the sharing and alliances created at the conference. But it also suggests the wisdom of the documentary crowd, and to the idea of democracy in a time of division.
The emerging sector
To support emerging filmmakers to attend for the first time, the AIDC runs the Leading Lights program which is funded by larger production companies. They provide free Focus Passes to applicants selected by committee, which in turn offer access to almost everything in the conference.
‘We are creating a kind of alumni’, says Burgin ‘who can receive increasing levels of support through mentorships and internship development opportunities.’ This provides a broader perspective through access to international guests and buyers.
The baseline for the program is somewhere above film school, through to a point where emerging and sophisticated creators and practitioners can find new ideas together. The Masters Program launched last year features distinguished guests who lead their own masterclasses. So far we have Amy Berg (The Case Against Adnan Syed, West of Memphis, An Open Secret), innovative programmer and disability advocate Ninder Billing (EP of The Garden which does 24 Hours in A&E) and Lam Thuy Vo, the senior data reporter at Buzzfeed News who covers online lies and smearing.
‘We are building a brand for a generation that maybe haven’t heard about it or haven’t felt part of the documentary community’ she acknowledges. ‘We are trying to make them feel welcome without making the more experienced practitioners feel like its no longer for them, using a bunch of professional development opportunities and the program itself. It’s something we are always thinking about.‘
Alice Burgin has worked on events in the US and attends a lot of international conferences where the atmosphere is ultra competitive or just indifferent to the opportunity. The AIDC feels very different.
‘One of the things I noticed about about Australian filmmakers in general is they are really passionate and curious to travel, to learn about global opportunities. I think it’s actually unique to Australia, that our kind of distance makes us incredibly hungry to see what is happening in the rest of the world.’
‘There is so much goodwill from the local industry to participate in the conference and enjoy it and that is really special. People come every year and they come with their specific intentions and there’s a real desire for us to succeed.’
“I remember being really overwhelmed by the job, and then I realised that every single comment and every single delegate wants us to succeed and to participate in our success. I think that’s been the biggest lesson. We have a community. And this is very unique to Australia. That is what I really want you know, to have a good time together. And we will get to that.’
‘That is what Collective Intelligence is about. We feel a shift in the industry towards more and more collaborative approaches to creation or co-creation.’
‘We are really doing a focus on what international co-production can look like, and focus on upskilling people who are interested in working in international co-production. I really want to interrogate what that might be. It comes back to this idea that we need to start working together. One of the things I am learning is that we are really do need to pool our resources.
‘I think the people who have succeeded in the documentary sector have really nailed the international production model. There is a whole group of people whose models have changed now and we want to make sure they also have the skills and understanding that can provide a lot of new opportunities. Last year we were looking nationally to see the opportunities and now we are trying to fit into the international landscape. I think that has been a real focus of ours.’
This is a discussion about the AIDC but the context is much larger. On the customer side, filmmakers see their own passions becoming the commodity of buyers driven by large audiences looking for entertainment, allegedly impatient to hit the stop button.
‘Those are policies that Screen Australia needs to think about, and the broadcasters,’ says Alice Burgin. ‘ Independent producers are feeling isolated and frustrated. We can’t necessarily help with the funding, but we are trying to get as much money into our market as we can. ($500,000 by last count across a range of initiatives and new funding sources).’
‘But we can figure out more collaborative models with less risk. Then we can get away from the current situation by making sure they have some funding going to different stories and different communities. Indigenous stories are critical and we are becoming a country where our Indigenous practitioners are known all over the world. And that is really amazing and we should be proud of that.’
At the moment we are seeing talented, frustrated filmmakers trapped outside the system in a vicious circle. They don’t have a minimum level of credits because they can only be learnt from inside the system. Those gates are getting rustier and rustier across many exclusionary points in the screen sector, tested in documentary by funding arrangements brokered by the AIDC.
The conference, for instance, is hosting a joint program by Screen Australia and Al-Jazeera. Six projects will pitch at the conference for three slots for half hour documentaries to run on the AJE Witness slot which covers television, online and apps. Each film will contain ‘bold storytelling, includes a strong central character driving the narrative arc, and can make a global impact with a topical global theme as a backdrop’, according to the rules.
Bernadette Lim, the Screen Australia Head of Documentary, is quoted as saying, ‘We want to inspire and support early career documentary filmmakers to discover and embrace international opportunities in this rapidly changing media landscape.’