By Wanda Bershen

War without End: ‘The House I Live In’ Deconstructs America’s Failed Drug Policies

Online Articles: September 2012

Amid the media frenzy surrounding the Republican and Democratic conventions and upcoming elections, perhaps you find yourself in need of something more substantive than dialogue with empty chairs. By all means, check out Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year. The film opens October 5 in New York City, and will tour to cities across America through the fall.

The House I Live In takes on the 40-year history of the “War on Drugs,” exploring in depth why it has been such a costly failure. No dry exegeses, this story is full of unexpected twists and turns, and compelling accounts from police officers, prison authorities, Federal judges, journalists, politicians, inmates and families trying to deal with drug users in their own homes. Jarecki lays out complex issues in accessible terms, delineating a clear analysis of what has happened over four decades– and in the process telling the stories of individuals from all over the United States.

From Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In. Phot: Sam Cullman. Courtesy of Charlotte St. Films

Opening with his personal account of his family background and that of Nannie Jeter, his African-American childhood caretaker, Jarecki counterpoints the experience of the two families throughout the film. While his white, Jewish family moved up the economic ladder, Nannie lost a son to drugs and had to migrate north to find work. That was how she became part of the Jarecki family.

One of the key issues in the film is the contention by several academics and journalists that drug policy is driven by economics. Scholar Richard Lawrence Miller relates an eye-opening history of drug policies as a means to oppress minority populations in America, whether through the criminalization of opium to purge the Chinese in California, or cocaine and hemp to vilify blacks and Mexicans.

This disturbing pattern is what journalist/television producer David Simon (The Wire) characterizes as a “chain of destruction.” Draconian sentencing laws have driven thousands into the prison system, which has consequently evolved into a big business–in many cases providing economic support to entire towns. There’s more of an incentive, then, to populate the prisons than to address the culture of drugs.

Journalist/TV producer David Simon, featured in Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In. Photo: Sam Cullman. Courtesy of Charlotte St. Films

“Drug abuse is ultimately a matter of public health that has instead been treated as an opportunity for law enforcement and an expanding criminal justice system,” Jarecki observes. “I saw how this misguided approach has helped make America the world’s largest jailer, imprisoning her citizens at a higher rate per capita than any other nation on earth.”

Police officers in the film reveal that colleagues with multiple arrests per week or month are able to generate significant overtime pay, while those in homicide or fraud don’t get those perks. The Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, laws enacted in the 1980s allow cops to pull over any car and search for drugs, even if they find nothing and make no arrests. In the process the police may confiscate any drugs or large sums of cash they find.

Mike Carpenter, chief of security at Lexington Corrections Center in Oklahoma, doesn’t mince words in describing the policy failure, which forces everyone-law enforcers and defendants- into untenable positions. “Some of the prison guards there were among the most thoughtful people I have met and have better ideas on how to change things than most I’ve heard,” Jarecki notes. “They confront the problems of over-crowding, over-penalization of non-violent drug offenders, and diminishing resources on a daily basis.”

We also hear from US District Court Judge Mark Bennett regarding the disastrous results of the extreme sentencing laws. He has no choice but to give life sentences to defendants arrested for possession of a small amount of drugs. That is a major way the prison system has mushroomed into a billion-dollar industry.

Photo: Etienne Sauret. Courtesy of Charlotte St. Films

What makes The House I Live In so engaging is the access Jarecki manages, even in situations that could show his subjects in a bad light. He stresses the importance of taking time to get to know people before interviewing them on camera in order to understand the context they inhabit. One of his subjects, a town marshal in New Mexico, was initially a chance encounter; Jarecki had asked him for directions. They started talking, and Jarecki asked him about the war on drugs. The marshal not only obliged, but also made both his office and his home available for filming interviews-and he provided valuable insight into aspects of the system in which he works.

Contrast the marshal with Larry, an inmate who admits to Jarecki that prison was the best thing that happened to him, underscoring how unforgiving life is for drug users on the outside. Larry vents about how funding for skills training in prisons too often gets diverted by politicians who maintain their power through War on Drugs posturing.

With access to such a rich range of individuals comes responsibility to them, especially in how they’re filmed. “The trouble with a camera–particularly a camera that is ultimately making a product to sell to the public–is that it can, even with the best of intentions, become yet another instrument of abuse, something that can woefully compromise human dignity if misused,” Jarecki explains. “I have often been filming people in compromising positions–whether they are on the receiving end of our callous and broken system of draconian laws or whether they are charged with enforcing them–and it often doesn’t look good for any of them. For others, seeing police enforce laws that are unjust and make arrests that too often accrue to their personal benefit does not make them look very good either. So the balancing act, ethically, of portraying people candidly and rigorously while preserving their dignity before the camera is a delicate one.”

