"Why Democracy?"is surely one of the widest ranging and most ambitious international projects in documentary filmmaking ever undertaken. Embracing 10 films by local filmmakers, in such far-flung countries as China, Liberia, Pakistan, Egypt, Bolivia, the United States and Denmark, shown by broadcasters in 42 countries and supported by numerous websites, the project by its mid-October kick-off was expected to reach at last 300 million viewers and stimulate a global discussion: What is democracy? How does democracy work? And is democracy, by definition, right for everybody? Here, one of the three commissioning editors behind the project, Mette Hoffmann Meyer of the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR), talks about her thoughts and experiences from three years on the project.
At the Evergreen Primary School in Wuhan, central China, kids are still taught to march in lockstep, subordinate the individual to the community and shout out slogans about the state and the future. That's the China we know. But years of one-child policy and economic liberalisation have put traditional values under constantly growing pressure.
If kids in the new China don't figure out for themselves that they need to be ambitious to make it in what is increasingly looking like a competitive society, their parents are sure to set them straight. The question, then, might be what would happen if Chinese society cut the last ties to its past and unleashed the forces of democracy. What if a school class was allowed to elect a student leader following the same principles that adults in the West use to elect their political leaders – nominating candidates, running campaigns and having open voting?
That's what the Chinese documentary filmmaker Weijun Chen set out to explore when he was encouraged to submit a proposal to the "Why Democracy?" project, a series of 10 documentaries by local filmmakers around the world describing different views of democracy. "Please Vote for Me" is both touching and frightening as it documents Chen's experiment, following three eight-year-old candidates during their election campaign leading up to the final student vote, a process that evolves like a miniature version of the adult world with all its dirty tricks and spin doctors, pork-barrel politics and horse trading, cynicism and corruption.
LOCAL AND GLOBAL
"Please Vote for Me" eloquently represents the spirit of the "Why Democracy?" project. Since it's made by a Chinese director, it combines a local point of view with a globally relevant theme. Moreover, the film isn't tied to any one current event but has a crafty premise that cuts to the core of the democracy discussion. Finally, it takes up a theme that is truly significant to how the world will develop in coming years but does not generally get much international press attention.
"We deliberately tried to avoid the proverbial hotspots," Mette Hoffmann Meyer, one of the project's three initiators, told us a few weeks before the project's October 8 premiere. "Films about Afghanistan or the Israel-Palestine conflict are likely to get off the ground regardless. When we started the project three years ago, we knew that it would stretch over a long period, so we would never be able to meet a criterion of' ‘current interest'. We decided to wager on films that go into more fundamental themes and could be expected to have a long life."
Hoffmann Meyer headed the international sales department at the commercial Danish broadcaster TV2 for 18 years, including the last few as editor of documentaries. On 1 August, she started her new job as editor of documentaries and head of co-productions at the public broadcaster DR. Not surprisingly, she brings a wide network of contacts to "Why Democracy?", a project she developed and conducted in partnership with two other experienced commissioning editors, Nick Fraser of the BBC and Iikka Vehkalahti of YLE, Finland. In past years, the three of them have co-launched a number of big projects, including "Interesting Times", a handful of documentaries from China, and, notably, a series of no less than 38 films from Africa under the banner of "Actually Life Is A Beautiful Thing", in both cases working with local filmmakers.
"Doing the African project, it really became clear to me how much it means to have local filmmakers direct the films, rather than simply dispatch a Western reporter to do the usual story about how depressing everything is. Of course, the African directors' films had their problems, as well, but they had humour and a joy about small everyday things that made it so much easier for African viewers to identify with the images presented of them. I have used that principle in many contexts since," Hoffmann Meyer says.
DEMOCRACY AS A BUZZWORD
Hoffmann Meyer was having a meeting with Fraser and Vehkalahti to evaluate a project, when they started talking about what they would like to do next.
