March is all about docos at ACMI. And no one knows more about the non-fiction industry than the intimidatingly successful Alice Burgin, CEO & Director of AIDC – the Australian International Documentary Conference.
After more than 10 years in film academia and festivals, she is determined to help other career starters to make it big in the world of factual film.
ACMI: You’ve reached the high standing of CEO and director quite young, but how did you get your start working in film festivals?
Alice Burgin: I actually come from an academic background – I completed a number of different degrees, mainly at Melbourne University but always within film and culture studies. At the same time, I was always working in festivals. I worked my way up at MIFF – I started as a volunteer and then I did Box Office, then programming, and then worked at HRAFF. While I did my PhD I moved to France, where I worked for a festival that was about colour, race and film, always trying to find that balance between the rigour of the academic world and the fun and liveliness of the festival world which is intense, but also really fulfilling, engaging and community building.
When I finished my PhD I got an internship at Tribeca Film Festival, so I moved to New York and I think that’s when things really changed for me. I got a job at Tribeca after the internship and I started working for POV documentary broadcaster as well. I was exposed to some really high-quality documentaries there. In this myriad of jobs that I was doing in New York I got to build my profile and my relationship within the sector. What’s great about New York is that there are a million different film festivals – I worked for Hamptons and Rooftop and all sorts of things and then started working remotely for AIDC in a programming capacity. I got the programming role when I moved back to Melbourne and then a year afterward I stepped into the Director role.
A: There’s a lot more to the film and documentary industry than writers, producers and directors – what are some of the more unknown roles that can get you in the door?
AB: One of the things we are always trying to push, but now especially, is looking at other sorts of craft. Things like impact producing have become really big. Once the ABC appointed an Impact Producer to work with them on making sure all their series worked to create change, it opened a whole new avenue for people, particularly in the doco sector. It’s a way in for those who have a passion for social change and social justice, but maybe aren’t going to become traditional producers or directors.
We're also increasingly opening our eyes to the world of podcasts, and how closely connected to the documentary sector they are. We’re seeing a lot of alignment with new forms of technology, like what we call XR (so VR, AR etc). I’m not sure if that opens opportunities or just asks producer to have more skills!
But it’s exciting to see people with game engine developing skills moving to the non-fiction space because they also have things to say.
A: There seems to be a real focus on helping people launch their own non-fiction projects and careers this year at AIDC – tell us about the awards and opportunities available?
AB: There are so many awards! AIDC is a non-profit, and for us to survive we need partnerships. We’re finding that partnerships are not about brands anymore. It’s not about a logo and a banner, it’s all about engagement.
With a lot of work in the partnerships realm, we’ve been able to create really exciting new initiatives. We have SBS, Vice and Screen Australia putting commissions in. Audible and Google are very open minded about coming into the market and providing opportunities, providing funding.
The other thing that I think is really cool is that we’ve seen a real interest from the more established industry in helping early filmmakers. We have our access program and an internship at the BBC, and people are donating money for passes so people can come to AIDC.
It seems to be driven by people’s desire to use their money for good and not evil.
A: Is that one of the things you worked to build at AIDC when you took the helm?
AB: AIDC has existed for 30 years and has always been an amazing community building opportunity. One of the big things now, is that we are really working to provide opportunities for people across all the sectors – factual documentary, VR, podcast etc – as well as across all the levels of experience, so trying to make sure we have something for early career, mid-career and established practitioners.
We want everyone to be there and have a good time and so that everyone who comes gets value for their money.
A: What’s some advice you’d give to someone wanting to work in the film, TV or doco industries in Australia?
AB: Be really patient. Try and find people – a lot of it’s about networks. Try and get to as much stuff as you can, try and see as much content as you can and try and meet as many people as you can. Be friendly, be positive and be nice.
I think it’s a horrible world where you often have to work way under your paygrade or intern and it’s really hard. But you just have to have a belief that it’s going to work out.
A: And why docos?
AB: I never specialised in it until I was in New York and doing a lot of work in the documentary sector. I met a lot of people that way and then got involved in AIDC. I think narrative is a really amazing form of story telling as well, I’m also really interested in the rise of the hybrid documentary and where that’s going to go. I think all forms are legitimate and exciting.
A: What are your top recommendations for those going to AIDC 2019?
AB: We have a Masters Series where we’ve really tried to get really high-level people to talk about their speciality. You know, the idea of getting David Attenborough’s cinematographer to talk about wildlife cinematography. Or, to get Dianne Weyermann who is just the queen of producing to come and talk about producing and impact. Those will be really special sessions.
How I feel about AIDC is that it’s a package of energy. The overall experience you have of being able to participate is the best bit.
AIDC ran at ACMI Fed Square from 3 –6 March 2019.