A still from Jonas Poher Rasmussen's 'Flee'.

From streaming to virtual reality, what Natasha Gadd sees in the documentary space right now is a wealth of new opportunity.

Her vision, as the new CEO and creative director of the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC), is to help filmmakers harness that opportunity by connecting them with the right buyers and financiers to bring their projects to life.

Such aims make sense when you consider that Gadd comes to the leadership position not only as a filmmaker herself, but the conference’s previous partnerships and industry development manager. Alongside previous CEO Alice Burgin, Gadd helped to create, over three years, more than $1.4 million in new funding initiatives for delegates.

Gadd’s first AIDC as CEO will see conference’s largest line-up of decision makers yet from the global streaming services, with representatives from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Topic and ESPN to attend the hybrid March event.

Launching new opportunities and initiatives for documentary makers will also be Stan, the Judith Neilson Institute and the Shark Island Institute. Other decision makers to attend will come from organisations such as 30West, ABC, Actual Films, Al Jazeera English, ARTE G.E.I.E., Autlook Filmsales, BBC, CAA, Cinetic Media, Doc Society, CAT&Docs, CBC, Dogwoof, IDFA, LiSTNR Original Podcasts, Madman Entertainment, NHK, SBS, and the Sundance Institute. 

Gadd’s determination to continue to grow and build the local doc sector follows what she acknowledges has been an uncertain time. While changes to the Producer Offset that would have disproportionately impacted documentary filmmakers are now off the agenda, the pandemic still looms large.

However, that has galvanised Gadd to create further funding initiatives, including the new Getty Images Archive Pitch and the Docplay Original Pitch, and in terms of programming, this year’s AIDC hinges around the pandemic-inspired theme Bearing Witness. Specifically, the role of documentary filmmakers in terms of bringing to screen vital stories during unprecedented times.

“Despite being in the midst of a global pandemic with government-mandated lockdowns and border restrictions, documentarians continued to innovate and adapt to be able to bring us stories from the frontlines and from the margins, and to be able to capture moments in time and continue to take those stories to the world,” she tells IF.

“We wanted to celebrate and pay tribute to that; the act and the art and the impact of bearing witness.”

The theme of Bearing Witness is subdivided into various sub-themes: On the Record (investigative documentary and interrogation); Truth to Power (films for change, accountability and impact), Moments in Time (crafting observation, capturing the everyday); Documenting History (memories of the present, archives for the future); and Future Visions (innovation, regeneration and potential futures).

One of the sessions that Gadd is particularly excited about is ‘Journalism vs. Documentary: Balancing Integrity with Creativity’, which will see 2022 Academy Award-shortlisted directors Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas (Writing with Fire) and Nanfu Wang (In the Same Breath) discuss investigative storytelling with Australian director Yaara Bou Melham.

Other sessions will cover topics such as best practice and ethical cross-cultural filmmaking when working with Indigenous stories and storytellers, women working in the typically male-dominated arena of natural history, music documentaries, ob-docs and using NFTs in financing projects.

AIDC also announced today an impressive line-up of international speakers, including Jonas Poher Rasmussen, whose hybrid animated documentary Flee won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and is Oscar shortlisted; Chapman and Maclain Way, the brothers behind Netflix’s Wild Wild Country and Untold, and head of documentary at TIME Studios, Loren Hammonds.

Other speakers include Mahalia Cohen from Topic, Janet Han Vissering of Nat Geo Wild, Aloke Devichand of Netflix, Nick Solowski of Canada’s Blue Ant Media, Victoria Noble of Discovery, New Zealand filmmaker Florian Habicht, and May Abdalla and Kirsty Jennings of UK-based XR studio Anagram, who are also running the newly-launched initiative Doc.Lab.Interact.

Looking locally, Blackfella Films’ Darren Dale and Jacob Hickey will also unpack the company’s documentary work and their partnership.

They add to previously announced speakers such as Ted Hope, former co-head of movies at Amazon Studios, Wang, and Australia’s own Eva Orner, whose most recent feature Burning, premiered on Amazon Prime Video late last year.

As part of its marketplace, AIDC will curate up to 400 meetings between buyers and filmmakers via the Cut to the Chase program, which closes for applications this Sunday, while the 13 projects selected for international pitching showcase The FACTory were recently unveiled.

Pitching sessions like The FACTory remain a key facet of the conference, with Gadd noting how useful they are not only for those selling their ideas, but the audience.

You learn about the art of pitching and you recognise what’s successful and what’s maybe less successful. Then you get all the industry insights and intel from the buyers who are responding to that film, which is a great way to learn as well,” she says.

For those able to make it to Melbourne in person, there will also be a public screening program at ACMI, featuring filmmaker Q&As. These include Ablaze, Under the Volcano, Burning and In The Same Breath.

Beyond March, in line with her overall aims for AIDC, Gadd is currently working with state agencies to look at how to bring smaller programs to regional areas throughout Australia, as well as screenings and marketplace events.

“Having had a couple of years that were difficult years for the sector, and being completely online last year, one thing that I really want to do is to grow opportunities for filmmakers year round,” she says.

AIDC will run this year as a hybrid event, online and in person at ACMI Melbourne, March 6-9. The international marketplace will run entirely online March 10-11. All sessions can be viewed via the conference website.

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