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New beginnings for SDI!

We’re trying to get a handle on audiences (let’s not use “the market”). Let me rephrase that:

How can we interest individuals in what we do, the documentaries we make and the questions we – or YOU – raise with them? How do we get people involved online and in person, and perhaps affect change? And how does this translate into a more sustainable business for filmmaking as a whole? That is what we want to be working on for the next 18 months thanks to funding from Creative Scotland.

Our colleagues in North America have been doing it as a matter of necessity. They have nurtured relationships with donors, individual giving and sponsorship for a long time. It’s tempting to focus only on how much money this might “bring” to a film. What is much more interesting is how “getting to know YOU” (one by one) can be an enlightening part of the whole process, deepening our understanding of the film and its need to exist in the world. Or, in other words, how and where do you want to meet your filmmaker?

This process used to be called “marketing and distribution”. We’re still looking to find a better word for it. It’s now built into filmmaking. How could it ever have been otherwise? But how do we start this relationship? Perhaps traditional distribution is like a dating agency, and perhaps it absolves us both from too much responsibility. That’s why we call it the “Virtuous Circle project”: the more WE do together, we contribute to a greater good, an eco-system.

But still, how do we convert getting to know audiences, into cash? I know it sounds far too cynical. Yes, filmmakers still have to eat, but we rarely have been to business school. We may be pulling pints to make a living though.

Truly, where are the models which show us how to calculate percentages, revenues and conversion rates – without selling out? How do we both get satisfied by our respective offerings? How do we start to trust each other?

We are excited about the opportunity to test and model new strategies and share the results with you.  I hope we can continue this conversation…

But first things first: As of today, we’re recruiting our new conversation leader & producer for a new position at SDI!

Producer specialised in Marketing & Distribution

FT – 17 months, £24,000-26,000 pa

This is a unique opportunity for someone to be at forefront of new models of documentary film investment and audience engagement. A successful PMD can make the difference between a film you never heard of and a glowing success which pays back its investors and sets the filmmakers up to make more. You will test and develop tools and strategies to be used at any stage of production and distribution and run crowdfunding campaigns. You will work across a number of feature documentaries at different stages.

Your task will include definition of an authentic voice for SDI’s online communications and to aggregate audiences across projects. You should be a digital native, a natural communicator and motivator, and able to manage multiple priorities.

Please send your CV and covering letter with links to your online identity and previous campaigns to:  A job description is available here

Deadline for applications is 27 June 2011.

Interviews will be on 6 or 7 July in Edinburgh.

If selected for interview you will be asked to do a 5 min presentation based on an idea for an audience engagement campaign.

Freelance or salaried. For more questions, please email or call 0131 221 6125.

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Characters, Subjects, Participants or just People?

With our Interdoc programme we have been running some clandestine Whisky tasting soirees at different festivals wherever we are running sessions.  A special guest list is invited but only get to know the time and the place via a text at the last minute. Such evenings are good fun and great way of networking.

Of course we also get a few gate crashers and this time, one of them was a woman who stepped straight out of a vogue magazine, and when I enquired who she was, she replied “but I am Melissa, the star of Melissa’s film” !

Funny enough the following day – American filmmaker David Wilson (True False Film Festival), was questioning at the Soap Box event on what should be the best / correct way to refer to our documentary subjects?

Characters? Participants? Actors? People?

Any of those words are ok within the context of a proposal or a pitch, but of course none of them are adequate when we are introducing them to an audience. For the time being, the problem will remain unsolved, but then it is only lately that we are using our “characters” as a marketing tool and inviting them to premieres and festivals.

This is not just a semantic debate – it raises more problematic questions linked to the filmmaker’s relationship to our characters… do we pay them? How responsible are we for their lives? Do we interfere?

We all have different ways to cope with it, but no one solution.

In fact, the world of documentary lost Sergey Dvortsevoy for exactly that reason, to the the clean-cut world of drama, with paid actors and red carpets.



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The Edges of Things

"I rather go towards things that frighten me ..." Penny Woolcock (Photo: Alan Marcus)













“I didn’t want to be a woman looking over my shoulder. I rather go towards things that frighten me – and draw attention to the situation.” Penny Woolcock

Penny Woolcock, born 1950, grew up in Argentina’s English ex-pat community before settling in England in 1970, working in factories and other jobs. Even as a school girl she was more interested in the edges of things – for example the life in the favela underneath the bridge she passed every week on the way to church. She only took to filmmaking in her thirties and never formally trained as a filmmaker, which has led to some crew members commenting: “you work really differently!” Penny says: “Ignorance can be bliss!”

