‘Producing - beyond money,’ the Industry Talk that took place this week at Felix Meritis, looked at how the current funding and co-production landscape relying on Western European and North American systems often falls short of addressing the needs of the regions where the most topical and sought-after stories are coming from, such as Eastern Europe, Middle East, and Southeast Asia.
The talk featured Berlin-based, Kurdish-Syrian visual artist and photographer Guevara Namer, Alex Shiriaieff of the Baltic to Black Sea Documentary Network (B2B Doc), and Gugi Gumilang of Indonesia's In-Docs, and was moderated by DAE's Brigid O' Shea.
At the beginning, the speakers introduced themselves and their activities.
Namer is a co-founder of DOX BOX which supports documentary filmmakers from Arab countries through connecting them to international markets rather than through fundraising or direct production.
Gumilang is also based in Berlin, and his outfit In-Docs organizes pitching forums and filmmaker labs for authors from South-East Asia.
Shiriaieff’s B2B Doc is a Swedish-based and funded organization which works in Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, aiming to open international opportunities for the industry professionals from these countries and providing tutoring from the initial idea to the rough cut.
"In our region, the future of Europe is being constructed right now,” said Shiriaieff. “We feel a huge responsibility because in our countries, documentary films play a huge role. We want to provide them not only with funds, but help them find distribution internationally and in their countries as well."
From Namer's side, she said her region experienced a similar period in 2014-2015, when the events in the Arab world put it in the international spotlight, prompting her to reflect on the issues of co-productions with Europe and the worldwide interest in stories from the Middle East.
"Syria was like an exploded box that the whole world wanted to see stories from. We have been told we are the golden eggs. It was horrible on all levels, but primarily ethically and politically," she recalled.
This, of course, brings up the question of ethical co-producing between wealthy countries and those whose stories are being told.
"If we're going to go into equal partnerships, we have to admit there is an inequality in place," said O'Shea.
Before even getting into what “beyond money” means, one first has to get money, and Gumilang addressed the power balance that goes into this process.
"At this stage, it's super hard to integrate the idea of producing beyond money, especially when the situation for filmmakers is: if they have the money and can finish the film, they're happy," he explained.
In this sense, these authors would probably be interested in impact producing or use of film as a campaigning tool, but their primary goal is to finish their films. Many filmmakers have the mentality, according to Gumilang, that if a partner brings in the money so they can finish the film, they don't mind risking their idealism or the originality of the project.
Such a mindset means most cooperations with European and North American partners are unsustainable.
"Because there is pressure that the film needs to be marketed in Europe, you have to change the story structure. Or if people say that your story is not universal and should be accessible to an international audience—what does international mean here? Europe and the USA?" he asked.
For Shiriaieff, this was the perfect segue into his questions.
"We have to work with the so-called established producers in the EU who have been working for decades, who have huge budgets, who know how to finance their films and who don't have any idea how to co-produce with countries with low production capacity. And we have to speak with decision makers, those who are having wonderful salaries, attending co-production forums and pitches where everything is paid for them, while the filmmakers are using their last bit of money to come to those forums and meet these decision makers, who then say, 'we don't have any slots for your project,’ or ‘call me when you have a rough cut.'"
For filmmakers in the B2B region, it is often impossible to raise money locally, which the co-production system requires—especially if their films criticize the government.
"We were having such projects, but the existing film industry in Europe is so inflexible and so old school in its thinking. But at the same time, the whole world is now looking at our region. People want stories from Ukraine, Belarus, and Caucasus countries, but the European producers ask, how much money can you raise in Belarus to launch co-production? Zero.
"So what can we do? This is a paradox. There is a huge interest in topics from our countries, but traditional co-production formats are not working anymore. Of course, there are filmmakers who will agree for their film to be French, but there are many who want to keep their national identity in the film, for it to be a Belarus-France co-production, or a Ukraine-Germany co-production. But they cannot demand any rights because they can't put in any money from their countries. Do we have any solutions?" he asked.
Several examples from the audience pointed to some possible ways to circumvent these often-rigid co-production rules, but for most of the countries that do not belong to EU’s funding structures and conventions, there is very little room to maneuver. Judging by the experiences of the panelists, it is clear that the system is in dire need of a rethinking and revision.