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'Latin Side of the Docs' in Mexico City

November 27, 2012

(Kathryn Pyle recently marked her fourth anniversary as a PhilanTopic contributor. In her last post, she wrote about Reportero, a new documentary by Bernardo Ruiz about embattled investigative journalists assigned to cover the drug wars in Mexico.)

LSD-MexicoCityLatin Side of the Docs, an annual marketplace and producers forum for documentary filmmakers, came to Mexico City earlier this month, attracting more than two hundred and fifty filmmakers and fifty industry representatives.

Filmmakers, broadcasters, and film distributors, most of them from Latin America, converged on the Spanish Cultural Center in the historic center of the city for the event. The center, which offers a variety of programs in a modern light-filled building, is located just behind the colonial-era Metropolitan Cathedral and ruins of Aztec pyramids bordering the Zócalo, the huge open plaza at the heart of the old city built by the Spaniards.

The three-day event was organized by DocsDF, a documentary film festival founded seven years ago in Mexico City, in collaboration with Sunny Side of the Docs, a longstanding international event/forum that matches documentary filmmakers seeking funds with broadcasters and distributors seeking good films. The organizers of Sunny Side now help stage similar events in Asia and, for the past four years, in Latin America -- the first three in Buenos Aires and now this year in Mexico City. Inti Cordera, a founder and the executive director of DocsDF, and Yves Jeanneau, a French filmmaker who created Sunny Side of the Docs, share a commitment. As Cordera put it, "We believe that documentary film is important and necessary, not just in terms of cinematic quality but also for the messages delivered."

The five-day "rendezvous" included a two-day seminar for producers and three days of opportunities for filmmakers to pitch their films. Pitch sessions included three distinct opportunities: sixteen films were selected for formal presentation involving trailers of the films and a discussion afterward, with broadcasters and distributors gently pressured to at least agree to meet with the filmmakers. In addition, nine films were presented as five-minute videos to a general audience in a "silent" pitch session, while filmmakers representing sixty-two other projects were scheduled for brief private meetings with broadcasters and distributors.

Taken as a whole, the films presented a range of stories and approaches, although the issue of borders and cross-border migration and their impact on culture and families was a recurring theme. Human rights, indigenous peoples' resistance to globalization, and the political history of the region were further proof of Latin American filmmakers' strong interest in social issue documentaries.

Among the filmmakers attending were Kimberly Bautista and Raul Paz Pastrana, who have a unique connection: both had received support from the Princess Grace Foundation-USA, a New York City-based fund established to honor Grace Kelly's interest in the arts. The foundation, which is supported by contributions from individuals, private foundations, and corporate gifts and celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year, gives awards annually to emerging artists in film, theater, and dance.

Kimberly Bautista received a grant from the foundation in 2008 to finish Justice for My Sister, a film about a domestic violence victim in Guatemala and the sister who pursues the case against the man who killed her. The project has screened extensively in Guatemala thanks to grassroots women's groups, many of which have included the film in their anti-violence campaigns. Bautista is now fundraising to add transmedia elements to her audience engagement plan as the project gains more exposure in the United States and elsewhere via screenings at various festivals. "I'm very happy with my experience here," she said over a lunch break at the Spanish Cultural Center's terrace restaurant. "Two European distributors are interested in picking up the film, and I’ve had positive meetings with several Latin American broadcasters."

Mexican filmmaker Raúl Paz Pastrana, who selected the School of Visual Arts in New York City for graduate studies because of its Social Documentary Film program, received a Princess Grace grant in 2011 for Ome, his film about an indigenous community in Ecuador fighting to preserve its land in the face of oil industry pollution. Paz Pastrana had been a community organizer working with native groups in the region, and he's now seeking funds to finish editing the film that that work inspired. "This is my first market event," he said during the lunch with Kimberly. "I've had a dozen meetings with broadcasters and distributors, but I'm not sure how it's going. I'm competing with people with much more experience in how to present a project."

For Yves Jeanneau, the director of Sunny Side of the Docs, that's exactly why the event is important. "Through this forum and similar events, I can see that Latin American documentary filmmakers are increasing their understanding of what production is all about. And, consequently, I'm seeing better-quality documentaries being brought to the table."