Here are some of Penny’s approaches to filmmaking across documentary and fiction:

1) Be mindful your “characters” are people, and it’s their lives you’re documenting. I don’t like calling people in my docs “characters.”

2) I always have the fear of failure. It’s never left me. Something really amazing can happen when you’re not in your comfort zone.

3) When you’re casting non-actors for your film, cast them as close to their natural emotional range as possible. All my fiction films are based on heavy documentary research. I realised there is a depository of wasted talent in places like an estate (for example, for the film Shakespeare on the Estate)

4) You never regret what you don’t use in the edit, only what you haven’t got. Better to shoot a bit more than not shooting it at all, or redoing a take.

5) I’m interested in the disenfranchised and their inventive ways of dealing with their situation and the connections between people. I wish I could make a “quiet film” – mine are usually quite “populated”.  I choose not to make socio-political “lament films” along the lines of Ken Loach.

6) For my fictionalised work, my scripts are very specific, but I put no dialogue in it. Often my sound or camera people don’t know what happens before the first take. This gives my films a spontaneous & documentary feel.

7) As my dear friend Peter Symes once said to me: “Take risks – at worst it’s a disaster – at best it’s fantastic.” It’s good to be honest about what you’re doing, and not try to make it sound easy.

(8) If you know it’s not going to work out with an actor you have cast, for example, you have to let them go as swiftly and as quickly as possible. If you have that nagging feeling something is wrong, you have to act on it fast.

9) I fictionalise when I realise that what I know through my extensive research can’t actually be put  in a documentary. (eg. Tina goes Shopping)

10)  Whatever it is that turns you on, and gives you passion – that’s where you have to be. It’s too hard otherwise.

11)  I feel so lucky being a filmmaker – I look forward to going to work. I think success as a filmmaker is largely about how much and how hard you are prepared to work.

Penny Woolcock gave a masterclass at Scottish Documentary Institute on 14 Jan 2011.

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CPH:DOX 2010


The perfect (documentary) antidote to Sheffield Docfest is definitely CPH:DOX held in Copenhagen from the 4th to the 14th of November. The festival moves at a far more laidback pace and whilst having an industry focus with a forum, market and masterclass’ a plenty, feels so much more about celebrating creative storytelling rather than rushing around trying to catch the latest commissioner to pitch your idea to. I have a feeling that I could pitch to someone there at ‘leisure’ during one of the many food and drink parties that take place throughout the city. Being a filmmaker, of course both festival formats have to exist in order to survive and get your work out there but sometimes we get lost in trying to fund our films and forget to watch!

We were in Copenhagen not just to sample the fine beer and documentary but we had been asked to programme a few films from Scotland and nearby for the DOX:Market that were not likely to have exposure in Denmark. I took our latest Bridging the Gap films, Edinburgh College of Art films and 3 longer films The Edge of Dreaming by Amy Hardie, Colony by Carter Gunn & Ross McDonell and 1000 Pictures by Jennifer Stoddart which seemed to go down very well. We also had one of our latest Bridging the Gap films Lost Everyday by Michelle Coomber in the Short:Dox competition.

Watching is exactly what I wanted to do for a good chunk of my stay in Copenhagen, not before experiencing some incredibly strong pitches at the DOX:Forum, it’s always reassuring to see other pitching forums that are on the same scale to our Edinburgh Pitch held during the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June – seems we aren’t doing too badly in our aim to be a small, friendly, relaxed warm environment in order for people to pitch their ideas to commissioning editors without the hustle and bustle of a large market place going on around you. We think this is and excellent place for pitchers and funders to be at ease in and around the forum.  Highlights included Margreth Olin’s latest offering Nowhere Home and Hassel 12 by Mans Mansson, definitely ones to watch out for in the coming couple of years.

