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EDN Member of the Month - Claas Danielsen


In this monthly interview series EDN focuses on one of its many members to show both members in the spotlight and the diversity of the EDN membership group.

Claas Danielsen (photo credit Christian Hueller)

Our EDN member of the month for October 2014 is Claas Danielsen, Festival Director DOK Leipzig, based in Leipzig, Germany.

Claas Danielsen was born in Hamburg, Germany and after working as a journalist and getting practical training in film production companies he studied documentary directing at the Munich Film Academy. He made seven documentaries of which several did an extensive festival tour, won international awards and were sold to European broadcasters.

Since 1999 Claas developed and established the European training programme "Discovery Campus" (today: Documentary Campus) for documentary filmmakers, and in 2004 he was appointed Artistic and Managing Director of the International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Films, the biggest German and one of the leading documentary festivals worldwide, which he has developed into an important meeting place for the international documentary industry.

Claas has also previously been a board member of EDN and of the German documentary filmmakers’ association AG DOK. He is a member of and an advisor to the European Film Academy and has served on many international festival juries and the selection committees of different German film and media funds.

DOK Leipzig 2014 will be Claas’ last edition as Festival Director, and EDN has talked to Claas about the festival’s past and present and his own future.

EDN: Can you start by giving us some background information on the DOK Leipzig Festival? When was the festival initiated and with which motivation, and has there been an overall theme or profile of the festival throughout the years?

CD: DOK Leipzig was founded by the East German filmmakers club in 1955 as the "1st All-German Leipzig Festival of Cultural and Documentary Films". The aim was to bring filmmakers from all parts of Germany together. Soon the political tensions between the powers in occupied Germany rose and the festival failed to be held between 1957 and 1959. In 1960 it was continued as the "International Leipzig Documentary and Short Film Week". Its motto was "Film in the service of technical, scientific and cultural progress – for the peace and prosperity of the people"! Later the motto was condensed into ”Films from the World – For Peace of the World” and Picasso allowed the festival to use his peace dove as its symbol. That’s why our prizes are called Golden and Silver Doves till today.

In the 1960ies and 70ies the Leipzig festival was the leading international documentary festival with all the great directors present such as John Grierson, Joris Evens, Alberto Cavalcanti, Jerzy Bossak, Lew Kuleschow, Chris Marker, Richard Leacock, etc.

In the 1980ies the political pressure increased and censorship and surveillance by the secret service Stasi became a real problem. Still, the festival served as a unique meeting place for filmmakers from East and West and opened a ”Window to the world” for the citizens of Leipzig. Then after the Peaceful Revolution in 1989, DOK Leipzig was one of the few cultural institutions in the GDR which was kept alive but had to redefine itself.

The history of this oldest documentary festival in the world is long and fascinating: It can really serve a s a mirror for German and international political developments from the Cold War era until today.

EDN: You have now been with the festival for more than 10 years. What was your own motivation to take on the job as Festival Director, and what was your ambition for the festival when starting out?

CD: Honestly, I was totally surprised when I was offered the job as festival director in 2003. But the request came at a point when I was ready for a change: I had been building up the training programme Discovery Campus (nowadays Documentary Campus) for five years which was well established at that point. And after having lived in Munich for 17 years I wanted to move. So the timing was perfect and I saw a great potential in the Leipzig festival which already then was the biggest documentary festival in my country.

I had always been missing an annual meeting place for the German documentary industry where national and international professionals could network and foreign guests could discover the best new German films. In my opinion, Germany as the biggest media market in Europe needed a strong documentary festival and industry event with international appeal. For me, Leipzig had the potential to be that place again.

EDN: How has the festival changed during the last 10 years and how would you describe the festival as of today?

CD: When I started in 2004, the festival offered a huge film programme with 350 films shown in one week. But it had no industry programme and was severely underfinanced. So I established several professional platforms that allowed us to apply for funding from different film funds and the MEDIA Programme and to win sponsors. In 2005 we introduced the DOK Market for TV buyers, distributors, festival programmers etc. which we fully digitalised in 2006. In 2005 we also created the International DOK Leipzig Co-production Meeting which since has connected hundreds of producers from all over the world and helped them to advance the financing of their new documentary projects.

