How do filmmakers distribute their documentaries

Documentary film culture
Part 2: Wayward Films


So much upheaval was rare. Positions, manifestos and petitions on the future of German film determine the year 2018. Expectations for the future of documentary work were in tension with previous experiences with the effects of digitality in this symposium.

Filmmakers described what no longer works and how they imagine and wish for what is to come. Thinking in context was required. So there were always cross connections between the four subject areas of the symposium: perception / attention on the internet, film education, authorship and documentary aesthetics. Online clashed with attendance, analog with digital and availability with scarcity, opportunities with problems.
The following summary alternates between the description of formulated positions / insights and their structure. A stay of 15 minutes to read online is required….

Combining the compatible and the incompatible means thinking in a complementary way

All the considerations articulated in the symposium show that the “landscape” is de facto in upheaval. The uncertainty is not just felt, it is real. The public broadcasters, so far the largest clients, lose their status. The cooperation between private streaming channels and public television could be a replacement option. The case study based on a film was discussed by Sabine Rollberg (WDR, arte) and Hanka Kastelicová from HBO Europe. Roger Gonin from the short film festival in Clermont-Ferrand sees a significant decline in the number of station representatives on the short film market.
The availability of everything online at any time, which, as an achievement of the digital world, gives users almost unlimited film viewing, has the profit opportunities for film authors (Dietrich Leder from KHM in his greeting "The network is not suitable for refinancing"), but also the exclusivity of the screening situations in cinema and television. Driving across the country with a projector to spread film culture sounds like a story from long-gone, analogue days. There are, however, numerous underground forms of immersive film culture, presentations in unexpected places that today interact with digital presentations or flank them as an event. In general, film as an event is very popular, as are cinemas at festivals or special screenings in the presence of the filmmakers. Such events even find a response from audiences who otherwise do not go to the cinema and are suitable as an occasion for film education events. These, in turn, are opportunities for filmmakers to find a livelihood under changed conditions.

"Film has been the most important art form since 1895" (Vienna Film Museum)

Rüdiger Suchsland tried to redefine the “audience” beyond its functionalization as a determinable number of paying people in the usual funding arguments. The talk of “public festivals” strategically separates specialist audiences and industry professionals from audiences that are degraded to culturally distant “noble savages”. As an alternative, Roger Gonin offered the label “populaire” for the international short film festival, a term that is reluctantly translated as “close to the people” in German: His festival seeks the greatest possible reach among the local population and understands this as part of a widespread film education mandate. But this type of film culture has long been working with digital devices, with videos and games on the Internet, with user programs and film libraries available online or, like the Vienna Film Museum, with a series of DVDs - even if the DVD is "out" before it ever is was really "in".

Film education is a slightly disreputable undertaking in Germany because culture in Germany is first understood as the culture of literature, theater, music or the visual arts. “In politics, film is not considered a culture” (Gabriele Voss). A theater seat is subsidized with € 900 per year. Something similar is unimaginable for cinemas and film museums. Alejandro Bachmann described for Austria how difficult it was and how many years it took to get film education offers from the Vienna Film Museum to the mailing lists of the educational institutions. Anyone setting up a film education institution has to be patient and get past the gatekeepers in the ministries. In his experience, film education institutions work best locally. No prescription is transferable. The initiatives of individual activists always shape the image of an institution to the outside world.

Film formation is of particular importance - as discussed further - in times of short and fake news: What has been made of pictures? How does film work? What is truth in the film? These questions are becoming more and more important due to the flood of images of artifacts and simulacras. Viewers today need an understanding of how films are made and what it means to be how they are made. An awareness of this uncertainty can easily be assumed among younger viewers. This is where a start can be made, not only by letting students make films, but also by filmmakers analyzing their films with students.

