With a global debate calling for greater diversity and representation onscreen, and growing demand for documentaries across borders and platforms, the organizers of the 9th Durban FilmMart (DFM) made a concerted effort this year to add African voices to the conversation. By Christopher Vourlias
"For Africa, documentary filmmaking is such an important space, in terms of developing content and really understanding how to tell stories to audiences through cinema," said Toni Monty, head of the Durban Film Office and the DFM.
She added: "We really want to increase that focus and create a bigger space for documentaries in Durban. We inched forward on that this year, with the intention of really building that in the future."
Eight documentaries were among the 16 African projects in development taking part in this year's finance forum at the DFM. Before pitching to an audience of leading broadcasters, financiers, funding bodies, and other potential investors, the filmmakers took part in an intensive mentorship process led by veteran South African documentarians Don Edkins and Xoliswa Sithole; Joost Daamen, from the Int'l. Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA); and Elizabeth Radshaw, Olena Decock, Angela Tucker, Kristi Jacobson, and Ricardo Acosta, from the Hot Docs-Blue Ice Group.
The process began six weeks before the DFM, as Edkins and Sithole - often working over patchy Skype connections across the continent - helped guide the filmmakers through the key elements of their Durban pitches. Edkins said the goal was to focus on both the visuals of the pitch, in the form of a teaser or trailer, as well as its narrative arc.
"The process is really interesting because it provides for real dialogue around the film," he said. "We discuss the story, how they see it in cinematic terms, why they are making the film, audiences, and how to finance it. We view the teaser or trailer for the film and discuss that."
In Durban, an intensive two-day mentorship took place.
"For some teams, this is the first time they have pitched publicly, so it was important to provide guidance on key elements of a documentary pitch," Decock and Radshaw explained by email. "You want to outright address creative and production questions in the pitch, but leave enough of a teaser to secure a follow-up meeting with decision-makers. Most importantly, they address key film story questions and position the film for funders and audiences."
"I find a real sense of forward movement during the mentoring process," said Edkins. "Some of the filmmakers are still busy shooting research material and finding new elements for their story, and more visual material which has to be cut into the teaser. It's an opportunity for open discussion."
Fine-tuning a pitch ahead of the DFM isn't just a way to land crucial sources of financing.
"Articulating your story for funders is essentially articulating it for your audience," said Decock and Radshaw. "Early on in the documentary filmmaking process, it's important to understand who would be most interested in your film. Not everyone will get a chance to see your documentary, so you want to ensure you reach those who have the appetite for it."
"The African documentary landscape has been making real strides in recent years," said Nataleah Hunter-Young, who's worked on programming at the Toronto Int'l. Film Festival and Hot Docs, and curated the doc program of the Durban Intl. Film Festival this year. "I think that is directly linked to increased resourcing and development, both on a national infrastructure level, and in terms of investments in the development of filmmakers, specifically. Continentally-based organizations like DocuBox, in Kenya, STEPS, in South Africa, and the Ouaga Film Lab, in Burkina Faso, to name a few, have specifically sought to support African documentarians in telling authentic stories in new and challenging ways through mentorship, funding, and skills development."
She added, "A number of major international festivals have also demonstrated their commitments to supporting African filmmakers through investing dollars, time, and resources into emerging artists."
Among the steady supporters who again had a strong presence at this year's DFM were the Berlinale, the Int'l. Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, the Intl. Film Festival Rotterdam, and the Hot Docs-Blue Ice Group, whose documentary fund, which is currently accepting online submissions, provides development funds to approximately 4-10 African projects each year, and has awarded funding to 53 projects from 19 countries.
"Despite all of this, more initiatives are needed," Hunter-Young continued. "Some of that is currently being built on the local and continental level, but there is still room for more international partners and a generally stronger international commitment. I think it's safe to say that we're also starting to see a push from African filmmakers themselves to document their stories without necessarily needing to rely on European or North American dollars."
Hunter-Young continued: "I anticipate we'll be seeing many more intra-continental co-productions in the years to come, including North-Sub-Saharan partnerships, which is long overdue!"
"What is really necessary is to access finance from different sources to make the film, and have professional support available where it is needed. And have distribution platforms to reach audiences," added Edkins.
For African filmmakers, there's perhaps never been a better time to find those viewers.
"I think international audiences have woken up to the fact that they've been fed a lot of lies about the continent through film and television - something that the documentary genre can certainly take a lot of credit for - and I am still hearing filmmakers and funders talking about how ready they are to move away from films commissioned by NGOs, or made by non-African filmmakers with little to no investment in the communities they're portraying," said Hunter-Young.
"That said, I believe that this awakening amongst audiences has led to a hunger for African stories, told by African people, in ways that ideally no longer have to conform to the traditional genre tropes," she added. "The challenge, I think, is more with supply than it is with demand. In a city like Toronto - one of the most multicultural cities in the world - demand for African stories is never short. We programmers know the demand is there, so it's our job to fill it and ensure audiences are aware of it."