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European Symposium for Documentary Films for Children and Young People

Final Report by Marcus Seibert

The first symposium on documentary film for children and young people took place 13 years ago. There has been much structural change since. Robust contexts have emerged over the last ten to fifteen years in the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries, in which high quality children’s documentaries are regularly produced, shown at festivals, broadcasted, put online and presented in schools. Numerous TV broadcaster initiatives have also excelled in Germany—as already noted in 2001, these are all publicly owned channels. Kika has been created and is supplied with children’s documentaries by ZDF and the EBU, among others. There is Kids & Docs, doxs, dokyou, dokmal, KidDok, doku.klasse, doxwise, Youngdogs to name but a few of the aliases that stand for quality documentary film for children and the corresponding continuing development. In the process, documentary film for children has itself changed over the past 13 years: the coming change was already palpable in 2001. Kids & Docs in the Netherlands was two years old at the time. No more explanatory films, no films with openly educational intentions, no “school TV”. Films about the realities of life, which can be used in lessons—as now described in the symposium—as “stimulation for discussion” and no longer as instructional films with clear educational intent. It is interesting to note that the term “film culture” was used much more often in this year’s panel on “film education”, than in fact “education”. Films that allow children to talk about things that they otherwise might not talk about, because they feel reflected, understood or depicted in them, which allow them to talk and think representatively for themselves via the protagonists. So films not only “for” children, but also “about” children and “with” children.

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The dfi symposium was therefore much less about the revival of the documentary form for young viewers, than, as Jana Touzimska from the festival “OneWorld” in Prague phrased it, absolutely and primarily about continuity: Once something is shut down or no longer produced, it can disappear for ever, endangering what has already been achieved. An artistic director or programme director with new ideas can be just as dangerous as the European financial crisis. This has been seen, for example, in the EBU, which houses the oldest permanent international exchange programme for children’s documentaries and has seen countries withdraw over recent years because their channels were closed down (Greece, Israel) or fees could no longer be paid (Cyprus, Spain). Continuity must also be present in the education and work possibilities of filmmakers—this too was re-emphasised time and again: It is in no way a matter of course that filmmakers make films with and for children. When they, for example, have the opportunity as freshers at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne (KHM) or other film schools to make a children’s documentary, talent must be further developed. Continuity is also important in the presence of films at festivals, where they have, in the meantime, won a large forum, but also in accessibility for the target group.

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The Dutch model of success is proof of what can be achieved with continuity when various and even ever more institutions pull in one direction for now more than fifteen years and follow and continue to develop a well-running model over a long period of time. The success at festivals and the increasing interest in their films from abroad is only possible to this extent because work has been collectively concentrated in one direction for years to achieve the “Dutch Touch” and not only in the production of films. Albert Klein Haneveld from the production company Hollandse Helden emphasised how important it is to consider a film’s “second life”, its evaluation and visibility, from as early as the production budget.

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There is also a successful and well-known traditional children’s documentary format in Germany: “Stark!”, supervised by ZDF children’s television editor Jens Ripke, with a slot on Sunday mornings on Kika. The WDR initiative “dokmal” started in a similar direction. Sometimes there is still a lack of continuity in the development of an independent film language. But particularly the degree of networking, reach and cross-media penetration, in a country where the broadcasters have small-state mentalities, remains behind those of their Dutch and Scandinavian neighbours.

What has changed noticeably in the past years, on account of technical developments, is children’s media reception, their way of dealing with film in general. While channel representatives talk naturally of broadcasting slots, only 20% of children declare that television is an important source of information for them—this was also a statement at the symposium. The now popular debate on the future of television was thrashed out with even greater fervour here than elsewhere: “generation selfie” are the trailblazers of a different use of media. This will confuse many things. A symposium in ten years may perhaps show exactly what und how. When the talk is time and again of “media competence”, it still sounds very much like educational paternalism to me: as if young people don’t have this competence and must first acquire it, whereas it often seems, when faced with my children, as though I must re-learn the unbiased view I always claim I have from them. Petra Schmitz of the dfi quoted the French philosopher Michel Serres on this: Let’s reverse any kind of mediation of the underlying presumption of incompetence. We are required to create the structures for a changed media use, not the other way around.

