5. Filmmakers, Festivals and the Repression
NOW WE come to the fourth area of responsibility for the media crisis: the role of filmmakers and producers themselves, including those in the documentary movement. To what degree are these professionals challenging the situation described on these pages?
To begin with, we need to briefly review certain problem areas in the film world, and the compromises which these force onto many filmmakers.
Apart from the many elements in the media crisis which I have already described, there are several other negative developments impacting on American filmmakers and their colleagues elsewhere: a) the role played by certain types of film festivals in worsening the crisis; b) the role played by TV Commissioning Editors, and by the process called 'pitching'; c) the widespread repression within the media. I will briefly examine each of these in turn:
A) FILM FESTIVALS. A growing number of mainstream film and TV festivals - and even more disastrously, documentary film festivals - have completely sold out to the ethos of Hollywood and commercialism. From stretch limos carrying the latest filmmaker wunderkinds, to the endless parties, to the gossip columns by film critics and paparazzi, etc. - the era of the globalized film festival is upon us with a vengeance.
On top of this, a growing number of mainstream film and documentary festivals are now littered with endless 'debates on relevant issues', master workshops with filmmakers, and seminars on 'how to stay in the loop'. Unfortunately, one quickly comes to realize that these events are simply a charade, a Potemkin Village of hip-hop expressions such as 'the most dazzling', 'the most brilliant', 'the film of the decade', 'cutting edge', all masking basic commercialism - rather in the same way that money laundering works.
The 'workshops' and 'debates', are generally programmed with the speed of the Monoform, flashing past the eye, like bright empty packages on a conveyor belt: 20 minutes worth of film extracts, 20 minutes of question and answer with the audience... on to the next filmmaker: 20 minutes of extracts, etc. Which means that, even if the media crisis itself was surprisingly raised as a topic, that issue as well would have the ephemeral existence of a summer moth.
There are those who say that the superficiality and commercialism are irrelevant, because film festivals still allow us to see films we would not otherwise know existed. But the benefit of screening films - any films - in this way is questionable, because such a highly structured environment prevents genuine discussion with the public, and reinforces the hierarchical role of the MAVM towards the audience. For within this entire blurry process, where double-talk about 'debate' and 'diversity' camouflages commercial reality, the public has no role other than to plonk down their MONEY (lots of it) for the latest exciting films. No more is required nor desired of them; the rest is just dressing.
Given these problems, and the huge number of films shown (a recent international festival offered 345 in one week), it is difficult not to conclude that what is happening here is just part of the increasing excess of commercialized audiovisual stimulation which is gripping the planet, and removing us farther and farther from our own human forms of monitorable reality and experience - and replacing them with a surrogate world where 'history', 'reality', 'experience' are synthetic processes shaped by others.
It is as if the human species is becoming drunk on sound and moving images. We seem unable to tear our gaze from the screen, to rise above the din and flicker, to ask what is happening with and to us. The greater the audiovisual excess, the more we come to accept such highly questionable media processes as the Monoform. And the more that children apparently come to accept soap-operas, and TV in general, as 'reality'. It is disturbing that many film and documentary festivals are legitimizing this excess, filtering this crisis and its products deep into the public psyche - with no query or debate.
Organizers of film festivals - especially those of the 'mega' variety - will probably not agree with what I write. They see themselves as upholding 'quality films', and giving people the opportunity to see audiovisual material that is not obtainable elsewhere. Several large film festivals have also supported my own work, showing THE FREETHINKER and LA COMMUNE, for example, films which are otherwise very hard to see, due to the marginalization of my work by TV. But it is necessary to look beyond the end of one's own nose and one's own filmmaking.
The essential problem with many film festivals today is that despite - or perhaps because of - their saturation screenings of 'quality' films (as well as many overtly commercial films), the global media crisis moves ahead, untouched and unchallenged. The typical ten-day rush in festivals to consume as many films as possible does not allow time for any critical re-evaluation of the role of the mass audiovisual media, and - as I emphasize here - this is generally not the purpose of these events.
