"Do you want me to make them laugh first, and then break them? Or break them right away?", renowned filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky asked at the start of his master class during the IDFAcademy Summer School. He was talking about the arc of his talk, but the sentiment had a wider applicability: many participants broke down their projects during the week-long, intensive workshop, in order to build them back up stronger.
"The first thing I do is try to find out where they are, what they think they want to do – and then challenge them on that", said Cecilia Lidin, until recently the Commissioner for Documentaries at the Swedish Film Institute. Lidin was one of the eight tutors at the Summer School, alongside filmmakers Victor Kossakovsky and Aliona van der Horst, producers Orwa Nyrabia and Carmen Cobos and editors Jesper Osmund, Menno Boerema and Ollie Huddleston.
Lidin, tutoring at the Summer School for the first time, praised its individual approach: "I'm used to doing workshops in a group setting, which means you more or less know all the projects on the same level. Here, I had the privilege of getting to know two projects very in-depth."
Having said that, Lidin was careful to keep some distance to the projects. "It's important to remain an outside observer. The more a filmmaker knows about a subject, the more important all the little details become, but you can't bring all of them into the film. So a part of tutoring was about liberating them from that heavy load of knowledge, and allowing them to trust their subject and trust their material."
That's pretty much the exact process the filmmakers of The Market went through. Marleine van der Werf and Tim Roza arrived at the Summer School with a rough cut they were happy with, dealing with a 700-year-old open-air market in Rotterdam having to make way for a prestige architectural project. "We felt like we were going great, but after a week here we know we still have a long way to go", Roza laughs. "But we also have more of a handle on things, I think, and a much a clearer image of where we need to go."
His colleague Van der Werf agrees. "Our tutor Ollie Huddleston is very character-driven as an editor, which we really needed. He reminded us that the audience also needs to feel for your characters, that they need to make a connection. It's very obvious, but that little push really gave us new momentum." She too sees a lot of value in the Summer School's in-depth setup. "You could get a simple opinion from just about anyone. But it's something very different when a professional with twenty or thirty years under his belt takes the time to find out what you really want to do, and gives you feedback on that."
Directors Arun Bhattarai and Dorottya Zurbó found a new focus for their project Stories from the Field as well. Coming to the Summer School with a first draft screenplay and a few scenes already shot, their story about Bhutanese 13-year-old Sonam, who leaves her home village for the first time to join the country's newly founded female soccer team, gained a second main character. Says Zurbó: "In looking at our project through the eyes of our tutor and the other participants, we discovered the strength of our story. We knew we were going to follow Sonam and how she will become a footballer, but we discovered here that her story would be more powerful if we include her sister, who is staying behind in the village. Now we know which directions to dig into during the shoot."
They'll be taking their new ideas into the field straight away, as they will start shooting right after the Summer School. "Until now, everything has happened in the brain", says Bhattarai. "We imagined our whole film, but now we have to do a reality check, to see what is actually there and adjust to those conditions, using the methods we learned here. We couldn't go any further here - now we have to go back out there."