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The Art of the Doc: The Festival Programmers' View

By Akiva Gottlieb

CHP:DOX 2015. Photo by Peter Rasmussen

The international documentary field has never been harder to navigate, with thousands of worthwhile films vying for the limited attention of audiences. As a result, the film festival programmer continues to serve a powerful and necessary curatorial role. The best programmers expand the spectrum of nonfiction cinema by selecting and showcasing challenging new works alongside adventurous retrospectives of older, perhaps underappreciated classics. We posed several questions to programmers at four eclectic and globalized international film festivals—two big, two small—that are committed to an elastic conception of the documentary genre:

  • Chris Boeckmann, Programmer, True/False, Columbia, Missouri
  • Tine Fischer, Director/Founder, CPH:DOX, Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Dennis Lim, Director of Programming, Film Society of Lincoln Center; Co-Programmer, Art of the Real, New York, New York
  • Martijn te Pas, Head of the Program Department, IDFA, Amsterdam, Netherlands


Chris Boeckmann, Programmer, True/False, Columbia, MissouriAG: What makes a film work for your festival?

Chris Boeckmann: We describe ourselves as being topic-agnostic. Auteurism is the thing that's driving our programming a lot. We're trying to find the most exciting filmmakers working. When you come to True/False, you'll notice a lot of films where suddenly issues of the director's role and that of the camera operator become a question at some point. Films that are self-reflexive. We're interested in both aesthetics and ethics, and filmmakers who are very conscious of those two things, because they go hand-in-hand.

Tine Fischer: Since the early days of CPH: DOX, we have been looking for films in between documentary and other cinematic or artistic practices—for instance, what has later come to be known as hybrid films between documentary and fiction, or film and video works between cinema and contemporary art. You could say that we look for films that set their own rules, follow their own logic—films that stand out. But in the end it's a lot about the excitement of discovering something unexpected.

Dennis Lim: We started Art of the Real to create a showcase that had a more expansive view of documentary. We've shown some documentaries that are more conventional in their approach, more straightforwardly observational, driven by talking heads, but we've also expanded to include films that are practically fictional but have some kind of documentary aspect, and work that is more experimental.

Martijn te Pas: We want to be a creative place and we want to screen creative films that really show a sign of authorship, that show the filmmaker is thinking about form, content and structure. And of course we screen films at different lengths for different audiences, very experimental work and audience-driven work. Sometimes IDFA is thought of as a political festival only, but it's really an image; it's not the truth.

Art of the Real 2016. Photo: Michael Epps.

AG: What is your festival's orientation towards the term "documentary"?

TF: To cut it very short, we insist on documentary as an art form. Part of our mission has been to explore the intersection between the political commitment of documentary and the creative freedom of other artistic practices. The documentary label carries a certain promise of engagement and actuality, a reference to the real that is unique to the documentary experience and which in turn opens up its activist potential for creating actual change. At the same time, the concept of documentary is loaded with interesting tensions and even contradictions. We have been trying to rethink what a documentary film festival could be, and to build a festival as a social laboratory for thinking and talking about the relations between cinema, art and political activism.

CB: We intentionally avoid the word "documentary." I use "nonfiction cinema" as much as possible to describe what we're interested in. I think that everything contains elements of fiction, obviously, and that's a part of our name. There was a film last year called Victoria that I was a big fan of—the one-shot gimmick thing. As someone who's a documentary person, I totally was just watching it as a film that, because it was constrained to that geography, was a film about the city. And I actually think I would have liked Victoria even more if it had felt like it was letting the city get in the way, at times. That film feels as much like nonfiction cinema as a lot of talking-heads documentaries do.

DL: The main impulse behind creating Art of the Real was to showcase a wide range of documentary modes and show them alongside one another. Another reason we started this festival is that co-programmer Rachael Rakes and I both thought that the definition of documentary had narrowed—at least as it was discernible in the documentary film festival context. A more informational, journalistic piece, I probably wouldn't show. We're generally more interested in works that do something with the form, that think about how form goes with content when it comes to nonfiction.

