Off the Main Road!

The Tafaseel web documentary magazine, see below, asked me to write an article for their first edition. Here it is:

3 months per year I am away from home. I travel in and outside Europe to talk about documentaries, the market, the television slots and strands, the film funds, the festivals, how to write proposals and make trailers that work. Or I organise and moderate pitching sessions and invite TV people – commissioning editors – to come and comment on new proposals. I have done so more or less since the EU in the beginning of the 1990’s  introduced the MEDIA Programme, a support mechanism that has meant a lot, and still does, for the international cooperation and coproduction for the documentary. 20 years later you see the results, for the good and the worse. First the good, and then the but…

Whenever possible on my tours around I show examples of successful films that were made within the coproduction, international documentary world. Where so-called creative documentaries mostly are human interest stories, and/or with political, social, environmental issues conveyed in a professional, appealing, debate creating way. For the heart and the brain.

I show the trailer of ”Caviar Connection” by Dragan and Jovana Nikolic from Serbia, who at the EU-supported IDFA forum some years ago got the biggest applause for their project presentation as well as a lot of interest from broadcasters and distributors. I show a clip from ”Blind Loves” by Slovak Juraj Lehotsky, who developed his film project through the EU-supported Ex Oriente training programme into a film that went to Cannes and won a prize at the festival. I show a clip from ”Good Bye, How are You” by another Serbian director, Boris Mitic, who travelled the pitching fora and the festivals to raise  funding for his film. I show a clip from Macedonian Atanas Georgiev’s ”Cash and Marry”, that started as a Croatian based production but got an Austrian producer to help get EU- and other money. And I don’t let young filmmakers leave the room without having seen LaTVian Herz Frank’s 1978 masterpiece, ”10 Minutes Older” – at a time where there was no EU-funding, during USSR, where LaTVian capital Riga was the place for the free poetic documentary reflection.

All these films – from Eastern Europe – have one thing in common, as it has been said by BBC’s Nick Fraser: They come from countries where television has no money for documentaries, and therefore has had no (bad) influence! Was this a self-criticism from a man who for years have been running the prestigious TV strand Storyville? Knowing Fraser, I doubt it, but on the other side, his statement gives a very precise, indirect characterisation of the disease that threatens the creative documentary, the formatted TV. Which, to be fair, Fraser does not stand for.
The films that I mention above are exceptions from the rules. Most of the documentaries made for television today are made according to non- creative standard rules for duration, storytelling, rhythm in editing, voice-off and approach to controversial subjects. You know very well what I talk about – a historical film for example, from BBC and/or German ZDF looks like this: Black and white archive material, a commentary that explains what you see or adds a lot of information in a flow of words that kill the visual impact, interviews with witnesses and/or experts, voilá, that is the menu and we eat it most often with pleasure.

The films mentioned above have followed some of these rules but they have also kept their own voice, and thus they surprise the viewer.
Wow, can films also be like that!

Well, some of them have been involved in fights with the TV editors, who – sorry to say – often claim to know that this will not be understood by their audience. This is too artistic for my audience… is a sentence that I have heard again and again. Read it again, please, ”too artistic!”. Excuse my French, but f… you!

When ”Caviar and Connection” got a huge applause at IDFA it was precisely because the presentation and the project were off-the-main- road, originally thought and presented with a special sense of humour. It was simply different and the editors around the table loved it as I am sure that the viewers did in the respective countries, who bought the film when done. We want to be surprised, we want to experience something new, we want to be challenged, don’t we? Don’t ever underestimate the audience! Don’t ever try to please!

Follow your own artistic ambition! Build up a documentary culture in your country (Finland is still the example with a film school, several financing sources to access, a film festival, in other words a respect for the documentary genre as an important cultural element)! Set the filmmakers free – re-enter some Dadaism and surrealism, and keep the good will and the political correctness for other TV programmes!

… OR if you use ”formatting”, make it clear that this is an aesthetic choice and not a demand. James Marsh’s ”Man on Wire” is maybe the best example in that category – playful, genre- conscious, a thriller but also a human story, multi-layered, or Agnes Varda who is completely her own in the autobiography, ”The Beaches of Agnes”, elegantly playing with the genres. Or ”Burma vj” by Anders Østergaard, who brings political archive material into a fictitious frame. Or ”Nénette” by Nicholas Philibert who brings an ultra-observational choice (of a 40 year old orangutang) into a philosophical essay. 

Share your love
Tue Steen Müller
Tue Steen Müller

Müller, Tue Steen
Documentary Consultant and Critic, DENMARK

Worked with documentary films for more than 20 years at the Danish Film Board, as press officer, festival representative and film consultant/commissioner. Co-founder of Balticum Film and TV Festival, Filmkontakt Nord, Documentary of the EU and EDN (European Documentary Network).
Awards: 2004 the Danish Roos Prize for his contribution to the Danish and European documentary culture. 2006 an award for promoting Portuguese documentaries. 2014 he received the EDN Award “for an outstanding contribution to the development of the European documentary culture”. 2016 The Cross of the Knight of the Order for Merits to Lithuania. 2019 a Big Stamp at the 15th edition of ZagrebDox. 2021 receipt of the highest state decoration, Order of the Three Stars, Fourth Class, for the significant contribution to the development and promotion of Latvian documentary cinema outside Latvia. In 2022 he received an honorary award at DocsBarcelona’s 25th edition having served as organizer and programmer since the start of the festival.
From 1996 until 2005 he was the first director of EDN (European Documentary Network). From 2006 a freelance consultant and teacher in workshops like Ex Oriente, DocsBarcelona, Archidoc, Documentary Campus, Storydoc, Baltic Sea Forum, Black Sea DocStories, Caucadoc, CinéDOC Tbilisi, Docudays Kiev, Dealing With the Past Sarajevo FF as well as programme consultant for the festivals Magnificent7 in Belgrade, DOCSBarcelona, Verzio Budapest, Message2Man in St. Petersburg and DOKLeipzig. Teaches at the Zelig Documentary School in Bolzano Italy.

Articles: 3875