Documentary filmmaker gathering limits press coverage

CRYSTAL-CLEAR REASONING: Louie Psihoyos welcomes coverage of his film, "The Voce," about the slaughter of dolphins.
CRYSTAL-CLEAR REASONING: Louie Psihoyos welcomes coverage of his film, "The Voce," about the slaughter of dolphins. (Ho - Reuters)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 1, 2010

People who traffic in what is known as nonfiction film and television have taken to calling Washington "Docuwood." It's a cheesy name, but not inaccurate given that the area is home to National Geographic, Discovery and PBS, all of them giants in the industry.

The arrival Monday of the RealScreen Summit, billed as "the most important nonfiction film and television industry event" in the country, renews an annual ritual dating back 12 years. It attracts everyone from network executives to scheduling honchos to impecunious filmmakers looking for funding. With more than a thousand delegates arriving from two dozen countries, this annual conclave of suits and talent, makers and marketers, is a benediction of sorts. We are Docuwood, hear us roar.

But a funny thing happened on the way to this year's summit, being held in the Renaissance Washington Hotel. Last Monday, a sternly worded memo was sent to media planning to cover the proceedings. The press, it seems, was not welcome at a gathering devoted to people who spend much of their time searching out magical moments of candor, unscripted truth and behind-the scenes drama.

It was a curious statement, full of detail and richly imagined. Labeled "Revised Press Policy" and sent by marketing coordinator David Terpstra, it announced "there will we be no access to sessions of any kind at RealScreen Summit 2010 for members of the press or any other media outlets." But it didn't stop there. RealScreen said that press would be confined to a press room, and any attempt to take cameras or recording equipment outside of it "will be monitored and any instances of transgression will be met with expulsion from the event." Further, reporters "will not be permitted to chase potential subjects down in the halls -- that too will lead to expulsion."

The need for this new policy was attributed to "concerns expressed by our speakers and event organizers." One began to imagine that something unspeakably horrible had happened at a previous RealScreen Summit, perhaps an innocent filmmaker clutching at a tattered script about the sex lives of narwhals had been chased by the jackals of journalism.

But all efforts to discover a cause of this oddly draconian Revised Press Policy were to no avail, and a few days later, RealScreen organizer Claire Macdonald acknowledged there had been "no specific incident or event" that led to the ban. Calls to speakers, panelists and other participants in the summit yielded not one person who knew about the policy, not one person who supported it, and not one person who could remember problems at past events. Indeed, it almost seemed as if documentarians were hungry for publicity.

It was a mystery, a mystery with the makings of a good documentary. Who was the unnamed spoilsport that called for the eviction of the Fourth Estate?

Was it Louie Psihoyos, director "The Cove," a dramatic tale of animal rights activists and cameramen trying to get past the cordon of silence behind which Japanese fishermen are slaughtering dolphins?

"That is the first I've heard of it," said Psihoyos, whose film is in contention for major awards this season.

Psihoyos, like everyone else contacted, was in fact looking for a platform to talk about his film and its message. Many of the best documentarians, it seems, aren't just in the film business. They're in the activism business, too.

"The reason I'm going there is to shout about this subject," said Psihoyos, who noted that the media were kept outside of a Q&A session he recently held in Japan -- out of fear that they might circumvent the barriers of semi-official silence and spread the film's message directly to the Japanese people.

None of the major sponsors contacted would take credit for the policy either. Paul Colford, a spokesman for the Associated Press, which has commercial divisions both exhibiting at and sponsoring the summit, said, "The media coverage policy for program events took us by surprise." The AP, which employs about 3,000 heroic reporters and photographers struggling daily to rend the veils of official silence all over the world, seemed somewhat unenthusiastic about the policy. "AP itself would prefer that program sessions be open and we have shared our views on this with the organizer."

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