Making a documentary abroad

Dear Doc Doctor:
I’m planning to make a documentary abroad. Am I better off bringing my own crew or hiring there?

Making films outside the United States is sometimes clouded by the enthusiasm of being able to mix work and pleasure in an exotic remote location. But gathering the right crew can determine the ratio of vacation to work you will experience, because the vacation will come to a sudden halt as soon as the camera plug doesn’t match the socket in the wall.

I have found a pattern among the filmmakers I’ve consulted with who choose to film abroad: those who speak the local language, have visited often, or even lived where they are shooting are more likely to hire locally; and those who only relate to the place in terms of their film project, who are in turn more likely to bring an entire crew without pondering any alternative.

Working with a local crew has some great advantages. First of all, resident crews know the ins and outs of their geographical markets and will be more ready to deal with the everyday challenges. In terms of the budget, you not only save on traveling and accommodations expenses for a crew you would bring from the States, but local crew wages abroad are often within an independent filmmaker’s range (with the exception of Europe and Japan, of course), which allows you to be more generous with them.

And if you can stay for the edit, all the better—nothing can make up for an editor with full command of a language and the subtleties of communication within a culture. Finally, many governments have financial incentives for those hiring local key personnel.

However, if you and your producer are joined at the hip or you have a longstanding relationship with your DP, the thought of starting anew with a stranger whom you may not work with again may seem completely unacceptable. Other times it’s just not possible for whatever reason—maybe because your film needs to be shot in several different countries. But there are more than just production, financial, or practical reasons for encouraging at least a combined crew.

In the words of anthropologist and filmmaker Pegi Vail, who shot her film in numerous countries and was recently the curator of First NationsFirst Features: A World Showcase of Indigenous Film and Media at the MoMA in New York: “We should also consider the relationship of the filmmaker to the communities within which they film, long after production has wrapped. Supporting filmmakers in developing nations with funds or production training to tell their own stories or to better position themselves for working with visiting producers can only enhance the experience of making a film abroad.” So when you get on the plane back home, you didn’t just take something, you also left something valuable behind.

Dear Doc Doctor:
My film is shot completely abroad and on a foreign issue. Does that make it a foreign film even though I’m American? And how might that affect my future grant and festival applications?


In this ever shrinking global village of growing film budgets, country borders may be getting harder to determine, but they are never forgotten. Because as your question implied, qualifying for the “world cinema” slot can have significant and positive impact on the distribution of your film—it may also make it ineligible for certain domestic grants.

Grants, festivals, and everybody in the film business for that matter, abide by some flexible guidelines to determine what’s foreign and what’s American. Content is not the main one. Milton Tabbot, managing director of the documentary funding programs and screening series of the IFP says, “The Radziwill Documentary Fund is a development grant, so the only criteria in terms of qualifying as an American project is that the producer, director and/or production company be American or a legal American resident.”

Things change, though, when other monies come into play. Milton continues, “The IFP Market, which for documentaries is also limited to American films, accepts shorts, works-in-progress, and completed films. In that case, we also take into account the percentage of domestic and foreign financing to determine whether they qualify as an American production.”

Conversely, you can decide based on the above if you qualify for those grants and festivals that do have a “world cinema” slot or program. But don’t be too hasty—if you are not a fully foreign production, there is no point in forcing the issue. For that matter the / (slash) has been created: US/Mexico, US/France, US/Indonesia. Co-productions are often a more accurate description and one that you should definitely try to explore if you worked abroad on an international issue.

A true co-production opens many possibilities and opportunities, with grants and festivals more willing to accommodate a solid co-production than a project with no clear boundaries. So, rather than sweating on which side of the border you should stand, become an ambassador, and strengthen those international relationships.

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