When it comes to editing, Jarecki sticks to his overall objective, even when some footage might be particularly powerful. Sometimes he has to “muscle out” his best footage, since he won’t use anything which looks like an ambush of the subject. His aim in the editing room was to show how social, political and economic systems become dysfunctional and how damaging those systems are to individual lives. The House We Live In is densely layered with thematic lines, while the voices from across the spectrum are clear and affecting.

Despite the cataclysmic failure of the war on drugs, Jarecki cites inspiring efforts towards reform from many groups, including The Sentencing Project, which advocates fir reforms iun sentencing policies; and the Drug Policy Alliance, which works to change unjust laws at the federal and local levels.

After four years in production on The House I Live In, Jarecki is about to embark on an extensive two-year outreach tour not only to theaters, but also to churches, high schools and professional associations and their conferences. Jarecki has already screened his film for such key policy makers as Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, who took part in discussions with the filmmaker at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June, and representatives from the New York City District Attorney’s office and the New York Department of Corrections, who attended a screening hosted by the Ford Foundation in New York. Jarecki believes the next two years of touring with the film will inspire more and more people to become active in pursuing reform for the issues he has so passionately put on screen.

Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki

Docs beyond the Wall: Berlinale Presents a Panorama of Nonfiction

Flying into Berlin under gray, wintry skies for the Berlin International Film Festival, or Berlinale, is still a thrill, even after many years of attending it. Leaving real life behind for a week of sitting in the dark watching film from all over the world is possibly one of the great guilty pleasures for a programmer and critic, and, apparently, for many Berlin inhabitants.

Founded in 1951 in what was then West Berlin, as a counterweight to the Communist era East Germany by which the city was surrounded for 50 years, the Berlinale has long been committed to showcasing work about social and political issues, often with provocative content and style. Originally comprised of the Competition and Panorama sections, the Forum was established in 1970 to ensure selection of films not only with artistic quality, but also originality of form. Another criterion was to show films from the Third World, which remains one of the focal points of the Forum. As with all the arts in Berlin, films engaging with the complex and difficult history of Germany in the 20th century are also an important part of the festival’s heritage.

The Berlinale is a huge event, now headquartered at Potsdamer Platz–an island of high-rise steel and glass in the middle of the city, with thousands of press and industry attendees and one of the largest and most enthusiastic public audiences in the world. Every screening seems to be packed, no matter how arcane the film, or how unknown the director or actors. The work of Thai director Pen Ek Ratanaruang, for example, sells out along with films from Europe, Africa, and Latin America, while discussions after the screenings are animated and multilingual.

Always a welcoming host for documentaries, the festival programs many of them in the Forum and  Panorama section. The curatorial sensibility reflects an awesome range of both style and content, from abstract to personal to political.

This year’s festival focused on fiction and nonfiction films about the Arab Spring. Panorama Documente included several fascinating docs, three of which were set in Cairo: In the Shadow of a Man(Hanan Abdalla; Egypt); La Vierge, les Coptes et Moi(The Virgin, the Copts and Me) (Namir Abdel Messeeh; France/Qatar/Egypt); and Words of Witness(Mai Iskander, USA). These films offer powerful insights into current events, constrating sharply with television reporting. In Words of Witness, a 22-year-old female journalist questions people about parliamentary elections and democracy on the streets, building up an image of a well-informed public whose concerns often turn into strong demands in this new era. In the Shadow of a Man takes a crucial look at the long years of pre-revolutionary times, which provide valuable context for the present-day uprisings. We hear women eloquently express their views; then as now, it’s about equal distribution of power through gender empowerment. La Vierge, les Coptes et Moi takes an entirely different approach, centering the film around an apparition of the Virgin Mary in a Coptic village. Using a personal style, the filmmaker shows his family, long settled in France, watching video of the apparition; he then returns to Egypt to investigate. Heading south to his maternal family, despite his mother’s implacable opposition, Abdel Messeeh realizes the real story is his family, not merely as believers in the visions but as hard-working, good-hearted people. He decides to reenact the vision with family and locals in various roles, and the film gently evokes the parallels between being a Christian minority in Egypt and an Egyptian in France, where he is both outsider and insider in both worlds.