My colleagues have bashed on about coming to Denmark to experience the passion for documentary filmmaking there. I sampled some of Denmark’s finest in the shape of: and The Good Life by Eva Mulvad and produced by Scottish Doc Institute ‘regular’ Sigrid Dyekjær of Danish Documentary. A modern day Grey Gardens by Maysles brothers is totally spot on. The unflinching, claustrophobic pricklyness of watching once rich mother and daughter and their daily heated exchanges in their tiny flat in Portugal had you on your toes from start to finish – fantastic! I also watched Jorgen Leth’s Erotic Man, I love his work and don’t think this is an exception – like his regular collaborator Lars Von Trier he is playing with the audience in this provocative piece which made me love him, hate him and feel sorry for him many times throughout the 90 minutes!

I finally caught much talked about film The Arbor by Clio Barnard (UK/Japan) I had a lot of mixed feelings about it due to it’s typically socially realist themes which Stig Andersen from the Norwegian Film Institute pointed out “you Brits know how to celebrate poverty extremely well!” It isn’t entirely bleak though with many moments of hope and positivity peppered throughout, this is truly pushing the boundaries of the  between documentary and fiction, what a brave and interesting piece. A film that works on so many different levels.


Filed under: Festivals, Film Reviews, , , , ,

How to Get to Cannes….from Edinburgh

Last Friday, Scottish Documentary Institute and CMI (Centre of Moving Image) held their first joint masterclass with the special guest Gaelle Vidalie, representing  the legendary Cannes Director’s Fortnight.  The idea of that session was to engage Scottish filmmakers with a festival whose philosophy is based on discovery and creative energy. As an introduction Gaelle screened the documentary film “John Cassavates” by Hubert Knapp and Andre Labarthe.  It was a beautiful recording of John Cassavetes, shot in Hollywood 1965, while he was editing “Faces”, and 1968 in Paris, when the film was finished. Fifty minutes listening to the inspiring credo of Cassavetes affirming that you can make independent, free films in America if you dare to follow your convictions and forget about the limits of your credit card. His words and creative energy was wonderful, life enhancing, a must-see –  not just for every film student but every filmmaker in the room to be reminded why we make films. It was fascinating that the truth of many of his statements was still meaningful to 2010. Perfect choice of film to describe what the Director’s Fortnight search is about.  (You can watch a 10 min excerpt here).

Last year, Directors’ Fortnight selected eleven first films, four documentaries, and one its films won the Camera D’Or award. For Gaelle Vidalie, who recently joined the team of programmers, it was the culmination of a year of travelling, discussing and watching films. The purpose of the Festival, set up in 1969, is clear: to dig deep, find and reveal new talents and offer audiences new forms of cinematic expression.  We caught up with Gaelle after her presentation at the Filmhouse, to talk about her background and how the programming process happens at the festival.

What is your background and how did you start working with Directors’ Fortnight ?

GV: I worked with the Cinemateque Francaise for almost 20 years. During that time I had the opportunity to see a lot of films and meet a big variety of people, from film critics, to filmmakers, to festival directors and film lovers. I also worked with the EntreVues Film Festival, created by Janine Bazin. The Festival was devoted to showcasing first, second and third films and it quickly became a very important place for filmmakers to kick-start their careers. We also aimed to create a warm, welcoming and nurturing environment for the filmmakers. For me that is very important. I found that same spirit in the Directors’ Fortnight so when the opportunity arose to join the programme team, I took it.

The 2010 edition was not only your first festival but also the first year for newly appointed Artistic Director Frederic Boyer….

GV: This team of programmers is quite rock & roll! We are deeply involved in making sure we continue the innovative tradition of the Fortnight, and of course I feel that responsibility. It is also true that our team reflects Frederic’s artistic programming direction. He chose this team and decided we could work together. Each person brings difference experiences to our decisions. Programming is of course totally subjective. What we present every year is simply an “offering.” There’s definitely an amount of risk-taking involved, which makes it fun as well. It’s hard to explain why the films we select are touching or moving. We can and do discuss structure, cinematography, storytelling, etc… But emotion is what is at the core. That is what cinema is about: sharing.  We don’t present an absolute truth because there is no such thing as the perfect selection. Our audience, the film critics or the journalists, they can – and will – all contest or debate it, of course!

Tell me more about the programming process…  and how do the documentaries you screened fit in this picture?

GV: A lot of people send their films to Directors’ Fortnight. Last year we saw around 1,000 submissions. It sounds as if we wouldn’t need to go and look for films, but that would be a little bit lazy, I think. If you are looking for new talent, you need to be a little bit more involved in establishing relationships, in order to find the people, their work and to convince them that they may have a place in our programme.

The four documentaries we showed last year are a good example of that. If we had not looked for these films we would have not received them because nobody knew that Directors’ Fortnight is also interested in documentaries. The way we understand film is that we don’t want to separate fiction and documentary. So we had to find them. Maybe this year we will receive a lot more documentary submissions. I also think that travelling and having conversations with people around the world allows you to have a feel for where the heart of cinema is beating and where cinema is heading to. Even if it’s really hard at the end, because we only take 22 films, it’s very important to watch everything. Of course it’s not possible to take them all, but it’s important to know what’s going on in South America, in Africa, in Eastern Europe, everywhere. It gives us an overview of what’s happening and informs our vision of the festival and what we might want to follow up on in future editions.

Directors Fortnight 2010 Selection

Benda Bilili (France)
Boxing Gym (USA)
Cleveland versus Wall Street (Switzerland/France)
Stones in Exile (UK)

The selected total of 22 films represented 22 world premieres and 20 countries.

Isabel Moura Mendes

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Doc Week 2010 Round Up

“Doc Week is on the map as a “must-attend” industry event” Simon Kilmurry (POV)

Last week marked the end of our very first Doc Week in association with Edinburgh International Film Festival! We were delighted  with the fantastic range of projects from Scotland and round the world presented at the Edinburgh Pitch, Doc in Progress and Docs 360. A fantastic range of films from USA, China, Italy and the UK were workshopped and pitched during the first 3 days.

The new addition of the Doc in Progress screenings were very successful where Noe Mendelle (SDI) and Tue Steen Muller amongst others fed back on projects ranging from The Last Hunt (Ganesh Productions) about a  traditional ‘fox’ hunt that still goes on in India to Minefield (Autonomi) about a thrill seeker who uses football to break down barriers in war torn countries. Definitely some films to look out for in the future. The days were peppered with masterclasses from Nicolas Philibert, producer Rachel Wexler (EIFF premiere Out of the Ashes) and director Amy Hardie (EIFF premiere Edge of Dreaming) and sessions with Sheffield Docfest Meetmarket producer Charlie Phillips, Charlotte Gry Madsen (DR Sales) and Peter Jager (Autlook Filmsales).

The weekend was rounded off with the launch of Docs 360 were we heard about some thoroughly inspiring cross platform case studies, including workshops on how to build marketing campaigns and business cases for your interactive project. One of the highlights was listening to Anna Higgs talk about SXSW hit The People V’s George Lucas and how the film interacted with the online community long before the film was made. Keep an eye out for Docs 360 scheme which is cross-platform techniques to help you finance, market and distribute your film.

Doris Hepp of Arte/ZDF said: “Highly professional (projects) pitched in an unstressed and inspriring atmosphere”

Charlotte Gry Madsen DR Sales said: “definitely a couple of projects that I hope we can get involved with”

Simon Kilmurry POV said: “Doc Week 2010 was an incredibly rewarding experience The breadth of subject matter and approaches to documentary storytelling was inspiring”

“An intimate atmosphere. These things are always scary but worth it – you can meet commissioners that it could take months and many air miles to meet.” Jeanie Finlay Pitch Participant – Orion

We’re already planning Doc Week 2011, so watch this space!

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Bangladesh Film Workshop: 18-27 March 2010

SDI has been running very successful workshops in creative documentary storytelling from Edinburgh for the last seven years, however when we were invited by the British Council and the Bangladesh Documentary Council to train 16 inexperienced filmmakers and make four films in six days – that was definitely a challenge not to be turned down!

Many of us still go on assuming that creative documentary means “sleek aesthetics attached to an interesting topic.”  The type of workshops we run focus on the effective and creative structuring of a story in order to engage an audience.

We arrived in Dhaka via Dubai and after a shower we met our group (14 men and two women) as well as few local documentary filmmakers that same afternoon. We started the workshop by screening the Oscar nominated film “Burma VJ”.  It was very moving to see our new audience glued to the film. Burma shares a border with Bangladesh.

That evening we were introduced to the crème of Bangladesh arts and film scene over a Chinese dinner including the head of News from ATN Bangla, and learned that “everyone is a poet” in Bangladesh. Great premise for documentary storytelling we thought.

