On The Edge of History
When the world can’t come to you - you go to the world.
That’s been the prevailing attitude with the Doc Edge International Film Festival team as what could have been a disaster has turned into potentially the most influential incarnation of the annual event’s 15-year history.
With the borders closed and facing, at the time, a complete unknown as to when attending theatres could be possible again, Festival Director Dan Shanan declares the decision to take this year’s event digital was an easy one.
“We had three options: cancel, postpone or reimagine. We chose the creative path so we could ensure that filmmakers would still find their audiences this year.
“As an Oscar-qualifying festival, it was also important for us to ensure that the winners of our best film awards would still be considered by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.”
While making everything available online makes sense - and in the weeks following their decision, has become the vogue option for many arts organisations - that doesn’t make it straightforward to achieve.
No Easy Feat
Doc Edge Festival Director Dan Shanan.
Doc Edge’s resources and budget were geared towards delivering in the good old-fashioned way - with bricks, mortar, screens and crowds. Pivoting to get 83 films prepped, accessible and ready to shine for the world to see with a click of a button isn’t as simple as clicking your fingers. It’s been a global operation.
Shanan says “I could not be prouder. As soon as the decision was made to go online rather than cancel the festival, the team was fully on board. During lockdown, we had daily meetings and work continued as usual while being in isolation.
“Our biggest concern was for our international interns who suddenly found themselves stranded on their own in a foreign land. One returned home to Germany on the very last flight the German government offered to its citizens. He continued to work from there – now that's dedication.
“An intern from France was unable to join us but has worked tirelessly throughout the period from Europe. The Old Zealanders (two interns from the Netherlands) couldn't escape and are still delighted to be part of the team.”
Chorus of Support
A Chef's Voyage -one of the Doc Edge Festival films.
They couldn’t do it alone - certainly not in the current climate. Shanan goes to great lengths to acknowledge the support of Chorus, RNZ and Rei Foundation along with their other partners.
Ed Hyde, Chief Customer Officer at Chorus says the organisation made the conscious effort to support the Documentary festival as opposed to hitching its wagon to the mainstream entertainment offerings, feeling a direct kinship with documentary makers in this country who are likely to be early adopters of the next waves of technology.
“When we thought about where we might make a difference, the arts is an area that doesn’t get a great deal of support. This opportunity came on our radar during lockdown, listening to their story about how significantly impacted they (Doc Edge) were...it got us really excited about saying yes to Doc Edge.”
Blessing in Disguise?
Return to Gandhi Road - Documentary directed by NZ's Yeshe Hegan.
While no one is about to raise a glass to COVID-19, it could well be a blessing in disguise for Doc Edge. Instead of playing to audiences in Auckland and Wellington (along with those willing to travel), it’s now opened up its reach to the length and breadth of the country.
Hyde enthuses “last year’s Festival had 20 odd thousand (attendees) and we would love to double or triple that this year across digital. That’s really exciting and something that gets us all up in the morning.”
New Zealand filmmaker Yeshe Hegan agrees. Hegan’s labour of love Return to Gandhi Road is among the 83 gems on offer throughout the course of the next few weeks. “It’s so heartening to think that people around the whole country have the opportunity to view these films by having the festival online. As well as increasing the number of people who potentially can see it, this also means that people who geographically may not have been able to see it now do have that possibility.
“I feel that in the current situation we’re all in, people can really benefit from positive and thoughtful films, so anything that can uplift and make us feel happy about humanity – or even just make us reflect a little deeper - this is so important right now.”
The increased scope and reach of being nationwide for the first time is “incredibly special” to Shanan.
“We won’t let New Zealand down.”
Showcasing Kiwi Talent
Director and producer daughter-father combo, Yeshe and Kim Hegan.
The tireless dedication to keep Doc Edge on track has also ensured those who put their heart and soul into creating the films aren’t let down either.
This opportunity isn’t taken for granted by those who rely on festivals like these to showcase their countless hours of hard work like Hegan.
“This will be the Return to Gandhi Road’s Australasian premiere, so it is the first time people in New Zealand will be seeing our film. As a filmmaker, this is the most rewarding part. What helped me and my Dad, Kim Hegan (who produced and featured in the film), to keep persevering during the production phase whenever difficulties arose, was the thought of how great it would be to be able to share Kangyur Rinpoche’s inspiring story with the world. So, this is what we’ve been working towards for many years.”
With events falling like dominoes during lockdown, to hear that the Festival was going ahead provoked an emotional response from Hegan, with the talented director leaning on an analogy fitting of her incredible subject matter.
“It’s kind of like how you’d feel if you were on a massive uphill mountain trek, then you suddenly turn a corner and see the summit. That kind of feeling of joyful relief!
“When I found out that the film was going to have its premiere in the middle of the Coronavirus epidemic, to be honest, my first reaction was, 'Of course that’s the best time!' We really wanted to make a film that was positive, and so to release it at a time when people need happiness and encouragement the most, is the absolute best time for it to be screened. Kangyur Rinpoche’s story focuses on how someone can react to an external situation of extreme adversity in the most inspiring way. So, it seems perfectly relevant to share this story right now.”
Ruahine: Stories In Her Skin - Documentary by NZ's Hiona Henare.
While there are plenty of overseas inclusions in the festival line up (it is International after all), the presence of so many locally grown creators is significant.
“It’s fantastic that Doc Edge provides a platform for films that are not mainstream to still reach a keen audience,” Hegan explains. “Our film is not a very common subject matter. I hope that through their shining a light on some ‘alternative’ Kiwi films, it will help other New Zealand filmmakers to feel encouraged to make films about subjects that truly inspire them, even if they aren’t commercial.”
World is Watching
Mr. Toilet - one of the Doc Edge Festival films.
As well as the films themselves, being an online entity - and just as importantly, with the increased acceptance of the audience to this type of access - has opened the doors for the festival to bring the featured artists along for the ride, even if they can’t be here.
Shanan points out that over the course of the Festival “we have 35 live Q&As with filmmakers and film subjects allowing audiences to engage directly with them as well as with each other. The online festival allows us to enjoy the participation of twice as many international guests than in previous years.”
And rest assured, the world is watching. Not only does the festival have potential Academy Award connotations, it’s also being used as a case study for many other international documentary festivals around the globe. A-list international documentary film festivals and events including IDFA (Amsterdam), Hot Docs (Toronto) and AIDC (Melbourne) are already talking with Doc Edge about how they’ve delivered their successful industry forum earlier this month, schools programme and now the festival.
Elementa - Documentary by NZ's Richard Sidey.
Being immersed in the world of some of the planet’s best storytellers has clearly rubbed off on Shanan. Not one to spoil the ending, when asked if the relaxing of social distancing rules down a level could see some actual physical screenings organised for this year’s event, he offers only “Watch this space.”
And fittingly, Shanan leaves us with this delightfully cryptic message.
“The old world is dead. Nothing will replace the cinema experience. We expect to return to cinemas next year. But not only to cinemas…”
The Doc Edge International Film Festival runs through until 5 July 2020. For a guide and viewing options, click here.
You can view the Doc Edge Awards on their Facebook page at 9PM on Friday 19 June.