From Mai Iskander’s Words of Witness

Shifting from Egypt to Yemen, The Reluctant Revolutionary(Sean McAllister, Great Britain/Ireland) focuses on the story of Sana’a Kais, a tour operator who scrapes together a living from the few travelers daring to come to his country. Although initially skeptical about the protesters, once he begins working for filmmaker McAllister as a translator, Kais and his younger brother Abdulrahman both join in the uprising. The state of emergency puts a huge strain on the family’s already difficult financial situation, while the Yemeni secret service considers the filmmaker an unwelcome foreign journalist.

A major focus of the Forum was Japan, with three films about the March 2011 tsunami and the meltdown at Fukushima nuclear power station highlighting the programming. In No Man’s Zone (Mujin chitai), Fujiwara Toshi advances into the contaminated zone around the nuclear reactors,  evoking images of an invisible apocalypse. Iwai Shunji addresses the political, economic and social situation of a country in a state of dependence infriends after 3.11. And Funahashi Atsushi’s Nuclear Nation profiles a mayor without a town, desperately trying to keep together a community scattered across different emergency shelters in the Tokyo suburbs. One of the most talked about films at the festival, Nuclear Nation focuses on Mayor Katsutaka Idogawa’s ordeals; the Yokoyama family, who remain close despite their permanent uprooting; and the Nakais, a father and son not having had enough time to search for their missing wife and mother during the frantic retreat. Idogawa’s  heartbreaking account traces how the town’s rise and fall are inextricably linked with its exploitation by Tepco to become the country’s cradle of nuclear power.

From Funahashi Atsushi’s Nuclear Nation

A unique section in these days of market madness is the Forum Expanded, which creates a space annually for a variety of projects including documentaries, hybrid documentaries, and not easily categorized film, video and installation work. Forum Expandedsets itself the task of taking apart cinema, putting it back together or even rediscovering it by presenting a wide range of lengths and experimental formats. Some of the noteworthy projects in Forum Expanded included Canadian video artist Steve Reinke’s bitingly ironic series of short films, Tiny Dinosaurs, in which he returns  again and again to his family roots in their exploration of queer and Canadian identity; My father is still a communist, intimate secrets to be published (Ahmad Gossein; Lebanon/United Arab Emirates), in which a mother writes audio letters to her absent husband; whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir (Eve Sussman/Rufus Corporation), a film edited live in real time, in which a man lives under surveillance in a fictional East European city; Joshua Bonnetta’s American Color, which traces a journey of a roll of the discontinued 16mm Kodachrome film stock, from its in Rochester, New York, to Kansas, where a small photolab developed the last rolls in early 2011; and Avi Mograb’s At the Back/The Details, a blend of photo images and music in a live performance.

The Panorama Documentary Audience Award went to Matthew Akers’ Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present. Focused on Abramovic’s 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, the film is a fascinating and intimate portrait of both her personal life and long career, as well as the behind-the-scenes goings-on at MoMA. Akers follows Abramovic for a year as she prepares and presents the biggest show of her career. The exhibition encompasses key Abramovic pieces (some originally performed by her with German performance artist Ulay), as well as a new piece at MoMA, to which the film’s second half is almost exclusively devoted. She describes her key motivation for participating in the film as the opportunity to bring performance art to the masses and hopefully make it accessible. Having seen the exhibition at MoMA, I was fascinated with the process of preparation in the film, as well as the toll taken on Abramovic during the three months in which she sat motionless and impassive for eight hours a day in the museum atrium.

From Matthew Akers’ Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present

For most filmmakers, having a film accepted by the Berlinale is a coveted event, and the imprimatur of screening there pretty much assures that your film will get international notice. Additionally many films not in the festival, including documentaries, are screened in the European Film Market, which is also huge and attracts an international cadre of distributors, producers, agents, programmers and commissioning editors. Setting up a meeting and/or inviting someone to see your film is manageable despite the size of the festival, and the Market sees brisk sales activity every year.

One of the most interesting aspects of seeing documentaries from all over the world is the variety of approaches and definitions encompassed within that terminology–poetic essays, archival films,  personal docs, as well as installation work and combinations of all the above. The programmers at Berlinale clearly have a broad interpretation of “documentary” and take a very inclusive view in their selection, generating lively discussions and considerable food for thought.

by Wanda Bershen
Around the World in a Day: The Ultimate YouTube Project
Online Articles: July 2011