When I first wrote about Latin Side of the Docs in 2010, I mentioned Night Inside Me, a film about miners in Bolivia that was represented at the event by the film's director, Sergio Estrada. It was the first such event he had attended where he was invited for brief one-on-one meetings with industry representatives, and the experience and contact with other filmmakers convinced him he needed a partner with producing skills. Estrada brought on Valeria Ponce soon after, and I met them both at the Mexico City event. "I worked as a TV producer before, but I've learned that producing an independent film is much more than that," Ponce said over café con leche. Estrada and Ponce have been attending a variety of training sessions and industry meetings since the 2010 Buenos Aires event and were optimistic about the meetings they had scheduled at this one -- not least because their project was one of nine selected for a "video pitch" and online exhibition, promising significant added exposure for the film. "We need two more weeks of filming in the mine," said Estrada. Support so far has included funding from both the Bolivian mining company and a family foundation, and the miners' organization has been a partner in making the film.

These projects all illustrate Inti Cordera's concern about the production side of documentary filmmaking, one he shares with Yves Jeanneau. "DocsDF film festival was founded with the vision of not only creating a festival but also somehow contributing to the professionalization of a new generation of Latin American documentary filmmakers," Cordera told me. "That just isn't happening anywhere else. For instance, in Mexico there are two high-quality film schools -- the CCC (Centro de Capacitacion Cinematografica), which is supported by the Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografía (IMCINE), a government agency; and CUEC (Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematograficos), the oldest film school in Latin America, which is based at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM); both are in Mexico City. Plus, there are some good communications and filmmaking programs at other schools. But none of these schools provides training in production or industry issues. Latin Side of the Docs allows us to offer that support."

Interspersed in the three-day pitch event, panels such as how to co-produce with broadcasters, featuring representatives from Once TV Mexico (Latin American's oldest public television station), Discovery Networks Latin America, and National Geographic Latin America added to knowledge the filmmakers could take home with them.

The two-day "Ibero-American Producers Forum," part of Latin Side of the Doc and preceding the pitch event, offered even more intensive theoretical and hands-on consulting to about sixty pre-selected filmmakers. Among the presenters was Paola Castillo, from Chile Doc, a networking and support organization for Chilean documentary filmmakers seeking distribution. Castillo spoke about financing and co-production schemes and provided information about the major North American and European media funders, investors, and pitching opportunities. "Doing business is not just about money," she said. "You have to build relationships and confidence." But long before the fundraising begins, she added, filmmakers should ask themselves, "Why am I making this film, and for whom?"

Castillo seems clear about the answers to those questions for herself. A recent project, 74 Square Meters, is about families living illegally on land in Valparaiso, Chile, who, as part of a social experiment, are moved into apartments in a middle-class neighborhood -- or, as Castillo puts it, is it "really possible to integrate people from different classes?" With funding from ITVS International, a screening on PBS' Global Voices earlier this year, and broad distribution via iTunes and Amazon, the film illustrates a possible future for documentaries that was nicely posited by Jeanneau: "The old production trajectory is over," he said. "It's no longer a sure path from festivals to broadcast or theatrical release. Even for films like Half the Sky, which was released recently on PBS, the real product is on the 'Net."

While the "decision makers" at Latin Side of the Doc included a number of North American and European distributors and broadcasters, Jeanneau noted that television space for documentaries is shrinking in those markets -- a result of the financial crisis and ensuing recession and increased competition from Internet platforms. He also noted that "In Europe right now, broadcasters are focusing mainly on domestic themes. The challenge is to create an audience for international issues."

In a sign of just how much the times have changed, one of the pitched films at Latin Side of the Docs, Pirate Copy, looks at film piracy in Mexico City, London, Dubai, and Senegal. Filmmaker Trisha Ziff reported that, as part of the documentary, she took Doris Dörrie, who is often referred to as "one of the most important cultural voices in Germany," to a popular pirate stand around the corner from the conference to film her encounter with a woman selling pirated copies of recent releases: three hundred a day at eighty cents each. None of Ms. Dörrie's films is available for legitimate purchase in Mexico, yet half of them were for sale on the street. In Senegal, Ziff reported, "There are no cinemas anymore, only pirates." When one of the Senegalese protagonists of her film travels from Paris to his home in Dakar, he discovers that within forty-eight hours the film he brought with him to show is being sold on the street as far away as Capetown, in South Africa. "We need to understand the phenomenon," said Ziff in closing. "What does it say about the future of film?"

What, indeed.

-- Kathryn Pyle


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