Workshop Protocol: Perfect Film Funding in an Imperfect World
Workshop Protocol: Perfect Film Funding in an Imperfect World
As part of this year’s Berlin Critics’ Week, we held the workshop “Perfect Film Funding in an Imperfect World” from December 2021 to March 2022 to develop and discuss alternatives to the status quo of existing models of film funding across societies with international industry representatives. The playful discussion allowed participants to elaborate on our particular moment in film culture, on limitations and perspectives, aesthetics and curatorial challenges. Both theses and questions emerged, which we recorded in a detailed, jointly developed protocol in consultation with the participants.
This text is edited and abridged from conversations recorded over Zoom.
Session 1, 4 December 2021
Jemma Desai (UK) is a researcher and writer and a member of the BlackStar Film Festival Program Committee. She is the former Head of Programming Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival.
Flavia Dima (Romania) is a film critic, curator and programmer.
Zeynep Güzel (Turkey) is a filmmaker (Come Rain or Shine, 2019) and the former Head of the New Film Fund, Turkey’s first private documentary fund, established in 2015.
Marina Gumzi (Slovenia/Germany)is a producer, scriptwriter and researcher of screen culture with a background in dramaturgy and performance art. She is the Managing Director of Ljubljana-based production studio NOSOROGI.
Shine Louise Houston (USA) is the founding producer and director of Pink & White Productions (CrashPadSeries.com, PinkLabel.tv), which creates adult cinema and queer-made porn.
Yulia Serdyukova (Ukraine) is a film producer (yutopia films), curator and queer feminist activist. She is one of the organizers of the Filma. Feminist Film Festival.
JP Sniadecki (USA) is a filmmaker and anthropologist. He is a Professor of Documentary Media at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL and member of the Sensory Ethnography Lab.
Tan Bee Thiam (Singapore) is a producer, director, writer and editor with the independent film collective 13 Little Pictures.
Davani Varillas (Mexico) is a member of the Colectivo Los Ingrávidos, an avant-garde film collective formed in 2012.
With input by Georg Seeßlen (Germany), author and film critic
(The input lecture was presented during the 2nd workshop session as well as during the opening conference of the Berlin Critics’ Week in February titled “Is standstill forbidden? – The sort of progress cinema needs.” Georg Seeßlen’s input as well as the full conference are available as streams through our YouTube channel.)
Moderator: Heleen Gerritsen (Germany/Netherlands), head of goEast Film Festival and producer
Initiators and organizers of the workshop: Elena Friedrich (Hamburg) and Dennis Vetter (Leipzig), both members of the Berlin Critics’ Week Artistic Direction Collective, Charlie Bendisch (Berlin, Critics’ Week team), Rebecca Heiler (Berlin, film festival worker and curator involved with professional training at the DFFB).
Heleen Gerritsen and Dennis Vetter welcome everyone. Heleen explains the scope of the workshop, what the aim for the session is and asks everyone to introduce themselves and present briefly their field of work. We immediately start to speak about problems that exist in their respective areas of the current system, with everyone sharing their perspective.
Jemma Desai: I’m interested in how ‘political’ programming is or isn’t. How was politics a practice or a performance during the summer of 2020 and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter? I wanted to share a document and a podcast in which I think through some of these ideas:
Much of this thinking comes through my own writing, which started with my letter of complaint to the London Film Festival and developed into a way to think through what I experienced working in programming teams. I experienced it as a series of administrative contradictions that also felt unjust – everybody gets paid differently, has different information, and a different ability to influence the final program even though we are presented as a ‘team.’ My questions around who is included and excluded within these decisions – in material and more invisible ways – led me to resign from my job at the London Film Festival.
In my recent programming role at BFMAF, I began by organizing a series of workshops led by a group called Resist + Renew who work in movement organizing. We talked about group dynamics and decision-making. We discussed what language reveals (such as ‘submission’ as a term meaning “please, look at my film”); what hierarchies and colonial underpinnings are revealed. The festival already wanted to split the prize money to make it go further so we took the remaining competitive elements out. We rejected the language of criminal justice, getting rid of the jury. We really interrogated our decisions in programming, but it was hard. I learned that these changes have to happen in the community – one event can’t change things, it can only talk about changing things. You bump into the limits of what feels possible in these systems if you do things alone, because the world around you hasn’t changed. What we constantly came across about power was that, whatever scale you operate on, sometimes moving ethically in the world we live in means you lose power. And why would you give up the power that you have?