Making a feature documentary with 200 collaborators from around the world is no stroll in the park. Nevertheless, producer Ridley Scott and director Kevin Macdonald have done just that via a unique partnership between Scott’s Scott Free Films, YouTube and LG Electronics.
Conceived as a user-generated feature-length documentary, shot on a single day (July 24, 2010), Life in a Day empowers the global community to capture a moment of their lives on camera. The date chosen was a Saturday-a day the producers felt many people could devote more time to the project. Additionally Scott and Macdonald sent 500 small digital cameras to far-flung places around the globe, partnering with Against All Odds Productions, a California-based company that specializes in large-scale global photographic projects-such as the best-selling Day in the Life book series. Participants were invited to shoot on one of the SD cards in the preset camera, send back the card and keep the camera. The producers wanted to try out a melding of YouTube as a social media platform and traditional film formats. Having put out calls for clips on YouTube several times, the team ended up with a staggering amount of material: over 80,000 submissions, totaling 4,500 hours.
Macdonald’s concept for the film was inspired by the work of one of his heroes, the British artist and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. Best known for his beautifully poetic documentaries about Britain during the Second World War, Jennings was a major figure in the celebrated British Documentary Film Movement. His colleagues included John Grierson, John Ryerson, Basil Wright, Harry Watt and Alberto Cavalcanti among others. Like many before and during World War II, these filmmakers were deeply concerned about maintaining democracy in the face of the threat from Fascism. Grierson and his colleagues believed filmmaking could play a central role in expanding public knowledge and understanding so citizens could be active on social issues. A particular contribution by Jennings was a movement launched in the 1930s called “Mass Observation,” an attempt to document the strangeness and beauty of ordinary lives. Volunteers wrote detailed diaries about their lives, answering questions such as, “What’s on your mantelpiece?” and”What graffiti did you see today?”
“I always want to give an audience something new, something they haven’t seen before–and of course experience something new myself,” Macdonald writes via e-mail. “It keeps you stimulated as a filmmaker to know you are trying something that might fail–and Life in Day was a risky experiment.”
As all this image material poured in from around the world, a team of researchers and editing assistants, led by veteran feature editor Joe Walker, created a selection process based on several factors, which winnowed down the usable material to about 300 hours. The researchers’ job was to tag the clips as they arrived, coding them according to certain themes and finally rating them. According to Walker, one star indicated, “They’ve spent less thought on filming this than we have logging it”; five stars meant, “Such great characters, stories or footage that it should be in the film, or fire me.”
Subsequently, Macdonald and Walker viewed the very best material, while the production team proceeded to retrieve the original footage and the editing team tried to convert it all into one frame rate. The team was keen to receive material that wasn’t just about the process of living, that had special happy moments to contribute. They were looking for emotion, disquiet, opinion and exclamation. Walker describes their process as looking for visually “cinematic” kinds of images, given the feature film background that he shared with Macdonald. “We would look for material that went together well, such as all the shots of children where we are behind them and they are looking forward, such as the baby looking out of a window, or the Japanese boy looking out of a train, followed by a mother and daughter on a swing.”
 Macdonald describes his approach as asking, “What is this material trying to tell me? What are the collective themes and preoccupations that the contributors are pointing me towards?  In other words, I tried to remain as open-minded as I could–not bring too many of my own preconceptions to bear on what I saw.” The team found that contributors tended to film either themselves or people known to them, following distinct patterns of a daily routine like waking, washing, walking and eating. These themes were embedded within the flow of the film as a reminder to the viewer that one is traveling throughout a single day on earth.
Much of the sound in the film was also gathered via You Tube; Scott and Macdonald asked people for material to collage. They could hum or sing a long note, clap hands, breathe in and out, or record a favorite sound. All the music in the film is based on sounds recorded on that day. That process was  managed by veteran composer Matthew Herbert; composer Harry Gregson-Williams came on board much later to help with some of the orchestral writing.”When a skydiver falls to earth, for example, you hear a din of everyone’s favorite sounds,” Walker explains. “This could be kettles boiling, bells ringing, steam trains passing, placed one on top of another as she approaches the ground. The bells that you hear as Okwhan, the Korean cyclist, climbs a temple hill in Katmandu are all recorded by people around the world.”
One of the surprises in seeing the finished film is how good the image and sound quality are on a large screen, given the multiple sources. A huge amount of technical work was done to achieve that consistency.
Engaging features of the structure include several mini-narrative sequences that punctuate the film from time to time, including the Korean cyclist, who is on a 10-year trip around the globe. Another is a sequence in a sumptuous landscape–a New Zealand farm with goats and animal herders that take you through an afternoon’s work as the short sequences recur.
Collaging the found image and sound material is a fascinating and central aspect of the film–and works better than the sections scored with orchestral music, which often seems to overwhelm the images. A more engaging sequence involves a trio of African women singing while pounding grain; this scene serves as a recurring motif–sometimes harmonious, sometimes contrapuntal–with other scenes.  To create a sufficient narrative arc, the filmmakers deployed various other strategies–like a very brief and affecting story of a Japanese man and his little son getting up in the morning, making breakfast and praying before the shrine of their dead wife and mother.
Life  in a Day, distributed by National Geographic Entertainment, opened June 9 in Germany and June 17 in the UK. It premieres in the US on July 24–a year to the day after the documentary was shot around the world. The film will also enjoy a very long life online as the thousands of hours of footage not in the final cut have been made available on YouTube’s channel for the project. The ultimate tribute is the establishment of a separate online TV channel,, a nonprofit, community-generated film festival where people all over the globe can interact with the filmmakers, comment on their stories, upload their own clips and even make their own film diaries.

