Several years ago, award-winning doc producer Andrzej Fidyk was producing for the BBC, in part due to the scarcity of reasonable budgets with which to produce docs at home, in Poland. One problem, he says, was the limited number of slots for documentaries on Poland’s two main public and several private channels.
With acclaimed films like Parade, Russian Striptease, and Carnival under his belt, he could have continued making docs for the international market. Instead, he threw his hat into the ring when Poland’s public Channel One was seeking a new director for its documentary unit. He accepted the position with the condition that he would have two weekly primetime slots for documentaries and an adequate budget to deliver.
Today, he is in his third year as executive producer of Czas Na Dokument, a two-part, weekly doc strand on Channel One. Consisting of two separate slots (the first being an hour and the second being a half-hour), the strand airs over 75 hours annually in primetime. This, says Fidyk, is more than both Poland’s public channels previously offered in all time slots. In addition, the unit translates and overdubs a comparable amount of other non-fiction (primarily travel, wildlife and educational programs, mostly acquisitions) from abroad that are slated for daytime viewing.
Fidyk’s goal for Czas Na Dokument was simple yet daunting: ‘I wanted to present documentaries in a way that made them attractive TV viewing, without compromising their content or perspective.’ Today, the strand (a 60-minute Tuesday slot and a 30-minute Thursday slot) pulls a market share in the 18%-20% range, sometimes as high as 30% and even 40%.
‘From the beginning I wanted to show the best documentaries available, those with strong content and artistic value. The majority of our acquisitions have won Emmys or Oscars or other high awards. I buy the best international documentaries that I can possibly afford,’ says Fidyk.
His criteria for commissioning is straightforward. ‘I consider three main points: the subject, meaning the story; the approach to the story, meaning how it will be handled; and the director responsible for realizing the idea. If someone proposes a good subject with an interesting approach and story line, they have my attention. But, it takes a good director and producer to bring all the elements together for our TV audience.’
At least half the docs featured on Czas na Dokument are commissioned. However, not all of these are contracted independently. ‘In cases where the person with the idea doesn’t have the experience necessary to direct and produce it, we’ll produce it in-house. They may do the research and writing while we handle the rest, or they may do more or less depending on their background and interests,’ says Fidyk.
Fidyk is also inclined to nurture new talent. ‘I teach at one of Poland’s main film schools, and I enjoy working with talented students. If a student has enough background and talent, but perhaps limited experience, we may let them try directing, but provide them with plenty of support. That includes helping them with creative and logistical problems. It may involve a lot of staff time, but it’s all worthwhile when a project is completed successfully.’
Not surprisingly, Czas Na Dokument has provided a launch pad for aspiring directors and producers. ‘One day they’re just another film student, but the day after the broadcast they have the status of TV directors,’ says Fidyk. To date, nearly 20 student-produced docs have made the cut, including recent award winners like Magdalena Piekorz’s Girls of Szyman—w and Piotr Kielar’s The Double Life of Miss Kierat.
However, the majority of commissions for Czas Na Dokument go to seasoned directors and producers living in Poland. According to Fidyk, approximately 50 new docs are commissioned each year, and at least 60% of those are deals with independents. ‘In many cases, once the contract is signed, I have very little contact with them until it’s finished and ready for screening. Generally this works the best for both of us,’ he says. While budgets vary widely, a typical budget is in the US$30,000 range, according to Fidyk.
Fidyk is open to working with non-Polish directors and producers, whether in Poland or abroad, but such projects are few and far between: ‘While the nationality of the director and producer are not so important to me, every film which we commission has to be about, or connected to, life in Poland. They must also be about subjects to which Polish viewers can relate, and be done in Polish. So far, except in a few cases, we have commissioned only Poles living in Poland. However, we have done some coproductions with zdf and Swedish public television, working with Polish producers living abroad.’
A selective approach to acquisitions is an inherent part of Fidyk’s strategy for raising the level of documentary production in Poland. ‘From the beginning, I wanted to show the very best documentaries from abroad along with Polish ones. I hoped it would challenge Polish directors and producers to aim for the same high production values. Our documentaries have won more and more top awards at the big festivals from Krakow to Leipzig, Amsterdam, and even at Cinema du Reel in Paris.’
The recognition earned by films commissioned for Czas Na Dokument has enabled Fidyk to maintain both weekly primetime slots and his production budget from the network. ‘One of the biggest challenges has been to maintain our funding level from Channel One in order to produce two primetime programs. The success of our films at festivals, plus our good ratings, help a lot, but even so it has been tough to hang on to both slots.’
In order to continue commissioning the desired quality of projects, additional funding sources have been marshaled, both within and outside Poland. Polish government and foundation sources have been tapped, while coproductions have been pursued outside. A coproduction relationship has been formed with Canal+, albeit on a case-by-case basis.
One reason additional funding is needed is a predilection for shooting film. ‘We like to shoot film, especially when we can control the lighting and shooting ratio to enhance artistic values. We even shoot on 35mm occasionally, when the situation warrants it,’ says Fidyk. Nevertheless, he estimates that at least half of the stories commissioned for Czas Na Dokument are shot on video, mainly on Betacam.
Besides its artistic and social merit, a key factor in the success of Czas Na Dokument has been proactive self-promotion. Perhaps the most successful promotional vehicle has been the monthly screenings at Warsaw’s Cinema Muranow. Held on the first or second Wednesday of the month, the screenings offer a preview of Czas Na Dokument’s highlights for the coming month. They also provide a live forum for discussion amongst reporters, students, producers and film aficionados. ‘[It] has become a popular event, something which many people look forward to each month. It also ensures that journalists who attend will at least report on next month’s program highlights. Channel One’s cultural affairs TV unit always covers it for on-air promotion as well. It’s worked very well for us,’ says Fidyk.
Czas Na Dokument’s work on behalf of documentaries paid off this winter with the bestowal of the prestigious `Victor Award’ for the best television program in Poland. Says Fidyk, ‘This affirmed my goal to make documentaries popular primetime television, with broad appeal. We plan to continue offering good and hopefully great documentaries in the future.’