There are so many ways to think about hybridity. It's such a wide spectrum of films, some much closer to fiction and some closer to documentary. What excites me is that I think there are still endless possibilities. I'm still finding films every year that I think are doing something new with hybridity. I don't think you can reduce the hybrid to one, or even several, types of films. There's still a lot of room for experimentation and new approaches.

TF: We were pleasantly surprised the year when Harmony Korine was awarded the top prize for Trash Humpers (2009) by the jury. It was already controversial enough to show the film in competition, but the whole event sort of nailed some the discussions that went on about documentary cinema at the time. It certainly gave people something to talk— and think!—about.

International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, IDFA 2013. Photo: Felix Kalkman.

Tine Fischer, Director/Founder, CPH: DOX, Copenhagen, DenmarkAG: Are prospects for US theatrical distribution on your mind when programming your festival?

MTP: Sure, although that is not the starting point for us when selecting the films. We just feel that the films we select are the best that qualify with regard to our regulations. We're not really thinking that hard about whether they'll do well in the US or elsewhere. Of course we want them to do well. The whole festival scene in the US is different, and the film language is a little different. We are a European festival and we can't deny that, though we also probably screen more American films than any other European festival. US distribution is a marker of success, for sure, but we have different kinds of films than TIFF and Sundance. Our films don't have the huge celebrity names or really huge political issues that do really well in these festivals. I think of Something Better to Come, which was shot over eight or 10 years, about a girl growing up on a dump just outside Moscow—that's what I would call a typical IDFA film. It's not something that would make headline news, but it will certainly touch a lot of people who see it. It's not a subject-driven film; it's about real people who live difficult lives.

DL: That's just more of a reason to show them: They might not have been shown at all otherwise. We also have a partnership with MUBI, where we post work from previous years and from the current year. I think that greatly enlarges the audience beyond New York City. Festivals take their cue from one another, and if you see a film's been programmed, it's more likely to get programmed somewhere else. Distribution being what it is, I'm not surprised that a lot of these films don't make it to the theatrical marketplace. But that's all the more reason to show them.



AG: Is it a festival programmer's responsibility to get these films seen more widely after the festival?

CB: I absolutely do think that's a festival's job. I don't know if I'd say that's every festival's job, but if you're a festival that is premiering a movie, you absolutely have a responsibility to that film to do as much as you can to keep its life going.

TF: Any proper film festival should feel that kind of responsibility towards the films they program—especially the premieres. And we try to help the films we have been premiering to continue to fly around the world. This doesn't mean that certain films are somehow "ours," though. Film festivals are about films and filmmakers, not about the festivals themselves.


Dennis Lim, Director of Programming, Film Society of Lincoln Center; Co-Programmer, Art of the Real, New York, NYAG: How do you take your festival's size into consideration when selecting films?

CB: We keep our lineups small so that every film can stand out. I think that's also really crucial for us. I don't think there are 100 great movies in a year, honestly, or at least 100 that I like. So we keep it tight so that everyone trusts the lineup.

TF: In our four competition programs we do give priority to filmmakers who choose to celebrate their premieres with us—whether it's a world, international or European premiere. With the growth of our festival in recent years and with its current status as one of the largest in the world (in all lack of modesty), the international documentary community expects us to present a solid selection of new films, and at the same time we believe that outstanding films that are the result of years of hard work and artistic commitment deserve the special attention that being in competition brings. We're not hysterical about premieres, though, and programming more than 200 films means that we have space to present what we believe are the best and brightest films of the year.

A few years ago we decided to reshape the way we present our program to the public by introducing some basic categories to make the whole thing easier to navigate. Below those categories is a more detailed structure of around 20 different sections with all kinds of funky titles. The year we added Politics, Arts and Drama into the program, the number of admissions went up from 50,000 to 70,000, so it certainly had an effect. (In 2015 we had more than 90,000 admissions.) But communicating your program is always a compromise. Of course a film can have a home in Politics and Art to the same degree; in fact, that's the case of some of the best films in recent years. But we have an obligation to make the program accessible, to avoid speaking only to a closed club of documentary specialists.

