This year, the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival is centralizing their industry program on the means of subsistence of documentary filmmakers.

A panel of industry experts convened on Monday to deliberate on the challenges filmmakers encounter in earning a livelihood in the sector, including issues such as unequal pay, devaluation, information scarcity, and the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rebecca Day, an expert from Film in Mind, an organization that advocates for improved mental health in the film industry, initiated the discussion. Day discussed livelihood from the perspective of mental health and remarked on how uncommon it is for significant events to encourage such dialogue. “Festivals that prioritize discussions on mental health in filmmaking are still relatively new, but they are vital,” the expert said.

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Day continued, “We are individuals engaged in a profession characterized by concern, compassion, and activism.” “We hold space, effect change, serve as community leaders, are healers, and tell tales.” In what manner do we heed to the various roles that we assume? Much is said about business and innovation; however, psychological health, our state of mind, our susceptibility, and the necessity to safeguard ourselves during this endeavor are not extensively addressed.

Day cited a report from the University of West England which found that “the chronic lack of public funding” discourages people from pursuing a career as documentary filmmakers. Additionally, Day referenced a study by the Center for Media and Social Impact (CMSI) which revealed that “75% of documentary filmmakers take on other work to make a living, and only two in ten make enough money to cover production costs and make a profit from their films.”

Day stated of documentary filmmaking, in light of the dismal findings, “It is difficult to say whether this industry can even be said to exist.”

Launching the 2023 edition of the report “The Cost of Docs,” Jane Ray, consultant artistic director at The Whickers in the United Kingdom, emphasized the significance of data. This was one of the primary topics of discussion. The investigation, which is currently in its sixth year, examines the evolving documentary production landscape both domestically and globally.

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“We initiated this survey when I needed to demonstrate to my board of trustees that the award amount would fund the production and screening of a documentary.” I looked everywhere for those figures, but they were nonexistent. Upon this realization, I resolved to seek them out.

In what is being conducted as the inaugural year of this survey, mental health is addressed by 54% of respondents who claimed to have experienced “mental health issues during the production of their most recent documentary” and 38% who “need support but cannot afford it.”

Ray emphasized the challenges filmmakers encounter due to ambiguous payment dates and the inability to make long-term financial plans, as numerous organizations fail to remit invoices on time or are dishonest about payment schedules. Ray reminded all in attendance that despite the current climate making it difficult to see the positive side, the following is true: “When you’re feeling down, it’s so easy to forget that broadcasters require content. They must have your assistance and ought to move towards you.”

This idea was met with jubilant approval from Peter Lataster, representing the Dutch Directors’ Guild. He asserted, “Public broadcasters continue to emphasize the significance of documentaries and their priority status within society.” “If they are that critical, then support your claims with action and remunerate directors adequately.”

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Lataster addressed the challenges that his colleagues have encountered since the COVID-19 pandemic. He stated that a significant number of colleagues have sought employment elsewhere, and that it is “becoming increasingly apparent that if you work in culture, you need an opportunity to communicate the fact that directors do not have an honest chance to make a living.”

An additional recurring theme was the devaluation that filmmakers encountered, as well as the prevalent industry custom of including filmmakers in panels, commissions, and events without remuneration for their participation. According to research conducted by Ida Grøn of the Association of Danish Film Directors, the quantity of unpaid work is a significant factor in Danish documentarians’ discontentment with their working conditions.

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“In Denmark, competition among directors is extraordinarily fierce.” Challenging as it may be to make ends meet, even for the accomplished and multi-award-winning director. A prolonged career as a documentary film director is uncommon due to the debilitating amount of unpaid labor involved.

Although a definitive resolution to the matter remains elusive, the panelists delineated a sequence of measures that they contend are indispensable in order to foster greater financial equity and sustainability within the sector. A focus on co-productions and fiscal accountability, the establishment and maintenance of secure spaces where filmmakers can discuss issues pertaining to their financial planning and mental health, and an open line of communication with funders and broadcasters were among the proposed solutions.

Lataster concluded his keynote address by emphasizing to the audience that filmmakers are ensnared in an eternal cycle of labor due to the uncertainty of their livelihoods, which deprives them of valuable moments to reflect and observe their surroundings. “Forcing filmmakers to begin a new project annually for the sole purpose of making a living is detrimental to the craft of filmmaking; that is not what it stands for.” It is about thinking independently and attempting to see a story from a different perspective.”


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