Making one’s first feature film is a challenging project, especially if the production is likely to take a number of years – as is the case for most documentaries. Despite all difficulties, however, some can achieve the highest standards. This article takes a look at three inspiring stories about successful feature-length documentary debuts. We try to make some conclusions – but no recipe is promised.
text by Rita Balogh
The International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam, IDFA, is certainly one of the largest and most important documentary festivals of the world – we could call it the Cannes of the documentary world. Every year, it gives a First Appearance Award for the best feature debuts. In 2015, the winner was a Georgian film by three artists (Salome Machaidze, Tamuna Karumidze, David Meskhi) aged around 40, When the Earth Seems to be Light, while in 2016, the Hungarian filmmaker, Gábor Hörcher (34) was awarded for his film, Drifter. An award is certainly an important asset to the launch of one’s career, as is the Grand Jury Prize for Documentaries at Sundance, won by Crystal Moselle (35) for her feature-length debut, The Wolfpack in 2015.
When the Earth Seems to be Light is a 75-minute-long German-Georgian co-production that won the IDFA First Appearance Award in 2015. The film is about young Georgian skaters who feel trapped between the powers of the church and the political world. Instead of searching for answers, they create their own open spaces and do nothing really, but skate.
Winner of the IDFA Award for the Best First Appearance Documentary in 2014 many other prizes, Drifter is a close-up portrait of a rebellious raccar-driving teenager trying to cope with the twists and turns of life in rural Hungary. The film is a 72-minute-long Hungarian-German co-production.
The Wolfpack is about six bright teenage brothers who spent their entire lives locked away from society in a Manhattan apartment. All they know of the outside is gleaned from the movies they watch obsessively (and recreate meticulously). Yet as adolescence looms, they dream of escape, ever more urgently, into the beckoning world. The US film is 90 minutes long.
The instinct – Development
As neither of our protagonists had prior extensive experience in directing feature-length documentaries, when getting started with their projects, none of them had a definite goal of making a feature film about a particular subject. Instead, it was the main characters and their stories that caught the attention of the soon-to-be award-winning directors, and the decision on the form was only secondary.
As Crystal recalls the first encounter with the characters of The Wolfpack, she says it was pure chance: she was walking down the streets of NYC when the Angulo brothers run past her with their long hair, weaving through the crowd. She immediately felt that she might have found something extraordinary, so she chased after them catching up at a stoplight. Still without a particular idea of the final form, she started getting to know and documenting them.
One of When the Earth Seems to be Light trio, photographer David Meskhi, had been working with youngsters of Georgia for many years. He had an exhibition from the photos on the subject that included portraits of the characters of the future film. The director-trio had known one another for a while and they had other art projects together. Inspired by David’s pictures and the characters, after the exhibition, they decided to make a film about their story adding a narrative layer to the photographs but keeping the cinematic attitude.
When Gábor Hörcher found the main character of Drifter, Ritchi, he had already made a couple of short fiction films. He felt right away that Ritchi and his story is great material for a film, but the decision on the genre came only later after many weeks spent with him and his family and friends, observing their lives and their drives.
In all three cases, the main drive to make their films was curiosity and the aim to discover and reveal more about what they had found. As it turns out, the success of these inspirational films is also related to the amplitude of the “extraordinary” factor in the stories: the more extreme they are, the more they tend to attract viewers.
The first milestones – Production
At first, after the idea was born, the strategy of the financing and the production was totally vague in all three cases. What they all needed was a stepping-stone.
During most of the production period, Drifter was financed without any national support. (It was at a very late stage when the Hungarian National Film Fund financially contributed to the project.) The first boost came from abroad: after a year of shooting alone, the core crew participated in the Sarajevo Talent Campus, where they met their future German co-producer and together they successfully applied to the Robert Bosch Stiftung. For the first time, the story was pitched and well received as a film project. It won the Robert Bosch Co-Production Prize, so Drifter was on the right track. The whole production took 4 and a half years, and the budget was around 130,000 Euros.