MTP: Because IDFA's so big—we have over 25 people working here all year round—to integrate everything, the industry part and the audience part, to keep it intimate, that's the challenge.

DL: Art of the Real is a small enough festival that we're only showing films that we really believe in.

True/False Film Fest booklet. Photo by Billie Stock

Martijn te Pas, Head of the Program Department, IDFA.

AG: What international film festivals do you attend regularly?

TF: With our change of dates from November to March, our regular travel schedule will change as well. Rotterdam, Sundance, Berlin, Tribeca, Cannes, FIDMarseille and Locarno have all been regulars for years, but we are looking forward to exploring some of the festivals that until now have been hiding in the Bermuda triangle of the autumn months. Apart from the film festival circuit, we also travel regularly to art biennials, music festivals and conferences within the field of art and technology.

MTP: We sort of take turns. I go often to Berlin, Cannes, Sundance, Sheffield, Hot Docs. TIFF is a bit difficult for us because by September we're already working 150 hours a week. We also visit smaller festivals, because we have a fund that often gives money to festivals in developing countries. We go to Doc Montevideo in Uruguay, and Kosovo, and so many festivals. It works both ways. It's good for us to go to a festival, because we get access to a great network, and sometimes we present IDFA and attract filmmakers because we're there. It's giving and taking.

CB: I actually only get to attend three—Sundance, Toronto and IDFA. Sometimes there'll be another one, if it's a jury invitation or there's some other reason to go. But those are the only ones I consistently attend.

DL: Because it's not the only thing I do, given the other programming I do for Film Society of Lincoln Center, I have to go to the major festivals—Cannes, Berlin, Sundance. But for Art of the Real, I would say Locarno's programming is important. They're pretty open to formally adventurous cinema, and lot of the most formally adventurous films of the last few years do engage in some way with the real, with documentary. There are a lot of great documentary festivals out there. FIDMarseille, CPH:DOX and Doc Lisboa are all really adventurous and are by no means restricted to showing strict docs. We get our films from everywhere, from all kinds of festivals: Rotterdam, Cinéma du Réel, Berlin's Forum section. I don't necessarily attend all these festivals, but it's easy enough these days to keep an eye on their programming even if you're not actually there.

It's part of my job to keep up with all the stuff throughout the year. We program on a rolling basis. We don't really have a submissions process. People reach out to us all the time, but it's not like an annual festival where there's a call, then a deadline, and that's when the concentrated work happens. But we're tracking work throughout the entire year because I'm tracking work for all our programs and Rachael Rakes works on all kinds of things. I've already invited films for next April, based on what I was looking at for New York Film Festival.


AG: How does your location affect your programming?

CB: Columbia, Missouri has the world's oldest journalism school, so it seems like a smart place to have conversations about media. Columbia is one of those places where everyone's been interviewed by someone from the journalism school at some point in their life. There's a part of our community that wants to have conversations about issues of representation.

TF: We have a competition for films from the Nordic countries, among other things, and we are fortunate that film support for auteur documentaries and more artistically daring films is relatively strong in the north. We of course screen many Danish films. But overall, we try to have a global outlook and present films from all over.

MTP: Amsterdam used to be and still is a very tolerant place. In the 17th century, a lot of people from Europe fled to Amsterdam. Compared to major US cities, it's a village, but there is a great variety and diversity of people. And we have collaborations going on with many local institutions—several museums and the Milky Way, which is a famous place for music. We have a really loyal audience; they come to screenings every year in really great numbers. Every year, we've increased the number of visitors. Our audiences are just fantastic.


Akiva Gottlieb is IDA's Communications Manager, and has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Nation.