Published on International Documentary Association (

A Question of Ethics: The Relationship between Filmmaker and Subject
By Wanda Bershen
‘Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work,’ the latest study from the Center for Social Media.
Any filmmaker who sets out to make a documentary faces multiple challenges, not the least of which is a set of ethical issues inherent in the process. How to portray the subjects of the film? What to shoot and what not to shoot?  How to edit so that the film is true to its topic and subjects, yet also works as a compelling story for the audiences? If a filmmaker is working in a foreign country or culture (or subculture), how to represent people with dignity and sensitivity to that place, time and experience? Most people not involved in filmmaking are not entirely aware of the power of the camera and editing to structure events in ways they would never expect. At the heart of documentary production is the relationship between filmmaker and subjects–not often an equal balance of power. And for the most part, it is the filmmaker who determines how that will be managed.
A recent report from the Center for Social Media at American University explored the ethics issue through interviews with 40 documentarians from a wide range of ages and experiences. Titled “Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work,” it has generated considerable discussion in the film community. One of the key points in the report is the assertion that there is a major difference between the work of documentary filmmakers and that of news reporters. The report observes, “Many documentary filmmakers work with people whom they have chosen, and typically see themselves as stewards of the subjects’ stories. As one filmmaker noted, ‘I am in their life for a whole year. So there is a more profound relationship, not a journalistic two or three hours.'”  
We asked several documentarians about their experience on recent projects and how they handled a variety of ethical issues that occurred.
Restrepo focuses on the experience of soldiers in combat in all its difficult and draining aspects: the constant danger, the loss of comrades, the discomforts of living for weeks and months in a distant outpost in Afghanistan, and even the boredom between battles. Directors Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington both have had extensive experience covering wars and war-torn countries. They embedded themselves with a platoon of US soldiers and spent 14 months, beginning in May 2007, in the Korangal Valley of Afghanistan. Each spent about a month at a time and then switched off with the other, sometimes overlapping for periods of time. Both were well aware they would be working in one of the most dangerous regions–far from any military bases and accessible only by helicopter.
Asked how they gained the trust of the unit, Junger and Hetherington remark that just choosing to go to that region sent a message that they were prepared to put themselves at the same risk as the soldiers. The filmmakers followed the men into many battles and recorded the terrible fear and tension, never knowing what would happen next. And both directors were wounded while covering the battles. “I tore my Achilles and Tim went back, and then he broke his leg and I went back,” Junger recalls. “The fact that we kept coming back gave us a lot of credibility with the soldiers.”
Asked about restrictions from the military, Hetherington says there were none, other than a stated agreement not to film wounded American soldiers, or get their permission later. The Army did ask to see a rough cut, but had no issues with it. The filmmakers deliberately avoided any graphic representations of violence, feeling that would be a distraction from what they wanted to show. Junger and Hethrington regard their work on the film as journalistic; their primary concern was to counter many representations of war on film that are “limited and can’t quite reveal the humor, boredom and confusion inherent in combat. It’s something we felt was important to represent.”
As the founder of Kartemquin Films in Chicago in 1966, Gordon Quinn has many years of experience with documentary production. Known for tough, issue-driven documentaries, Kartemquin is particularly devoted to fostering, as it states on its website, “the growth of emerging filmmaking voices passionate about social issues and media policy.”Asked about the balance of power between filmmaker and audience, Quinn notes he makes a point of trying to give the viewer a sense of how the story is being told and what the filmmakers’ relationship with the subject is like.
