Anything between poetry and political propaganda

Derks-&-Zimmerman-update-kontrastAlly Derks & Debra Zimmerman

DZ: Is it the 50th anniversary of DOX?

AD: No, this is the 100th magazine.

DZ: Ah, the 100th magazine….

AD: So congratulations to DOX, that is the first thing we should do.

DZ: Absolutely..

AD: And of course together with EDN, DOX are based in Denmark, and there is also a huge documentary production. I don’t know, do you think that those things are influencing each other, because many good documentaries have come out of Denmark during the past ten years.

DZ: It is incredible. I remember when we picked up Enemies of Happiness, which won at IDFA. It was the year of The Monastery. It was, for me, the of beginning of the explosion of Danish documentaries.

AD: Yeah, I think that is when it started.

DZ: It is really pretty amazing, and it continues. For me, what is really interesting is how many women there are. I mean there is an extraordinary number of Danish women directors. And I think it is because there are these fantastic Danish women producers, really.

AD: It is amazing. Also because this year I have nine films on my list right now that are from Denmark.

DZ: Really?

AD: Yeah, there are so many choices. And I have to choose, I cannot show nine Danish films – that is crazy! And I know, of course, CPH:DOX is going to show them as well, and they are before us, so I will take what I think is the best.

DZ: It is funny, because one of the things I was thinking about this morning is that you have probably seen more documentaries than anybody I know. Everybody thinks I see a lot, but I see a lot of documentaries by women directors. Recently I have been seeing an incredible amount of really good documentaries from Latin America. But I am wondering if there are other places in the world where you have seen really strong documentary production, or how much it has changed lately. Like I remember when I first started seeing Mexican documentaries – they were all very good but unbelievably long.

AD: I remember, was it five or six years ago, all of a sudden we got an enormous amount of Mexican documentaries. Remember there was one about a man with no arms or no legs? There was the one about the prostitutes living in this railway station. But I did think the biggest influence in documentary is co-production. Because for me it is not really where it comes from – sometimes there is a film which is Danish, Norwegian, British, Australian and American, I mean what is it then? Do you look at the producers or do you look at the directors? Like the director comes from Denmark, but it is filmed in Australia.

DZ: It is a good question.

AD: So, that is what is changing the world and also makes it difficult for us to decide: what country is this?

DZ: But maybe it doesn’t matter.

AD: It doesn’t. In the end it is all about good film and good storytelling. For me, it doesn’t matter that much. But on the other hand I can’t show nine Danish films.

DZ: Sure. We have the same problem, because we have to acquire 25 films at the most every year. Last year we did acquire four films about Latin America. That is about the most that I can take. And that is okay for us, because that can become a collection and then we can promote them together and it’s fine. But anything more is impossible. And sometimes we get a lot of Dutch documentaries, it is true, and we just can’t take that many and the same goes for Scandinavian films. It is interesting, for a very long time when I looked at European documentaries they were mostly about Europe. And Europe wasn’t terribly interesting for us because there is no such thing as European Studies and we do so much work in universities and colleges. It is much easier for us to distribute films, about Africa, Asia, or the Middle East.

AD: Is the language there a problem as well?

DZ: Not for educational distribution. But for broadcast, very much. But what is interesting to me is that in many ways Europeans have started doing what I think Americans were doing – and I am not so happy about it – which is going all over the world and making these documentaries about all these other countries, and not making so many documentaries about their own countries and looking at themselves. Sometimes you have that feeling that I just can’t stand to see another documentary made by a person from the West going to the East, and making a film about these poor people. I think that is one of those reasons why you like that film, that I hated so much, the poverty film.

AD: Enjoy Poverty. I like that film because it is art and he is playing with it.

DZ: I did enjoy that part of it.

AD: The Dutch, I can’t talk for all of Europe, were famous because of their filming abroad and not filming their own country. And now, with the financial crisis, we see more Dutch filmmakers filming in their backyard. But it is a typical Dutch tradition to go abroad, because we have been doing it all of our lives. You know colonialism; it is a small country that wants to discover the world.

