Founders of the Auckland Documentary Festival Dan Shanan and Alex Lee have a new opportunity coming for film-makers. Photo: Supplied

Documentary-makers in New Zealand and the Pacific are in line for a significant boost in funding.

In 2020, the British based Doc Society will hold a pitching event in this country that could bring millions of dollars to the industry.

Worldwide, the society and its American arm have generated nearly US$30 million dollars for documentaries that have social impact or support social change.

The people responsible for bringing the idea here, Dan Shanan and Alex Lee, believe it has the potential to transform the genre in this country.

Shanan and Lee, run Doc Edge – the annual international documentary festival in Auckland and Wellington.

The two are known as tireless champions of documentary making and increasing the opportunities for local directors and producers.

“Before the event we will run pitching workshops and story workshops and between seven and 10 projects will be selected to go forward to a final pitch” said Lee.

Social impact documentaries have brought about big changes in places like the United States. One of the best examples is “The Invisible War” a documentary on sexual harassment in the military.

Within a few days of the documentary screening the US Government reacted and made major changes to combat sexual assault in the services including the Marine corp.

Lee says the Doc Society event will connect New Zealand and Pacific doco makers with about 700 or 800 people, including many from overseas, who are interested in funding work that can bring about positive change

According to Lee, the event will also help local doco-makers connect with the rest of the world.

“We need to encourage our doco makers to bring a New Zealander’s point of view to stories that are not just about New Zealand subjects but about universal themes.

“Because of the funding models here we tend to be a focus almost exclusively on local subjects – we need to become more international.”

Shanan says that while there is a good bank of talent in this country there is a need for more training and specialty courses.

“If we look at countries like Denmark and Israel, which aren’t much bigger than us, they are way ahead in terms of training and funding for doco makers.”

Lee says, “There are a whole lot of people who want to be practitioners in the Church of Peter Jackson.”

“So far we have only produced one Peter Jackson.”

His point being that it is a lot easier to become a documentary-maker than a film director.

Promoting documentaries has been a long labour of love for Shanan and Lee.

It all started by chance, 15 years ago, when they were independently invited to a meeting by the Auckland City Council.

“They were looking to turn Auckland into a more creative city.

Wellington had a reputation as a cultural and creative city and I think Auckland wanted to compete.

“Every big city in the world had a documentary organisation and a festival – except Auckland,” said Lee.

The pair ran their first festival 2005. It is now a well-attended annual event in Auckland and Wellington but ticket prices only cover 25 percent of the cost.

The rest is raised by “a continual grind to find sponsors,” says Shanan, Doc Edge’s only full-time employee.

“People say to us – Oh you two have an interesting job (putting the festival together) what do you do for the rest of the year? “

“Most people don’t understand what it takes to put the festival together. It is a 24/7 job that we do for love of it because we are passionate about documentaries”

Lee says sponsors and funders will support the event but they don’t want to support the infrastructure (the people required to put it together).

“They think that should just happen or someone else should pay for that.”

Lee and Shanan say they often get asked why it took two immigrants to create this festival.

Dan Shanan was an Israeli documentary-maker who came to New Zealand in the early 2000’s.

“My grandparents were pioneers in that they came from Europe to Israel when that country was just starting. I feel that in some small way I am a pioneer too and that is important to me.”

Alex Lee, of mixed Asian descent, came here from Malaysia as a student, studied law, ended up as TV presenter in Hong Kong before coming back to teach film production at Auckland University.

He currently practices law and works part time for Doc Edge.

The two men’s background and interest in social change is reflected to some extent in the documentaries they choose for the festivals.

This year’s festival will feature 70 docos including one on the world’s best known film maker Steven Spielberg.

It opens at Wellington’s Roxy Cinema from 9th- 20th May before moving to Auckland’s Q Theatre from 23rd May – 4th June.

Newsroom asked Shanan and Lee to pick their own “top three” films:

Dan Shanan:


Derek Doneen’s feature directorial debut looks at the work of controversial Indian Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi who spent decades fighting for an end to child labour in India. It is a perfect example of how one extraordinary person makes a difference in the lives of so many. Executive Producer, Diane Weyermann (USA), will attend the Festival and be presented with this year’s Doc Edge Superhero Award for outstanding contribution to documentary.

Recruiting For Jihad

With an amazing inside access, the film is a timely look at the destructive consequences of extremism. Over the course of three years, Journalist Adil Khan Farooq follows the charismatic Ubaydullah Hussain, an outspoken Norwegian Muslim missionary, as he recruits young converts to Islam. When authorities seize the filmmakers’ footage of Hussain’s activities, what began as an attempt to gain insight into the mind of a jihadist becomes wrapped up in questions of freedom of the press.

Whispering Truth To Power

Hot from the editing room, filmmaker Shameela Seedat tells the story of South Africa’s first female public protector, Thuli Madonsela, a courageous woman who challenged the country’s most powerful politicians to protect the constitution and bring justice to ordinary people. Madonsela builds a case against the country’s President, attempting to prove that he is allowing his son’s business partners to take over the government for profit. Her work led to President Zuma’s resignation last month.

Alex Lee

Genesis 2.0

Thrilling and cinematic, Oscar nominated director Christian Frei’s film takes us into the future as scientists across the globe try to unravel the past. Through genetic science, they are determined to clone the long extinct woolly mammoth while manoeuvring across superstition and custom. The sumptuous core by Max Richter and Edward Artemyev is evocative and haunts you long after the film ends.

People’s Republic of Desire

A provocative and unsettling film where director Hao Wu takes us on a guided tour into a dystopian society and its digital marketplace where entertainers and fans are devoted to connecting with each other through online live-streaming. The entertainers are seeking fame using the web as a means to gain notoriety and fame whereas, fans obsessively seek interaction resembling human contact. Welcome to China’s contemporary internet culture and a glimpse as to where the world’s internet community is heading. Winner South By South West 2018’s Grand Jury Prize for Documentary.

Postcards from India

Ann irreverent fun musical road trip along the streets of India. Blending in the colourful sights of India from the Rajasthan desert to the big city of Kolkata, Filippo Masé (aka Miserable Man) a Italian musician interacts with many characters from gypsy musicians, spiritual seekers and street kids. Stunning music accompanies the voyage of self-discovery.

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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