For Kartemquin’s recent film In the Family, about predicting breast and ovarian cancer and how women live with the risk, director Joanna Rudnick was having a difficult time finding  a woman who shared the BRCA gene that she had. She felt that the most effective way of building trust with her subjects was to share her own story on camera with them, which enables viewers to see how that relationship between filmmaker and subjects evolves over time.
Quinn recently completed Prisoner of Her Past, a film about a childhood Holocaust survivor who is suffering from Late Onset Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, obviously a topic requiring sensitive and delicate handling. While he had permission from her son, the legal guardian, Quinn wanted her permission as well. She was ambivalent, and Quinn captures that in an interesting way. She had said on camera that she would not give permission. Nevertheless, she allowed filming and at several points addresses the camera directly. In a painful and fraught scene where she meets a Polish cousin from childhood, she refuses to acknowledge him and asks him to leave the room. Then she turns to the camera on Quinn’s shoulder and says, “Excuse me, I am talking to this gentleman,” referring to the filmmaker. In the last shot of the film, she turns to the camera and says, “Goodnight, ladies and gentlemen,” before heading off to her room.  Quinn kept these scenes in the film to give the audience a clear sense of her character and his relationship with her.
Director Liz Mermin had a different set of concerns with her recent film, Team Qatar, about five high school students from Qatar training for the World Debate Championship in Washington, DC. In order to establish trust with the kids, she spent a lot of time talking with them off-camera, explaining the film and answering questions about herself, and she made it clear that anytime they wanted her to stop filming she would do so. “That didn’t mean I didn’t try to get them to change their minds,” Mermin explains. “Sometimes I would explain why I thought it was important to the story, and they’d decide it was okay, but sometimes they were adamant and I wouldn’t push because I didn’t want to hurt them. Even if I thought they were being silly, there was a possibility I didn’t know what they were up against at home, and it would run the risk of destroying our relationship, or ruining the film.”
Dealing with cultural sensitivities and the safety of these kids after the film was completed was perhaps the most challenging issue for Mermin. A key scene occurs when the Qatar kids, particularly religious Muslim girls, react to the London Gay Pride parade, which provokes an intense debate. Mermin needed to balance what would work well for the film with concerns for her subjects in the long term. “Would we get the girls in trouble with conservative friends and family by showing that they were at the event at all?” she reflects. “Would we hurt them in the future by showing their uninformed homophobic reactions? I had to walk a line conveying their feelings and their work coming to terms with what they’d seen without keeping them on record forever with ignorant or bigoted views. That was about very careful editing. A very complicated emotional and cultural clash had to be reduced to a four-minute scene, and that’s never easy.”
Another tricky situation occurred when the Qatar kids came to Washington for the final competition. They got to meet students from Latin America and Israel, went out for ice cream and hung around in their hotel rooms. Mermin decided not to shoot this despite its potential interest. “The presence of the camera would have made it artificial,” she notes. “The kids from Qatar trusted us and didn’t care, but the other kids didn’t know us, didn’t want cameras in their personal time and didn’t want to be extras in someone else’s film.”
Mermin strives to observe, listen and provoke thoughts and questions without telling anyone what to think. She aims to “create the feeling of being there, where there is a world they wouldn’t otherwise know. If audiences come away with vastly differing opinions, arguing about what they’ve seen, I feel I’ve done my job well.”
Each of these filmmakers’ stories serves to underline one of the best descriptions–by film scholar Bill Nichols in an essay that appeared in the March-April 2006 Documentary–of how filmmakers must grapple with the ethics of documentary: “These questions boil down to questions of trust–a quality that cannot be legislated, proposed or promised in the abstract so much as demonstrated, earned and granted in negotiated, contingent, concrete relationships in the here and how.”

