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BSS 2017: Catch and Release

Opening the weekend’s Big Screen Symposium, Script to Screen director Esther Cahill-Chiaroni promised a line up of speakers “with a unique take, in their stories on screen and here in the room”.

She noted the conference theme, authenticity and pretence, mused on the role of the storyteller in the age of the selfie and fake news, and asked how making shit up could bring us closer to the truth.

The weekend’s first presenter, Annie Goldson, headed straight into the stranger than fiction realm discussing her latest documentary, Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web.

“A documentary faces a higher bar when it comes to authenticity,” Goldson claimed. “In drama we are watching actors. In documentary there are ‘social actors’, people playing or trying to play facets of themselves.”

One of the world’s great showmen, Dotcom was certainly playing – throughout the many identities he’s travelled under – and had been since early on “a relentless self-documentor”, Godlons said. It was a blessing and a curse; there was a great archive of video material but also a polished and practised performer used to running (and recording) his own show, a wall to be broken through.

Goldson’s film addresses not only the person of Dotcom, and the obvious issues his court cases raise around copyright and its infringement, but also bigger pictures issues. How might we harness the potential of the internet? What does sovereignty mean in a post-9/11 world?

While Goldson is the documentor of much of Dotcom’s present struggles, she wasn’t the only person who believed government was acting beyond its remit when it mounted what’s probably the first NZ police raid accompanied by press releases.

When (post-MegaUpload) Dotcom released his CD of dance music, Good Times, he was entertained by the fact that it was much more pirated than bought. For her film, Goldson has released online much of the material that didn’t make it into the film. She’s done it under a Creative Commons license, which makes it easy to distribute but quite difficult to use it illegally. 

Goldson mused on how much control subjects of documentary in general, and Dotcom specifically, had in the process. She commented on Dotcom’s acceptance of the fact that the film had to be (and be seen as) independent, which meant he couldn’t help finance the film. She also noted that subjects held the ultimate trump card, withdrawing from the project, but also that Dotcom was like any other subject. He saw rough cuts, had the opportunity to correct factual errors and air his opinions on other aspects of the film – but Goldson retained control.

Control was a major theme of distributor Peter Broderick’s contribution to the opening Keynotes session.

In brief, he outlined his belief in the benefits to filmmakers of the digital revilution that was just beginning when he was last in NZ (for a SPADA Conference around 15 years ago).

“Owning the tools of the production process has become a game-changer,” Broderick claimed. With a camera and a laptop filmmakers don’t need to get past the gatekeepers before being able to make a film.

He cited Sean Baker, who’d made a bunch of indies from zero budget up to about 250k, but couldn’t finance his next feature due to its subject matter. That lack of cash led to his decision to shoot it on an iPhone 5. Tangerine went to Sundance, considerable acclaim and awards at over 20 international festivals.

Ironically, one of the great successes of Broderick’s early career, during his days as finishing fund supplier Next Wave Films, was to support Christopher Nolan’s Following, which helped him led to his breakthrough feature Memento. Despite employing a huge amount of VFX in his bigger budget films, Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception, Dunkirk) has been nothing but dismissive of digital as a capture medium, teaming with other filmmakers in 2014 to encourage US studios to bail out a then-bankrupt Kodak. Early last year Nolan was one of the high-profile supporters for the relaunch of Kodak’s 8mm camera – of which nobody’s heard anything since. 

Broderick is more than open to digital – both as a form of capture and distribution – and is keen to promotoe the possibilities digital distribution offers. Since reinventing himself as a distribution strategist (“nobody else was calling themselves that so I had no competition”) he’s consulted on over 1000 titles and now specialises in hybrid strategies.

Harnessing all that’s good about the internet, ina tongue in cheek way, he introduced Kedi (a documentary about cats in Istanbul, made in Turkish). The film struggled to get any form of release other tan festival bookings, but Broderick’s assessment was, “It’s going to go fine online.”

When Kedi eventually did get a US theatrical release, on a single screen release in New York, it took US$41,000 on its opening weekend, and has now racked up over US$2.8 million theatrical earnings in the US.

He put the success down to the film being original, and the cats not getting back-end. “When Hitman’s Bodyguard is number one, you know you’re in deep trouble. A one-of-a-kind title will stand out,” he said, “especially against the content-free releases Hollywood continues to rely on.

“You don’t need anyone’s approval to make and show a film. You can build an audience yourself, and grow that into a fan base (for your next film).”

Broderick noted that the last four Best Film winners at the Oscars have been indies (12 Years a Slave, Birdman, Spotlight, Moonlight – via La La Land), as have the last six foreign language Oscar winners (A Separation, Amour, The Great Beauty, Ida, Son of Saul, The Salesman).

As for Kedi, it now has a YouTube Red deal for SVOD, and has yet to go to Japan.

The Big Screen Symposium ran 30 September – 1 October in Auckland.

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