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What such structures and changes may look like was unquestionably a focus of this symposium. Internet presence is what is decisive today. This in no way excludes the broadcasting companies, on the contrary. Internet platforms are a complement to broadcasting companies, reaching young audiences especially well. All of the broadcasters have recognised this by now. A quote on the margins of the symposium “The future of television is non-linear”. This appears to be threatening, but is also a chance. As well-practised content providers, broadcasters have contexts and structures that grant them an excellent starting position in a future of open Internet platforms and video on demand. The question of licence fees was often brought up, as well as the copyright situation of films freely available online over a long period. It is not only a question of appropriate remuneration for the filmmaker, but generally of the unclear legal position of intellectual property online. Only on the margins was there mention of the kind of obstacle the German amended state broadcasting agreement constitutes: to currently makes it difficult for public owned broadcasters to operate freely online.

Nevertheless, here too, many films end up online. But “films must be found”, as Reinhold Schöffel from the Bundesverband Jugend und Film put it: If even the young people who collaborate on the film website, don’t know about the documentary film website, then the question of how children should find their films online has clearly remained unanswered by that broadcaster. The tip came from the Netherlands that short pieces can be legally put on Youtube with a reference to the website. Visibility is a problem online. Groupings, concentrations, common strategies help. Think big, beyond the horizon of your own institution. The bigger the network, the more allies get involved, the more certain that the content reaches the user. There is no other way to deal with the algorithms of the search engines. Sometimes it seems it would be good to have a sixteen-year-old computer nerd in the online editorial team.

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A loophole in the amended state broadcasting agreement, as to what extent broadcasters can operate online, seems to have resulted from the educational mandate. This traditionally means school TV, but also the mediation of film in lessons. The issue of film education. The audience called for the embedding of film education in lessons. This has long been the case, as was shown, as well as accompanying programmes, both online and live. “Movies in Motion” is what it is called in Germany when filmmakers such as Bernd Sahling go into schools and run workshops, but this also happens in many other countries too and is happily expanding. Schools have been recognised as disseminators. But also festivals: when classes come to screenings at festivals, it is often the surprisingly positive first contact with documentary films for children for many young viewers. But in order that what is on offer is taken advantage of, teachers in particular must be introduced to the possibilities that arise from the mediation of film culture. There is nowadays “film education moderator training”, but also increasingly film awareness in teacher training. “Any film is better than lessons”, said one of the pupils from the Cologne editorial team of the online-magazine spinxx laconically. This attractiveness is a chance for the mediation of film culture. That children’s documentaries are particularly important in teaching an awareness of the difference between fiction and documentary (which came up as an argument in the symposium) seems a bit thin and arbitrary. Children’s desire to engage with documentaries is manifest, as long as they are seen as “relevant”, as real, and speak of the realities of other children’s lives, this is as true today as it was 13 years ago. Incidentally, a series of films for Cologne schools, screened parallel to the symposium over two days, was attended by 400 children. At doxwise the statement was more offensive and inasmuch more fitting: “fuck reality shows—show us reality”.

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There were only marginal pleas for children’s documentaries in cinema, which, at first glance, seems foreign to the users of new media. But is cinema really an old-fashioned and slowly dying form of presentation? Audience numbers tell a different story. Felix Vanginderhuysen from the distribution company Jekino reported that good results have been achieved in Belgium with screenings of 40-minute programmes at around 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., before the actual cinema programme. It would be worth trying this out in Germany, where children’s documentaries are often shown at festivals, but never in cinemas.

This apparently countercurrent tendency of increasing cinema use by young people is part of an observed multiplication of channels of presentation and presentation forms as suggested by McLuhan. Cinema and television, Facebook, Youtube, Internet platforms, video on demand, and, as the filmmaker Calle Overweg also hopes, DVDs: children can access films in all these ways nowadays. And all of these presentation forms can mutually refer to one another. This reproduction across channels makes the picture more complicated. The possibility to take part in something on the Internet, which partisans of a free Internet call “to share copies”, the free common use of copies, which are in the meantime originals, also changes the films. On Friday I sat behind the camera in the hall that recorded the symposium as doxwise was presented. In the camera display I could see the screen, on which a camera could also be seen. In the display of this camera was the protagonist of a video diary. Film in film in film, endlessly extendable loops like in a hall of mirrors. I can still remember the reverence with which I held a video camera in my hand for the first time—it created horrible pictures, but they were mine. Children grow up today with the possibility to make their own films as a matter of course, young people see films as a common form of expression, perhaps like poetry thirty years ago. Keyword: participation.

