Sinai Abt came in as Artistic Director of DovAviv in mid-November 2010 and hit the ground running. No stranger to documentary films, Abt, who replaced festival founder Ilana Tsur, had recently concluded an eight year sojourn as Head of Noga Communications’ Channel 8, the documentary channel. One change initiated by Abt stands out immediately: rather than opening with an Israeli film, as has been the custom, this year’s festival will open with “Life in A Day” a user-generated feature documentary, produced by Ridley Scott, directed by Kevin MacDonald, and edited by Joe Walker (who will be a guest of DocAviv) from footage uploaded to YouTube.
Days before the 13th DocAviv festival opens on May 12, 2011, Abt shared his thoughts on the festival – present and future – with Midnight East.
Sinai Abt: The world of festivals in general is undergoing a process of searching and exploration. In the past the justification for holding a festival was exclusivity…I remember when I was a teenager in Israel we used to travel to the Jerusalem Film Festival to see films that you couldn’t see anywhere else. Today everything is available, you can see everything.
The justification for the existence of the festival is not exclusivity; there have to be other reasons. I think it is still important to have film festivals but there focus will shift from exclusivity to curation.
I think that is the process we will see. We’re not there yet, we’re in a transitional period from the old world to the new. We see it more and more, and I think that we can already see it in festivals internationally. DocAviv does not need to be different.
Ayelet Dekel: After the festival screening, documentary films sometimes disappear from the public consciousness and can be hard to find, on the other hand there is an overload of film available on the internet…
SA: It’s available…I feel somewhat uncomfortable phrasing it this way but – it’s available legally, and it’s very available illegally. We need to contend with that. We need to recognize and understand that we are living in a different reality. Now this great availability – at some stage it almost becomes not available at all, because it is very difficult to find your way through this wilderness/forest.
AD: I feel that this is the question of our time: how do you choose? We have an overload of information and how do we make choices…which brings us back to curating…
SA: I’m going to risk an analogy that I am not certain is responsible, but I’ll try …Journalism. There was the world of print newspapers, then there were online newspapers and today I think what we see more and more are aggregators of news.
The Huffington Post – they produce part of their content, but some part of the content comes from elsewhere. They made their name in curation, their power comes from the image or the belief, the relationship they have developed with the ….end-user. Suddenly that is what the term has become – from viewer to end-user.
We have to pay more attention to these changes. I don’t think we should neglect the existing audience and it’s important for me to emphasize that the experience of watching a movie in a theatre is very powerful.
AD: Perhaps the question will be – which films will be screened in theatres and fill a hall of 300 seats?
SA: Yes, this is a question of the relationship between curator and audience. I think this is the reason, the deep reason for a festival to exist.
AD: And in terms of the audience and relationship?
SA: It’s a process. First – DocAviv has an audience and a relationship with that audience. It’s a success story. It’s something that began with a very small audience and today we are expecting to have about 35,000 people come to this year’s festival.
AD: Do you feel that the festival is looking outward? I feel that there is a process of coming of age – both for the festival and Israeli filmmaking.
SA: I want to take care not to be misunderstood. I think its true, there were years because of the hardships which the Israeli film industry experience, it was very self-protective – because of the difficulties. It was hard to produce films in Israel, hard to create, hard to raise the money, and as a result, there developed a protective attitude to local films. And it is still important to give the space and protection, but today the Israeli film industry is strong, relatively speaking. Israeli content is everywhere, in every important documentary festival, and there is an impressive Israeli presence in film festivals.
And I think the time has come … yes, we can also look out and see what other filmmakers are doing. The nurturing of Israeli film should not come at the expense of looking outward – that’s what I think.
AD: Your choice of opening film led me to this train of thought – it seems to be a kind of statement that we don’t need to be so protective, that the platform for Israeli content exists and we can “leshachrer” free ourselves and loosen up a little…
SA: Yes, you took the words out of my mouth, because I really think it’s true. I think it’s a positive thing for Israelis filmmakers to look closely at changes taking place in the world and not just in the environs of their home, the geographic environment of Israel. Most Israeli films are either about local content or Jewish content. Few Israelis make a film that is not connected to Jews or Israel.