The national situation of documentary films did not make the launch of the production easy for the Georgian team of When the Earth Seems to be Light either. Moreover, the subject was also problematic as decision makers would have preferred more socially or politically serious topics than the story of young skaters without clear goals in life. In this case as well, a Georgia-based international professional event and a German co-producer stepping on board became the first important milestone. At Pitch-Doc (a session open for creative documentary projects in development within the framework of Tbilisi International Film Festival) the project won a prize of 1000 EUR. For the majority of the production period, the budget was around 50,000 Euros making the process overly difficult and creating breaks in the editing process. The team was searching for financing until the very end when a total budget of 80 000 Euros made the completion of the film finally possible.
After three years of shooting alone, the first official presentation of The Wolfpack as a film was also a turning point in the process. It took place at the Story Lab of the Tribeca Institute. According to the director, the professional event was extremely helpful, mostly because it was the first time they were able to show footage to people completely unfamiliar with the story, and their reactions were really encouraging. The 5 year-long making of the film was realised from a budget below 400,000 dollars.
New territories to conquer – Distribution
After their kick-off success at the biggest festivals of the world, all three filmmakers were ready to enter the international market with experienced distributors by their side.
After the selection for Sundance, Magnolia Pictures, one of the most important independent US film distributors added The Wolfpack to their portfolio. With the industry-giant on its side, the main award of Sundance in the pocket and an extreme yet not too far-fetched story the film conquered the world. What was really extraordinary about its career, not all typical in case of a documentary, is that not only did festivals select and screen The Wolfpack but it also had a successful cinema release in Australia, New Zealand, South-America, Mexico, UK, Germany, France, Spain, and Italy among other places.
When the Earth Seems to Be Light was first screened in Georgia, at the Tbilisi International Film Festival, in a country where there had been no culture or interest at all in watching documentaries. However, according to the filmmakers, at the premier, the cinema was full and the reaction of the viewers was packed with surprise and passion. So the film made an important step towards revolutionizing the Georgian attitude towards documentaries. Then came the news of the selection to IDFA, where London-based Taskovski Films (distributor of creative documentaries) came on board. Thus, the festival career of the film landed in safe hands, but the team has a very important additional goal: promoting their work as a cult film for skaters and organizing screenings for them in particular, by finding events related to the skater community and co-operating with them.
In the case of Drifter, the national career also needs to be pointed out. In Hungary, very few documentaries make it to the cinema, and their reputation is very low – not comparable to other European countries. (In this respect, Hungary is probably closer to the above-mentioned Georgia than for example, to the neighbouring Czech Republic.) The team of Drifter launched a cinema-release, and they also created a campaign around it – a necessary element for a film to get out of the box. After IDFA, Thierry Detaille became the international distributor, and the film screened in Sarajevo, Fünfsee, Bogota (where it was the opening film), Mexico, among many other places. The team was also keen to go for new ways of distribution. As an example, they organized screenings in prisons for the inmates who were said to be very enthusiastic viewers. Once again, the alternative ways contribute a lot to the widening of the documentary-viewer community, doing a massive favour for the industry.
Though all three films have important international distributors, with Drifter and When the Earth Seems to Be Light their distributors were not able to arrange cinema distribution.. Knowing the difficulties and the small profit foreseen, distributors are likely to stay with festivals and TV sales. One can question if these films are suited for cinema release at all, or is it only the most extreme stories the viewers are attracted to. The subject certainly matters but the communication and the marketing strategy makes the real difference in all cases – a huge amount of work with a relatively low and risky profit. So it seems to be up to the filmmakers if they want to put the time and effort into giving cinema distribution a try anyway, and thus, doing a long-term favour for the documentary industry.
Although probably unintentionally, the newcomers of the documentary world breathe new life into the genre and the production process and make very important steps towards making the films accessible to a wide-range of viewers. So once you have your idea and the access, go and start shooting. Your passion and the endurance can make things work.
You can also read this article in World of Young Cinema Magazine, here: