From October 24-30, Doctober makes its debut this year in Pasadena, California, with the 13th annual International Documentary Association (IDA) Awards to be handed out on October 31 after its close.
The festival was created by the IDA to help documentary filmmakers comply with a change in the Academy Award rules stating that qualifying films must run for seven consecutive days at a regularly paid, theatrically advertised screening in Los Angeles County or Manhattan. ‘If you’re an independent filmmaker with a short film and live in Iowa City, Iowa, you probably don’t have the wherewithal of how to get your film into the theater,’ says Betsy McLane, executive director of the IDA. ‘Imagine you’re from Poland… How are you going to play it in a theater in Manhattan or L.A.? It’s nearly impossible.’
Doctober features 13 documentaries from independent filmmakers along with student submissions. Films to be shown include Scary Man from Netherlands-based Ruim Kader Films (producer Albert Elings and director Eugenie Jansen) and It Ain’t Love, executive produced by actor Edward James Olmos. McLane hopes to have more international participation in the future.
Formed in 1982 to support documentary filmmakers, promote the genre and offer educational outreach, the IDA is comprised of 1,700 members from 25 countries, with the majority of its membership coming from North America. It is the only U.S. organization devoted specifically to documentaries.
While the festival has been enthusiastically received by filmmakers, the ida is also working with local schools, senior citizen centers and bookstores to form groups to attend daytime screenings and meet the filmmakers. Doctober is sponsored in part by the Eastman-Kodak Company and by Pasadena’s State Theater, which is donating space for screenings.
For nearly 30 years, Henry Hampton, as president and executive producer of Boston-based production company Blackside, has examined critical social issues, racial problems and conflicts in 20th Century America. Best known for his award-winning 1987 PBS series Eyes on the Prize, which chronicles the American civil-rights movement, Hampton’s other work includes the follow-up series Eyes on the Prize II, The Great Depression, and Malcolm X: Make It Plain. This year, the International Documentary Association honors his work with a career achievement award at the gala on October 31.
His current projects, airing on pbs in 1998 and 1999, include: Hopes on the Horizon, a ten-hour series about post-colonial Africa; I’ll Make Me a World, which examines the influence of 20th Century African-American art, music, dance and literature; and a film about the black church and the American faith community.
A staunch advocate of the long-form TV documentary, Hampton sees it as catalyst for the examination of important issues. ‘Every couple of years, a program will bring people to a serious subject,’ he says. ‘Television [can be] a powerful initiator of education.’ Hampton is concerned that commercial constraints force television networks to focus more on sizzle than substance.
As well, he believes that shrinking government dollars for the arts hurts the nation’s youth. ‘On our list of priorities the arts should be very high and I feel that it’s not,’ he says. ‘Being able to bring to young people a sense of something more than the rat-a-tat-tat of the evening news is crucial, and without some ability to sponsor arts on television and in schools, we have very few antidotes.’
Hampton spoke with RealScreen about the state of documentary filmmaking in relation to American TV:
What’s the status of informational television?
Unfortunately, most documentary programming now is driven by the needs of the commercial viewer. People believe that good audiences aren’t willing to sit still for long-form informational programming. I vehemently disagree. With proper promotion and subject selection, you can really generate an audience.
Have documentaries become too entertainment-oriented?
Many fine filmmakers work in [docu-tainment] format because it’s one of the few that’s accessible. I’m admiring of their ability to create what they have, but some subjects are given less than full coverage because of that limit. What’s happening is the same way television news has become a shortened version of too much information or too little information – I’m afraid that the documentary could be forced into a certain kind of style, and not encourage longer forms to allow the subject to be accurately analyzed and forcefully presented.
What is most disturbing about TV documentaries?
[Networks] are looking for subjects that have some heat and immediate audience appeal. What happens is that you have a strangulation of ideas because [the network documentary] needs to promise an audience.
How does that effect the viewer?
It’s in everybody’s interest to recreate not only the film style of documentary, but the listening and watching style. We train our viewers to watch in a certain way by using very quick-cuts and multi-dimensional production techniques that may maintain attention, but do not do a very good job of probing and taking on some riskier subjects that remain untouched.
How can that be changed?
An audience now has been brought in that’s been attracted to ‘reality programming’ and we’re training them for certain expectations. The problem is subject selection. Must it always be about death or sex or government flaws? Documentaries can be enormously helpful to people simply because of the risks that they take – like looking at the raising of children, or what it’s like growing up in poverty, or examining the economic inequities in our country. That was the kind of material that brought me into documentaries. We need one or two or seven or twenty of those a year to sort of jolt the audience into recognizing what’s going on.
