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Filmmakers Can Find Themselves at GETTING REAL: A Conversation with Conference Producer Allison Berg

By Suz Curtis

When filmmakers convene this fall at the GETTING REAL Documentary Film Conference, presented by IDA and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, conference producer Allison Berg hopes attendees discover valuable information through the roundtables, sessions, working groups, talks and salons planned for the three-day event. But even more than filmmakers finding solutions, she hopes they find each other.

"It's about getting people together," Berg says. "From the new voices we have in the field who feel they may not have had a voice, to the more established who see what the landscape is and know what the challenges are-all of these filmmakers can be in groups together having constructive conversations, and those conversations will continue after the conference as well."   

In the process of programming the conference, Berg has considered her experiences as a filmmaker. Her first film, Witches in Exile, about women accused of witchcraft and banished to remote villages in Northern Ghana, premiered at the 2004 SXSW Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Award for Documentary Feature Film. In addition to numerous television credits as supervising producer and director, Berg, along with Frank Keraudren, co-directed and co-produced The Dog, a ten-years-in-the-making documentary about John Wojtowicz, the real-life inspiration for the Al Pacino character in the 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon. The film was released this past summer through Drafthouse Films.

 "When we were going into the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival with The Dog, a lot of filmmakers gave me and Frank Keraudren completely candid advice based on their own experiences," Berg recalls. "I'll never forget it and it was really important to have." She adds that she wants the same types of conversations to be facilitated at the conference.

Berg hopes the conference will create a space for dialogue and discovery that is often only available in post-festival socializing. "I believe in what this conference is about," she maintains. "Filmmakers meet up at bars and festivals, but the idea of any filmmaker being able to sign up for this conference and be a part of this conversation—I think that's really important. You shouldn't have to get into an ‘A-list' festival or be able to afford something really expensive to meet filmmakers. We want to provide this space."

Within that space, Berg sees the opportunity for conversation. "I think we'll all be stronger if we can really just talk to each other in candid ways," she says. "We're hoping to allow room at the conference where people can talk about case studies—what really happened on their films."

And the space extends between the conference offerings. Berg explains, "We want a place where filmmakers can gather informally between the sessions and during the sessions and feel like they're a part of something."

Berg expects a diverse crowd. "We want a range of participants," she explains. "Ideally, these conversations are for people who have one or two films, or have worked in depth on one or two films. So they're already aware of what some of the challenges are. These aren't ‘how to' sessions."

The needs, questions and challenges facing documentary filmmakers are abundant, and the conference's programming reflects the diverse challenges artists and journalists face. "When we were setting up this conference, there were four of us [including Michael Lumpkin, IDA's executive director; Ken Jacobson, IDA's director of educational programs and strategic partnerships; and Amy Halpin, IDA's director of filmmaker services] contributing ideas," Berg says. "We turned the IDA conference room into what looked like an editing room. We had notecards of our ideas everywhere. Once we started laying it out, we said, ‘We have way too many ideas.' It's a great problem to have. Because we're only looking at three days, we kept everything we loved. It's all about moving things forward, and I think that there are certain things we see that maybe could be done better as a community, and that maybe we could have better practices in certain sections of what we do."

The conference will also provide perspective on longevity and tactics for sustaining a documentary career. "I think we're a tough bunch as filmmakers," Berg maintains. "We struggle through a lot of things. It's not the easiest profession to choose. There's a constructive way to talk about these challenges, and it's not whining about them. One conference focus is career sustainability. I think we're all aware this is a tough profession. But what are the better ways to talk and think about this? We're not victims. We chose this and we're passionate about it and we love it."

And, Berg adds, the conference will address on-the-ground trials filmmakers face, often without mentoring or support, and the multiple approaches to their solutions. "Look at films where there were lawsuits or subpoenas to get footage, or filmmakers who were threatened while they were filming, or the ethics involved in taking your crew somewhere," Berg points out. "Documentary filmmakers are so daring. And they're making really important films. But a lot of them are working independently. What can we do to have the best practices involved?"

Having solutions and case studies on hand, Berg says, could facilitate work that defies large corporations or bureaucracies. "If you know you're making a film where a corporation might sue you, or your taped footage might be subpoenaed by courts, or you might want to film in a court and they're not letting you—what can we do as best practices?" she posits. "What is the advice of attorneys and those who have experienced this on the journalism side to better prepare ourselves, and also, how do we get access if we don't get press passes?"

The conference, designed for filmmakers by filmmakers, offers a gathering place, a community and ultimately, Berg suggests, a celebration. "A big part of the conference is talking about our creative process, and what we love about making films," she explains. "There's some real advocacy we can get done, and we can appreciate the work we do. I love the fact that there's going to be room to talk about distribution, advocacy, career, art—all of that affects all of us."

Suzanne Curtis Campbell is a Los Angeles-based writer, currently working toward her MFA in screenwriting at the UCLA School of Film, Theater and Television. She has worked with Ladylike Films on the award-winning documentaries Somewhere Between and Code Black, and on PBS' Makers.