"We put various proposals on the table – the Arab nations and other obvious choices – but then we started talking about democracy, this buzzword we go to war for these days and try to export to other parts of the world," Hoffmann Meyer says. "Democracy means something different to everyone. In Japan, there is a different perception of democracy than in the West. In Russia, they probably would not even want the kind of democracy we, in Scandinavia, think of as the only right kind. And so on."
An initial meeting was held in December 2004 and ever since the snowball has been rolling and growing – up to the point where it no longer sounds like hot air when the project initiators say they hope the project will start a global dialogue about democracy.
"It's grown huge," Hoffmann Meyer says. "Once we had signed on five or six broadcasters, we started applying to the Danish Film Institute, the Finnish Foreign Ministry and various funds around the world, and ultimately we signed on 42 broadcasters. They will all be airing several of the films over 14 days in October, when we launch the project worldwide. Not every TV station involved has acquired all 10 films, but all have agreed to air at least two of the films and most will be airing several or all of them."
How did you locate the 10 filmmakers?
"We organised pitching sessions and did worldwide outreach. We sent out e-mails to mailing lists from different festivals and eventually received 480 proposals," Hoffmann Meyer says. "At first, the proposals were not distributed geographically as broadly as we would have liked, so in some places we had to make an extra effort. That had also been my experience from our last project in Africa. When you work in countries that don't have a documentary tradition and a corresponding environment or network, you have to find other ways of doing things. In China, we held a secret meeting, inviting all the documentary filmmakers we knew, and asked them to submit proposals. In India we held a couple of workshops in Mumbai and Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, and located a project that way."
The initiative group has tried to think outside the box in terms of distribution and marketing. When "Why Democracy?" kicked off in October, the Chinese film, "Please Vote for Me", was posted in its entirety on MySpace. Moreover, they have an alliance with Joost.com, the new Internet TV website launched by Janus Friis and Niklas Zennström, the founders of Skype. In print media, they have a partnership with the MetroXpress free daily, which has branches in 23 countries and 25 million daily readers by their own count, including a lot of young people. And, of course, the project has its own homepage designed and run by a group of eight to ten young students from around the world, working out of a house in South Africa for the occasion, while trying to kick-start bilateral dialogue about democracy among different universities worldwide.
"We also got into viral marketing, making little 30-second commercials that we hope are funny or rude or grotesque enough that people will want to share them with their friends, which we put out there via mobile phones or Facebook and the like and hope get a life of their own," Hoffmann Meyer says.
NOT JUST BBC
The most satisfying thing about the project to Hoffmann Meyer was that the films, precisely because they were made by local directors, also to varying degrees reflect the respective film cultures.
"As a for instance, the Russian film, "For God, Tsar and Fatherland", by Nino Kirtacze, though he is actually from Georgia, is very Russian in its cinematic language. For its part, Egypt: "We are Watching You" by Leila Menjou and Sherief Fahmy, clearly has a much stronger chaotic nerve than the films we usually see in Europe," Hoffmann Meyer says. "One of the challenges about the project is trying to keep a balance. On the one hand, we didn't go out and tell the directors to do things like a BBC film. On the other hand, we realised the films would be seen, and had to be understandable, all over the world. I remember when we pitched the project to the Arab countries – in Qatar I think it was – it took us days to convince the filmmakers that we really didn't want them to just do what they thought we wanted them to.
"There were instances, too, of course, where we started things that for various reasons didn't pan out. I think we are fortunate to be bringing out 10 such strong and moving films. At one point, I showed the Liberian film, "Iron Ladies of Liberia", by Daniel Junge and Siatta Scott-Johnson, to a colleague at DR. The film follows Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first democratically elected president in Liberia after 14 years of civil war and the first female head of state in Africa, from her inauguration in January 2006. My colleague was very touched by the film and told me this was the first time she had ever cried over a political documentary from Africa. This is what documentaries do. When the documentary tools are used correctly, viewers are able much better to identify with the subjects, while gaining a better understanding of the processes involved," Hoffmann Meyer says.