Many of those who organize and participate in these types of festivals would justify the excesses by saying that they bring much needed 'diversity' to the spectator. I also would argue (as I do in this statement) for alternative forms of audiovisual experience. But here we are not talking about the same thing. 'Diversity', to many in the MAVM, has come to mean diversity of centralized and standardized audiovisual experiences, i.e., more films from more filmmakers operating from within their own egotistical and/or creative and/or aesthetic and/or professional needs. And producing films accordingly - hardly ever involving the public other than as spectators in a one-way process. The current mainstream meaning of 'diversity' has become shorthand for the audiovisual excesses I refer to above.
When I speak of alternative audiovisual processes - 'diversity' - I mean quite another thing, which I will come to later.
Most of the contemporary audiovisual process has become akin to a mega sale in a vast supermarket, with customers dashing from one aisle to the next. The fact that growing numbers of people on our planet - including many teenagers - are now clinically obese, and heaven knows how many more are overweight, is not as irrelevant to the media crisis as it may at first seem. Obesity - overconsumption - is not only related to the state of our physical body.
Indeed, it becomes difficult not to see many contemporary mega-film festivals as 'logical' extensions of the self-concerned and inward way of life now dominating the Western world: millions of us sitting comfortably in the dark, satiating ourselves on the latest audiovisual fix - while the world outside goes to ruin. Apart from any other factor, it is highly disturbing to think of the immense expense of producing and consuming so many films, while people are suffering as a result of terrible inequality and economic crises.
A Canadian newspaper wrote of the economic failure of two recent Hollywood films ("tanked" was the expression used), costing a total of $215 million USD to produce, and grossing "only" $75 million at the box-office. Can one imagine how a total of nearly $300 million spent on two absurd strips of celluloid could have been used - for example in Africa, where countless people die of AIDS or malaria each year, because they cannot afford drugs to stave off such diseases?
What do we do in our minds-eye with the 2002 record figure of nine billion USD worth of tickets sold at the box-office? Apparently there are two definitions - American and European - of a billion, and I always confuse the two - one has three more zeros than the other. But even if we apply the conservative figure, it means we are spending well over two and a half million dollars a day on our current audiovisual fix. (This is probably just the Hollywood cinema, and doesn't include the 'Bollywood' variants of the MAVM-fix in Asia and Latin America.)
This staggering amount - nine billion USD - accounts 'only' for the consumption, and does not include the vast sums spent on producing and promoting these films - many of which have a budget of between $40 to over $100 million each. How can we relate to all of this, and then consider the way this money could be used in the fight against poverty, illiteracy, AIDS, etc.?
The problem is that we can no longer relate to any of it. So disconnected from human affairs has the world of the MAVM become, that a recent article by a film journalist, listing the worst Hollywood films of 2002, used as its criteria the amount of money taken in at the box-office! The list included: THE ADVENTURES OF PLUTO NASH ($4.41 million), TREASURE ISLAND ($32.8 million), WINDWALKER ($40 million), THE WIDOWMAKER ($35 million), THE FOUR FEATHERS ($18 million), REIGN OF FIRE ($43 million), COLLATERAL DAMAGE ($40 million), HART'S WAR ($19 million), a re-make of ROLLERBALL ($19 million), etc. This list not only represents at least $250 million worth of wasted money (not including the amount spent on production in the first place), but each film's takings were described in terms of "only": "...had taken in only $32.8 million US as of yesterday..." (!!).
B) PITCHING AND COMMISSIONING EDITORS. The crisis facing most documentary filmmakers today is essentially this: instead of seeking funds for a film in ordinary, face-to-face discussions with TV executives (TV supplies most of the funding for documentary films), one is now expected to 'pitch'. The process entails the following: if one's film proposal is 'accepted' after a highly competitive pre-selection process, one attends a film or TV festival (often referred to as a 'market' or 'forum'), and lines up with other filmmakers, to step forward, one at a time, in a crowded auditorium, before a panel of TV Commissioning Editors armed with clip-boards and stop-watches, to whom one presents one's project in five minutes. A bell rings when five minutes are up, and one stops explaining one's project. The bell rings again: another five minutes - this time for questions from the Commissioning Editors about one's project. Again the bell - end of performance. The next filmmaker steps forward...
Many film and documentary festivals are now into promoting these degrading events as their major spectacle (and marketing opportunity). The public - or at least other professionals - crowd the venue; the sweating face of the filmmaker is projected onto a large digital screen. Pitching has become an obscene spectator sport, a cross between a Roman circus and a trial during the time of the Stalinist purges. One has only to see the images of supplicating filmmakers - their glistening faces juxtaposed against those of the all-powerful Commissioning Editors - to feel quite sickened.
