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Interview Canadian

Public broadcasters must promote democracy, have intelligent conversations: Curators Iris Yudai and Deniz Sertkol 

Yudai and Sertkol spoke about the Mini-INPUT package of films and their experience of showcasing them at the ongoing PSBT Open Frame Film Festival 2018.

Iris Yudai and Deniz Sertkol (Photo: Open Frame Film Festival)

Sukhpreet Kahlon

The Mini-INPUT films at the PSBT Open Frame Film Festival 2018 was a two-day presentation, showcasing some of the best public service broadcasting films and programmes from around the world. These films explore unconventional ways of telling stories. Curated by Iris Yudai and Deniz Sertkol, the package looked at the ways in which the concerns of broadcasting could be expanded, in keeping with the digital revolution.

Yudai is an executive producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in Manitoba, and is responsible for commissioning and overseeing documentaries with independent producers and programming the summer TV series Absolutely Manitoba. Sertkol works for the film, television and radio department of the Goethe-Institut headquarters in Munich and is involved with monitoring and co-ordinating operations across various German public radio and public television companies. 

We spoke to the curators to understand their ideas about the documentary form and public broadcasting, asking them about their interactions in India.

I wanted to begin by asking about your work with INPUT and how the Mini- INPUT package came about...

Deniz: I work for the Goethe institute in Munich. I work in the film, television and radio department. Goethe has been a member of the board of the INPUT since the beginning, so it’s part of the legacy of the Goethe institute to arrange the Mini-INPUT that are taking place around the world.

My work concerns going to the INPUT, taking in as much as possible concerning the films and the discussions around it. We go as a group of people from several Goethe institutes and we try to organize as many colleagues as possible to go there. We want them to have a Mini-INPUT in their office and we observe everything and try to have similar discussions for the films when we go to the Mini-INPUTs.

Iris: I started as a delegate at the INPUT a couple of years ago and this spring in Brooklyn, I was a moderator, amongst a team of 12 moderators who helped to make the selection of the 80 films that were shown in Brooklyn and then I was invited by the Goethe Institute to come here and help with the Mini-INPUT.

Regarding the actual selection, we started with the films that had the most discussion and the most resonance at the INPUT, that the delegates were all talking about and we shared that with PSBT, so that was a collaboration. 

We were keen to show a diversity of films and we wanted to stretch the visual storytelling by showing things that were radically different but that had elements that documentary makers may be inspired by. So we tried to show a mix - very high quality documentaries and stuff that’s out-of-the-box and might inspire creativity because that’s the spirit of INPUT - it’s about sharing ideas and trying to get people to think outside the box as well.

I did see a few of the films from the package and they push people to think about the documentary form. We saw a film inspired by a podcast, an animation film, and one that has the feel of reality television - so the documentary form is moulding itself to other forms in a digital environment. What are your thoughts on how the digital has transformed the documentary space?

Deniz: Well, it has certainly democratized it and we saw a very interesting comment yesterday and maybe you can talk about it, Iris…

Iris: I think generally, the digital formats and social media are making video and films accessible to both creators and audiences, so even if you never choose to watch a documentary, a whole bunch of small videos will show up in your Facebook feed that are visual storytelling, so even if documentary isn’t part of your world, non-fiction storytelling is, so it’s opening up opportunities for filmmakers.

It’s also opening up different ways of storytelling, I think that it’s really exciting and it’s pushing the form.

In your lecture, you pointed towards that when you said that one needs to choose the right platform when putting up a certain type of content, and you prodded people to think about the differentiation between putting up a Facebook video or a Twitter video.

Iris: I think that this is a theme for public broadcasters generally. That if as a public broadcaster you are trying to remain relevant but your audience is younger and they have grown up in an environment of digital storytelling, the challenge is how are you going to reach to those audiences. This is a challenge for all public broadcasters - how do you reach an audience in the age of YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Netflix?

That’s something that I was curious about as both of you have worked in broadcasting and we are here at a festival organised by the PSBT, so what are some of the challenges that you have been facing in reaching audiences and in keeping the content relevant?

Iris: I’ve been working for CBC for 25 years and every year there seems to be some kind of change in the environment and broadcasters respond to it and there are allegations that you are dumbing things down. So, that’s always the tension in public broadcasting. You want to have as broad a reach as possible, but you still want to maintain the quality and you have a duty as a public broadcaster to promote democracy, to have intelligent conversations, and to inform your citizens, so the challenge is always to staying relevant without compromising on the quality that you’re bringing to your audience. 

Deniz: I could tell you a bit about some of the issues we face in German Public Television and even in Switzerland. At the INPUT we saw a television format that was looking at Switzerland and was publicly funded. Every person had to pay a certain amount, like a tax, to support public broadcasting and there was a big change because people were not happy with the broadcasting system, so they tried to not pay the tax anymore, in order to change it.

But actually, there were populist groups trying to get people to not pay for public broadcasting anymore. It’s really interesting because this could happen in Germany and as broadcasters and institutions, we have to really look at what the public wants to see but not by making things dumber but challenging people. Maybe it’s because too many commissioners saying that a certain thing is too much for people to take or that certain people will not like it.

You have this premonition that people will not like it, before you even show it to people, so maybe we should step back and really think about how we can challenge people and try to use that in our daily programming.

This makes me think about the role of public broadcasting in an age when our content choices are becoming highly varied. What are your thoughts on that?

Iris: I was thinking about this at the end of our last session that public broadcasting is more vital than ever. In Canada, because we are so close to the United States, Trump is dominating our news and it’s very clear that critical thinking is needed more than ever and citizens need to have the tools, the information, to make decisions that are going to affect their lives. I just think having people willing to ask questions without fear or favour, having media that feels safe to challenge those in power, having an audience that’s been taught to think twice about the source of their information, especially, in the era of fake news, having the trust of the audience, is so important.

In Canada, we are lucky that we still have that with our audience but we can feel it eroding around us. So, I think that the relationship with our audience makes it all the more important.

Deniz: I agree with Iris. In Germany, we are seeing a populist party getting stronger and stronger as we speak and fake news is all around. We need well-researched public television and public broadcasting more than ever. We need reporters willing to go the extra step and broadcasting agencies willing to give them what they need in terms of financial support for their articles. So, writing less articles that are not just headline-based, but are more research-based. Maybe we can generate more audiences who will think - is what I am reading fake or genuine, who can I trust - and be willing to build that trust again.

How has your experience been with the festival in general and with bringing the Mini-INPUT to India?

Deniz: I think it was a great experience. I’d love to do it again. Ridhima [Mehra, senior programme manager and director at Open Frame] and Tulika [Srivastava, executive producer and director at Open Frame] were immensely helpful. They were very good in communicating with us.

Iris: I agree, it’s been a delightful experience and I wanted to say to the audience at the end that in this era, when critical thinking is so important, it was so heartening to hear the questions and the ideas coming from all the participants - the students and the filmmakers who attended all of the sessions. They were so thoughtful and so critical and that made me feel very hopeful about the future of documentary globally.

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Open Frame Film Festival