The Cannes Film Festival often shines a light on the new wave of films to come. It is there that we get our first glance at films, but it is only the beginning of a long voyage that will eventually see these stories shared by many. At this past Cannes Film Festival, for example, the Palme d’Or was presented to a film from Romania: 4 Luni, 3 Saptamini si 2 Zile; or 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. That’s a sure indication that the world is changing.
A few weeks before the festival, I find myself in Cannes. MIP is in full swing. It’s a huge hive of activity – a place where productions from the whole world converge. Everyone comes, hoping to stock up for their channel, and fill their slots. Films fill a need.
But when the logic of the global market so often decides the content, even for documentaries, is it time to reconsider the role of the commissioning editor? I decide to thwart the usual drive to simply fill slots and instead open myself to the world.
Television has a voracious appetite, but the images ingested have a different value now. It’s not like the cinema anymore. You have to fill an increasingly precise set of expectations from the audience. The viewer is a client – a king who must be courted.
But the kingdom in which we’re working is not so simple to run. It is complex, and in it we face an infinite set of constraints which often cause us so much interference that we are prevented from seeing the potential of what we do, and what is really important.
It reminds me of the impressionist painting The Lunch on the Grass by Edouard Manet, refused at the Paris Salon in the name of a certain idea of what a painting should be. In those days, decision-makers at galleries held in their hands the power to decide which works of art would connect most with the public.
The academic way in which we make decisions now can often prevent us from discovering the most beautiful of revelations. We cling to recognized and widely shared values. Many of the international coproductions we carry out are weakened by our need to reach a common agreement. Are we producing, or just reproducing? Why risk a creation when a recreation is a safer bet? The decision to take risks has been taken out of the hands of the filmmaker and placed into the hands of the broadcaster and the commissioning editor.
The role of commissioning editor is as much a privilege as it is a heavy responsibility, for the choices we make today often determine what’s on offer tomorrow. Should we protect ourselves and our positions, or nourish a piece of art that doesn’t belong to us and concentrate on bringing to light the most beautiful discoveries we can? It’s a question of view – or, more accurately, glance. In Arabic, ‘glance’ has two meanings. It can refer to ‘a look;’ but it also describes the source of a spring or river, a place where rain returns to the earth. It describes something that is both taken and something that is returned.
As journalists continually seek breaking news, so too must commissioning editors always be on the lookout for new programming, always seeking to go further, without slackening. Television must return to its role as the medium that collects and offers up the new images being dreamt of in the mind of the creator, preserving the singularity and the identity of their vision.
It is possible to imagine an alternative that will restore the balance – a new kind of acquisition policy based on a different economic model that will encourage independence, allowing films to be born and travel freely. Acquisitions could become a leadership position, a formidable tool for opening doors.
To find that pearl while everyone else is just drowning in an ocean of images is the impetus upon which the new television landscape must be built. As commissioning editors, we must open ourselves to the world that has become available to us via new media. We can no longer restrict ourselves to the media sources from which we traditionally pull. I dream that commissioning editors will one day be connected to the countless films available throughout the world, 24 hours a day. Our expertise will then allow us to make the choices that will build strong identities for our channels, upon which viewers can rely.
Much more, it can open us to the world and offer us visions and works that don’t come from familiar places, on subjects that are foreign to us. We can open our minds to different points of view on a foreign subject, told in foreign but complementary ways. We can war against our ignorance and incomprehension, and each of us can gain a singular vision of the world, opening our eyes to diversity and the richness of different points of view; that has become my new mission.
More than programs to share, we have values to defend: to respect film and the public we serve, so that both can remain free.