Flavia Dima: There are different perspectives. Romania has weak cultural institutions. There was a dictatorship during the most fruitful years of experimental and alternative filmmaking, so we’re trying to catch up with this lack and certain gaps. As a young person it’s very hard to find employment. State funding comes and goes – you can’t predict when they will decide to stop funding. Festivals disappear. Cultural intellectual circles are strongly right-wing in the majority.
Young, underfunded left-wing people try to program differently: Roma artists; female filmmakers; those who otherwise have no choice but to navigate within systems which at the same time try to exclude them. Within that system, pitching and workshops for young filmmakers can make their projects less interesting, and, while they are encouraged to produce under stable financial circumstances, they might lose their sense of authorship or sign the wrong paper and lose the rights to their material. There’s still this semi-colonial relationship with Western Europe.
Marina Gumzi: There’s a political element in producing very limited work, and working on films for many years; approaching films as research projects. I’ve done unconventional work as a producer, putting aside the structural division between producer and director – rather than making auteur films, finding a communal way of working on topics and preserving the fluidity of decision-making impulses. Being more aware of institutions or structures make it very difficult for people to work like that.
I have a systematic interest in institutions and researching structures, and was invited to work on a study by Eurimages, which is a pan-European financial support system that supports conventional arthouse cinema but also projects that are a bit edgier. After 5 years of financing alternative projects, they wanted their system evaluated. Here is our systematic analysis of the funding structure of their content.
Yulia Serdyukova: Flavia, high-five from Ukraine! I feel like we’re living in similar environments.
I have a history of producing more conventional documentaries, and had no problem financing them even in Ukraine, but now, when I produce more critical content and in a more experimental form… I am also concerned about the violence inherent in documentary form. Recently we have launched an online art exhibition, dokvira, that explores this issue.
JP Sniadecki: On the issue of funding – unfortunately, in the US, funding is often dependent on being a member of a clique; you have to show up at a festival. There’s a focus on “social impact,” but what do we mean by “social impact”? How are documentaries imagining “social impact”? Who determines the definition? In the US, social impact is often addressed after a film is made, but how can it be an integral component of the entire life of the film – meaning pre-production, production, post-production, and exhibition? That is, how can every stage of a film’s life be designed to enact generative outcomes for those involved? And why do films have to have political/social impact? My students often ask this question. What change do we want to see? Risk and vulnerability are also often overlooked but important factors in what you can do and are willing to do.
Tan Bee Thiam: Who do you contact if you want to screen older films, and what gets preserved?
I founded the Asian Film Archive. The way it runs is that I help put together a group of filmmakers, spend a year raising funding, and then produce a film with the budget that is raised. After making the film they have to archive it properly: film is something that should last forever. The project is about giving the opportunity to make a film. It’s annoying how hierarchical filmmaking is and how long the hours are. Production for Small Hours of the Night, directed by Daniel Hui, was six hours per day, Monday to Friday, for four weeks. Everyone was paid equally; the lead actor got the same as the camera assistant. The producer and director were not paid. Everyone has the feeling that it’s their film.
What is missing? The industry is too male-dominated. It’s high time to have diversity.
JP Sniadecki: Yay, Daniel Hui!
Davani Varillas: I want to talk about the context of war – how do you make films in this context? When violence is spread all over the country, and there are extreme circumstances – not only because of the violence but also because of neoliberalism – one strategy is to make films with no budget and share them on Twitter. It could be helpful to form an anonymous collective because of fear of violence. Los Ingrávidos is one example.
Zeynep Güzel: I initiated a documentary film fund in Turkey, not a national fund but one that should create a support system for underrepresented groups, creating alternatives in the industry to help independent productions to flourish. Censorship in Turkey affects all aspects of creative expression. The fund created hope. I want to have it as a structural support mechanism – defined; clear; transparent. The New Film Fund was suspended but it’s not totally closed, while state funding is very political and not transparent.
Shine Louise Houston: A lack of access to distribution and technology has made certain people invisible. The stuff that they showed was always there. The industry is much larger and more diverse now; the mainstream does a lot of things really right internally. The festival is a platform to connect. With the online distribution platform I founded, PinkLabel.tv, everything that was pushing the genre was invited to join. It’s a membership-based site, so that’s the financial drive behind the company. Revenue is also created constantly from older content. This subsidizes new productions and the distribution of the work.