"The audience writes their own texts" (Rüdiger Suchsland)

In art, as Lilian Haberer showed in her lecture, the materiality of the digital itself is discussed: Viewing a digital film file on the computer is always the performance of a numerical code. Gallery and museum disappear and the loss of the aura of art is discussed in a culture-pessimistic manner. But seeing pictures via the interface of a mobile phone represents a “social situation”, as is welcomed by individual artists. Partly radical, as Hans Bernhard put it in the slogans “the surface is the content” and “leaving reality behind”. The real reality is the (digital) hallucination.

If one also wants to understand what is currently in upheaval, then there seems to be no getting around a more precise technical analysis of what the Internet actually is. This requires programming knowledge and that is a rarity among filmmakers. This also applies to legal knowledge that is necessary to enforce performance claims in the network. As much as associations can help with this, from a legal point of view, the individual is always in demand. Matthias Hornschuh's question "Who am I and if so, how many" aptly described the multiplication of requirements in digitality.

If you leave aside the libertarian utopia under which the Internet emerged, and consider the Internet as an economic field, you quickly find yourself in the dystopia of an unchecked distribution struggle without any regulation that affects the global players, who are now more power and capital unite as entire states that enable the unrestrained expansion of their power. The now more neoliberal credo of freedom on the Internet does not mean the freedom of those who think differently, but the freedom to collect data and generate profits from the use of user profiles for advertising of all kinds: the network is about to do that in decisive functions Playing field to become less large corporations. On the other hand - according to the net artist Hans Bernhard, who was promptly contradicted - only "protectionism" against the spheres of influence of the three big Silicon Valley corporations helps: i.e. the development of European platforms under the protection and promotion of the EU. From this perspective, a start seems to have been made by the Copyright Protection Ordinance, says Matthias Hornschuh. But there is also resistance among filmmakers to this, because old means are used to counter a completely differently functioning field. Sandra Trostel quoted Rufus Pollock: "Today in a digital age, where owns information controls the future, and we face a fundamental choice between open and close". Anyone who opts for protectionism, upload filters or regulations opts for close. The counter-argument came promptly: the large purchase and download platforms have long since installed their own upload filters, which, for example, make any mention of sex impossible.

However, the parties to the discussion agreed that the large corporations had to be laid down on the rules of the game, e.g. to pay taxes and no longer make profits with content for which they paid nothing. How difficult this is to enforce also shows how little our legal structures can do with those of a global network. One way of protecting free content on the internet is Creative Commons licenses, which oblige anyone who makes use of such protected free content to conclude such a license for their product themselves. In any case, the strategies on the Internet must fundamentally change compared to previous practice, which is based on cinema and television exploitation.

"In my free time I do art (Sabine Herpich)

The most interesting question was how the internet can generate profits in the future, from which a documentary film culture and the filmmakers could feed or whether that is even possible. How small the income from clicks has been so far is shown by evaluations from the music industry (Deezer, Spotify) as well as the various smaller streaming platforms such as realeyz - unfortunately, Andreas Wildfang was not there to comment on the topic. On the other hand, there are individual cases where old films generate income via platforms such as Youtubers generally only live from the fact that they are advertising space or offer advertising space or put on their own labels for T-shirts or make-up. An extension of private television that documentary filmmakers do not want to imagine as the basis of their work. Documentaries can, however, be used sensibly on YouTube for advertising purposes for the films or their makers. More is not to be expected here.

The competition with one another, which is intensified by the erosion of public law financing channels, is particularly precarious for younger filmmakers. Jobs are mainly given to those who already have jobs. The lament of this privileged group particularly upset those who have been making documentary films for years without a network or a false bottom. And for Sabine Herpich, nothing else comes into question than financing films herself and posting them freely on Vimeo so that they can be seen.

There was talk of precarious or dangerous conditions everywhere and in Matthias Hornschuh's 3G categorization, the documentary filmmakers always seem to opt for glamor (fame and honor) and horniness (the project is fun) and not for money. Younger filmmakers in particular pointed out that with imagination and creativity you can find alternative financiers. The network theorist Rufus Pollock, for example, has also developed models of how it will be possible to generate income with clicks in the future.