 The 2009 IDFA Forum. (c) Bram Belloni, 2009
Published on International Documentary Association (
Pitch Fests: Selling Your Project in Seven Minutes or Less
By Wanda Bershen
Documentary production and distribution have enjoyed huge resurgences over the past decade, giving rise to a plethora of specialized festivals and markets, as well as to experiments in modes of distribution. Documentaries can now garner coveted attention and audiences at festivals, on TV and in theaters. The documentary pioneers–Joris Ivens, John Grierson, Pare Lorentz, Dziga Vertov, et al–would marvel at the global impact of the form they helped create.  This resurgence, coupled with the cost efficiencies of the tools of production, has attracted both an audience and a filmmaking community that is younger and more diverse. The rapidity of these changes, thanks to the digital revolution, is continuing to subvert conventional processes of production, distribution and funding.
For independent documentary makers, one of the most effective developments has been the rise of documentary co-production markets-often called pitching forums-around the globe. Certainly the grand dame of these is the IDFA (International Documentary Festival Amsterdam) Forum, which was launched in 1993 (IDFA itself premiered in 1988). Hot Docs, the largest documentary festival and market in North America, modeled its Toronto Documentary Forum after IDFA’s. And one of the latest entries is The Good Pitch, a partnership between the UK-based Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation and the Sundance Institute Documentary Program. Each of these forums has specific structures and guidelines for submitting projects on their websites, as well as news about successful projects and new initiatives. We spoke to the respective managers of all three forums about their goals, and how they see the current international landscape for documentaries.
Attending IDFA as a delegate will put you in a room with hundreds of colleagues participating in a dizzying three-day ritual of seven-minute pitches, roundtables, one-on-one meetings, lunches for networking and, as a finale, awards for Best Pitch and Favorite Commissioning Editor, known as “The Cuban Hat.”
The 2009 the IDFA Forum attracted 400 visitors and delegates, as 43 filmmaking teams pitched their respective projects. In addition, an international audience of 160 observers and other film professionals–commissioning editors, producers, distributors, sales agents and independent producers–saw 27 Central and 16 Round Table projects pitched before 120 commissioners and other financiers. Those include “seedling projects,” in their early stages, and “rough cut projects,” looking only for finishing funds. New media funders and non-government organizations (NGOs) are welcome, since the Forum sees them as crucial for the market in the coming years. One of the key elements at IDFA is the two-hour sit-down lunch for all participants. As a guest of Rotterdam’s Cinemart for many years I always found the similar lunch there to be one of the best opportunities for informal networking.
According to Adriek van Nieuwenhuyzen, the Forum’s industry office director, the selection process starts with a committee of five people working in international documentary–including producers, commissioning editors, distributors and representatives of institutes. Another review committee includes people with a broad international overview of projects in development and in production, along with market trends. Selection is made in a two-day meeting in Amsterdam, where the committees read proposals, watch trailers and review other submitted material.
The most important criteria are “creative documentaries bringing new stories with international appeal,” van Nieuwenhuyzen says. “For international co-financing, it is crucial that the stories and themes have international relevance and appeal. Projects dealing with topics, stories and themes covered previously in documentaries that have been broadcast and screened internationally won’t make it into the selection.” About 80 percent of the Forum projects selected must be from European Union (EU) member countries. The Forum is very open to projects with multiple platforms, and views itself as evolving with an industry in which “endless technological possibilities are enhancing the ability of documentary filmmakers to convey their message.”
Recent successes coming out of IDFA include Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home, which was pitched at the 2008 Forum and captured the prize for Best Feature at the 2009 festival. The film will be released theatrically in the US this September through Zeitgeist Films. Another big success is Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s enthralling The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, which was also pitched at the 2008 Forum; the film earned an Academy Award nomination this year for Best Documentary Feature.
The Toronto Documentary Forum (TDF) at Hot Docs is a similarly intense two-day experience. As we went to press, the 2010 TDF, held May 5 and 6, expected over 500 leading industry professionals to hear 25 pre-selected international project presentations. Guests were to include key international commissioning editors and an observer’s gallery composed of fellow producers, distributors, sales agents, funders and other buyers. TDF also offers Observer accreditation for independent producers; representatives of foundations, public agencies and film institutes; sales agents; distributors; etc. As at IDFA, each slot includes a seven-minute presentation from the production team and its trigger decision-maker, and a seven-minute discussion-and-response period. Teams are encouraged to include one- or two-minute video clips.
A particular draw at TDF is The Doc Shop Online, a digital video library offering users on-demand access to over 1,500 documentaries at any of the 40 onsite computer terminals during and after the festival for registered buyers, distributors, sales agents and festival programmers. The Toronto Forum also offers multiple opportunities for informal networking via one-on-one meetings and receptions. New for 2010 is a special workshop focused on interactivity co-sponsored with the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) Media Lab entitled “Leave the Walls at the Door,” a facilitated matchmaking and think-tank workshop designed for documentary producers of every ilk. Thirty participants, including myriad storytellers working with a variety of platforms and backgrounds (traditional, interactive, commercial, art house, big budget, do-it-yourselfers) will have three hours to share ideas and experiences.