After a break, the discussion continues. Heleen and Rebecca present a list of key talking points formulated by Georg Seeßlen, as augmented by those to have emerged during the introduction round.
• Closing/dying cinemas/movie theaters
• Transformation from classical distribution/exhibition to (oligopolistic) online platforms
• Licensing rights for corporations instead of intellectual property for producers and artists
• Populist pressure on public broadcasters and cultural institutions
• Increasing censorship and influence by authoritarian and populist governments
• The disappearance of critical cinephilia – replacement by marketing instruments and platforms
• Global dominance of platforms and studios
• Producing independently has become a precarious profession – it won’t pay the bills
• Increasing levels of bureaucracy and the obligation to premiere films in cinemas, even for small and niche films that receive state funding
Heleen Gerritsen: Is there anything that anyone would like to add?
JP Sniadecki: I’m not sure that independent producing in the US has ever been sustainable. I suggest that folks follow the writings of producer/distributor Karin Chien, who has been raising important questions in her reflections on this matter.
Flavia Dima: It’s the same in Romania (and Ukraine too I assume?). Plus, we had 45 years where independent production was virtually impossible.
Heleen and Rebecca prepared a short summary with key talking points from the presentation round:
• Hierarchies in filmmaking/curating practices: on set, in programming, etc.
• What is my place in the industry? Who is in the room?
• Can you bring about change alone?
• It’s not just films themselves that are political, but also the way they are produced, financed and distributed
• Risk-taking and vulnerability
• New cinephilia – away from ‘auteur’ culture
• What does the mainstream get right? (Working conditions? Health and safety? etc.)
• Is there such a thing as ‘national cinema’? What implications does that have for funding?
Jemma Desai: One thing I’d like to add is that, even when we are trying to collectivize, we still encounter power structures and dynamics. There is a constant struggle that we have to commit to. Festivals are ascribed too much power – there is a replication of neocolonialism in the ways that they program, fund and even ‘find’ work. How can we make our programming decisions clear and legible for audiences that have no or little understanding of geopolitics? What role does the festival have in education rather than underlining stereotypes or assumptions? For example: we programmed a collective last year who are grassroots and politically transformative. In some areas of film, collectives are fetishized, seen as the panacea for a hierarchical film industry, but we don’t often talk about how we desire them to be openly partisan, and need them to be, in order for them to make sense to a liberal western audience. Collectives can be deeply political just by existing even if they cannot express partisan ideas (as they would endanger themselves). As a programmer, what role do I have in making that clear? Where is the division between programming and criticism?
Heleen Gerritsen: How a film is produced is very important when programming it. Flavia, what do you think?
Flavia Dima: Yes, this is important. One thing concerning funding: what can we do about quotas, e.g. having to have a certain amount of European films? This is a colonial economic funding scheme. Money is behind the funds as well.
Heleen Gerritsen: It’s an economic scheme – it wants to promote European films, and it does so through quotas.
Davani Varillas: Festival circuits are sometimes an obstacle. Festivals ask for a premiere, they prefer an individual as an artist, and they look for an ‘international style’ in films – this ‘international style’ that is repeated in most films. Due to pitching, workshops, talents, and so on and so on, a form or style has been homogenized.
JP Sniadecki: And state/government funds for making films have quotas for, for example, “Danish” or “Dutch” personnel. Yet these documentaries are often made about cultural “others” grappling with colonial/neocolonial control. If there were quotas for paid personnel to be from the cultures that are being depicted, it could be an interesting form of reparations.
Jemma Desai: I think this is so important. Sometimes it feels like it’s the same program in different places all over the world, and it privileges people with access to certain resources – sometimes tied to borders – so, when I worked for the British Council, we often supported filmmakers from Africa and India who had access to visas/passports that allowed them to freely travel and also to funds to study abroad. All this contributes to a certain kind of filmmaking and a certain kind of ‘representative’ of these filmmaking scenes and therefore a certain politics too.
JP Sniadecki: I agree with Davani and Jemma here!
Heleen Gerritsen: The class aspect is an important aspect to think about – the privileged backgrounds of a few filmmakers from non-European/North American countries. Marina, you worked on Eurimages, do you want to say something?
Marina Gumzi: There are a lot of issues with the structure. Eurimages is a pan-European body supporting European films in a sustainable way. How do we even broach the problem that a few films get all the big funding? We all talk about the same thing. I was at a workshop for marketing films a few weeks ago; so many young people seem to have no critical attitude whatsoever. How do we even get to the core of the system? We are outside of it. Should the funding bodies stop funding films at all? Maybe everything has to explode to start new – everything is so interconnected.