Last year, an alarming (doubly so because the journalist seemed totally oblivious to the crisis she was describing) article in a popular Canadian newspaper gave a detailed description of a pitching session at the Banff TV Festival in Canada (where the idea of 'pitching' actually originated). The highlight of this particular session was a 'super-pitch', in which 3 documentary filmmakers competed for $50,000., to be used in developing their projects. Each filmmaker was given three minutes to make his pitch. (Ever try to seriously describe a film - its content, meaning, style, etc. - in this amount of time?) One of the projects was on the universality of humour, and in his pitch, the filmmaker told a Middle East fart joke... I presume the reader can guess which project got the Commissioning Editors' vote?
Who and what exactly, are these Commissioning Editors?
They are the highly select group of executives at most TV channels today, who control what the channel purchases and airs; they also select projects for development and production funding.
These ambitious, powerful, and (often) ruthless executives have advanced - through and because of the media crisis - to their present position of having nearly total control over everything the public sees on TV. This small concentration of executives (usually 2-6 per TV channel) now holds centralized power over nearly everything that is funded for TV (from 'light' entertainment, to drama series, to documentaries). They control how programmes are structured, their content and style - and often (in conjunction with equally powerful Program Controllers), whether or not the final product is shown.
No-one in the civic process elected these TV executives. Invariably the public do not know their names, or understand their function. But these executives are directly responsible for a decline in TV which is unparalleled since the development of the medium in the late 1940s. They - and the pitching sessions they now ordain - are responsible for a blatant standardization of form and style, a corruption of ethical values, and a rampant destruction of the creative environment. The culture of 'pitching' which these people foster - its worship of the slickest, loudest, fastest, most vulgar, sensationalistic, pre-packaged, commercial, most stupid elements - is totally putting paid to what little remains of TV as a viable medium, and in the process, the documentary film movement.
Pitching, the Monoform, and the Universal Clock have been welded into one compulsory unified package, ruling every vestige of TV-funded documentary filmmaking around the globe. The role played by TV Commissioning Editors here is both crucial and catastrophic.
In Canada, for example, TV broadcasters are only required to put up circa 25-35% of a film budget. The rest is usually raised from a variety of public and private sources - e.g., the Canadian Television Fund might put up another 55-60%. Roughly half of the money in this Fund is supplied by Canadian taxpayers through the Department of Canadian Heritage; the other half is provided by the Cable Television Industry. Most importantly, a filmmaker is not eligible for any money from the Canadian Television Fund if he/she doesn't have a broadcaster signed to contribute the first 20-35% of the budget. So - in a very real sense - the broadcasters are the gatekeepers.
This problem strikes deep at the heart of feature film production as well. In France, for example, barely 10 out of 120 recent full-length cinema films were produced without TV funding of some kind.
C) THE REPRESSION. As you have gathered, filmmakers today have the utmost difficulty in making a film for either the commercial cinema or TV unless they use: a) the ideology of the popular culture, b) the standardized Monoform. Both are now mandatory in all but name. This has meant the widespread professional rejection (banning) of a broad swathe of alternative forms of audiovisual communication - especially ones using slower, more contemplative and complex editing and narrative forms, or presenting themes less brutally simplistic or with a social concern and a critical edge.
The nature and extent of this repression remains a well kept secret from the public. The MAVM refuse to debate the significance of this problem, and ruthlessly suppress any film or TV production which attempts to raise it. For instance, there is no doubt that the wall of silence around my own work since the beginning of the 1980s, is due to the manner in which my films attempt to analyze and - by example - challenge the centralized position of the MAVM.
This repression affects not only my films but also my public statements. The refusal to debate the critical analysis in my two-part public statement "The Dark Side of the Moon" (sent to 100 senior MAVM producers and media teachers in 1997, and resulting in 2 replies), is just one manifestation of this repression. The rejection by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation of the "Report on the CBC coverage of the 1985 Shamrock Summit", which we produced during the making of THE JOURNEY, is another.