How does the cutting of government funding hurt the documentary filmmaker?
The most burdensome part of our work is fundraising. Early money is the hardest, and that’s what government funding was able to do. It becomes difficult to energize new sources. I’ll typically spend two years to get to the point of starting, seeking support from a number of sources that are becoming fewer and fewer. If you have a $2 million budget for a six-hour series, you need to walk in the door with $200,000 or $500,000 in order to have credibility when your approach others for support.
What can the documentary do that other forms of film can’t?
By using reality material artfully, you can get people to enter a period and truly learn from it. Can you tell me what it was like to be on the streets of Selma [Alabama] without some help from the documentary filmmaker? I believe that you can change a lot about what happens today by an examination of yesterday and then the focusing on tomorrow.
What common thread runs through your work?
We are interested in the nature of democracy, and the obligations of a society to its people, and the responsibilities of those citizens to its government.
What does the future hold for the craft of documentaries on television?
I remain optimistic. I continue to believe that a series of good documentaries about serious subjects can make a significant impact on the world. I hope before I drop off the planet to have a couple of more shows that just might do that.
1997 IDA Award nominees
* A Healthy Baby Girl, Judith Helfand Productions, New York, U.S.
* Cuba’s Rafters, Televisio de Catalunya, Sant Joan, Spain
* Donka, The X-Ray of an African Hospital, Les Films de la Posserelle, Liege, Belgium
* Mandela, Clinica Estetico, NYC, U.S.
* Paul Monette: The Brink of Summer’s End, Brink of Summer’s End Productions, Los Angeles, U.S.
* Scary Man Ruim, Kader Films, Amsterdam, Netherlands
* Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist Kirby Dick, New York, U.S.
* Soul in the Hole, Asphalt Films, NYC, U.S.
* Taken For a Ride, New Day Films, Hohokus, U.S.
* Under Wraps, Starry Night Productions, Vancouver, Canada
* Waco: The Rules of Engagement, 5th Estate Productions/Somford Entertainment, Los Angeles, U.S.
* Bubbeh Lee & Me, Open Eye Pictures, San Francisco, U.S.
* Memories Do Not Burn, DMP Productions, NYC, U.S.
* Other People’s Wars, Digit-Film, Warsaw, Poland
* Sandra’s Webb: A Mother’s Diary, HBO, Los Angeles, U.S.
* The Burning Barrel, First Light Films International, Montreal, Canada
* Cadillac Desert, Trans Pacific Television, Los Angeles, u.s.
* Dawn of the Eye, CBC, Toronto, Canada
* The Coming Plague, Turner Original Productions, Atlanta, U.S.
* The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, KCEt, L.A., U.S.
* With God On Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America, Lumiere Productions, NYC, U.S.
* Love Story, BBC, London, U.K.
* Man Ray: Prophet of the Avant-Garde, American Masters/ Thirteen/ WNET, New York, U.S.
* Muhammad Ali, BBC, London, U.K.
* The Burger & The King, BBC, London, U.K.
* Without Pity: A Film About Abilities Michael Mierendorf Productions, Santa Fe, U.S.
Wolper Student Award:
* Beauty Before Age, Stanford University
* Caught in the Crossfire, University of Southern California
* Jesse’s Gone, U.C. Berkeley
* Jules at Eight, Stanford University
* The Town That Jack Built, University of Texas at Austin
* Watershed Keeper, San Francisco State University
* Wayne Freedman’s Notebook, Stanford University
* Whose Wall Is It Anyway?, New York University
ABCNews VideoSource Award:
* Beyond Barbed Wire, Mac and Ava Motion Picture Productions, Monterey, U.S.
* Big Jim Folsom: The Two Faces of Populism Waterfront Pictures, Hoboken, U.S.
* Taken For a Ride, New Day Films, Hohokus, U.S.
* The Long Way Home, Moriah Films/Seventh Art, Los Angeles, U.S.
* The Rosenberg File: Case Closed Global American Television, NYC, U.S.
Pare Lorentz Award:
* A World Beneath The War The Gardner Group, NYC, U.S.
* Cuba’s Rafters, Television de Catalunya, Sant Joan Despi, Spain
* Donka, The X-Ray of an African Hospital, Les Films de la Posserelle, Leige, Belgium
* Fear and Learning at Hoover Elementary, Fear and Learning Inc., Los Angeles, U.S.
* Mandela, Clinica Estetico, NYC, U.S.