When I tell people I only want to go to panels in which the speakers get into a fight, they usually laugh.
I do not join them.
I really do long to see a state-of-the-industry type discussion featuring some of the most serious of my colleagues build into a WWF-style, chair-throwing brawl, and by golly, someday my wish will come true, even if I have to heft that chair myself. Panels are the starchy side dish of film festivals and conferences, and they’re often informative and a little dry, because moderating is difficult, because topics are broad, and because people are generally nice and cautious and very aware of being on the record. Most panels could use some bodyslamming, or at the very least some strong disagreement.
I took in two of the best panels I’d seen in a while at the True/False Film Festival this past week, and while neither solved the life-threatening problem of panelists being polite and too smart to just shoot their mouths off, both avoided issues that often bog down these events.
The first featured Richard Parry and Robert King (above), the director and subject of war photographer doc “Blood Trail,” and “Operation: Dreamland” director Ian Olds. The topic was war journalism, and rather than delve into advice and background, the panelists went straight into anecdotes of shooting while getting shot at, a breakdown of the ethical issues of filming people dead or dying and an honest look at risk assessment in what’s, in the end, a job. That last aspect was the most interesting, that for all war journalists regularly put their lives on the line documenting conflict, that they also have to deal with the usual professional rivalries. Telling the story of a colleague who
sniped a job from threatened him, King noted: “It all comes back full circle… unfortunately for him, [laughs] he got shot. Yeah, I must be a bit desensitized if I can make a tasteless joke like that.” It was only in the arm, he added.
AJ Schnack led another panel full of familiar industry folks — Women Make Films’ Debra Zimmerman, Channel 4’s Jess Search, filmmaker Kirby Dick, Spout’s Karina Longworth and Cinetic’s Matt Dentler are those in the photo — through a Fred Friendly-inspired exercise in which everyone advised on what they would do when confronted with a theoretical project, a prospective documentary from a first-time filmmaker with never-before-seen footage of the Hudson River plane crash. Would anyone be interested in financing it? Would festival programmers want it? At what point would members of the press find it worthy of coverage? I’m sure I’ve seen over half the speakers on panels in the past, but the theoretical angle turned out to be freeing, and I heard things from them that had never come up before, because it tends to take long enough for everyone to loosen up on these things that they near their end before getting good.
Worthwhile endeavors, both of these, and not a piledriver or headbutt in sight.