We organise a whole range of talks and panel discussions where we discuss the morale, aesthetics and working conditions of documentary and animated filmmakers or pressing matters of the industry. These events of course also serve the transfer of knowledge and experience from the many international experts attending DOK Leipzig. Besides, we organise master classes and workshops during the festival and have initiated training programmes such as DOK.Incubator in Europe or DocWok in India. And the festival has become a fruitful place for transmedia professionals offering case studies, crossmedia screenings, the Net Lab where new projects are supported and – for the first time this year – a hackathon called “Tribeca hacks ”.

What make our festival unique are a section and a main award as well as networking offers for filmmakers working with animated documentaries, a sub-genre we have been presenting for 18 years.
Looking back, DOK Leipzig has doubled its size in ten years – not only the number of general and professional audience, but also the range of activities and consequently the budget.

EDN: What have been the biggest challenges during your time as festival director? And the most rewarding experiences?

CD: The funding is and has been a huge challenge. It is as complicated as putting an international co-production together and the requirements literally get more bureaucratic every year. It’s unbelievable how many small sources of income we have to generate to make the festival happen.

Secondly, it was not easy to win the trust of many people closely connected to the festival who were suspicious of me as a “Wessi”, a person from western Germany. Having worked for an organisation branded by Discovery Channel before, some thought that I wanted to change their “Dok Film Week” into a TV festival. To modernise a festival with such a long tradition was a huge task for me.

Another challenge for every festival organiser is the competition between festivals for films and professionals attending. With IDFA only three weeks away, this of course is a problem for us like it is for the other autumn festivals. My background as a filmmaker helped me to make a clear decision: I will not play the premiere game and only insist on a national premiere for films in competition. Although many world or international premieres end up in our four documentary competitions the decisive criterion for us is the artistic quality of each individual film. After ten years in this job, I still deeply believe that festivals should first and foremost serve the films – and not the vanity of festivals. To stop a documentary that had its national premiere in spring from traveling to festivals in other countries till the end of the year only to get the international premiere harms the film as it will be too old for the other events next year.

The most rewarding experience definitely is to see the general audience growing from year to year. People want to watch documentaries and better understand what’s happening in the world! To see young people storm the festival cinemas is extremely uplifting – especially as it proves decision makers in public TV wrong who claim that they can’t win an audience with this genre. The truth is that this audience has turned its back towards television, especially young people.

EDN: And then we of course also have to ask what your motivation is for stepping down as Director?

CD: There are two reasons: After ten years of very intensive, challenging and fulfilling work I want to take some time off to recharge my batteries and give myself room for fresh ideas and plans. When some people hear that I work for a film festival taking place in October they say: You must be very busy in autumn, but what do you do the rest of the year? The reality is that you never stop working: As soon as the festival is over reporting and evaluation begin, we have to plan the next edition and apply for funding. A festival of DOK Leipzig’s size keeps ten people extremely busy throughout the year.

Secondly, we have been able to achieve most of the goals I had when I started in 2004. DOK Leipzig is back as one of the main international documentary film festivals and I have the feeling that it is a good time to pass it on to a successor. Besides, every festival or cultural institution needs change, fresh ideas, disruption – routine is dangerous in this field as you continuously have to adapt to the changes in the industry. I think it would be good if there was more exchange happening in positions with deciding power, not only in culture. Many people still perceive change as a threat whereas I believe that institutions, systems and structures (yes, also broadcasters) can only survive if they are open for permanent change.

EDN: You have a diverse background within the industry with also experience as film director and with leading the Documentary Campus training programme. Do you know in which direction you will take your career now?

CD: I will take six months of sabbatical and then I will be able to answer the question.
But there is one idea that keeps going around in my head: In my different jobs I have always tried to help improve the working conditions for documentary filmmakers and to support the creation of excellent films. That’s why I still feel tempted to build up a fund for outstanding author-driven documentaries that does not support directors because they come from a specific region, work on a suitable topic or promote social change. What is highly endangered in documentary nowadays is individual storytelling exclusively driven by filmic quality and a unique artistic vision.

EDN: During the recent years DOK Leipzig has expanded its industry programme. How does a festival manage to be in line with all the latest tendencies and changes in the industry and to adapt its offers accordingly? What are some of the latest activities DOK Leipzig has launched aimed at the industry?

CD: It really is a big challenge for festival organisers to keep in close touch with the changes and needs of the industry. One way to follow the developments is to attend relevant markets and festivals and to talk to professionals from many fields of expertise. But you only have a certain budget and limited time to make this happen. Secondly, it is important to work with experienced professionals. Our Head of Industry, Christine Hille, worked for several production companies before she joined our team. And last but not least it helps to have an advisory committee or a board with experienced experts that you can discuss your ideas and plans with. This is something I always wanted to create for DOK Leipzig but did not manage time-wise. A nice task for my successor.

