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Documentary filmmaker gathering limits press coverage

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 1, 2010; C01

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."

Revising the revision

On and on it went, and some panelists and speakers began to talk of "the irony" of one media organization supposedly devoted to the public good banning another media organization supposedly devoted to the public good. Oddly enough, by Wednesday, certain aspects of the Revised Press Policy were becoming increasingly inoperative.

"Our policy is that press will not be permitted to attend film, record or report on any sessions for the purpose of press coverage (with a few exceptions where the speaker has indicated he or she welcomes press coverage)," read a revised Revised Press Policy. The concern, once again, was that candid, meaningful conversations could only take place "in an open and secure atmosphere." This is what philosophers might call an epistemological claim -- a claim about how we know things are true. And the claim was eerily similar to the justification of things such as presidential executive privilege: Truth-telling can happen only in private. The danger of this view is that it might seem to critics outside the world of nonfiction entertainment that transparency is only for the little people.

Even some of the most basic tropes of documentary drama were taking on new irony. From "Roger & Me" to Psihoyos's "The Cove," documentary makers have built drama into their films by challenging silence and taking cameras into the no-go zones of power.

By Thursday, there was yet another revision to the revised Revised Press Policy, which allowed for access for select press to many RealScreen events, with a long list of exceptions. Several sponsors and others who had been concerned about the previous policies declared themselves satisfied with the new rules.

Was this just a bureaucratic glitch in a large organization? Or was there a significant organizational twitch in the strange odyssey of the Revised Press Policy?

RealScreen, as its organizers point out, is primarily a business gathering, organized by a private company based in Toronto. They describe themselves as being in the "nonfiction" business, which is a far broader category than high-minded, artistically sophisticated documentaries made in the public interest. "Nonfiction" also includes an extraordinary amount of sewage, bilge and other dreck, loosely based on real life, work so bad you feel sorry for the very electrons that transmit it. In other words, entertainment that is profitable.

RealScreen views the event as a trade show, very different from, say, the annual meeting of the Society of Professional Journalists, which has a rather different approach to media coverage.

"We have people twittering from events; it's very open," says Associate Executive Director Chris Vachon, who helps plan the SPJ's annual convention. "It's a very different culture."

That openness might well be problematic for an organization that charges $1,400 to $1,700 per registrant, especially given the amount of business that is already quietly but openly transacted outside the conference by people unwilling or unable to afford the fees. RealScreen is selling to its participants exactly the same thing that documentary makers cajole from their subjects: exclusive access.

The power to withhold

But the reflexive, first instinct to limit transparency at the Real Screen summit also suggests the degree to which the larger documentary community hasn't yet figured out its basic contract with the public, especially when it comes to balancing the commercial side of the business with the claims made by filmmakers about the pursuit of truth and the public good. The first sign that an organization or community has taken on real power is that it begins to control the flow of internal information. The organizers of RealScreen apparently never conceived of the possibility that the public might have an interest in the mechanics of the "nonfiction" business because they view the public as a market, not a client.

As the nonfiction entertainment business continues to expand and as new technologies put sophisticated filmmaking into the hands of anyone with a camera and a computer, the public has an increased need to understand the standards, the ethics and the internal accountability mechanisms of it all. They need to understand how funding works, what compromises it comes with and what lines are drawn between the loosely structured but dynamic business side of the community and the "talent" who play an ever-expanding role in our public life. As documentary makers take over more and more of the role once played by journalists, the public may well be interested in what journalists call "the firewall." If there is one.

RealScreen is a good place to explore these issues, if it commits to the same openness that many of their delegates regularly demand of corporations, politicians and other power brokers.

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