Those who control the MAVM operate on the theory that they can either ignore criticism and efforts to raise public debate about the role of the mass media, or bully critical thinking into submission. If that doesn't work - they can marginalize the filmmaker. Evidence indicates that these tactics work extremely well.
The world of those who rule global TV is actually very small: as described earlier, most of its leading executives meet every few months at TV fests, screening junkets, and 'pitching sessions' around the world. Here the network of TV controllers exchanges gossip, and consolidates its global web of self-interest and power. It is here, over coffee and drinks, and later via phone, e-mail and fax, that the process of marginalization is carried out.
A principal and oft-repeated tactic utilized to discredit the work of critical people such as myself, is to label it "amateur... not professional enough... of an insufficient standard to be shown on TV", etc. These sorts of charges have been laid against my work by the TV profession since the 1960s.
For example, the BBC told the public that it banned THE WAR GAME for 20 years because it had been a failed TV experiment. (The real reason was that it threatened government defence policy!) Even in the 1990s, the BBC was responding to queries regarding its policy of not showing my films with: "Peter Watkins' films have not stood the test of time." The British Film Institute in London omitted all mention of my name and my films from its extensive 1995 Encyclopedia of European Cinema - presumably for the same reason...
Elsewhere, I have described in greater length the 'logic' ARTE-TV in France used to prevent my latest film, LA COMMUNE, from reaching an audience during regular viewing hours. "You do realize, Peter, that you have failed in what you set out to do?" - explained a senior ARTE Commissioning Editor, after I refused his request to continue editing the film to fit within the structure of the Monoform - "in order", as he put it, "to help the audience".
One of the most hurtful aspects, on a personal level, of the marginalization of my work, is that it is being done while I repeatedly hear how much people in the industry "admire" my films, and how my work pioneered the drama-documentary genre in the 1960s. I also am told that my films influenced the work of individual filmmakers.
It is difficult to reconcile the fact that - apart from supportive letters I receive from certain young filmmakers and the public, which I genuinely appreciate - much of the praise comes from people in the MAVM who are immersed in exactly the kind of cinema and TV practices that are at the heart of the media crisis. In a recent, fairly typical instance, a then senior producer at a national broadcasting corporation published a book promoting a documentary series he made, in which he repeatedly acknowledges his debt to my work in the 1960s. It never occurred, either to this producer or the TV organization he represents, to actually ask me to work on this series; nor would they ever dream of allowing me to produce anything for the national TV channel. In fact, the documentary series in question has no resemblance to my work, other than on the most superficial level.
This hypocritical homage to the 'old days' represents a kind of cri de conscience from those MAVM people who realize that they have sold out to the system - who remember TV when it was an entirely different medium. And who then set out to marginalize colleagues who dare criticize the repressive system of patronage and commercialism which they have mounted in its place.
As a consequence, a quasi-censure of my films exists now nearly everywhere in the Western world, especially in the case of my 3 last films - THE JOURNEY, THE FREETHINKER, and LA COMMUNE - all of which have been blacklisted by mainstream TV. For a further analysis of reaction to the bulk of my films over the last 35 years, see my website: www.peterwatkins.lt
What has happened with my own work is but a microcosm of the broader crisis. The atmosphere of contempt for serious filmmaking, let alone for critical, serious reflection on the role of the media, is now worse than at any other time in the history of the audiovisual media. As are attempts, at all levels, by TV Commissioning Editors to interfere in the creative process, and to force material to conform to the Monoform and the dictates of commercialism.
An experienced and important British filmmaker was recently told by the BBC, that if he did not mutilate his film to allow extra space for commercial advertising: "You will never work for the BBC again!". A young filmmaker in the South-East of England was informed that his project on fishermen struggling against industrial tourism will not reach an audience unless it includes a celebrity chef (!) A member of a group of young filmmakers in France told me of their nightmare while trying to complete a film with ARTE-TV - including constant interference by the Commissioning Editor (ordering them to add music, then narration, then to remove them, then to put them back in again...). A website wherein filmmakers could detail the interference, humiliation and repression dished out by TV executives and Commissioning Editors over the past 10-20 years would make for extremely long - and devastating - reading.