JP Sniadecki: There is tons of funding for films in China, but that funding comes with constraints: censorship and government/corporate control. The style and structure of funding has completely changed. Money is thrown at young filmmakers for films that look arthouse but are teethless in terms of political efficacy. Now after ten plus years of the sustained oppression of independent festivals in China, the only way that other/alternative films can be seen in China are small cinema clubs.
Heleen Gerritsen: This is similar to Russia. Should festivals refuse films that are co-funded by a state fund of an authoritarian state? How about Turkey, Zeynep?
Zeynep Güzel: No, simply boycotting or polarizing is not the right way. But we all should know our partners from different localities and understand what they represent when they represent the conditions from their localities. A simple code of conduct would be helpful. Doing our research by reaching out to more professionals from that context and trying to have a fragmented yet diverse idea [of conditions there?].
Jemma Desai: I think urgency culture and the spectacle of festivals really contribute to a lack of care –programmers program things because they are ‘good’ and not always because they have carefully considered the context and geopolitical issues of the entire program, positioning, and prizes – and this is a cycle that repeats. Precarity is also an issue: programmers and critics who are trying to get space as freelancers and trying to be ‘visible’ as well as do good work – this is really sometimes antithetical to real political commitment and international solidarity.
Heleen Gerritsen (to Davani): Would you accept funding from the government?
Davani Varillas: Before not, but now, with the new president, we did it. I applied and got funding / a scholarship. My project is the collective and making it grow. It’s a fellowship from Cousin Collective. What helps us is having a network of collectives, also fellowships from the university. We try to stay independent anyway and we are very active with the distribution. The funders have to accept that we want everyone to see our films; they have to accept our conditions.
JP Sniadecki: Yay, Cousin Collective! And Fox Maxy is in it – highly recommend their work!
Tan Bee Thiam: I’m learning a lot from these conversations. In Singapore, there is public funding for films administered by the Singapore Film Commission. It adheres to strict guidelines and obviously films that are political or controversial (addressing religion, race, LGBTQ+ themes, etc.) and would be banned in Singapore will not be funded. When it comes to LGBTQ+ content, for example, if there’s a lovemaking scene with homosexual content, it gets an M18 or R21 rating. If there’s a happy ending for the homosexual couple, the film could be banned (e.g. the Taiwanese box office hit Formula 17 is banned in Singapore).
To make films that cannot be supported by state funding, filmmakers require the funding support of film philanthropists. A recent example is the documentary Some Women, directed by Singapore’s first trans woman director Quen Wong, which was produced and funded by Tiger Tiger Pictures (owned by Glen Goei). To get around the issue of “portraying homosexuality as normal and a natural progression of society,” the project chose to focus on how a trans woman met the love of her life and got married legally in Singapore. This is ironic as Singapore is one of the few countries in the world that criminalizes sex between consenting male adults.
In the Southeast Asia region, the political climate is generally authoritarian and filmmakers who wish to comment on politics are not just denied funding, but could be put in danger. This means that political commentary has to be made in a non-confrontational way to avoid being banned altogether. However, making it too subtle or ‘arthouse’ can also limit its audience and impact on society.
Flavia Dima: Thank you for sharing that story, Bee – fair point about rules. Clearer rules are easier to bypass – and I think what many governments are doing nowadays in relation to culture is to covertly ban things, or to create ‘priorities’ that in effect amount to censorship systems.
In the 90s in Romania there was a huge wave of very violent, homophobic and misogynistic films, so there was even a step backwards in whatever progress has been made. A lot of stereotypes were depicted. Showing LGBTQ+ films has been suppressed even in cinemas; there have been boycotts. Funding for the centennial of Romania was given to nationalistic, propagandistic filmmaking.
Heleen Gerritsen: In Serbia, Želimir Žilnik’s new film wasn’t funded. New projects are to be funded in line with the state church and traditional values – that’s straight censorship.
JP Sniadecki: Censorship can be so cunning. But I love this story of the groundbreaking film in Singapore, it does give hope. At the same time, and not to be a downer, but I think we need to be careful in assuming that films can be ‘forever.’ I’ve heard that huge corporations like Netflix are buying up films and explicitly not letting them be seen, I assume for market reasons, but they can also become political reasons. I haven’t done research into this, but it’s a very scary and nefarious scenario.
