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Festival Focus: IFP Market

By Susan Morris

"Embrace the terror"..."Kill your babies"..."Edit the final scene first"...  These are some of the edicts that were uttered at the 2005 IFP (Independent Feature Project) Market in New York City, the annual media industry conference of screenings, panels, special events, awards and, of course, parties. Sixty documentaries were shown at the Spotlight on Documentaries works-in-progress section, plus 10 doc shorts and 25 documentary features. The 27-year-old event has evolved into a program aimed at connecting industry attendees with filmmakers who are in earlier stages of production. Sandwiched in the calendar between the Toronto International and New York Film Festivals, the IFP Market signals "Independent Film Week" with additional offerings for the public, and serves as an autumn back-to-school rite of passage.

Here are some of the watchwords and highlights that emerged from the market. First, on the filmmaking process:

  • "Embrace the terror"--Doug Block, on HBO/Cinemax's "Case Studies" panel, responded to first-time filmmaker John Hulme's terror at making his initial film. Block confessed that he is still terrified, and encouraged the audience to "embrace the terror--that's the nature of documentary filmmaking."
  • "Kill your babies"--Editor Larry Silk advised filmmakers to be ruthless and "kill your babies, and ask, Do you love something because you're proud of how you got it? Or is it critical to the film?"
  • "Edit the final scene first"--Both Susan Froemke and Chris Hegedus agreed that it's preferable to edit the final scene of a documentary and work backwards; setting up the beginning is the hardest, and should always be done last.
  • "Wait until you're ready"--Resist showing your work until you are confident it's in good shape. Block cautioned against sending your project to funders too early, since you usually only have one shot at them. HBO's Nancy Abraham, who sees tens of thousands of samples annually, agreed, advising sending in materials only when they are great and ready.

Several maxims about the audience were issued as well:

  • "Know your core audience"--Peter Broderick's keynote address offered successful case studies of identifying core audiences, playing directly to them, embracing them and making them your champion for future projects. The trick, Broderick noted, is to move beyond your "core" to a general audience.
  • "Hitchcock didn't know the names and addresses of his audience, but you can"--Broderick encouraged filmmakers to take full advantage of their ability to target their audience by thanking them when they buy your work, offering them multiple editions of DVDs and converting them from consumers to patrons.
  • "The viewer is the programmer"--Video-on-demand came up regularly during Broderick's keynote address, but the interesting twist, Broderick contended, is that since content is king and since Hollywood is so weak on content, the makers now have the power. Netflix offers an interesting testing ground for VOD by suggesting what viewers really do want to see.

Some of the more interesting and encouraging statements about programs and makers came from Nick Fraser, series editor of BBC's Storyville strand. Despite a system that is a cross between Darwinism and benign neglect, American documentaries are, according to Fraser, "the best in the world," adding that they are more brilliant and more beautiful in terms of empiricism and imagery, and are approached like art or "new journalism." The best, Fraser maintained, are thorough and literal-minded but not plodding--"a kind of poetry" that uses narrative and teaching by example.

Among the films of note at this year's market included King Corn, Ian Cheny and Curt Ellis' experiment to plant a single acre of corn, and follow it from farm to plate. A possible follow-up to Super Size Me, this work-in-progress tells the story of this ubiquitous and quintessentially American crop that tops the charts in subsidy dollars, production and acreage, all to cheaply feed--and overfeed--the world's superpower.

Gone to Texas: The Lives of Forrest Carter (Marco Ricci, dir.; Douglas Newman, prod.) profiles the contradictory double-life of the author of The Outlaw Josie Wales and The Education of Little Tree, an exalted Cherokee hero of New Age wisdom. After his death, Carter was revealed to have led a previous life as Asa Carter, a notorious Ku Klux Klansman who authored Governor George Wallace's 1963 inaugural speech in which he declared "Segregation now!...Segregation forever!" 

JP Olsen's The Narcotics Farm chronicles a Federal Kentucky-based prison that was dedicated, from 1935 to 1975, to studying drug-addicted prisoners. The facility was also a mecca for the hipster-junkie culture of that period; it closed amid allegations of human rights abuses.

Other notable films screened at the IFP Market included Jeremy and Randy Stulberg's Off The Grid: Life on the Mesa, about a no-man's land in the Southwest; Andy Roth's Terrorist--SHAC 7, about grassroots activists accused of terrorism through the Patriot Act; Tracy Holder and Karen Thorsen's Joe Papp in Five Acts, profiling the legendary impresario and founder of Shakespeare in the Park and the Public Theater; and Nelson George's Smart Black People, which looks at prominent African-Americans who made their mark on America in the 1980s.

The Gordon Parks Award for an Emerging African-American Filmmaker was split between two projects, one fiction and one documentary. The nonfiction half went to Andrea Chia and Jerry Henry for Something Other Than Other, a personal experimental doc that explores questions of racial identity through unconnected conversations and images from the filmmakers, parents of a multi-racial child, whose questions start at birth with pondering which box to check when it comes to their child's race. 

The Documentary Completion Award for a Documentary Work-in-Progress went to Marlo Poras for The Candidate, about "Granny D" Haddock, a 94-year old who gained notoriety by walking across America to protest campaign finance reform, and then by running for the US Senate from New Hampshire.


Susan Morris is a producer, director and media consultant who has worked for the BBC, WNET/Thirteen, BRAVO, IFC, TRIO, WNYC, New York Times Television, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Rockefeller Foundation and Condé Nast.