Accompanying this brief description of the role of festivals, pitching, the repression, etc. , is the reality that this crisis is deeply interwoven with the crisis in contemporary media education. 'Pitching' is now taught at media schools - not in terms of a critical analysis of this damaging practice, but in terms of how to 'win' while doing it (!!). There could hardly be a more apt example of the complicity which now exists between media education and the MAVM.
I will never forget a visit to the film department of an art college in London some years back. I spoke with a handful of students who had just returned from a festival in the English Midlands, where a panel of TV Commissioning Editors had laid down the law on standardising 'time streams' (the Universal Clock), etc. The young filmmakers were visibly shaken by what awaited them in the media world, and one student asked me: "is this really what it's all about?"
We now come to the crucial question regarding the role of filmmakers and documentary producers. To what degree have these professionals confronted the crisis I am describing, how have they worked with the public to challenge the direction of the MAVM and its practices, as outlined in this statement?
We have come not to expect challenge from the world of commercial, Hollywood filmmakers. But it is difficult to accept that the majority of documentary filmmakers and producers also seem fully prepared to acquiesce to the media crisis! While complaining at the lack of funding, or the restrictions I have described here, many MAVM professionals - including documentary filmmakers and producers - tacitly, if not overtly, accept the conditions underlying this same crisis.
Some of these professionals may be cynical - even critical - in private discussions about the MAVM. But they also busily work the phone lines - calling TV executives, booking tickets to the next pitching session. Many others are not even aware that there is a crisis, and if it should come to their attention, their response would invariably be: "That's reality!"
A considerable number of documentary filmmakers and producers compromise themselves - out of fear, resignation, economic pressure, or because they have adapted to a corrupt system which they seem to thoroughly relish: according to their websites, certainly many of them absolutely love 'pitching' sessions.
Very few critical filmmakers are actually prepared to speak out against these trends in the profession - let alone put their next budget at risk. The fact is that the MAVM will go to any length to protect their isolationist and self-serving practices - including sanctioning professionals who speak out. But shouldn't the very fact that this kind of threat actually exists, be good reason for a great deal more resistance from within the profession?
Unfortunately, the answer to this question is that - with the exception of a few individual voices - there is, at the present time, a marked lack of organized and collective challenge by media-makers against the excesses of their (our) own profession.
The following quotes from filmmakers and producers appeared on a documentary festival website, as part of its promotion for its pitching session:
"The experience was fabulous. It gave me a whole other picture of how to get a documentary funded before being forced to spend my own funds."
" ... a valuable exposure and contact with international broadcasters in one convenient place at one time."
"This was a great experience (albeit nerve-wracking!) for me as a first-time producer. It gave me a real sense of what broadcasters are interested in, and the opportunity to make connections for other projects. Additionally, the pitch workshop was absolutely terrific - affordable, enjoyable and very worthwhile."
"It was great having everyone collected together - a real opportunity to forge or renew relationships with the International Doc community."
" ... beneficial overall in terms of meeting new producers and building relationships."
"I felt it was extraordinarily valuable and very enlightening for both producers and their representatives."
"It is the right size to be dynamic yet intimate enough to get together with the right people."
"A great place for broadcasters to know what's going on in the wider world."
"The success of the [... ] is that for two days, broadcasters and buyers actually do nothing else but sit and listen to filmmakers pitch their projects."
The obvious emphasis here is on raising funds and making professional contacts. There is no mention whatsoever of the PUBLIC - how they are affected by the media crisis, or by the kinds of decisions being made in these pitching sessions. Relationships refer to contacts with other filmmakers, not the PUBLIC. Knowing "what's going on in the wider world" and "having everyone collected together" completely excludes the PUBLIC.
At a pitching session during the 2002 Banff (Canada) Television Festival, a senior Canadian documentary filmmaker remarked: "It's kind of like being in a club, and if you're in the club you go to the annual meeting."
Statements like this, which indicate very little self-criticism, or awareness of the filmmaker's role in the broader global crisis, are increasingly typical of the elitist and isolated environment of much of the mainstream documentary film movement.
As for the PITCHING process they are praising, this practice is now inviting - or forcing - the emergence of a new generation of ultra low-cost video and digital films. There is nothing wrong with this per se, quite the contrary - providing there is a democratic relationship with the audience, and providing the material challenges the existing media orthodoxy. Unfortunately, much of the new generation of low-cost material for TV fails abysmally on both counts. Many of the people emerging from film schools and elsewhere are evidently only too glad to provide TV with Hollywood-style fodder: production-line 'documentaries', fast-cutting news items, MTV-style music videos, 'reality' shows, etc.
