Talking Documentary

10 June 2015

Documentary is a hot topic at the moment.

I recently attended the Documentary Edge Festival’s Screen Edge Forum in Auckland, opened with an address by Chris McDonald, the president of the second largest documentary film festival in the world, Hot Docs in Toronto. Chris highlighted the growth of Hot Docs from its inception with an audience of 4,000 to where it is today—a festival that attracts over 200,000, draws 300 buyers from around the world and this last year selected some 140 films from 2700 submissions.

Chris’s presentation was in part an encouragement to Alex Lee and Dan Shanan who celebrated the 10th birthday of their Documentary Edge Festival, which has finished its run in Auckland and is now taking place in Wellington.

Doc Edge is a vital outlet for Kiwi documentary makers to get their films in front of audiences, and a number of DEGNZ members did so, including Briar March, Richard Riddiford, Chris Dudman, Tony Forster, Rowena Baines and Bertie Plaatsman.

The NZ International Film Festival (NZIFF) coming up soon provides another key documentary showcase for local films and amongst the 10 docos announced so far, DEGNZ members Rebecca Tansley, Costa Botes and Shirley Horrocks have docos in it.

The documentary highlight of the year so far has got to be the acclaimed The Ground We Won from DEGNZ member Chris Pryor and his partner in life and film Miriam Smith. This film comes hot on the heels of another resounding documentary success by DEGNZ member Bryn Evans with his equally popular Hip-Hoperation.

So what’s behind all of this feature documentary activity?

Some say the demise of the documentary form on broadcast television. TV documentaries have taken a dive in NZ since their heyday some years ago. And those that still get through are considered to be highly proscriptive. With feature documentary, the filmmaker supposedly gets to say what they want to, not what the broadcaster tells them their viewing audience wants to see.

Some attribute it to the New Zealand Film Commission’s (NZFC) increased funding for documentary feature and the joint documentary initiatives run by NZFC and New Zealand on Air (NZOA). At Screen Edge Wellington, NZFC CEO Dave Gibson told the audience there are 12 documentaries in production with NZFC funding. At the same time he pointed out the NZFC requirement for a strong audience engagement plan as a string to help trigger funding—something equally demanded by NZOA. There are undoubtedly documentary filmmakers with plans at the ready awaiting the outcome of the NZFC’s board meeting of the last two days to see if the joint initiative Doc Connect is going to continue.

Another factor touted in the growth of documentary is the demise of TV journalism and Current Affairs.

International Documentary Association (IDA) Board President Marajan Safina in a recent review of that LA-based organisation’s last six years cited the gap left by journalism as helping to set the documentary form on fire.

A local example of this could well be TV3 journalist David Farrier’s documentary The Tickle King: The Hunt for Truth in Competitive Tickling nearing completion with NZFC funding. What started out as a just another possible loopy news story by Farrier has ended up as a potentially investigative documentary on the shady individual and company behind an allegedly exploitative scheme. Campbell Live might have given this story more airtime if it were still around.

Internationally, the rise of Netflix is considered a contributing factor to the strengthening of the documentary form.

Netflix has brought its ever increasing financial muscle to documentary projects, such as a Leonardo DiCaprio documentary feature and series themed around the environment, and other high profile documentaries it is engaging with at an early stage. This follows some years of documentary acquisition and brand building around the form, which is delivering new audiences for documentary in the streaming service’s constantly expanding connected world.

The news out of the last Sundance is also positive for docos. The Film Collaborative (TFC) reports that of the 41 docos on offer, 23 found deals with two including The Wolf Pack, which will screen at NZIFF, going for six figures, while Hot Girls Wanted, which screened at Doc Edge, did an all-rights deal with… you guessed it… Netflix.

It’s not all coming up roses, though.

In regard to distribution, the trend in the US at least is for documentaries geared towards TV/Netflix as it’s becoming harder to do a theatrical release.

On the funding front there, Emmy Award winning filmmaker Pete Nicks pointed out in an IDA column that while the US is experiencing a creative non-fiction boom and there are now a large number of organisations that US filmmakers can tap into for funding, those organisations expect social impact bangs for their bucks, potentially limiting creative filmmaking freedom. He goes on to add that the one thing that will not change is the difficulty in finding funding for small, quirky, character-driven, art-house documentary films.

In the documentary feature editing workshop that DEGNZ ran in Wellington last weekend, we worked with one such quirky film.

Director Jess Feast and producer Vicky Pope allowed the eight experienced editors in attendance to utilize the footage from Jess’s film Gardening With Soul. This gentle tale following a year in the garden with Sister Loyola is exactly the kind of film that is proving difficult to get up in the U.S. With just $15k in investment funding and $25k in a film finishing grant from NZFC, Gardening with Soul went on to earn around $500k at the NZ box office via self distribution. This success was done off the back of a focused marketing effort around Catholics and gardeners, and shows that the spades in this garden were definitely in. For the audience-engaged NZFC, Gardening with Soul is undoubtedly an unqualified success. Hopefully, the filmmakers will find a way to get this endearing film into the hearts of international audiences. And we wish all the documentary makers in the guild the same or better success.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director