Our latest activities to be in line with the needs of the industry are the cross-media offers. We waited longer than for example IDFA did to embrace cross media because I did not see a market yet for these projects for a long time. This was also the reason why only very few convincing projects had been realised. But three years ago we introduced a new transmedia platform which has been developing dynamically. As a festival, we can present excellent productions and help with the development and financing of new projects although it still is a big challenge. The opportunities transmedia storytelling offers to documentary filmmakers are huge and really fascinating. And I should mention that we make our DOK Market available online for the first time after the festival which provides 400 new documentaries and animated shorts.

EDN: You are also involved in DOK.Incubator, which is a programme for producers, directors and editors with a rough-cut stage feature documentary aiming for international distribution. Will you continue to be involved in this project? Can you tell a bit more about the idea behind the programme and, which needs in the industry it serves?

CD: I can well imagine to stay involved in DOK.Incubator and to tutor at different workshops after having left the festival. The creative work with filmmakers and producers on their projects has been extremely fulfilling for me and that’s something I hardly had time to do when working for the festival.

My motivation to launch DOK.Incubator together with Andrea Prenghyova was the experience as festival programmer who watches hundreds of films every year. It happened so often that I thought: Great protagonists, fine camera work, good story, but the end product is only mediocre. Often you can see that the film would have been much better if director and editor had had more time in the editing room or if some creative advisor with a distance to the material had worked with them. This is what DOK.Incubator offers plus very professional support in the distribution and marketing of documentaries. The majority of European documentary producers needs to become much more professional when it comes to marketing their films.

EDN: With all the different offers out there in the doc industry – with training programmes, festivals and markets – do you have any good advice to someone who is just starting out making his or hers first documentary?

CD: I would always advise newcomers to work with people whose work or company profile they admire – be it directors, producers, sales agents etc. Therefore you need to watch as many films as you can which you can do at festivals or making use of good VOD platforms such as which we co-founded. It is very important to travel to festivals and markets to get an understanding of the market and to build up a network. Taking part in workshops like the ones EDN organises or courses like the Documentary Campus Masterschool, Eurodoc, Ex Oriente Film, Greenhouse etc. is crucial as you get very fruitful feedback on your own projects and get to know likeminded filmmakers and producers with whom you can later work. The international experts you meet form the basis of the network you urgently need to survive on the long run.

EDN: DOK Leipzig will start on October 27 and run till November 2. What can the audience and industry look forward to with the 57th edition of DOK Leipzig?

CD: First of all, there is an excellent Official Programme to explore with the 198 films we have selected for our five competitions, among them the new works of brilliant filmmakers like Ulrich Seidl, Sergei Loznitsa or Laura Poitras who directed our opening film CITIZENFOUR about Edward Snowden and the NSA surveillance scandal. Quite a few films we selected out of nearly 3.000 productions we have screened this year deal with the crises in the Ukraine, Syria and the Arab world.

In addition, DOK Leipzig offers a whole range of special programmes like the country focus on Ex-Yugoslavia with films that reflect the long-term consequences of the wars and the search for identity of the people living in this region. 25 years after the Peaceful Revolution in Germany took place we honour the camera men of the former East German DEFA documentary studio in our retrospective. They developed a unique documentary style and were as important in the creative process as the directors. And we present three homages to directors who explore the boundaries of the genre in different ways: Danish Jon Bang Carlsen stages the stories of real characters who play themselves after a long research and script-writing phase. Or Shelly Silver from New York who is a great filmmaker working on the boundary between documentary and the arts. And then we have invited French editor and director Jean-Gabriel Périot who makes very political and often provocative short films out of found footage and works on the border between documentary and animation.

EDN: And finally – what will you do to relax after the festival is over?

CD: After the festival I will not really have time to relax because a lot of post-production and reporting plus several trips are waiting. But I will hopefully not spend too many late evenings in the office and have some free weekends where I will enjoy nature or sit in front of the oven and NOT watch films.

More information on DOK Leipzig

EDN Activities in Leipzig:

EDN at Leipzig Networking Days 2014

EDN Networking Dinner in Leipzig

Jury Member at DOK Leipzig