Tan Bee Thiam: JP, we sold one title to Netflix and we looked through the agreement carefully, and negotiated so that we did not give away all our rights.
Heleen Gerritsen: How to think utopian next time, though? Could we think backwards? That is, starting at the end – with exhibition, festivals and programming, and then looking at distribution, production and financing, and at the filmmakers themselves: who are they?
Zeynep Güzel: Lately I have been thinking together with different colleagues from different fields in the arts and cinema about the ‘classical’ lineage in the model of production and how the experience of the last two years has exhibited change. Of course, the demand for change was already there. We always go with the model of production and integrate it into discussions about distribution. What could be helpful for us to grapple? with the problem of representation and lack of diverse voices in film is reversing this chain of production and distribution. It could be utopian but also possibly necessary to have distribution upfront as a way of breaking the one-way chain of production and distribution.
But this could also lead to – and has been leading to – production on demand in a capitalistic framework. What I’m suggesting, however, is to maybe add horizontality into this idea, and bring smaller communities into production by addressing their demands in situ. What needs to change is the attribution of the decision-making process to these diverse communities, so that they can maintain their own narratives and points of view in the filmmaking processes. Alternative funding models could be helpful as well as the implementation of alternative distribution channels.
Marina Gumzi: I’m concerned about the capacity of the audience (worldwide) to process the things we are mentioning here. What are the urgent topics?
Heleen Gerritsen: The old question, what should cinema be about? What about film education? Are audiences able to see what we think is important?
Flavia Dima: The difference between countries that have a film tradition and culture and those that don’t; the difference if there is film education in the curriculum or not.
JP Sniadecki: It’s hard to talk about this in the case of the US. Overall, capitalism wins, and content can be rejected. People can relate to films that are challenging even without film education. I hope that film can offer a vehicle for empathy and solidarity. In the US, there is just vast inequality and defunding of education in general.
Flavia Dima: I fully empathize with you, JP – education in general is not a priority for so many governments, and within the model of education itself, culture (aside maybe from literature) is so marginalized… so what are we even expecting, really?
JP Sniadecki: Exactly, Flavia, and maybe lower expectations is a good way to go? The distribution work of the Ambulante Documentary Film Festival in Mexico and TIDF in Taiwan is an interesting model: traveling festivals that bring editions of the festival to regions and communities outside of the capital and the ‘capitals’ of culture.
Flavia Dima: I don’t know to what degree your [the participants’] countries have so-called “film caravans” – but we used to have them before the pandemic even to disseminate films in the summertime across the country in open-air settings, sometimes reaching towns that had no cinemas (anymore or at all). It’s an interesting model, with its limitations of course, but I’m curious about the rest.
Heleen Gerritsen: Should films have social impact? What does it mean? Why should films change something if society can’t?
Davani Varillas: It is interesting that when we have films that have already been made available on Vimeo, like our film Coyolxauhqui, festivals find it difficult to put them into the program.
Festival policy, with the need to premiere, is a problem if we’re speaking about awareness and social impact. Many people don’t go to festivals but have to see films in another way. We need to uphold the tenets of Third Cinema because colonialism is still so present, and we need time to make the films slowly, our way, because we want to stay independent.
Jemma Desai: The festivals are about elite access, while the way Davani makes films with Los Ingrávidos is about public access. Film education is not something I feel impassioned about advocating for – it sometimes feels like it’s about a kind of ‘right way’ to read films, which feels paternalistic. For me, we need political education. And we have to talk about gentrification, which is about depoliticizing space and making it about consumption rather than community – film festivals are an engine for this. It invites assumptions to think about ‘audiences’ – we are flesh and blood people, we are complicated. We’re assuming what people like and are capable of understanding and we’re also underestimating how much influence we‘ve already had in shaping what people expect. In this instance, if we want change we need to think also about scale and scaling back. What would we be left with if we think about film festivals and take away the expectation of some kind of ‘glamour’?
JP Sniadecki: I agree, Jemma. Film education should not be solely teaching people how to watch films, but rather just watching films together and valuing diverse spectator experiences, and seeing what the collective experience generates, open-mindedly.
Marina Gumzi: In the pandemic I’ve been consuming and watching films differently because of the algorithms. I’m lacking all the social interaction. It’s scary how it’s been changing!