Day 1 was an introduction to what makes a creative documentary through presentation and analysis of case studies.  All the films were selected around themes that may be of cultural / political interest to the group.  They also covered different genres of documentaries, allowing us to explore the different technical, structural, creative tools used.  The reception of the examples by our cohort was very positive, sending the group to discuss and share ideas.  The discovery of the creative freedom used in contemporary documentary surprised and excited our participants and turned this session into a lively ice breaking session as well as building on their knowledge of documentary.  It was very interesting, yet a challenge for them to begin to understand the difference between factual and documentary filmmaking.

Day 2 started with presentation of individual ideas for a 3’ documentary. The group briefly discussed every single one. We then proceeded to vote on the best four and then form production groups. We ended up with one story around a disabled beggar who turns out to be a shrewd businessman: “My Dream”; a rickshaw puller who needs to go working despite his old age in order to pay for his daughter’s studies: “Calling Home”; a market where people gather at dawn to sell their labour: “Waiting for Godot”; and a traffic police man who struggles under the pressure of directing Dhaka traffic: “Bitter Lemon”.  We insisted that the two women should have a go at doing camera work. We subsequently discovered that there isn’t a single camerawoman in Bangladesh. The group was supportive of this proposal. In the afternoon we held a technical camera and sound workshop which is when we discovered that many of our filmmakers barely had any technical skills.

Day 3 Each group went to its own location in order to further research characters and story. A production coordinator and at least one camera assistant assisted them. In Bangladesh you cannot hire a camera without at least one camera assistant (included in the price of camera!). They were given only one tape to shoot in order to stop them hoovering images and force them to think prior to switching the camera on.  Sonja and I travelled in between locations in order to help them visualise their ideas.  At the end of the day we looked at the material shot and held group discussions about it – in order to help them to focus on the story in hand and images required to express it.

Day 4 The groups returned to their location in order to apply what was discussed the previous day. There was a huge improvement on the quality of the material – not just technically but in their ability in expressing their story visually. The ones who struggled most were the ones who could not let go of a drama approach – wanting to control their character and turning their images into an illustration of their vision.

Dhaka does not have many tourists nor many Europeans living there so we were extremely well looked after by our colleagues and the British Council and had a chauffeured car at our disposal, which was the most welcome form of transport considering the heat and the heavy traffic congestion. Sometimes it took us two hours to get back to our base. That was our window into Dhaka and Dhaka certainly looked at us in a way we are not used to in Edinburgh. We tried to ignore it by using the time to plan, twitter and blog.

On Day 5 we drove to our editing rooms.  We had four films to edit in two days! Fortunately the four FCP suites came with an operator each so we could work in parallel.  When we got to the first facility house we were faced with a tall building in the early stages of construction, only to discover that our editing rooms on the second and fourth floor were the only flats with walls, doors and windows. One must laugh and yet respect the enterprising spirit of not waiting until a building is built in order for business to be open. We also had to learn to work around the frequent power cuts.

On the last day we had to work through the night in order to make up lost time and pull together our 15’ DVD (4×3 min) of “Dhaka Stories”.  We insisted that they should make the most out of sound design. Despite huge emphasis on the creative role of sound in documentaries screened in the previous days, somehow most of them assumed that music would carry the images and reacted in disbelief when we told them that they could only use sound.  That was a huge learning curve for them, but a challenge that brought a new interest in sound and its creative potential.

Once the films finished they were surprised by each other’s results – all the films had moved from an ordinary topic to a story with a new approach. The workshop challenged them at many levels: a new understanding in the difference between a topic and a story; how to play with reality in order to tell engaging stories; the role of visual metaphors in documentary and above all the importance of sound in order to communicate emotions.

The creative part of the documentary is our contemporary equivalent of The Greek chorus, which provided the necessary insight to help the audience follow the performance – i.e. communicating the invisible. Not everyone got it, but at least all of them understood that documentary is a lot more complex than they assumed it to be.

The certificate ceremony and screening was very moving – unfortunately we had to leave on the same day, after a final lunch and many group photos. Barely back for two weeks and we get a great piece of news:  The charity Action Aid decided to fund the university fees for the daughter of the rick shaw puller, after seeing the films during our premiere at British Council in Dhaka. What a great result after an unforgettable trip!

Dhaka Stories DVD will be out soon. Enquiries at

Noe & Sonja

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