Though it’s often been lauded as a golden age for documentary filmmaking, a host of challenges still face independent docmakers in Europe, who struggle with everything from dwindling budgets at public broadcasters to opaque funding decisions at streaming networks to convoluted legal frameworks for collaborating with international partners.

The question of how the continent’s documentary community can come together to advocate for change was the subject of “Mapping the European Documentary: Toward a Pan-European Lobby,” a conversation hosted by the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival on March 14 in collaboration with the Documentary Association of Europe.

Since 2020, DAE has been exploring the landscape of independent documentary filmmaking in Europe to facilitate “national associations thinking about the needs and the challenges of their producers and the ecosystems that they live and work in,” according to the association’s Selin Murat, who moderated the discussion.

The effort has focused on how various European countries and associations “can come together to lobby at a pan-European, and maybe even a world, level on the common challenges and the common wants and needs” of their industries, she added.

Murat cited a number of key takeaways from an industry summit hosted by DAE in 2020, including an “overwhelming” desire for more collaboration between industries and national bodies, a need to establish best practices for the implementation of policies that could serve the European documentary community, a push to spur a paradigm shift for documentary production companies that are increasingly being squeezed out of the industry, and a need to amplify the work of national bodies to assist foreign producers trying to understand the local landscape.

Perhaps most importantly, she stressed the importance of regional partners working to establish an international benchmark for documentary film production in Europe. “There are no rules set in stone except the ones by which you are governed in your own territories: the rules of your film fund, the rules of your broadcaster and the contracts that they have,” she said. “But outside of that, there are no rules – there are just traditions of how people do things. And a lot of those traditions are often mired in complexity and obscurity and old networks and little privileged clubs.”

She added: “The idea of having a pan-European, open conversation about the best practices, fair co-production, that’s one of the great ideas of getting together.”

Lucia Pornaro of Doc/It, an Italian documentary federation that represents some 150 industry professionals working in documentary filmmaking, stressed the need to find “common ground” across borders. “We all work hard at a national level, and of course each country has its own needs and regulations, [but] it’s really important to talk to each other and see what we can do internationally,” she said.

Pornaro cited a “huge market change” prompted by the disruption caused by streaming platforms – a process that has been accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic – and called on her fellow producers and institutions to share data that would allow them to push for more transparency from broadcasters and streaming services. “This is really something we need to face and we need to deal with and we need to understand together.”

Martichka Bozhilova, of the Sofia-based Balkan Documentary Center, whose members are scattered across a dozen countries in Southeast Europe, noted how the center’s collaborative work has helped to strengthen the voice of filmmakers in smaller industries that struggle to achieve sustainability. The center has supported films such as Nebojša Slijepčević’s “Srbenka” (pictured), which won the Doc Alliance Award in Cannes in 2018.

“We have really, throughout the years, [developed] a lot of know-how in the region. We know the filmmakers. We know the industry there. So we can really participate with our knowledge,” she said. “We’ve been always trying to advocate in front of European institutions, not to be this second-rate, so-called low-capacity country in the corner, which has always been a struggle. We need to do that, and we need to continue doing that.”

It’s a model that has worked before, said Marco Gastine, of the Hellas Doc Association in Greece, pointing to the success of the Nordic documentary film industries.

“They’re very dynamic because the regional collaboration is very strong,” he said. “If you make a film in Denmark, you immediately find [partners in] Finland, Sweden, Norway to collaborate with you. And the institutions are collaborating, not only the filmmakers and the producers. It’s very important [to have the same] collaboration in the Balkans and the southeast of Europe.”

Gastine said such cross-border collaboration has begun to bear fruit in co-productions between Greece and neighboring countries, such as Turkey and North Macedonia. “But institutionally, there is no agreement between Serbia and North Macedonia, or the Greek and Turkish film centers,” he added. “Such a thing we have to lobby, or to fight, for.”

Since launching at the Berlin Film Festival in 2020, said Murat, the Documentary Association of Europe has worked to build those bridges. “It’s really building on this idea of how the different territories and countries can understand each other better in hopes of internationally collaborating, co-producing, and just understand sometimes that if you land in a place as a filmmaker, you can meet others,” she said.

The goal isn’t simply “bringing about transparency and equity” in the European documentary community, but to bring that community closer to its counterparts across the globe. “It’s Europe and the rest of the world. Everyone’s welcome.”