Documentary films for children


Conclusions with a view to the future
European Symposium September 2001

Children's films are a niche market. Documentary films for children are a niche within the niche. To try to remove the films from this niche would be, according to one panel, "suicidal". Maybe "daring" would be a better way of putting it, making it sound less frightening and turning it into a challenge. The European Symposium "Documentary films for children" presented ways and means of motivating script editors, producers, directors and distributors to take up this daring challenge.
The following theses have been put together to motivate people in a constructive way to give documentary forms for children a chance.

1. Television

According to some, market conditions and the documentary form for children are incompatible. A look at the situation in other countries in Europe proves this thesis wrong. In other countries, documentary films for children are permanently established in many different stylistic and thematic forms. At the Symposium, we saw documentary films with political and day-to-day themes, funny and sad films, documentary soaps, animals always playing a part, also magazine pieces. It must be possible to implement this in a lively children's television landscape as we have in Germany. In general it is hard to understand why the so-called docu-boom should stop at children's television. Various productions from the evening programme ("Walking with Dinosaurs"/ ProSieben, "Die Schillergang", WDR, "Grünschnäbel" / ZDF -Kleines Fernsehspiel and "Im Nest der Katze"/ ZDF - Kleines Fernsehspiel) have shown that children are very interested in watching documentary forms. They said this themselves at the Symposium, adding that "it must be the right theme", meaning it must deal with their own real lives.

But in Germany the genre is stuck in a vicious circle. Because documentary time slots are not advertised enough they get lost in the crowd. Because they get lost in the crowd the conclusion is: the audience is not interested in this kind of television. Therefore, children's television productions should be advertised on the same level as adult programmes. It goes without saying that children's films in general and documentary films for children should not be "cheaper" than adult television.

The children's channel KIKA from ARD and ZDF is planing to include a documentary section in its programme. This section will need time to get established. And it must be open to the whole range of style and content of the genre. It seems that documentaries for children are still too much thought of as purely educational programmes. However, television for children must be up-to-date, hip and also playful and experimental. Children are often much more open to unusual forms than adults.

Stronger co-operation between KIKA and Arte would also be an idea for the peak time when children watch television. At the moment the Kika programme finishes at 19.00. Arte, which is probably very little used at this time, could show documentaries up to 21.00 and provide time slots directed at the whole family, including children.

BIn addition, for highly work-intensive material, stronger and earlier co-operation of the different departments and editors of the channels would be recommendable, to ensure "double broadcasting" of documentary films which are of interest for both children and adults, and also to combine funds available for production. However, this would also mean making time slots for longer formats available in the children's programme.
For post-distribution it should be possible for non-profit distributors (such as BJF, Filmothek der Jugend) to buy children's documentary films at reasonable prices.
And last but not least, because we are talking about television, television award associations which award programmes for their quality could pay more attention to children's programmes or evening programmes suitable for children, thus providing them with more publicity.

2. Film funding

A time slot such as the new docu-section at KIKA could be combined with a funding guideline of the film funding associations. One idea would be co-ordination between funding of young talent at the film academies and time slots such as KIKA's for which the film funding associations provide funds (i.e. for the supporting organisations of KIKA) as well as assessing artistic quality.
In general, some funding committees should rethink their policies and instead of concentrating purely on "cultural film funding", add the term "cultural television funding" to their statutes.

When it comes to screening support, festivals should be encouraged to add a category "Documentary films for children" (the festivals in Berlin and Leipzig are already considering this). This genre could also be included in addition to children's films when funding and promoting repertory cinema. The Symposium clearly showed how attractive programmes in cinemas could be.

In promoting distribution, the non-profit film distributors should be supported more. The fact that a film like "Aligermaas Adventure" (by Andra Lasmanis, Denmark/Sweden 1998) which was obviously very popular with children, or "Ghetto princess" (by Cathrine Asmussen, Denmark 1999) has not been shown in Germany because no television channel wants to pay for dubbing and show the films is a scandal. In cases like this funding associations could subsidise dubbing and copies.

