Nurturing the Work in Progress, DocuClub Showcases New Non-Fiction Films
by Adam Burnett
Despite recent industry and audience interest in documentary film, one low-profile community of filmmakers has remained consistent in supporting the form for the past ten years. The Manhattan-based DocuClub, modeled after the European cineclubs of the 1920 and ’30s, nurtures works-in-progress through feedback-based screenings, helps filmmakers find financial backing, and provides a normally isolated collection of filmmakers with a much needed sense of community.
Organized by documentary filmmaker Susan Kaplan in 1994, DocuClub developed out of Kaplan’s desire get feedback on her documentary “Small Wonders.” “I was finding that I had a lot of friends in the midst of trying to get a documentary off the ground,” explains Kaplan, now DocuClub’s Executive Director, “and that though there are great organizations in the city that provide some what of a community of documentary filmmakers, I didn’t find anything that really helped, like a support group.”
The first form of DocuClub was little more than eight filmmakers pulling chairs together at the offices of Kaplan’s Hibiscus Films office and watching each other’s works-in-progress. Each person contributed 10 names to a mailing list and over the years, the list grew from 80 to 3,650. In a constant state of transition, what started out as an informal circle of filmmakers slowly became a membership-based nonprofit organization. “The idea really originated with the feeling of working on a film and wanting something like this for my project,” explains Kaplan. “And once we put our mailing list together and sent out [the announcement] that we were doing this, we got an enormous response and said ‘Boy, this has just got a life of its own.'”
In January, the group received a 501(c)(3) title giving DocuClub official non-profit organization status. Additionally, last season’s In-the-Works events showcasing works-in-progress, held at the Makor Theater at the Steinhardt Center for the past three years, drew crowds large enough to warrant a move to a bigger location. The upcoming “In-the-Works” season may be potentially held at Symphony Space, but that has yet to be confirmed.
In-the-Works offers filmmakers the opportunity to screen rough cuts of their docs to audiences comprised of filmmakers, editors, and the general public. After each screening, an experienced filmmaker facilitates a 30-40 minute feedback session that encourages the audience to offer honest criticism of the work. “Documentary filmmakers work in a bubble,” explains DocuClub’s Program Manager Liz Ogilvie. “To actually get together an audience of people who can just give feed back is really, really hard and we like to offer that.”
Submissions for DocuClub’s “In-the-Works” series typically increase tenfold in the months leading up to Sundance and the organization is currently weeding through submissions in preparation for their Fall season which will begin on September 13. The deadline for an October 4th screening is September 6.
Rob Fruchtman screened his film “Sister Helen,” winner of the Director’s Award at Sundance in 2002, at DocuClub and claims In-the-Works was critical in the development of his film. “We all work in our editing room and we really don’t know what we’ve got,” Fruchtman says. “It’s a very haphazard system — [In-the- Works] helped us to clarify the story. The things that we take for granted in telling a story go right over [an audience’s] head and then only an audience will see something that we as filmmakers had no idea was in there, either good or bad. It enabled us to change our story, strengthen it. So we came a way with a real sense of what the audience was getting and not getting.”
To submit a film, one need only become a DocuClub member for a fee of $40. Typically, six films are selected each year and are picked based on the film’s stage of post-production. DocuClub looks to help films nearing completion yet wanting further outsider input. In the past, filmmakers with finished products have been unreceptive to criticism and rough-hewn early cuts have proven to distract the audience’s sense of the material.
In 2002, DocuClub introduced two Idea Workshops in January and March, where a group of pre-selected filmmakers screen their trailers and pitch their ideas to industry representatives. Feedback is based on the strength of the pitch and potential market interest in the film. In the past, representatives from POV, Trio, the Sundance Channel, the Discovery-Times Channel, HBO, Emerging Pictures, National Video Resources, Film Video Arts, the Independent Film Channel, and Wellspring have all attended the Idea Workshop.
Lori Cheatle whose film “This Land is Your Land” screened at DocuClub, and premiered at South by Southwest, explains that her relationship with DocuClub was as productive in the film’s afterlife as it was during the work-in-progress stage. She explains, “[Kaplan and Ogilvie] have been very helpful to us after the film was finished, like putting us in touch with people if they have a conversation with a distributor that they think might be interested in our film. They’ve been really quite kind about that sort of thing. They take the broader notion of not just getting these films done well, but helping the people’s careers.”
David Sampliner, whose “Dirty Work” was screened at DocuClub, explains, “It always seemed to be a fiction that there’s this community of artists out there all doing the same thing, who actually talk to one another and help each other out and sometimes teach one another. And then I heard that that actually existed among people who went to DocuClub — that it was a kind of well-attended, informed, and really enthusiastic group that really did provide, at least in part, a documentary-making community.”
In recent years, DocuClub has created In-the-Works programs at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and the Newport International Film Festival, and is hoping to set up a program with the Silver Docs festival in 2005. These programs are limited to regional filmmakers and are the first steps towards DocuClub’s hopes of spreading its inspired conception of community-based filmmaking.
[Adam Burnett is currently attending NYU where he is majoring in Cinema Studies and Journalism. He began writing for indieWIRE in June 2004.]