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What was striking in the discussion around participative forms in children’s documentary film, was that a differentiation made in the title of the symposium only really came into view through this issue: documentary film for children AND YOUNG PEOPLE. Anyone who deals with children’s film knows about the different target groups: from 8 to 12, which the first lectures and panels were about and older children, youths, pubescent, but also already much more independent in their own expressive possibilities. Calle Overweg’s film “Die Villa”, among others, is an example that children from 8 to 12 are less interested in participation than older children. Films from the Screenagers initiative also show that the older the filmmakers become, the more interesting the stories. That doxwise is only aimed at the over-eighteen selfie generation does have a legal background—and even with those of legal age it would appear to be absolutely essential to protect young people from their own exhibitionism or more precisely, from the voyeurism of the viewer, from the shitstorms and the dissing. But if one asks if participative films will be the future of children’s documentaries, then the conclusion is more like: another channel, a wonderful playground, but more for the older ones. “You are the author of your own life story” could be read on a sign in the background of a documentary. But not everyone wants to be and become an author. And being an author certainly doesn’t mean you can edit. That was also illuminated in the debate: the appeal of participative formats lies in the combination of uninhibited young people playing themselves as content providers and professional teams in post-production. And it is precisely this, the editing, the montage, which is decisive in documentary film. These films are guided, artistically designed or at least well-crafted, thanks to professional know-how at the editing table.

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The desire to make a documentary about oneself or to work with the camera doesn’t come from nowhere. The “Doorkijk” effect, the peek-in effect, as VPRO-Jeugd editor Melanie de Langen called it, should, for example rouse possible interest for the documentary film in general, for formats that are hosted on the same website, next to where young people can post their own work. And the presentation of life realities isn’t everything in documentary film with and by children, as was heard in the discussions about DIY formats: film is an art form, documentary film just as much as fictional. That can and must be mediated. In schools, but also in life in general. Under the surface the debates were also always about aesthetic quality. This was never discussed in detail because it’s a difficult theme for presentations and discussions on the podium, an extra question of taste. The corresponding conversations mainly took places during the breaks, where great passion was displayed. I will summarise in the style of a mood-board: “Documentary film must not manipulate. It creates a space for that which really happens, wat er echt gebeurd, as one says in Dutch.” – “Documentary films, especially with children, must be staged. Otherwise nothing of quality comes out of it.” – “But that always looks contrived with children who aren’t actors.” – “The look is decisive, the persuasive stylisation: if the camera operates wonderfully, no one notices the contrived acting.” – “It looks especially contrived if the camera mimics the aesthetic of music videos.” – “But all that slowly cut stuff is much more contrived. Kids don’t watch that anymore.” – “The problem is a very different one: the distinction between children’s film and adult film is artificial and obstructive.” – “But this distinction grants children’s film a shelter, which allows them coming to being in the first place. We should be happy for that.”

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The discussions on content can be read twofold: one’s own aesthetic positions are always interwoven with presumptions of what young audiences really want. Or the other way around: they merge with one’s own desires for the film, but only in this way is it possible to make good, passionate films, which then also have the quality to find their audience. And how well this actually works became palpable in the young people’s discussion groups on the podium, which presented almost the same arguments for or against individual films. And secondly: such a passionate discussion on content would not even be possible without the many fantastic documentary films that we saw here during the symposium or online as part of our preparation—whether for, about or by children. That was, in this concentration, very stimulating and encouraging for me. It exists: the aesthetic high-quality documentary film with young protagonists. And it is valued by children and young people when they come into contact with it. It exists in the meantime in abundance, whether financed by broadcasters or by the municipal authorities of the Lisbon suburb Setúbal, by the Wandlitz parish, by the Goethe Institute or public trusts, which are frequently not yet in everyone’s mind as sponsors of collaborative work. It exists and the scene is very lively, a field in which many new co-operations are possible and many wonderful projects can arise, when the right people come together and when we all remain open to what children and young people are concerned with, how the media landscape and as such also the aesthetic of film changes. I wish us all luck and success in this over the next years.