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Doctober: The Birth of a Notion

By Betsy McLane

Does the world really need yet another film festival? Even one that has noble social and aesthetic purposes, along with strong community support? Even a very small one that provides a special service to the documentary world? At the International Documentary Association, the Board of Trustees and the Board of Directors, along with the staff, have been considering such questions over the past two years. Ultimately, we chose to take the step: go forward, on a trial basis, with an International Documentary Film Festival that is designed to put documentaries on a par with those fiction features trying to qualify for Academy Award ® consideration with a week-long theatrical run in Los Angeles County.

The first problem: what to call this festival? What we needed was an icon to give the contemporary documentary a distinctive visibility, one that signals the efforts of the IDA to bring home the importance and relevance of the documentary in our daily lives. To capture that in a title, I turned to IDA member, filmmaker and designer Arnold Schwartzman. His design for the poster of the 69th Academy Awards® was simply brilliant: take the title of each and every Best Picture winner since 1927, arrange them according to the length of let­ters, so that their configuration revealed Oscar® himself, that single image that says glamor, celebrity and achievement. Surely he could devise something to encapsulate what we are trying to do.

Arnold is no stranger to the mission of the documentary. Among his many awards is his own Oscar® statuette, received for the 1981 feature documentary Genocide. I approached Arnold and he kindly sat and listened as I waxed on and on (you know how I can be!) about the importance of the documentary, about the difficulty of short documentaries and those that are seen only at festivals, about the exhibition dilemmas that face an art and com­munications medium operating with such small budgets, about the need to build audiences and get the work seen, about how to achieve the kind of respect and attention necessary for any serious art form. (I did go on!)

"Let 's look at the moments i n hi story when documentary need ed no apology," he said , as I stopped long enough to take a breath . ''I'm thinkin g of those films from the great Soviet makers in the 'twenti es. Remember ? Potemkin and Mother and Ten Days That Shook the World."

"October," I said. "What?"

"October. The film wasn't originally called Ten Days That Shook the World. Eisenstein called it October in honor of the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. And it's not exactly a documentary ."

Arnold stared at me silently, and I wondered whether I had offered an interesting piece of film trivia, or if he was offended at being corrected. The silence was prolonged, a bit uncomfortable, and I was ready to interject something—anything—to get back on topic.

"That 's it!" he said . "Brilliant. Yes. Good, Betsy, good."

Not being used to such an enthusiastic response, I replied: "What?"

"That's the key. October. IDA will do a week-long festival in October. The films must be seen in a paying public venue for at least seven consecutive days, by October 31. This will be a docu­mentary October. Get it? DOCTOBER . . . yes . . . yes . . . what do you think ?"

What else could I think but, "Yes, brilliant!"

That is how the festival began to take dramatic shape. So now, as our planning moves forward, selected documentary film­ makers will be invited to screen their work at Doctober, to be held October 24-30 at the historic State Theatre, located at 770 E. Colorado Blvd., in the Playhouse District of Pasadena California. Doctober will not only afford the filmgoing public the opportunity to view some of the most current and excit­ing nonfiction films, but the fest will also provide outreach programming for the benefit of local youth and families through the Cultural Passport, created by the Pasadena based Light-Bringer Project.

The world probably does not need another film festival. But, a unique one, yes, there's room. By scheduling the event in Pasadena, we'll be reaching out to a commu­nity not necessarily embroiled in the activities on the other side of the Hollywood Hills, yet not so far away so that those of us nearer the water can't make the trip easily. We'll be offering support to documentarians who so desperately want audiences to see their work, to have a mark of credibility that moves their work into such larger venues as public and cable broadcasting, even theatrical release. Academy Award ® nominated films have tasted this exposure, and our festi­val will fully qualify these films under the new rules of AMPAS. Just as important, it will be another concrete gesture from the IDA to further the respect, the appreciation and the influence of the doc­umentary mode on audiences. We all know that documentaries have the potential to make our world a better place . Doctober will try to make some contribution along this line.

For more information , contact Festival Coordinator Apple Via in the IDA office at 310-284-8422, ext. 68.


BETSY A. McLANE holds a Ph.D . in Cinema from the University of Southern California and is Executive Director of the International Documentary Association, a position she has held since 1991.