Israeli filmmakers have made impressive achievements, there is an impressive creativity here, and there is a creative community that is really very lively, talented and full of energy. It really stands out in every international forum. Still, the area of focus is close to us, it’s natural and that’s good. It’s very, very appropriate – I think it’s better in fact, that we also deal with ourselves. We sometimes see the opposite problem: documentary filmmakers have a tendency to witness from a distance, they are often busy with someone else’s backyard and not their own. We don’t have that problem. I hope that it’s not a question of either/or, that one can do both.
AD: This genre somehow plays between two points – documentation and art.
SA: Documentation, art – yes those are two extreme points that can be marked…and in parallel there is also ‘the important issue’ vs. ‘entertainment’. Investigative journalism and entertainment, these are also two poles that draw us in. One isn’t better than the other. It’s not that I recommend one over the other. I don’t think that it should be only entertainment, but we relate to documentaries also as a form of entertainment.
AD: It’s interesting that you use the word “entertainment.” We’re talking about these changes, it’s a time of flourishing for docs but in the general public there is still this stigma that entertainment and docs don’t sit well together.
SA: Yes. I think that in the past the two were perceived as being separate. That was the mind set and that is how it was perceived. In the past it was harder to find a documentary film with a sense of humor. I think that yes, the borders are become blurred in many respects between journalism and entertainment, journalism that strives for objectivity and films that make a personal statement – ‘me films’, that is also very blurred and confusing.
If there once were differences between documenter and the documented subject…Once they were on opposite sides of the barricade and it was very clear: There was the director with a big camera and authority and there was the world. Today the camera is not very authoritative – it’s in everyone’s pocket.
AD: Could you discuss your personal connection to documentary films?
SA: I’ve been in the field for many years, but I’ve never made a film. I’m not a filmmaker. In some sense I admire filmmakers because I don’t know if I’m up to it, personally. I accompanied many films on Channel 8, it’s a field that I really love but…
AD: No ambitions to make a film?
SA: I wouldn’t say none…but nothing concrete. Not in the near future.
AD: What attracts you to the genre?
SA: I had the fortune to be involved in Channel 8 and also now at the festival at a time when many new things are happening, interesting things. It’s exciting to see something new – in its format, the way it’s made.
AD: I feel that we’re in an era of constantly asking ourselves – what is a documentary?
SA: That’s a question I know well from Channel 8 because there the question was asked in terms of regulation. The state sometimes wants and needs to determine the definition of the genre and its borders. There are financial reasons for that, [to ensure that funds are allocated appropriately] and it’s important.
Now that I have come over to the side of the festivals these considerations can be put aside for the moment and I think these questions are less important. It’s not so terrible to live with open and vague definitions.
For example, Exit Through the Gift Shop – I don’t know how to determine to what extent it’s a documentary, where it’s not a doc and where/if it crosses the line… the borders are confused. It’s a topic for discussion and we can have that discussion, but I don’t know whether it’s very important. It’s more important is to discuss the film itself. The debate over genre is marginal.
I think that the role of a festival is to shine a spotlight, that will be another layer in and of itself, to create a new context in which the viewers to encounter the films, so that it won’t be many, many excellent stories standing alone, but will to try to portray a broader picture.
AD: Are you hinting in the direction of a theme for the festival?
SA: I don’t know if I would say theme…there are festivals like that…I don’t think that DocAviv will be a festival with a theme, but …
AD: From our conversation and looking over the program, there is another word that comes to mind – there is a sense of the word “environment” as used in the theatre. Do you think of it in terms of creating an environment for the festival?
SA: I’ll be glad to create an environment. I don’t think it will happen in a year…I would like there to be a creative direction, and it doesn’t have to be the same every year, but it does need to say something about the state of the genre.