Heleen Gerritsen: There have been sites that put up so much diverse content, from which I’ve gotten so much. So it’s not only gatekeepers and algorithms out there but also community-led platforms and social platforms.
Flavia Dima: What festivals are we talking about? Just the big ones or also smaller ones? There are huge differences and sometimes antagonistic relations between Hollywood modes of production and those of ‘arthouse’ or festival films. Indeed, Hollywood’s almost monopolistic power exerts huge pressure on the rest of us in the industry. How can we create a resistance to this crazy power? We need to forge alliances that don’t leave us more vulnerable than we already are.
JP Sniadecki: Just to play devil’s advocate: the mainstream is ever-narrowing, but it also provides infrastructure for other uses, other forms of cinema to occupy, albeit in a minor way and infrequently. And I’m not sure that cinematheques are going away. The collective experience of watching films is still too alluring for people.
Jemma Desai: I get the intention, but what does it mean in practice to ‘do things differently’? Are we just replicating the existing norms? About Heleen’s question from earlier on, ‘Isn’t it political just to show these films?’ No! It’s not enough. Sheffield DocFest wanted to do things differently in 2021, many others wanted to too. But what happens in these instances [as with Sheffield Doc Fest, documented by ScreenDaily here and here] is bound to happen, because the root is rotten and the system itself is not fit for change. Abolition as a concept has become interesting to me as people have demanded structural change but only represented reformist reforms. What are our non-reformist reforms? And what are our abolitionist demands? Abolition isn’t about destruction or critique – it’s practically creating something new collectively – but it’s really, really hard as it requires us to deeply examine what’s wrong, and who benefits from it staying that way.
Marina Gumzi: Exactly, the system is so interconnected, it’s impossible to completely antagonize the monopoly of power or even just “support structures” as such – at least if one doesn’t want to be radical (and radical can easily be black and white).
Heleen Gerritsen: The idea is to work backwards next time, from festivals via production to funding.
Session 2, 8 January 2022
Participants: Jemma Desai, Flavia Dima, Marina Gumzi, Shine Louise Houston, Georg Seeßlen Moderator: Heleen Gerritsen Berlin Critics’ Week: Rebecca Heiler
Thoughts from the Festival Circuit / Distribution discussion group (Jemma Desai, Flavia Dima, Georg Seeßlen) with additional input by Yuliya Serdyakova
• How can we sit in discomfort? What are the barriers to utopia? What are the pitfalls of the idea of utopia? We need spaces to imagine together, but what is smoothed out when we gather for a short time and are not always able to move through the discomforts/resolve them? How can we enact solidarity across borders and economic and political realities, as well as different levels of risk and the resultant different understandings of commitment? • What is the language of colonizer? It’s English, but is it also the structure of ‘the festival’? Yuliya notes: “At Filma. Feminist Film Festival, translation is very important, it’a a political issue. It includes making films and discussions accessible for people who have partial or full loss of hearing and sight, as well as including people who do not speak either English or Ukrainian. We believe that making it a preference is an important decolonial / anti-ableist / anti-classist practice, even though it eats a huge part of the festival’s budget and makes online discussions not very comfortable for those who can hear and understand English. We believe that this discomfort is important as an acknowledgement of our privileges and the imbalanced world we live in.” • What are the guidelines for the vision? The values? Is it reform? Or abolition? Or Bacchanalia? Or something else? • Who are the subjects of this transformation/reorientation? Who are the participants? Who we are in relation with and what is the nature of the relationship? Consumption? Mutuality? Political commitment? • Divesting – judgment/spectacle • ‘The festival’ as a living being – body, mind and soul:what are its needs? Self-knowledge; history; being in relation to others. • Other models of festivals – music, theater – what are the relations and experiences in these? What are the physical orientations of the spaces we gather in? • Cinema architecture and also the role of the ‘refurbished cinema’ in gentrification and gentrified events: how does this relate to the emptying of radical ideas? • Opposition to the notion of “reform” in contrast to creating anew. June 2020 was a moment of political demands that moved beyond reform, but what would need to be let go in order to achieve them? Do we even want that? • What is the commitment of transformation? Who would need to refuse/revolt? E.g. shedding punitive, competitional structure would mean no prizes or juries, and therefore less status, less prestige for some. What does that mean for the many? What does that mean for the desires that lead us to festivals? How would distribution work without this prestige and status (There would be no festival garlands on posters!)