Home >Mint-lounge >Features >How to talk about—and talk up—your documentary

In a corner of Kolkata, there are pitch reports being prepared that have nothing to do with cricket.

At the 10th edition of Docedge, the annual mentoring programme of the Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute (SRFTI) that started on 4 February and will run till Sunday, film-makers are learning to talk about—and talk up—their documentaries. They are receiving tips from experts in pitching, in making their concepts attractive enough to be picked up by potential funders and distributors.

Pitching, a well-established practice among feature directors across the world, has caught on in India fast enough to encourage documentary film-makers to let their ideas be turned over, modified, or even shot down by strangers. They’re learning to let go in order to let the money in—a necessary attitude to adopt at a time when traditional sources of funding are either drying up or are stretched to breaking point.

“I don’t like pitching, but there are things in life that you have to do," says Sourav Sarangi, whose documentaries include Bilal and Char…The No Man’s Land. Sarangi pitched an idea at Docedge in 2006 that was rejected, but he learnt enough from the process and made enough contacts to eventually secure funding for Bilal and Char, which is showing at the Berlin International Film Festival (7-17 February). “There is no other way to get money, and besides, how do other people get to know about your project unless you talk about it?" Sarangi says.

At Docedge, hopeful film-makers from India and elsewhere pay for registration and present their ideas and footage to so-called tutors. The pitches are evaluated at workshops and sharpened for a final session, where the film-makers state their case once again, this time to funders and commissioning agents from international film festivals and television companies (both important outlets for documentaries). Twenty-four projects are in the running this year. “A process starts—it’s not like a cheque is signed immediately," Sarangi says. “You test each other and keep in touch. You understand which kinds of people are interested in your project, and then you talk privately."

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A scene from ‘BOM aka One Day Ahead of Democracy’.

Moreover, Docedge has divided film-makers. There are some who privately loathe the process and criticize the idea of packaging content to suit international buyers. Others who have pitched their films have come away with mixed feelings about the forum—they admire the insights and inputs but are unsure of whether the mechanics of pitching benefit or hamper their ideas.

Cinematographer and film-maker Ajay Noronha attended Docedge in 2009 to look for funding for A Picture of You, a personal documentary about his father. “I was sceptical to begin with, but I had a nice exchange with the tutors and members of my group," he says. “However, what was clear was that the international networks wanted a particular kind of simple and linear narrative. If you are a young film-maker, the pressure to make their kind of film can be high." Noronha didn’t get any funding that year, and he completed A Picture of You in 2012 by investing his own money.

Nilotpal Majumdar, dean of SRFTI, and one of the driving forces behind Docedge, argues that the forum has vastly democratized the creation and dissemination of documentaries. There are a few established ways to get a documentary off the ground. A film-maker might work on a project that is commissioned and paid for by somebody else, such as a non-governmental organization, or get a shooting budget from producers like the Films Division or the Public Service Broadcasting Trust. To be in line for the pre-production or post-production grants given by festivals and funding agencies, film-makers need to have tremendous drive, a well-oiled network of contacts or, at the very least, a guardian angel or two.

“Films are travelling here and there, but earlier there was no information" about such funding sources, Majumdar says. “A small group of people used to monopolize the information," he says. “It is not possible for Indian film-makers to individually meet potential broadcasters and producers. There needs to be a platform for everybody to meet intensely and network." The documentary form itself is changing around the world, he adds. “Indian films need to be looked at in terms of content, who the broadcasters are, what the funding opportunities are."

There are no separate courses to teach documentary film-making in India, Majumdar adds. “There is no project to teach documentary storytelling, even at SRFTI," he says. The institute, which was set up in 1995, plans to introduce a documentary course soon.

Majumdar also rejects worries that foreign television networks pick films that are easily digestible, culturally generic and aesthetically non-experimental. “If you look at the documentary scene in the last one and a half decades, the most artistic films are being supported by television," he says. “It is myopic to have such notions. People who come from abroad have a responsibility towards public television. Besides, there is a misconception about pitching. It’s not like you are trying to sell something to suit a particular need or taste. Rather, you are launching a project in the international community, so diverse points of view will be expected. It becomes a collaborative project."

Pitching evolved because it was easier for commissioning editors to “gather at one place and have a group of people present their films at one go", says Neelima Mathur, a trustee with the non-profit organization Formedia and a trainer at the European Union Media programme ESoDoc at the ZeLIG School for Documentary, Television and New Media in Bolzano, Italy. Pitching has gone beyond becoming the norm, Mathur cautions. “It has become a kind of a business—it has removed the possibility of people who are less vocal and publicity-oriented, though not necessarily less creative, from being in the mainstream," she says. Yet, film-makers submit to the demands of pitching because of its benefits—access to film festivals, the possibility of seeing your dream project being funded and broadcast on international platforms, and the opportunity to continue to ply your trade, she adds.

Other forums that show film-makers the money have recently sprung up. The International Film Festival of Kerala has hosted a sidebar event, TriggerPitch, for the past two years. Organized by the Indian Documentary Foundation, TriggerPitch’s stated aim is to bring together film-makers and distributors in the same room. And last year, documentary film-maker and distributor Gargi Sen set up Doc Wok, a year-long mentoring and training programme for under-production documentaries.

The idea of pitching is common at international forums such as the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, Dok Leipzig and Sheffield Doc/Fest, Sen says. “The idea is to get together projects and people who can use them," she says. Doc Wok has a tie-up with Dok Leipzig that enables its selected projects to be shown at the prestigious international event. “People apply to us for projects, we select them, and then the project is mentored," she says. “It’s all about building a festival-ready film. Our next workshop will look at cutting trailers for documentaries and distribution. There are studios for movies, but there is very little money in documentary."

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