A colleague who recently evaluated entries for a documentary film festival said that out of every 20 videos/films submitted, there were perhaps two at the most which were not heavily utilising the Monoform, narrative music, special effects, rapid editing, etc.
Another danger for the documentary film movement surfaces from the following notion, expressed by a filmmaker at a pitching session at the Banff Film Festival: "I could never make a feature film because it's about controlling everything and leaving nothing to chance... Documentary lets the drama unfold naturally. It's spontaneous and often quite profound. It is not scripted."
The myth that a typical TV documentary film is any less scripted or controlled than the most manipulative film from Hollywood, is propagated by our profession in the same way as is the notion of 'objectivity'. The fact that someone says something 'spontaneous' to the camera in a 'talking head' interview, or that something unscripted happens during the filming, does not alter the fact that these elements are subsequently dissected, controlled, manipulated and molded into a rigid and utterly non-spontaneous format for the audience - usually during the crucial editing process.
Much of this is rarely discussed within the documentary milieu, either by filmmakers or by teachers. As a consequence, the audience - and media students - are left with the impression that the manipulative requirements and practices of the MAVM are 'professional' and 'normal' - that there is no other way to make a film.
This is not to say that any filmmaking can avoid manipulating the audience - it cannot! Even setting an eye-level stationary camera to 'simply' record what a person is saying, is neither neutral nor objective. Who is to say that the camera should be at eye-level and not lower or higher, who chooses the lens, the type of lighting, where the microphone sits, how long the camera runs, how much of the filmed material is rejected, etc., etc.? These human decisions are always made during the audiovisual process, and they inherently imply a personal (or corporate) bias of one kind or another.
The problem is that the MAVM, including most of the documentary film movement, are stuck into mass-producing CONTENT - subjects or themes - not processes of genuine communication - which are regulated by antiquated (and completely false) notions of objectivity, and circumscribed by the restrictions and commercial considerations described on these pages.
Potential solutions to this crisis (including alternative ideas relating to FORM and PUBLIC PROCESS) are simply not common currency in the film and documentary TV world of today. They are rarely discussed, and even less frequently considered when planning a film project. Again, this is partly the responsibility of the education sector, and partly the direct result of demands for standardized practices, made by TV executives at pitching sessions and elsewhere. It is also the consequence of the rampant self-censorship which predominates in the present climate of professional fear.
But part of the problem as well, is that many documentary filmmakers simply do not want to challenge this crisis - indeed, they simply see it as their art form/profession being in a state of exciting tension and innovation.
This point of view is only possible because of the traditional attitude regarding filmmaking in general - that the so-called creative act is paramount (and therefore so exciting). Interpreted in this way, the act becomes ego-dominated, and generally excludes involvement with the public on any level.
Two decades of insular Monoform programming and thinking, the allure of popular culture media training, the excitement and 'freedom' of ever more portable and sophisticated digital equipment, combined with the increasingly closed-to-debate environment which effectively isolates the vast majority of filmmakers from the public - have resulted in tragic consequences.
To carry this a step further, contemporary filmmaking is hardly related to the needs of the audience - at least not in terms of themes which could be researched and discussed with the active participation of the PUBLIC. In the present environment, subject and content are pre-determined by filmmakers or TV Commissioners; there are no alternative themes and processes initiated in conjunction with the community. In other words, the needs of the audience are predetermined in an arbitrary manner - as are the process and form which most documentary films implement.
A classic example is the way in which TV newsbroadcasts are constructed. What the audience should think and feel about a particular event - and how they interpret it - is decided by MAVM professionals before the broadcast is aired. The professionals do not want the ideas, wisdom or analysis of the audience contributing to the interpretative process. Neither do they want the interpretation to be a multiple one. The Monoform, which blocks reflection and input from all viewers, is naturally an ideal language-form for achieving this highly structured and hierarchical goal.
The idea that documentaries (which include newsbroadcasts!) might somehow involve the audience, appears to be anathema to the MAVM. To propose that TV news programmes develop forms and processes which would enable sharing the interpretation of an event with the audience, would simply elicit sardonic smiles from a deeply resistant profession.