But I have to agree with you, the way of making films now, talking about Europe, not only about the Dutch, it is also money-wise. There is not enough money any more, fewer people get less money.

But still, because of the co-producing, they will end up with a great budget, so they make films that look like fiction or look like a million-dollar film. I have seen so many expensive documentaries nowadays.

DZ: Oh, the million-dollar documentaries, that is my curse.

AD: Ridiculous, really. I do think, and it has always been the philosophy of IDFA as well, you need like ten or fifteen really big titles that have been screened a lot already. You also get these small, fragile films into the spotlight. The audience will go films like The Queen of Versailles. But don’t come for the street kids in Namibia, or in South Africa, or for the Arab Spring films. So I always hope that in the tail of these big, big films, that the audience will think ‘Oh my God! This was interesting’, and think ‘what’s in the cinema next door?’, and then also end up watching the less obvious films.

DZ: I feel that is really true with exhibition. I know that Karen Cooper, at the Film Forum, programs much in this way. She has one cinema that has popular films and she hopes that people will go into the other cinema, which has the more challenging films. The difficulty for us is that when I look around it is mostly men who are making these million-dollar documentaries…

AD: Well, Not all women’s films have small budgets.

DZ: No, and look at the film I was just telling you about, The Supreme Price, that is not a cheap film either. But if you look at the programming of the Toronto International Film Festival this year, the documentary program, there is a huge film by Alex Gibney, there is a huge film by Frederick Wiseman, there is a huge film by Errol Morris. And the budgets of these films are usually enormous; they are made with tremendous resources. So I can imagine when you are a programmer at a smaller festival it must be very hard for smaller films to compete with these big films. And for us, it is now hard to get the kind of films into festivals that used to show at many, many, many festivals. I don’t think it’s all bad that the mainstream has taken on documentary more and that you see these big documentaries in cinemas. But it has its challenges, and that is one of the challenges for me.

AD: Yes, absolutely. I do think it is important for the whole industry to have these films, because it is still not normal to show documentaries at the cinema. Here in Holland during IDFA it is horrible, people don’t go. You can get 2000 people for a big, Dutch documentary during the festival. The audience is still not used to seeing documentaries at the cinema. And so for example this year we are showing the documentary Manhunt as well as the fiction Zero Dark Thirty. So we have a section called Based on the same Story …

DZ: Really interesting…

AD: … What do they have in common? Why do they make fiction when there is already a documentary and vice versa? So for example we do the Downfall and Hitler’s Secretary and Little Dieter Needs to Fly and Rescue Dawn

DZ: Did you hear about the new film about Paradise Lost

AD: Yes. But we show Paradise Lost so often here…

DZ: (Laughing)

AZ: We screen Rescue Dawn and Little Dieter, Downfall and Hitler’s Secretary, Manhunt and Zero Dark Thirty, and the Russian film Girls, which is both fiction and documentary about teenage girls who are living on the streets…

DZ: You know Ally, that section sounds absolutely fantastic…

AD: The funny thing is that before when we showed fiction at IDFA, there was no audience, they didn’t want to see it…

DZ: But to me, one of the reasons why I am so interested in documentary is because I’m interested in storytelling and the way real stories get told. I am somebody that really loves autobiography and biography, anyway, that’s my personal thing. But I find it really interesting that there is an increasing interest in documentary, and at the same time, the funding situation for documentary has become one that does not support documentary as art. That has changed so much…

AD: It is because the outlet for documentary is first and foremost television. So that is, of course, why everybody is happy with these news documentaries that come out every year, like by Errol Morris. You know…

DZ: So that is the way that the US has copied Europe, for me it is really depressing in a way. Because I think 20 years ago there were amazing, creative, experimental documentaries being made in the US. And the reason why they were being made was because we had no outlet in broadcasting. Because this was before ITVS, this was before there were all of these cable channels. There was no chance for your film to get on television, so people didn’t make film for television; they made films exactly how they wanted to make them. And then what happened is that we lost funding from the federal government for regional funding of documentaries. And now there are these wonderful new foundations that I think are doing amazing work. It is so great that we have more funding, but at the same time what they are so focused on is social justice, and focused on the use of the film. Of course they want to fund well made films, and they are, but they are not funding creativity, they are funding the subject matter.

