During its Cannes Doc panel on June 24, Ji.hlava IDFF presented updated findings about geo-representation across international film festivals, prompting festival directors and programmers to discuss their selection rationale and modus operandi.
The Ji.hlava report offered a wider-ranging follow-up to a 2019 survey designed to address a perceived under-representation of Eastern European films at Western European film festivals.
The 2020 examination included stats relating to the key doc fests of CPH:DOX, IDFA and Visions du Réel (Western Europe), and Beldocs, Ji.hlava IDFF and Dokufest Prizren (Eastern Europe). Added to these were the Asian fests of Taiwan IDFF and Yamagata IDFF, the North American DOC NYC and TIFF, and the South American BAFICI.
The figures indicate a strong local bias in terms of selections, across all events, irrespective of continent, with varying degrees of representation (or under-representation depending on viewpoint) from other parts of the world. The survey shows that Western European films represented 60% of CPH:DOX selections in 2020. This figure was 51% for IDFA 2019 and 45% for Visions du Réel in 2020. Meanwhile at Ji.hlava 2019, 53% of films were from Eastern Europe. The equivalent figures for Beldocs and DokuFest Prizren were 43% and 35% respectively.
Asian films accounted for 79% of Taiwan IFF programming, while the Asian figure for Yamagata was 66%. At DOC NYC, 55% of films were North American. TIFF bucked the trend with 30% North American programming (and 31% from Western Europe). Of the 294 films programmed at BAFICI (Buenos Aires) in 2019, 112 were from South America (99 of which were from Argentina).
During the panel hosted by Ji.hlava IDFF chief Marek Hovorka and Head of Industry Jarmila Outratová, speakers took account of these figures as they offered up a festival by festival analysis of their film selection processes.
Thom Powers, Artistic Director of DOC NYC and documentary programmer for TIFF addressed the topic within the context of recent events in the US. “I have to acknowledge that in the US right now we are going through a month of street protests that are all about representation, not necessarily international, but driven by the Black Lives Matter movement. It is a time of reckoning the like of which I have never seen in my life.”
“New York City is probably the biggest doc-making population of any city in the world, and a big part of our mission at Doc NYC is to serve that community, but also to serve the diversity of our city. There are so many different ethnic and racial communities in NYC that often want to see their stories filtered through a local example,” he added.
“I think of a film like Brooklyn Inshallah (Ahmed Mansour), about the Arab American community in NYC [and] I can think of a number of films that we’re showing about different parts of the world that would have been captured in [the survey’s] numbers as North American films.” He cited the example of I am Not Alone which was directed by US-based Armenian Garin Hovannisian.
“Mai Khoi and the Dissidents, about the Vietnamese activist, was by a US filmmaker but really brought out the Vietnamese community to see it in New York,” he added. “That is a factor and it doesn’t get away from the importance to capture films from their native countries – although the film that won our jury prize at DOC NYC was City Dream from China (directed by Weijun Chen), which reflects that films from different parts of the world can do very well at our festival.”
Wanling Chen, programmer of Taiwan IDFF, suggested that as so few Asian docs are selected for Western European and North American film festivals, her event, in a sense, redresses the balance with its high number of local selections.
“So we are trying to set ourselves as a platform for these films, these Asian films. Maybe they are not huge in production, maybe they are not perfect, they have this and that little flaw, but they are little gems that we can bring to our audience to really show the characteristics of Asian films….that is why there is a huge percentage of Asian films in our programme,” she explained.
Emilie Bujès of Visions du Réel explained her selection rationale, as practised by her and five fellow programmers. The selection is largely made from 3000 submissions, each of which is watched and reported on, she said. Newcomer discovery is a priority.
“In our case the process is very democratic – [but] of course it is not a flawless process. I think that we are all very aware that these processes are complicated. It is a lot of films and it is hard to be always sure that you don’t miss something that might have been relevant or interesting for the programme.”
“Either you have a very large pre-selection committee that is composed of many people from many different backgrounds, and each film is going to watched by two people and they do the first sorting, and then they bring it to the second group, the selection committee,” she continued robustly.
“Or you go for a strategy [as at Visions] with a smaller group… Each will have to watch 800 or 1000 films, and will have to write up texts [on each], and has to be in Nyon for several weeks… If I want to work with someone that is based in another country very far [away] then I will have to change this process, and so far I am happy with the process because so far it has allowed us to do a good job.”
“Of course it is a political question, and again I am aware it is not flawless because of course we are coming with our background which is not the same as the background of someone coming from another country or context. But it is hard and tough work, and it is difficult [for me] to imagine doing everything remotely as well.”
Asako Fujioka, board member and former programmer of Yamagata IDFF (Japan) was next to explain her rationale, pointing out that only half the selections for the festival are new films. Much of the programme is made up of retrospectives, including historical and regional focusses (such as on Oceania, films from North East India and Iran).
“These are the films that are important because of the context they are put in,” Fujioka stressed. “Competition films are chosen from a criteria that is completely different…whereas with the films from Iran we were able to introduce our audience to a new generation, a new part of our film history, so when we talk about under-representation of cinema, that is one of the roles that a film festival can play.”
“We don’t have to show films from North Korea [just] because it is not represented at any film festival in the world, but if we can show them in a sort of way that can allow us to reflect on what their culture can show us, what we can learn from that, I think that is a big mission accomplished for a film festival,” she added.
“I don’t think we have to be the UN,” she underlined. “The film festival has different roles and it’s not just about showing new films.”
Veton Nurkollari, Artistic Director of DokuFest (Kosovo) opined how he felt that the example of his festival was “slightly different.”
“We started the film festival in a country just coming out of the war. There had never been a film festival in this country before. No programmers, no film critics. Starting from complete scratch was like entering a void in a way, so we had to learn a lot.”
He confessed how when he was presented with the 2020 figures by Ji.hlava IDFF, he was amazed to see that 7% of his programme was dedicated to African films.
“I started thinking where did they come from? And it came down to our growing interest outside of mainstream European cinema… becoming interested in Asian cinema over the past 5 years, Argentinian cinema, Brazilian cinema, Chilean cinema lately. So all of this probably adds to some sort of [sense of] diversification, because I see Dokufest as quite diverse.”
He added: “We don’t receive any funding from Media (Creative Europe), so in a sense, maybe we don’t have enough money, but we are liberated, so we can select films from [across] the world. And also what I learned from all these years is that actually we had to educate our audience because they didn’t know – just like us.”
Álvaro Arroba, programmer for Bafici (Argentina) was also present on the panel.