Somewhere in here we touch upon the very heart of the crisis in the media.
I will address this issue, along with alternative proposals, in the final chapter on THE PUBLIC.
A number of documentary filmmakers will undoubtedly respond in anger, denying that they make films on an egotistical basis, claiming that they take their audience very much into account. But how is this actually done, and how much sharing of power is really achieved?
Indications that there is a problem in this respect, include the specifically hierarchical relationship which many filmmakers establish with regard to their audience. This usually occurs, as I have said, because CONTENT is considered more important than is an open relationship with the audience.
As a result, most filmmakers use hierarchical language forms and processes in order to fire their content, in a one-way direction, at a traditionally passive audience. And although content is important in certain instances, and for certain intended audiences, the contradiction is that - very often - the form and process work in an antithetical manner. Put another way - even when a film has good intentions, the means and methods used, and the relationships established, are often contradictory.
Perhaps the filmmaker genuinely believes that the audience needs simplistic and manipulative forms - because this is what film schools are teaching, and TV executives are demanding. Perhaps many filmmakers simply don't care - they savour the buzz of filmmaking, and of having power over the audience (e.g., applying the Monoform at the editing table can produce an almost visceral 'high').
This brings us to another aspect of the problem: the traditionally accepted practice by many filmmakers of using standard editing and filming techniques to bring IMPACT to their work - and hence onto the audience. The result is that fast and hard impact is valued far more than processes which might use quieter, less obtrusive means to involve an audience.
I have tried to illustrate this problem by describing the fundamental role of editing as it is presently taught in film schools and classes. Pick up any standard textbook on media technique - or simply watch TV any time of day - and you will find that editing is primarily utilized as a tool to give continuity, pacing, rhythm and 'impact' to a film or TV programme.
The issue of 'impact' is part and parcel of the dynamic of hierarchy. Seat ten people in a row, legs crossed right over left, and simultaneously tap every right knee: all will twitch at the same moment. This is precisely the effect (and requirement) of editing: to produce an identical 'impact' - at the same instant, on the maximum number of people in an audience.
It is this notion - that 'perfect', 'polished', 'professional' filmmaking should have this kind of simultaneous effect on the audience - that needs to be challenged.
We need to think beyond this limited/limiting vision - to understand that a creative and democratic relationship with the audience is possible, and that it can allow other filmic forms and processes. We need to understand that 'impact', as defined by traditional filmmaking, is a process of enclosure (in which the audience are treated like pins in a filmic bowling alley), rather than openness.
I know from experience that many media professionals would retort that filmmaking has nothing to do with 'democracy' - any more than painters or sculptors reflect this ideal when they create their art form. But there are certain radical differences regarding the usage of the mass audiovisual form, which I believe put these media into a totally different league vis-à-vis responsibility.
To begin with, painting, sculpture, poetry, novels have an entirely different time relationship with their audience - i.e., the individual can take time to receive the work. There is an important element of time, space, personal control in the process - which is entirely missing when receiving an audiovisual act.
Secondly, the audiovisual act dominates most of the key senses - simultaneously. This is not the case with other art forms or processes of communication, which leave the receiver in control of at least one primary sense (hearing or seeing), to help in the key interactive process of adding one's own imagination.
Thirdly, the audiovisual media are usually striving to make an impact on hundreds of thousands - millions - of people - simultaneously. This again separates them from other artistic and communication processes.
Finally, and most critically - the ideology and practice of the mass audiovisual media are founded primarily on repression. Repression of - and towards - alternative media practitioners, as well as the audience. Throughout this statement, I emphasize that the contemporary MAVM are forcing media professionals to endlessly compromise - including in the use of the Monoform and the Universal Clock - and that they treat the audience undemocratically.
For all these reasons, I propose that a more valid definition of 'professionalism' within the ranks of the audiovisual media would apply to those who analyze and challenge the orthodoxy of the existing language-form and process with the audience, rather than to those who self-defensively maintain them.
Why do many MAVM professionals react so negatively to the idea of exposing the methods of their craft? Why do they refuse to engage in a more sharing and participatory relationship with the public?
I suspect that many MAVM professionals fear that which can be summarized in a simple equation: sharing power with the audience = loss of creative freedom = loss of personal power. But it need not be this way at all.