? • Competition as economy, economy as competition. • What is at the center of ‘the film festival’? Is it political dissent and the idealism of gathering, or is it the reality of film industry hierarchies that get replicated in festivals – namely, unpaid labour and precarity. What is the real practice of the festival? Is it care or is it capitalist production that can reform itself? • The festival is also a factory – and there’s class struggle within it, with labourers implicated in a system of cultural slavery: see Film Fest Staffer’s Twitter and Instagram. • What is the value of our relationships? How do we defend the relationships that constitute our ‘industries’ if we privilege care rather than judgment. What is the role of friendship? Friendship is both an ideal and a problematic concept – the idea of friendship as being interrupted by the economy of competition and profit. • Languages of solidarity • Dissent vs. spectacle, gathering/intimacy vs. festival – would the gathering we create without the toxic effects of profit and competition be called a festival? Or would it be something else? What would its pleasures be? What would we need to let go of to get there? • ‘Festival’ as a taxonomic category; as collage; as mise-en-scène; as spectacle in and of itself. • Preservation vs. gentrification: what is the demand to engage with politics that festivals respond to? What is the relationship that a festival should foster in relation to this? How do we enable passive consumption and performative politics? It’s through conservatism and empty liberalism, which are hidden by the content. We extract content without structurally enabling the practice of the politics in the films. • Neocolonial frameworks are replicated in the colonial mentality of exploring and ‘finding films’, and also in the dynamics that translated into the idea of ‘good’ festival films – as discussed in this recent article by MK Raghavendra. • Universality as narrow; as disciplinary/physicality
Thoughts from the Production group (Marina Gumzi, Shine Louise Houston, Heleen Gerritsen) with additional input by Yuliya Serdyukova
• The way to empower all filmmakers – independent, mainstream or underground – is through universal basic income. Without the pressure to hustle, we can slow down the production process, power dynamics will change, and hierarchies can be broken down. • If this framework were in place, what could we as individual filmmakers do to create a better production environment?
- Change the work culture: we could implement a code of ethics/a “no-asshole” policy on your set, in your production office and work environment.
- Make our production teams and casts as diverse and inclusive as possible by casting and hiring members of marginalized groups and insisting on equal/fair payment for all, and overall – facilitate the redistribution of privileges in the film industry to the best of our ability.
- Support the idea of ‘nothing about us – without us’ so as to decrease the level of exploitation
- Refuse to produce/direct films that support problematic dominant narratives on the content level.
- Create our own venues and platforms: organize “film slams” to meet, inspire and exchange with filmmakers of different age groups, classes and backgrounds; directly interact with our audiences and contribute to discourse; create a space for truly critical discussions, through structured moderation, which will hopefully lead to an environment where fear of cancellation is no longer is an issue and where all opinions are welcome – i.e. a safe space to discuss and interact.
Session 3, 28 January 2022
Marina Gumzi, Yulia Serdyukova, JP Sniadecki, Tan Bee Thiam, Davani Varillas
Moderator: Heleen Gerritsen
Berlin Critics’ Week: Rebecca Heiler
Specific thoughts on Film Funding
Tan Bee Thiam: We have received state funding for productions that fit its criteria. Because of the bigger budget of such projects, you can get a more experienced cast and crew. Even then, we try to have a good mix of experienced and new talents. The distribution route is quite classical, and as long as you watch your budget carefully, you can break even. Our other works are more indie and critical or queer. We work, and after saving money for one to two years, we find a way to make the production with the resources we have, usually with very limited budgets. Working this way forces us to focus on what we’re hoping to achieve and address questions of how we can achieve it.
In a recent production, Small Hours of the Night (written and directed by Daniel Hui), we paid all ten crew and cast equally (above minimum wage) with the money we raised/saved. With equal pay, we make it clear that everyone has an equal say and contribution on set. We shot for four weeks, only from 7pm to 1am, and we made everyone rest on Saturdays and Sundays. It was the working conditions we hoped would be ideal for creativity on set and not just finishing what we have on the shot list for the night. Every night before we shot, we would have a meeting to discuss what we hoped to shoot and invite everyone to contribute their ideas. Without the hierarchy/seniority of a bigger set, the atmosphere was participatory, fun and enjoyable. We even allowed each cast and crew member to set the theme for each shoot night and the rest of us had to interpret the theme and come in costumes. Over the years, we are lucky to have attracted a small following, including some investors who appreciate why and how we make films.
Heleen Gerritsen: Private investors are not common in Europe and there are also issues with them.
