On 13 and 14 March, the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision hosted the third seminar of the Television Studies Group of the International Federation of Television Archives (FIAT/IFTA). The seminar focused on television documentary and included a range of documentary practitioners, including former commissioning editors, filmmakers, and film critics, as well as a range of documentary scholars, who discussed their work on documentary history, modes, and practices.
Report by Willemien Sanders & Berber Hagedoorn
Day One: Producing Documentaries
The first day was dedicated to practitioners in the documentary industry. British commissioning editor of BBC’s Storyville Nick Fraser kicked off with a highly personal plea in favour of public service documentaries. He sees a role for documentaries as being complementary to print journalism. Fraser is keen on documentaries as conveyers of some sort of truth, of representing reality and being informative about it. Unfortunately, he and Dutch film critic Hans Beerekamp, were scheduled to speak at opposite ends of the day. Beerekamp revealed that he disagreed with Fraser’s comment, published in the Guardian, on Oscar nominee The Act of Killing, the controversial film Joshua Oppenheimer made about and with Indonesian 1960s death squad killers. A conversation between them might have been illuminating, if only because The Act of Killing includes many aspects discussed throughout the two days – such as documentary historiography, the use of interviews, re-enactments, and the role of participants.
Dutch television journalist Twan Huys hosted consecutive conversations with former public broadcasting commissioning editors Kees Ryninks and Cees van Ede, Romanian filmmaker Andrei Ujica , Dutch filmmaker Pieter Verhoeff, Belgian filmmaker Eva Küpper and British film critic John Wyham, who showed a brilliant clip of Ken Russel’s 1962 film Pop Goes the Easel and went on to talk about art documentaries and the lack connection of most to art’s richness. Most speakers observed that documentary as we know it is in decline and alternative business models develop slowly. Although Netflix, for instance, allows for creative docs, it will not (yet) pay for production. The day ended with the presentation of the 14th DVD box in Sound and Vision’s Dutch Documentary Collection, which includes 9 early works by Johan van der Keuken. Producer Pieter van Huystee was the lucky receiver of the first box.
Day Two: Researching Documentaries
The second day was dedicated to academics and their research. Paul Kerr (Middlesex University, UK) kicked off with an argument about the effect of economic and political developments, rather than technological developments or audience choices, on documentary film production and scheduling. Throughout three panels, a wide range of scholars followed, discussing an equally wide range of topics. Presentations on historical initiatives like the NBC Washington Documentary Unit (Tom Mascaro, Bowling Green State University, USA) and US/Canadian/British/Australian collaboration through Intertel (Lisa Kerrigan, British Film Institute, UK), and the way Dutch filmmakers got acquainted with and inspired by foreign filmmakers and their film (Bert Hogenkamp, Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, Hilversum), shed light on transnational collaboration.
Discussion of the way the Dutch programme Andere Tijden (Different Times) mediates demands of television with demands of doing (academic) history (Berber Hagedoorn, Utrecht University, the Netherlands), and the way various mediators or go-betweens, such as scientists, tv-presenters and reporters have, in various TV programmes from the UK, tried to bridge the gap between science and television audiences (Tim Boon, Science Museum, London, UK) shed light on the relationship between science and television, or, rather, on doing science on television. Presentations on the representation of documentary subjects as embodied emotional individuals (Annelies van Noortwijk, University of Groningen,the Netherlands) and on the way documentary participants co-shape documentary texts and self-present in the process (Willemien Sanders, Utrecht University, the Netherlands) discussed different ways of understanding documentary protagonists.
In addition, there were presentations about the various ways interviews have historically been used to create different kinds of dialogues (Christian Hissnauer, Georg-August Universty, Göttingen, Germany), the way Dutch filmmaker Ed van der Elsken tried (and failed) to propagate the use of super-8 film (Susan Aasman, University of Groningen,the Netherlands), and the development of an advanced classification system for documentary and non-fiction film to argue the lack of diversity of documentary forms and formats on Serbian public service and commercial television (Zorana Popovic, University of Belgrade, Serbia).
The many presentations go to show that research in the field of documentary is diverse and is thriving. The time for plenary discussion was limited, but luckily the bar offered ample opportunity to continue a lively exchange of ideas.