BERLIN 2000: Selling Docs at Berinale's Stepping Stone
by Claus Muller
(indieWIRE/2.26.2000) — With the strong Hollywood accent of the Berlin Film Festival (the
prevalence of “amtrash” or “American Trash” as noted by one
attendee), documentaries are central to the Berlinale’s reputation as a
quality-oriented festival. As distinct from other European film
festivals, a significant part of the Berlinale’s Forum and Panorama
documentary program is devoted to demanding selections. Among the 750
films in the Berlinale and the European Film Market (EFM) program, about
100 were documentaries. Favorite themes for the docs were politics,
film, music, sex, and migration and minorities.
Compared to earlier Berlin editions, only a few documentaries dealt with
the Third Reich. Surprisingly, apart from Nigel Nobel‘s superb Sundance
entry, “Os Carvoeiros” (“The Charcoal People”) at the European Film
Market, no other Berlinale section featured environmental issues.
Compared to the essayistic, poetic, and intellectualized orientation of
many European productions, several originating in the US (or co-produced
there) stood out because of their raw documentary orientation. Immediacy
of images, “cinema verite” approaches, use of archival material,
application of different media, and editing that avoided the high gloss
manufactured image of Hollywood (or of the Discovery Channel), made
these documentaries involve the viewer and prompt reflection.
Peter Sillen and Jem Cohen‘s “Benjamin Smoke,” a Forum selection,
depicts life and death of Benjamin, a gay transvestite rock singer in
the context of his native Cabbagetown. The largely biographical “A
Sudden Loss of Gravity” (also in the Forum) by Todd Verow covers the
every day booze-soaked life of high school punks in Bangor, Maine.
Approaches were similar to Julien Temple‘s “The Filth and the Fury“
(main selection but out of competition) a brilliant U.K. montage of the
footage covering the political background and career of The Sex Pistols.
This was also echoed in Yutaka Tsuchiya‘s video “The New God” (Forum)
which focused on an ultra nationalist punk rock band in Japan.
More conventional but still rather effective documentary styles were
chosen by Sundance winners Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffman for “Long
Night’s Journey Into Day” (Forum), and Michael Camerini and Shari
Robertson for “Well-Founded Fear” (EFM). Quite distinct from the
conventional were two US entries: Owsley Brown presented the superb,
effectively structured and beautifully photographed “Night Waltz: The
Music of Paul Bowles,” in the Panorama Section and James
Benning’s visually stunning meditation, “El Valley Centro,” about the
California Central Valley, appeared in the Forum.
Virtually all of the American documentaries played to full houses,
frequently with standing room only. But is there a market for
them? Distribution deals for “Benjamin Smoke” and for David Gordon Green‘s
“George Washington” were inked, but no firm deals had been signed for
any of the other productions that the IFP hosted at the Berlinale. Given
its special Forum and Panorama programs, well-organized and
cost-effective market, calendar presence as the first major European
film festival, and quality reputation, the Berlinale remains the most
important European film fest for independent American documentary
filmmakers — with some obstacles for new comers.
On the upside, there seems to be a consensus that there is a greater
interest in documentaries in Europe, (for better or worse) because of
more ‘reality-based’ television and new distribution technologies. For
European and co-producing Americans there are also numerous funding
mechanisms like state film foundations, upscale television channels such
as Arte and 3sat, and media projects funded by European Union agencies
providing subsidies ranging from script development to sub-titling (for
At the 2000 Berlinale, productions compete for attention with about 750
other films and videos and other parallel events like the MEDIALE. To
have a presence through the IFP Abroad platform in the European Film
Market is essential but not sufficient. The
producer/director needs to engage in the Berlinale hustle to get
attention. According to Milton Tabbot, IFP’s market director, the
directors of “Ghengis Blues” were successful in 1999 because they spent
much of their time personally promoting their film.
Further market specialists Thomas Frickel manager of the German ag.doc
(documentary filmmakers association) and Jan Rofekamp, head of Films
Transit International, one of the most successful distribution companies
at the EFM argue an obvious point: first person stories, family
portraits, biographical expositions dear to the filmmaker, are difficult
to place unless the audience can relate to them. The self-portrait of a
born again Newark hipster with a camera does not play well in Greece
(unless the hipster is Greek).
Also, buyers in Europe now expect much higher technical standards. Since
European television does not adhere to rigid time slots, productions are
easier to place if different lengths are offered. It helps distributors
if a feature length documentary also has
a 60-minute off-line version available. U.S. filmmakers need European
partners since they cannot place films nor apply for
support from funding agencies on their own.
Some distributors, which were recommended at the EFM, were Cologne based
Media Luna run by Ida Martins (email email@example.com); Heimo
Deckert‘s d-net-sales (email firstname.lastname@example.org) and mdc international,
Wigbert Moschall (email email@example.com). Both d-net-sales and mdc work
out of Berlin. Films Transit International, which handles several U.S.
productions, selected for the Forum or the Panorama has an interest only
in documentaries which can also be placed on television
Even if distribution chances might be slim, the Berlinale is crucial for
US documentary filmmakers since it is the stepping stone to the
international festival circuit. As the first event on the annual
festival calendar, representatives of all important film festivals
trying to fill their schedules frequent the Berlinale. If your doc does
not sell, you may be able to travel with it.