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Doc Edge 2013: Closing the gap

Despite the expectation in some quarters that there would be nothing much new in this discussion around the new funding recently announced jointly by the NZFC and NZ On Air, there was nevertheless a goodly number of delegates present at this Doc Edge Forum session.

Head of Business Affairs Naomi Wallwork represented the Film Commission, to the disappointment of some present. No offence to Naomi, but there was an expectation amongst delegates that NZFC staff directly involved in administering the new funds assessment would be present.

NZ On Air was represented, as in previous years, by TV Manager Glenn Usmar. He was on the receiving end of some vigorous challenges by moderator Sumner Burstyn who, to be fair, was also quite fulsome in her praise of the new initiatives.

It was a pleasure for many to hear John Harris of Greenstone Pictures, best known for reality TV and more recently children’s drama series, argue the case for long-form documentary of quality enthusiastically and unusually vehemently.

Sumner also chaired the concluding discussion at last year’s forum that was titled “Mind the Gap”. On that occasion, Sumner preferred to retitle the discussion “Mind the Grand Canyon”. She began this year’s discussion in similar vein, suggesting the title of the seminar should be “Closing Some Gaps” rather than the official title “Closing the Gap”.

Although local documentary makers and Doc Edge directors are extremely happy with the new funding – Alex Lee and Dan Shannon seeing it as a vindication of the decision at last year’s forum to lobby harder on behalf of documentary making – there was also widespread disappointment as a result of the belief that it will make no difference in terms of the amount of documentary screened on the two major networks, TVNZ and MediaWorks.

This was not helped by Glenn declaring that in the past, yes, there was a significant amount of documentary on television, but it fell out of favour with the public as indicated by ratings surveys, and that is why it has largely disappeared from our screens. Given the rise in popularity of documentary in the cinemas over recent times (witness the extraordinarily long run of How Far Is Heaven recently) and that Maori TV finds there is a good audience for their Tuesday feature doco strand, perhaps the doco-makers present could be excused for expressing some disbelief in this, along with the notion that the dropping of documentary was driven more by advertisers preferring to pursue a different target audience, as opposed to the overall audience’s preferences.

The major part of the new funding, the $2.5m Joint Documentary Fund, administered in partnership by both the NZFC and NZ On Air, is viewed by the NZFC as targeted at the international film festival programmers, and by NZ On Air as aimed at catching the interest of and challenging a prime-time television audience.

There was some despair expressed from the audience at the requirement of a commitment from a broadcaster before funding. Now that TVNZ has been instructed by the government to be nakedly and blatantly commercial, this restriction was seen as working against innovation and experimentation.

But there is some hope contained in the smaller of the two funds, Te Whai Ao. This $250,000 fund is aimed at both emerging filmmakers in the documentary field, and also at more experienced documentary makers with a more experimental or innovative project at hand.

In both cases, it is envisaged that the fund funding will be allocated to perhaps five projects at roughly 500,00 and 50,000 respectively per year.

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