The spotlight at this year’s International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam is firmly on the well-being of documentary filmmakers. A panel of experts convened on Monday to delve into the myriad challenges faced by filmmakers in sustaining a livelihood within the industry. The discussion encompassed issues such as pay disparities, devaluation, information gaps, and the reverberations of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kicking off the dialogue was Rebecca Day, a specialist from Film in Mind, an organization championing mental health in the film sector. Day emphasized the rarity of major events prioritizing discussions on mental health in filmmaking. According to her, addressing the psychological welfare, vulnerability, and self-protection needs of individuals working in a profession steeped in care, compassion, and activism is imperative.
Drawing attention to a report from the University of West England indicating the perception that a documentary filmmaking career is non-viable due to chronic public funding shortages, Day cited a Center for Media and Social Impact study revealing that three-quarters of documentary filmmakers take on additional work to sustain themselves, with only two in 10 covering production costs and turning a profit.
The panel emphasized the significance of data, with Jane Ray, consultant artistic director at The Whickers, introducing the 2023 edition of “The Cost of Docs” report. In its sixth year, the report explores the evolving landscape for documentary makers in the U.K. and internationally. This year, mental health became a focal point, revealing that more than half of respondents faced mental health issues during their last documentary, and 38% expressed a need for support they couldn’t afford.
Jane Ray shed light on the financial uncertainties filmmakers encounter, including irregular payment schedules and the lack of long-term financial planning. Despite the challenging environment, Ray urged attendees to remember that broadcasters are in constant need of content and encouraged them to assert their value.
Peter Lataster from the Dutch Directors’ Guild echoed this sentiment, urging public broadcasters to match their rhetoric about the importance of documentaries with fair compensation for directors. He highlighted the challenges faced by directors post-COVID, with many seeking employment outside the industry.
The devaluation of filmmakers and the prevalent practice of inviting them to participate in panels and events without remuneration emerged as a recurring theme. Ida Grøn from the Association of Danish Film Directors shared research indicating that unpaid work was a significant source of dissatisfaction among Danish documentarians.
While acknowledging the absence of a concrete solution, the panel proposed several steps for achieving financial equality and sustainability. Suggestions included a focus on co-productions and fiscal responsibility, the establishment of safe spaces for mental health and financial discussions, and improved communication with funders and broadcasters.
Lataster concluded by underscoring the impact of an unstable livelihood on filmmakers, pushing them into a constant cycle of work that hinders creative reflection. He emphasized the importance of preserving the essence of filmmaking—an exploration of new perspectives—rather than succumbing to the pressures of a relentless production cycle.