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Why the most artistic film genre struggles to get off the ground. The growing pains of the dance film, part 1.

There is a lot of grumbling about Dutch cinema: it is too well behaved, not creative enough, there is too little experimentation. However, there is one small island where other laws apply. Where sometimes with hefty budgets and sometimes for next to nothing, films are made that speak a different language: The dance film. No psychologising, no endless dialogue, but bodies that move. Or not. A genre where two art forms come together that are both about space and movement. In theory, this is the ultimate artistic film. In practice, funds and training don't always cooperate.

Cinedans is the hub of dance film, the institution that brings audiences and makers together, raising the bar with panels and workshops. The Cinedans festival draws full houses with its films and fringe programming. Apparently, there is an audience for dance on film. Yet it remains an unruly genre. Funds do not really know what to do with it, programmers seem to have cold feet and it is unknown to the general (film) public.

Where exactly is the pain? And is that inherent in interdisciplinary art? Ideally, mixing disciplines is a way of getting the best out of both. But does that happen, or do they get in each other's way?

I talk to six people from the field about problems and opportunities. In this first part, Martine Dekker of Cinedans, filmmaker Clara van Gool and producer Iris Lammertsma of Witfilm speak.

Full house at Cinedans

Support is needed

Martine Dekker sees that there are all kinds of things developing in dance film, but that support is needed. One of the problems she sees is that the same wheel is being invented with some regularity. In student competition, all sorts of things are happening: "Many things are good in impetus, but would benefit from more education. Contemporary students can handle film much easier, can think better in the medium. Even at the dance academy, there is now more multidisciplinary projects. Yet then you do see better dance films being made at the film academy." More exchange between the academies could advance development.

A more open mind among funds could also help. For example, the film fund does contribute to dance films, but mainly the 'typical' dance film, in which a story is depicted. That's not necessarily a bad thing, of course. But some projects are great and yet don't get a foot in the door anywhere.

Everything is about money

What strikes her is that the quality of a production ultimately depends on money. And therein lies the rub. To successfully apply for subsidies, you need a certain track record. Young makers sometimes risk falling between two stools. Unbundling is the magic word that should make it easier to get multidisciplinary projects funded, but practice is more recalcitrant. If you are fresh out of the academy, it can be difficult to get to the right desk and sometimes, on formal grounds, your application is not even considered because you do not have the right training for the relevant grantor.

Figurehead of the dance film

Clara van Gool has resigned herself to being seen as the figurehead of dance cinema. With seventeen movement-inspired films, there seems no escape from that either. When she did film school, she was more interested in films without dialogue: she wanted to tell visual stories. The dance film did not exist when she started, but musicals and experimental film did. She invented her own medium, which has fortunately been rewarded with two Golden Calfs, an Emmy, in addition to numerous international awards. After 14 short films and two commercials, she has made her first feature-length film. The Beast in the Jungle premiered at the last IFFR. Made with international funds and producers, it is her biggest production ever. One that took years to make.

With her track record, has it become easier to make films? "No, actually not. In the '90s, it was relatively easy with projects like 4tokenS. (later became Point Taken presented as something new, but was in fact in continuation of 4tokenS). The quality was not always good, but there were some gems. There was the space to do it. That is no longer there now. Culture on TV is now basically just Paul Witteman. Registrations have improved, technology has improved but the experimentation is out."


And that is a terrible pity because one of the gems was the film Van Gool made with Angelika Oei, Bitings and other Effects. For a similar project, but from the BBC, she made Enter Achilles with DV8. It was the time of DV8, Michael Clarke, the rise of Flemish choreographers, the time when there was still a good dance infrastructure here. We can only think back to it now with wistfulness and a slight knot in our stomachs.

Clara van Gool's success now also appears to have a downside. She can no longer make a short dance film and call it experimental because of her stature. She won't get any more money for that. She can, however, further explore the documentary angle. She already has a short to her name: Voices of Finance. She is now working with Jos de Putter on a new documentary project. A short dance film, however, will be difficult. It is frustrating that the wheel has to be reinvented every time.

Collaboration between film and dance

Iris Lammertsma is producer of Whitefilm, The producer of dance films in the Netherlands. What she sees is that film is a very different medium from dance, a very different profession. Budgets in dance and film are also very different. At the AFK, you can apply for €15-20,000 euros. A short dance film or fiction film will easily cost around €125,000 for about ten minutes. It is still possible to make a low-budget fiction film with young recently graduated filmmakers, but they make few dance films.

And from the other side: a choreographer + camera + idea does not make a dance film.
Many dancers have an idea for a film, but no experience with the medium. It really requires a different way of thinking about framing and editing, for example. Most plans do not show sufficient vision of the film medium. Just like filmmakers don't necessarily know about choreography or movement either. It is really recommended that filmmaker and choreographer work together. "What would help is room to fail. With the funds, that space is no longer there. Not so much because of the funds themselves as because of political unwillingness. On the contrary, there is a lot of will at the funds to think along and think in terms of possibilities."

Little room to play

"But funds cannot afford to make mistakes either. They work with public money and have to follow rules and account for their spending. There is little room in that." She does not have a happy story: "After point taken there is less real bedding for dance film. Directors don't start it because there is no money to be made. Choreographers cannot apply on their own. You need someone as a director who has completed film training to apply. Perhaps a solution would be to introduce each other's disciplines at the academies. Dance at the film academy would be very nice. In the end, the dance film is the ultimate artistic film."

Recommendations for funds

For none of the creators is it a bedspread or taken for granted that there is money for a new project. Remarkably, everyone I spoke to understood that the funds themselves are also in a split and that it is mainly political reluctance to support the 'trickier' arts. I asked everyone what the recommendation would be for funds to achieve more and better dance films. From the film people, there didn't really appear to be a need to 'de-fund'. There is, however, a need for less strict conditions.

Or, as Clara van Gool puts it: "Scrap all those extra questions and just let people tell a story. Creators do care about the world around them. And you can also take that out of the plan. Turn it around! Why do filmmakers have to justify what they do with diversity in the Dutch film world? Isn't that their job? If you take that out, you get more quirkiness, more people making an exciting story. It makes you very cynical if you think you would get money now if you made a film with Syrian refugees. But I shouldn't and don't want to think like that." Martine Dekker and Iris Lammertsma are also not keen on all this kind of 'tick box'.

Danish model?

Iris does have a suggestion to get dance films on the rise: "Doc Junior has produced successful short documentaries for youth. Anything goes, as long as it is for youths from 8 - 12. This was modelled on a Danish idea. An incentive rule for short dance film similar to this would be great. Perhaps NPO fund and Filmfonds, a broadcaster plus a private fund like van den Ende, could discuss this? Also, a production incentive for high end arthouse film of max 30 minutes could yield something."

This looks suspiciously like 4TokenS, Point Taken, The Wolf Dances. And in fact, that is what we would all love to see back. A platform, broad-based, with room for experimentation and with money. Where filmmakers and dance makers are linked and can reinforce each other. And where you are also allowed to fly off the handle.

Clara would favour an active role for Cinedans: perhaps the festival could be a platform for short films? Give creators a small bag of money with which to make short films for the web? You could then come up with a subscription that allows you to watch the films all over the world. With the Cinedans web, a start has been made. And indeed: it tastes like more. Cinedans itself would also like to play an active role in this and certainly sees itself as a platform for the short dance film.

Next time:

Helen Westerik

Helen Westerik is a film historian and great lover of experimental films. She teaches film history and researches the body in art.View Author posts

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