AD: Yeah, definitely subject. When you go to the Peace Film Festival in Berlin or the Justice and Peace Awards there, there is Angelina Jolie and Bono, they are all there. There is an enormous amount of money for film awards and the films that get awarded there are not necessarily the best films. And these type of festivals sometimes also have the most important guests. For them it is easy to get a Bono to their festival, not that I necessarily want him to come to IDFA, I know it is very difficult to get him. It is true, but I was thinking maybe you need a big industry in order to get these more creative documentaries, you know, to come across…

DZ: I don’t know. I think that there is a myth, in Hollywood certainly, there is a myth in documentary that we are trying to reach this mass audience. But maybe what you lose, when you try to reach a mass audience, is less than what you gain when you make films for smaller audiences. Not everybody is going to love those smaller films. I think of Pirjo Honkasalo, and I think about if there was a foundation that wanted to fund Melancholia and wanted to make an outreach plan for it. (laughing!!) Or for Nostalgia for the Light

AD: Those films are funded by the national film foundations. And that is also the duty of the film foundations because they deal with public money, tax money. So it has nothing to do with television. They need to support also the very fragile genre, like documentary. But there is of course much more money for fiction…

DZ: Of course. Always.

AD: They can also go to television to get the money, you know.

DZ – I worry about investors in documentaries that need to get their money back.

AD: Yes, sometimes investors say, okay you can make film, but I want this… It is the same thing with us at IDFA. We have a green section in our festival, but there are sometimes the films are just not good enough and I skip it. Our audience they walk away when they don’t like the film. It doesn’t benefit you, it doesn’t benefit the director, it doesn’t benefit me to show that film, because we will end up with an empty theatre in the end. It is scary when content or finances try to take over, or try to tell you what to do.

DZ: So this is what makes me worry about things like The Good Pitch. I think there are lots of filmmakers that have really benefitted from The Good Pitch. But let’s say you are making a film about fish, and you have decided that you want to make a film about salmon, then funders are sitting around the table and one person says ‘no, no, no, I am sorry but we think that the trout has a bigger problem than the salmon’. And then it influences the other people sitting around the table to think that the film should be about trout not salmon. It worries me.

They are not funding creativity, they are funding the subject matter

AD: We probably agree that it should be in the hand of the director, he is the creative guy …

DZ: Or she…

AD: OR she…

DZ: (Laughing)

AD: Or she. It is not about gender. It’s about propaganda in the end. I mean, somebody can say, yeah it should be about salmon or trout, but when they say it should be against Greenpeace or for Greenpeace…

DZ: … Or Greenpeace shouldn’t be involved…

AD: …it is talking about propaganda. Documentary of course in the end is anything between like poetry and political propaganda…

DZ: Yeah, that’s right. You know that is funny because I remember when we went to Russia. The first time that we met, which was in St. Petersburg, 1991, I remember that people were so – in a way – afraid of documentary. When I said that we were interested in documentary, for them documentary meant propaganda. There was no separation. It really took that festival a long time to get people to understand what real documentary was, as opposed to propaganda.

AD: I am pretty sure that this year we have some documentaries that are dealing with Russia, that are documentaries.

DZ: I have to tell you, the other thing that I have been thinking a lot about, which has been a huge problem for us, is that we are having a terrible time getting our films on television in the US, because they won’t show films with subtitles. This is something that has become an issue over the last three years. So these films from Russia might be really great, and might be really important to show here in the US. But the broadcasters don’t want to show them with subtitles, and we are getting this across the board from channels that used to show documentaries, like the Sundance Channel which doesn’t show many documentaries anymore…

AD: Don’t they?