JP Sniadecki: The loss of professionalism that’s perceived with such a model is part of the problem. In the US there is no state funding. Films that do find a way to receive funding could elect to show solidarity – e.g. American Factory, about Chinese workers, showed no solidarity in distributing films by other filmmakers. (Again, I recommend checking out the insights of Karin Chien.)
Another approach could be to share funds with other filmmakers who are working in similar areas but less privileged in the competition for funding. No one wants to take a risk right now, so there is nothing new, just replication of neoliberal structure and dynamics. And let’s be clear: gatekeepers in the US are conservative too. A new generation has to step in. And what about the equity in the documentary space, for both directors and film participants? In documentary, why do protagonists not receive proper credits, such as a writing credit or a directing credit? Participants often give their lives to a film, and by living their life before the lens, they are very directly writing and/or directing the film – perhaps not with a pen or a filmmaking apparatus around them, but they are nonetheless contributing tremendously to the life and trajectory of a film. But this still seems a huge taboo in documentary. Demystifying the filmmaking practice, integrating film participants into the creation and profits (if any) of a film, and sharing knowledge in workshops for film participants should be also happening more.
Tan Bee Thiam: Funding usually comes with certain conditions around how it can be used. We can consider sharing other resources that are ‘in kind,’ such as equipment or studio space. Beyond getting writing credit for documentary protagonists, maybe we can also consider directing/co-directing credit in some cases. This could push production companies to invest in new talents who have stories to tell, told from their perspectives.
Heleen Gerritsen: Work needs to be paid. But in the collective way of working this is often omitted.
Davani Varillas: We need two things to work: solitude and time. Funding can’t give you these. Because you don’t have these things, we see so many similar productions. The rocks and the earth are our protagonists. We see and we film; we don’t write before – but you need to do this for funding. We film a lot of topics but in fragments, and we use things that are very close to us, like shamanism, in both fiction and non-fiction.
Can you imagine a system in which your collective was able to work? Capitalism devours everything. You can’t work like this in capitalism. For us, we make films like poetry. Pedro Costa changed the industry that already existed and then left it to make films outside of that system. Time is the material for filmmakers.
Heleen Gerritsen: The Film-Makers’ Cinematheque and the Anthology Film Archives (Jonas Mekas and the like) should be mandatory topics in film education.
Yulia Serdyukova: Bee and Davani complement each other in an interesting way. It’s a huge luxury to have a crew who can contribute their time and energy to produce a film at night/in their free time. Only people with certain privileges would be able to do that (relatively healthy physically and mentally, with no persons depending on their care, and who have any free time at all). I’m also part of a collective called Freefilmers and we used to make films with very little money or without funding at all, but we realized quickly that we couldn’t go on like that. We burned out. A utopian film production can only be organized in a utopian society. Basic income is a good ground to start from – anything utopian would have a good ground with a basic income and basic healthcare.
The issue of gatekeepers is one that is being raised often now. It is a political question, if the funding committees are still not representing marginalized perspectives.
For example, attempting to make a film with an antimilitary agenda in Ukraine right now is dangerous, even. Trying to raise the issues of representation in that context is not popular, at the very least, but could also be dangerous.
Marina Gumzi: I’m so in the system right now. How can we bridge the utopian with the system? The system is people in the end, it’s not bad per se. But there is such a big gap!
People that run funds think about policy and they do think about solidarity too, but the improvements made are minor; big changes don’t happen. Big changes can’t be thought of inside the system. How can we sustain a generative model instead of an extractive model? We need to handle money, which sustains hierarchies in a different way.
Tan Bee Thiam: Would an infinite residency funded by someone as rich as Elon Musk be a ‘utopian’ system that solves our problems?
Marina Gumzi: Filmmakers are part of humanity, so all humans should get that then!
Tan Bee Thiam: With funding, it also means that you’re allowing other people to have some kind of ownership over your work. It’s perhaps important for every filmmaker to ensure that they retain ownership of their work and only allow commercial exploitation for their investors. I like what Davini mentioned about the importance of time in art and filmmaking. But in a pessimistic way, when one has money (capitalism), you can also buy the time of others to help you make art and film.
Yulia Serdyukova: To demonstrate the result (or impossibility of any conclusive result) of this workshop, we can show our process. We can share the notes from our conversations in a Google doc, where we can make comments and give such an opportunity to readers too. The inability to deliver a more “productive” result does not show that we are impotent, but that the system is bad.