A peculiarity of the spectator behavior on the net is the "atomized attention", as Hans Bernhard called it. Many network viewers break off (documentary) films before the end, dwell times of seconds up to a maximum of 10 minutes are the rule, as Marcel Kolvenbach explained using a chart. This puts the usual and full-length lengths to the test. The question of visibility is also quite different in the digital environment: In the masses of pages and films on the Internet, entire forms of film are drowned out. The algorithms always flush up the most clicked result - that was Google's successful core idea.

On the other hand: the refinement of user profiles through algorithms, Marcel Kolvenbach expects, will make it possible at some point to make ambitious documentaries for special audiences. For HBO Europe, cautious optimism is appropriate in this regard: Hanka Kastelicová currently produces 8 long documentaries a year with development times of around 4 years, which she oversees intensively as an editor. For them too, local interest is the starting point for a story that is then told globally. She further argues that a library can be built with the budget for in-house productions and that films should remain in the streaming service for a long time. This is what documentary filmmakers are interested in. However, the long length of stay always has to be re-fueled by events, social media or cinema releases.

"We think in a pre-Internet framework and try to push this system into a world that works completely differently." (Sandra Trostel)

Whatever decays, is lost, is lost: In all the lectures and workshops it became clear that it does not help the documentary film culture to resist the new conditions and the associated availability of films on the Internet. Watching films over the Internet is - as poor as the cinema picture and sound on the mobile phone - is an established form of film viewing. An offensive policy of shaping what the future of the online presence of documentary films can look like is therefore required, which does not ignore the changed user habits of younger audiences. Film funding institutions should also open up curated online platforms for funded films - even older ones. Media libraries need to be strengthened and better curated. But unfortunately, many broadcasters are not aware of the treasures their houses are on, said Sabine Rollberg.

The network reality also tends to make the work of editors superfluous. The structures are often smaller and more flexible, giving the filmmakers greater room for maneuver. Today every young person can make and edit films. Each protagonist can theoretically turn herself. Everyone is an artist - Joseph Beuys already knew that - or no one is anymore. The “democratization of the means of production”, which goes further than the transition from 16mm to video formats, is changing the documentary film culture precisely because it also conceals a “devaluation of the value of artistic work”, as Ulrike Franke generally diagnosed. The filmmakers present, however, were less afraid of this DIY competition than they were of the multiplication of film schools and their graduates. In principle, productions outside of the existing funding system are no longer seen as experiments, but as a real possibility for many, especially younger, actors.

"If you do what you want, you are always successful." (Jonas Mekas)

There are interesting ideas for the online presence of films. This includes the online renewal of festival films, but also radical demands for full funding of documentary films with public funds and then the free public provision of the results online (Sandra Trostel), bypassing the "middlemen", the distributors. Not only this proposal requires a reallocation of at least half of the film funding, which has so far been declared as economic funding, as pure cultural funding. This does not seem to be politically enforceable at the moment, but it might be an opportunity for film funding should the broadcasters withdraw from it. The establishment of payment functions, be it in the sense of a license fee for network content, be it as billable clicks on delivery portals, creates revenue opportunities, but as I said, currently with visible limits. And the unconditional basic income demanded by Helmut Herbst at the Frankfurt Light Festival in spring for documentary filmmakers also came into its own in the symposium discussion.

One of the flaws is that the documentary filmmakers are too poorly networked, and many participants in the discussion knew the feeling that they are fighting a losing battle. In general, there is a great deal of distrust of associations and institutions. This resulted in two basic positions. The real position, mainly represented by filmmakers who are already more experienced in productions and who are familiar with the work in associations and institutions, was more interested in real-political clout. In contrast, there was the “Fundi” position of a much younger group that came together under the sign of utopias that had to be found beyond established structures.
What both have in common is that they miss a space (in the sense of an independent place) in which one can talk about perspectives together. A symposium once a year is simply not enough. The Realos regretted that, for example, the Lux-et did not come about in Cologne and that the film house had not yet been reorganized despite the announcement by the head of the cultural department, Barbara Förster.