DZ: Nope, almost not at all. When Cynthia Kane worked at the Sundance Channel she was at IDFA, looking for films all the time. And now, by the way, she works for Al Jazeera America which is really interesting. It’s great that they now have an American channel, and she is actually buying really interesting films for them right now and even buying films that are subtitled. Because almost nobody else will buy subtitled films…

AD: But hasn’t that been a problem in the United States forever? It is even with foreign language fiction in cinemas.

DZ: It has always been a problem. But for about five to seven years, when there were all of these new channels coming up and there was all this competition and everybody was so hot on documentary, people started taking risks. And then it became much less of an issue. But now it has become tighter again and money is tighter. And they can’t take as many risks; the first thing to go is subtitled films. Because they know that they lose a certain amount of audience as soon as the film is subtitled. And frankly, I don’t even think that it is just about the subtitles, because if we got the films dubbed they wouldn’t take them either. It is about comfort level and it is about hearing information in a way that they feel comfortable hearing it, you know. And this is the scariest thing to me. This is where documentary becomes so important, because here in the US less than half the people have passports, which means that they never leave the US.

There is a myth in documentary that we are trying to reach a mass audience

AD: That is millions of people, tens of millions of people…

DZ: Exactly. So seeing documentaries is one of their only ways of really seeing what the world is like outside of the US. And it is one of the reasons why I am so committed to what I do, even though I have been doing it for so long and I am so tired.…

AD: You never get tired, Debbie.

DZ: Doc-mogul to doc-mogul: it is tiring..

AD: America is not the only problem. When you think about the whole world, there aren’t that many countries that watch documentaries. Isn’t that why it is also a challenge that we have the whole internet?

DZ: Yeah.

AD: I mean of course we like to see films on the big screen, but of course it has already started. I have my small iPad which is connected to my big screen, and I see it on the big screen, and so it works marvellous.

DZ: Absolutely, and look, I am watching, for the first time in the last three years, I have started watching television, fiction television, from other countries. Which I was never able to access before. We started the conversation with Denmark and we can finish the conversation with Scandinavia, because of amazing series like The Killing and Borgen. These are series we never had access to in the US; we only had access to what PBS wanted to show us on Masterpiece Theatre. Now we have access through Netflix and through other ways of seeing films and it is fantastic. Last night I watched The Fall, have you seen The Fall? It is a British series, it’s really good!

AD: No, I don’t have time, Debbie.

DZ: I know, that is true. Because you have hundreds and hundreds of films to see. (Laughing) _

Directed by Eva Mulvad,
Denmark, 2006. 59 mins.

Directed by Pernille Rose Grønkjær,
Denmark, 2006. 84 mins.

Directed by Renzo Martens,
Netherlands, 2008. 90 mins.

Directed by Joanna Lipper,
USA, Nigeria, in production.

Directed by Greg Barker,
USA, UK, United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, 2013. 90 mins.

Directed by André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer,
Austria, 2002. 90 mins.

Directed by Werner Herzog,
Germany, France, UK, 1997. 80 mins.

Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky,
USA, 1996. 150 mins.

Directed by Patricio Guzmán,
France, Germany, Chile, Spain, USA, 2010. 90 mins.

Created by Allan Cubitt,
UK, USA, 2013-. 300 mins.

Directed by Valeriya Gaï Germanika,
Russia, 2006. 46 mins.


Ally Derks started IDFA in 1988. Since then she has been director of the festival. She’s also director of the IDFA Bertha Fund (IBF) that financially supports doc filmmakers in developing countries.

Debra Zimmerman has been the Executive Director of Women Make Movies, the leading distributor of films by and about women, since 1983. She is the very proud recipient of the 2013 Hot Doc’s Doc Mogul Award.

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