In general, film funding associations seem to be moving away from their attitude of waiting for scripts and film projects to come to them. They should inform directors and producers about their guidelines and change them regarding the funds available for the support of treatments and scripts for documentary films for children. The lively participation in the Symposium on the part of writers, directors and producers shows that the interest in the genre is very much alive.

Another idea would be a stimulation model initiated by the Kuratorium junger deutscher Film in the form of a schools competition for documentary scripts, similar to the Dutch model. This competition could be held in co-operation with the Ministry for Culture.

3. Distribution

The problem at the moment in the area of distribution is that, for reasons of quality, many films are only distributed on 16 mm. The production of 16 mm copies of original material, which in the meantime is often available on digi-video, is very expensive. A solution to this problem could be distribution on DVD and the promotion of DVD.

In addition, non-commercial distributors such as the Bundesverband Jugend und Film e.V. in co-operation with other distributors could put together packs with documentary films for schools and children's and youth work; these packs could also profit from distribution funding and could receive additional funding from the current funding associations of children's and youth film work.

The FWU should also be integrated into the funding and support of children's documentary films. Another possibility would be to dub films available for school subjects as well as for extra-school use. A film like "Ghetto princess", 41 mins, about a friendship between a Turkish and a Danish girl, is suitable for example, for use in schools and also outside school.

TV channels could also profit from an exchange of experience with non-commercial distributors, because their work with many contacts and screenings is a kind of audience research. TV channels can benefit from the distributor's knowledge about which films are successful with a young audience long term. This means that editorial departments should consider possible post-screenings of their programmes which could lead to a beneficial exchange of information and experience.

4. Media education theory

In a school context, media education has recently been focussed on the internet, especially since initiatives such as "Schools on the net" have been running. Film work is limited to educational films which are directly linked to the school curriculum. Even this access is not sufficiently exploited, although it could be a start: e.g. the Dutch film screened at the Symposium "In Belfast staat en muur", 54 mins, would perfectly complement English classes whose books have long been dealing with the troubles in Northern Ireland.
Together with TV channels and funding committees, script competitions could be held in schools, dealing with themes which the children themselves find important and which they can then develop themselves. There are some private initiatives already doing this and the Dutch stimulation fund could be used as a model. The TV channels would provide the juries and would guarantee implementation of the best scripts.

5. Festivals

The Symposium showed that, to a great extent, the festivals fulfil the task of bringing to the audience films which can otherwise not be seen in the country or on TV.

Many documentary film festivals as well as children's film festivals could and should extend their programmes to include documentary films for children - even if this means more research work at first. The largest documentary film festival in Amsterdam is already going in this direction which, among other things, will secure their long term audience. The Children's Film Festival in Berlin and the Documentary Film Festival in Leipzig are considering similar initiatives.

It also became clear at the Symposium that many films produced for the adult market are suitable for children and vice versa. This gives the festivals more flexibility in programming and film selection.
Festivals should also provide television channels with more information about which films were the most successful at the festivals so that these films can reach a larger audience via the mass medium television.

6. Universities and academies

At universities and film academies, students seldom learn about the target group "children" in film work. Considering the fact that the students can select their material themselves and can use the support of the universities/academies to implement their projects, this would be a good structure to build on. The universities and academies could offer for example guest lectures by filmmakers who have excelled in the production of children's documentary films, as well as seminars and film series. At the HFF Potsdam there are already plans to offer a course on "Children's film". Here too, it is important to include documentary forms as part of the course.

The most important thing is that the different parties concerned - TV channels, funding associations, non-commercial distribution, schools and universities as well as ministries of culture - begin to exchange experience with screening and researching the demand for documentary films for children and to create the structures to promote this form.
A wide coalition supporting documentary films for children: utopian today, perhaps, but possible in future.

dfi - dokumentarfilminitiative im Filmbüro NW
Petra L. Schmitz
mail: dfi(at)

The organisers would like to thank the sponsors of the "European Symposium: Documentary films for children":
BKM - Kulturelle Filmförderung des Bundes, Kuratorium junger deutscher Film, the Filmbüro NW as well as co-operation partners Westdeutscher Rundfunk and RTL.