SXSW 2010 PanelPicker: Documentary Contenders

I’ve had two amazing experiences with SXSW both times that I’ve attended: in 2009, I was on the Documentary Competition Jury (together with Thompson on Hollywood‘s Anne Thompson and ITVS’ Lois Vossen), awarding 45365 and recognizing THE WAY WE GET BY; and earlier this year, we premiered THE CANAL STREET MADAM in that same competition. I really like the festival’s programming and energy, and Austin is a fun city.

One of the great things about SXSW is that they allow the audience to have a voice in their panel programming through their online PanelPicker. Panel proposals are available for review and online participants can provide feedback and vote for panels that most appeal to them.

It’s interesting to see the proposals for the proposed film panels focused on documentaries. They give insight into what many documentary filmmakers and advocates are currently engaged with in their own practice.

Out of the eleven proposals, two seem most explicitly focused on case studies: KENK: A Hybrid Documentary Case Study and “Did You Kill Anyone?” Reality in War Movies, on RESTREPO. For the purposes of panels, I tend to like case studies – because of their focus on a specific film, they can get very specific rather than float around a lot of general hypotheticals. They can provide detailed, instructive information to filmmakers on how they solved practical dilemmas or worked within the constraints of specific subgenres, such as RESTREPO’s war documentary setting. A potential hurdle with case studies is if the audience isn’t familiar enough with the films being discussed – this may be the case with KENK, for example – which may necessitate too much panel time devoted to explaining to the audience what the project is and what it will look like. The other potential problem with case studies is if their subject matter is so specific that other filmmakers can’t apply their lessons to their own work, unless they are making something similar – the RESTREPO panel would best serve others making films about the military in some way. Still both proposals sound interesting.

Not surprisingly, four of the eleven panels are explicitly focused on social change docs. Docu-Revolution: Changing the World with Documentary Film employs something of a case study to examine how to keep filmmaking low-budget, Activist Films for Activist People: Mapping the Future considers aesthetics and making money with cause-driven films, Arts Engine‘s Change-on-the-Go: React + Release Social Issue Media focuses more on how and when to get films to the public to maximize their impact, and Making Films that Matter takes an A-Z approach on how Participant Media chooses, makes, and releases their projects. Social change through media is something documentaries can do extremely effectively, so it’s heartening that there are so many filmmakers thinking about the possibilities here. Of these four, the first two sound perhaps too diffuse in their goals – they’re both aiming to cover a lot of ground, and it’s hard to get a sense if the films they’ll be discussing have had the kind of impact or exposure to serve as models. In contrast, given Participant’s track record, I think filmmakers should learn a lot from their proposal in its focus on their specific filmmaking philosophy and recognizable titles. Arts Engine should also offer some helpful information about making critical decisions about what’s best for a project and for its underlying cause – while this is a big issue to consider, it’s at the core of documentary filmmaking and informs most of the choices a filmmaker makes.

The remaining proposals cover a range of topics – from practical how-tos (Where’s My Story?: A Documentary in Three Acts), an examination of women in documentary (The Woman’s Story: marketing, distribution and production), collaborative filmmaking PUSH/PULL: Ups and Downs of Collaborative Documentary and Documentary Deities: Dispelling The Director Myth), to issues related to specific niche subjects (Makers of Geek Documentaries: A nerd’s life). There’s something positive to be said for all of these – a lack of a clear structure is often a huge problem when it comes to docs, so while I’m a bit wary of the idea of trying to fit every story into a specific three-act structure, making filmmakers explicitly confront the question of structure makes the first proposal here worthwhile. Docs are one area in film where the “old boys club” mentality is less visible, so taking a look at female doc making is welcome. The challenge of the collaborative proposals may be to impart replicable information for attending filmmakers to be able to put into practice in their own work vs indulging in too much theory or anecdote sharing. Finally, I’m concerned that the geek doc proposal is unnecessarily limited in its scope, and by extension, its potential audience. Yes, SXSW probably has a larger than usual share of fanboys and fangirls who might gravitate towards such a panel, but the base issues the proposal addresses are ones that most documentarians face: how to work with and portray their subjects. This issue isn’t limited to nerdy subjects, but the way the proposal is framed may scare off filmmakers whose topic areas have nothing whatsoever to do with geek culture, but who might still benefit from it.

PanelPicker voting ends on Friday, August 27.

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Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals

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