One of the big success stories that initially surfaced at TDF was the Israeli film Waltz with Bashir (Dir.: Ari Folman). Pitched in 2007, it met with very mixed responses. People were unsure about the animation approach stylistically, as well as the expense involved. Later the filmmakers had follow-up meetings in Toronto and were eventually able to secure Arte as a co-production partner. Waltz with Bashir went on to win numerous awards–not only for best documentary, but also in the animation and foreign film categories.
The Good Pitch is the new kid on the block, founded in 2008 as part of the BRITDOC festival in Oxford, England. The BRITDOC Foundation describes itself as is “a new social entrepreneurship organization bringing new thinking to public service delivery.” It gives grants for production, and it brokers partnerships around specific films, reaching out to diverse potential supporters for documentary. According to its website, The Good Pitch invites “NGOs, social entrepreneurs, broadcasters and potential corporate and brand partners to form powerful alliances around groundbreaking films.”
Foundation Director Beadie Finzi describes this as an ongoing process of continuous, year-round networking. Her staff works hard to make sure there will be at least one film with which participants will want to be involved so that no one comes away disappointed. Part of its cultivation efforts was a conference in June 2007 for 150 of the UK’s top NGOs and foundations to learn about how documentaries can help them in their work. The conference was very useful in convincing the NGOs of the benefits of working with film and filmmakers. A conference of that kind in the US would be an excellent idea, and would have to take place on a regional basis, given that the country is so large and not centralized like the UK.
The Good Pitch provides numerous opportunities for filmmakers to connect with people on their panels–before and after their pitches–and produces a very comprehensive catalogue listing everyone attending the event, including their priorities and contact details. Business partners for specific films have included Saatchi & Saatchi, Nokia, Stella Artois, Waitrose and Greenpeace. In addition, throughout 2009, The Good Pitch was presented at Hot Docs, Silverdocs and Independent Film Week. A similar tour is underway for 2010, starting with the Tribeca Film Festival in April and May.
A further activity of BRITDOC is its online services, including the recently launched Good Screenings, a new film distribution website that allows users to hold their own screenings of the best social justice documentary films and, crucially, keep their profits.
An impressive success coming out of the 2009 SilverDocs Good Pitch was the film Hungry in America by Kristi Jacobson. The feature-length documentary presents an unflinching look at the root causes behind the 17 million hungry children in this country and asks tough questions about why a nation that could feed all of its citizens has failed to do so. She and co-director Lori Silverbush attracted NGO partnerships that progressed “from first-date to marriage” when a summit of 20 anti-hunger organizations convened following The Good Pitch to strategize about how they could use the film to amplify their own work.
According to executive producer Ryan Harrington, the anti-hunger NGOs assembled in Silver Spring raised $250,000 in funds for the film since that event, with more financing pending. Another success story from the 2009 Good Pitch at IFP’s Independent Film Week was Glenn Baker’s Easy Like Water, which received an investment of $10,000 from the Global Fund for Children. The film documents the innovative work of Mohammed Rezwan, who uses solar-powered floating schools in Bangladesh to turn the frontlines of climate change into a community of learning.
The organizers of these forums all noted the reduced budgets for commissioning editors. Jan Rofekamp of the Montreal-based Films Transit International also cited a decline in the autonomy of buyers in recent years.  They now have to speculate on what issues will have audience appeal–which may not always yield the most interesting or innovative projects. Rofekamp advises filmmakers to be aware of the buyers’ priorities and spend some time researching some of the major buyers and what they have funded recently. A great resource is the European Documentary Network’s annual Financing Guide, which includes detailed information on international broadcast buyers and distributors, funds for production and distribution, including video-on-demand. The guide is available in both printed and online versions. There is also enormous interest from documentary festivals and forums in the possibilities of new media; IDFA presented two panels in 2009 on these topics. If you have a multi-platform project, by all means, talk it up.
So if you are planning to pitch your project in the near future, what is the recipe for success? Rofekamp, who has participated in pitch events for many years, advises targeting the concerns of buyers. They want to know why your topic is important, why you are the best team to make it and why it needs to be produced now.  Claire Aguilar of Independent Television Service (ITVS), also a veteran of international pitch forums, recommends working with the moderators to help with the discussion and suggest broadcasters that would be responsive to your pitch. Memorize your presentation and be sure to make eye contact with those in the room, rather than look at notes. Your topic will do best if it has universal relevance (the ability to draw audiences from varied countries), so make sure to explicitly lay out the reasons for that and draw specific parallels for your topic, person or event.
Everyone recommends the strongest possible sample reel, since that is often what really piques participants’ attention. Preparing a dazzling sample reel is well worth your time and money. Your major objective is to use the pitch to get to one-on-one meetings later in the event. That is where the real business gets done. As a documentarist, educating yourself about the many new options and ventures out there is the one of the most important things you can do to ensure your voice continues to be heard. 

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