As one filmmaker wrote to me recently, the dilemma is that we need, and want, to make our films attractive to the audience. How to achieve this, and yet avoid the pitfalls which I describe on these pages?
Part of the inherent problem is the premise underlying the question itself: surely we need to make our films relevant - not attractive - to the public. Relevant not only in subject or theme, but also in our process.
In order for filmmakers to see beyond the claustrophobic limitations of the Monoform and the Universal Clock, they must be willing to open up tight structures and spaces both filmically (in the form), and within the process (in the relationship to the audience/community). Ideally, form and process can work hand-in-hand: i.e., opening up space during the process of filming or editing - for reflection, ambiguity, anachronism, etc. - can lead to an entirely different and more democratic spectrum of experience for the audience/community.
However, given the present MAVM environment, with its bullying and threatening tactics against alternative forms, it is rather unlikely that many practising filmmakers will consider taking these steps. This is one part of the crisis. Another is that filmmakers, consciously or otherwise, actually participate in marginalizing - including via pitching sessions - those colleagues who endeavour to work for change. Pitching may be an exciting process for some, but it is deeply repressive and humiliating for many others. The fact that the practice has become so widespread, is a startling indicator of the present lack of collective analysis and solidarity.
Marginalization by filmmakers of their colleagues also occurs in the refusal to discuss the media crisis, or the problems for the public, thereby shutting the door on democratic change in all sectors of the civic society, and inevitably rebounding on those documentary filmmakers attempting to work for change. Worst of all, the marginalization happens in the professional acceptance of ambition, competitiveness, and ego gratification - as being sufficient criteria for making documentary films.
During a recent contact with an international documentary film festival, which boasts a major 'pitching forum' among its events, I sent the organizers an open letter drawing attention to the media crisis. I emphasized the way in which the audiovisual media demonstrates a lack of democratic, pluralistic communication with the public, and pointed out that much of film production has become a global mega-business and a central engine in the propulsion of consumerism.
I explained that the MAVM - including many documentary films - utilize the most formular and manipulative elements of the Western narrative structure as a means of glueing viewers to their seats, eyes fixed on the constantly shifting, fragmenting, visually exploding screen, ears bombarded by an incessant barrage of music, narration, sound effects and violent edits, brains hypnotized by an endless flow of ritualistic, 'seamless' Hollywood narrative.
I added: "Of course, not all documentary films use this extreme a Hollywood form, but many come pretty close... and nearly all use what I refer to as the Monoform..."
After a long silence, I received a reply from the organizers of the festival, who seemed caught between saying how much my comments were appreciated, and how little I knew what I was talking about. Their comments regarding my statements about the growing commercialism in documentary film festivals, included the following:
"Granted, we are indeed evolving to a point where the festival is adopting certain conventions of commercial marketing practices, as well as creating various market-driven initiatives, of which the flagship is the [name of the pitching event]. Yet this aspect of the festival exists to service those filmmakers (and there are many of them) who have deliberately chosen to enter the documentary marketplace, often times to make a living. We are not causing this trend, we are responding to it...
... our fear at [name of festival] is that to adopt an uncompromisingly adversarial stance toward the forces of commercialization would ultimately destroy our ability to reach a larger audience and thus relegate us to the fringes of [the] highly competitive cultural landscape. Better, we believe, to fight fire with fire, and use the very tools of marketing to bring to our audience a growing awareness of the perils of an over-marketed planet."
What I find so disturbing in this response - apart from the notion of "fighting fire with fire" - is the way in which critical thinking is reduced to being "adversarial". Selling out, contradictory/conflicting values, overt manipulation of the public - these are not seen as being problematic. Being 'critical' is.
As for the notion that using marketing tools will make the public aware of the perils of an over-marketing response, the writers did seem aware of the tight-rope they were walking, when they added: "It is without a doubt an ironic contradiction, one which we'd be foolish to cower from." And they did invite me to appear and express my views. But the whole situation begs serious consideration: to what degree is it possible to raise critical issues within the cadre of this type of festival? Personally, I don't think it is possible. The issues - and any 'debate' around them - simply become another byproduct in an endless bombardment of rapidly consumed items, ingested and forgotten the minute the audience exits to the next pitching session.