According to the Realo idea, the space required could serve to meet, to overcome isolation, to develop political clout, a problem due to the decentralized positioning of the German film landscape. However, there was also the objection that there were already numerous round tables of this kind this year, which often enough lead to consensus, but not to joint actions.It was therefore suggested to set up a contemporary chat room in which the participants in the discussion can exchange tips, addresses, websites and, above all, discuss over the spatial distances, in camera. If possible not on Facebook. Perhaps affiliated with the Dok AG - which is simply too expensive for young filmmakers and is therefore out of the question so far - or with the dfi.

The utopia group went further in the demands for a “transdisciplinary think tank”, which should develop new concepts for documentary film independently of existing institutions and in which programmers, library representatives and scientists should also take part. In this think tank one would also have to consult the scenarios of other countries (Micro Cinema Culture NY) and think about whether one should not program one's own algorithms that take diversity and equality into account. The creation of workshops, collectives and film cooperatives was also encouraged to produce new films as well as to jointly build an Internet audience and think about new forms of refinancing. It remained unclear how such a think tank would be financed and by whom it would be formed, but there was a clear mandate to think about this further in a new symposium, in close cooperation with the existing institutions. And the clear request “use hacking as a mindset” (Sandra Trostel).

The desire for community, for collective action was palpable everywhere, as a reaction to the power of existing structures and from the desire for “presence”. Digital structures seem to strengthen the need for complementary structures for encounters, including film screenings, as a counterpart to the accepted online presence of films.

"I presume to pretend how best to perceive my work" (Arne Schmitt)

Workshop 4 was primarily about the question of how the documentary aesthetics will change as a result of digitization. The artist and photographer Arne Schmitt thinks it is silly to speak of the veracity of analog photography. He contextualizes the individual image either through the annotation of texts or through serial arrangements. On the Internet, which guarantees the greatest possible distribution, he still channels the presence of his pictures, controls their presentation, but prefers the exhibition space and the printed catalog. His question: What do you see when and where in a picture, depending on how and in what context it is presented? That always changes its reading. He also insists that the digital recording and reproduction of the photographs should be kept as clear as possible and thus be controllable by him.

Quite different with the second impulse on VR, 360 degrees and augmented reality. In some cases for the first time, workshop participants put on VR glasses to experience how the 360-degree visual space is imprinted on a physical experience. Many had to hold on to the table or sit down. Jörg Haaßengier, who had obtained the glasses and smartphones from WDR, reported how the camera recordings are made, how they are assembled, how an interview is conducted. The focus is on the technology and the specifications of designers and other trades that contribute to the end product also influence the filmmaker's concept. Limitations in length and in the dramaturgy also result from the data volume. It became clear that every production needs a sophisticated concept and discoveries can no longer be integrated during a shoot.

For him, the simulation of experiencing a trauma is not the decisive point with this technique, but the closeness to the protagonists. You are at the mercy of the story, it doesn't necessarily emotionalise you, but it attacks you differently.

In his introduction at the beginning of the symposium, Christoph Hübners described a documentary culture of film consisting of curiosity, openness, self-reflection, allowing uncertainty, patience and presence. It became clear that this documentary film culture is by no means superfluous in the context of digitization. It reconnects with and through technology and, as the filmmakers' basic understanding, is more relevant than ever.

The summary by Marcus Seibert and Petra Schmitz is based on the reports of the moderators from the workshops: Marcel Kolvenbach, Alejandro Bachmann, Luzia Schmid / Sandra Trostel and Fritz Wolf; also on the minutes of Lisa Smekens Rojas and Fabian Hengstmann.

- You can find more about the symposium in the archive -