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Back to School with Sources2

On Sunday afternoon there we were, all standing at the tiny Graz airport luggage carousel, the airport billboard advertising that the local ski season is being opened by Swedish House Mafia. It's got a certain kind of cool, Europe, hasn't it? Though people do still style their hair in mullets a lot, it must be said.

A disparate group of film people bundle into our large taxi and make our way through that efficient-looking industrial farmland they seem to have around European cities (what have they got against hedges?) on our way to what is a rather nice hotel in Graz city centre. They've even organised bikes for us to zip between hotel and course venue (at this early stage we don't realise that this is probably the only journey we'll have time to make this week). No cycle helmets - this is Europe remember, and they do things differently here.

We're swiftly grouped into one of three, two groups are fiction to our one documentary team, led by Argentinian-born writer Gualberto Ferrari. We familiarise ourselves with the Theatre am Lend, our home for the next 7 days. It's comfortable and supplies the endless stream of coffee, snacks, lunches and sometimes dinners required to keep the show on the road - sitting in a room all day appears to make everyone very, very hungry and I quickly learn to appreciate the pumpkin - the hallowed food of the region. The all-women Sources2 office has decamped from their base in Berlin to here and runs the operation with just the right style of warm efficiency. We're all very impressed at how easy they make it look, though we all know how hard they must need to work to pull these Herculean events off.

First thing on Monday, Gualberto maps out the format he'll take with our group of projects - Nina Pope (my co-producer and DoP) and I are joined by Stefan Lechner, Lieven Corthouts (& later, fresh from IDFA, his producer Emmy Oost), Madhureeta Anand & Johannes Rosenberger, Walo Deuber & Rose-Marie Schneider and Ruslana Berndl. The project subjects range from Chernobyl to nuns to refugees to my parents. Africa comes up quite a few times...

Our workshop will discuss each project in detail in rotation across the week, each project getting typically a 2 hr discussion every few days. We've all read each others' treatments in advance (these vary to a rather interesting degree though all are presented in English - most are much longer than is typical in the UK), so know the bones of what is ahead. Clearly Gualberto has both read and watched a lot of our material in advance. (He continues to work on our material at night at the hotel, though when he tells me about simultaneously enjoying old Rod Stewart videos on the telly, I wonder if this is homework entirely helpful).

My film is much further ahead than most in my group (i.e. in production rather than development) and this concerns me a little at first. It makes you feel a lot more vulnerable to show raw rushes than a paper treatment that can be re-edited or even erased on the spot. However, as we all know, having a hard drive of rushes is very far from having a film and I was here to approach the film afresh, so having a room full of trustworthy, talented strangers is just what I needed.

Each project is dissected and interrogated by the group and Gualberto, clips and tasters are viewed, and often what the director energetically tells us about their subject turns out to to be even better than what's been written: I've found this happens in pitching workshops I've done before, but as Sources2 is not focusing on the showy performance of pitching an idea in public, we are mercifully at liberty to get down to the minutiae if we want to - it's a delight, if a knackering one, and leads us into some astonishing personal revelations that remind me why documentary film-making is where the most awake people I've ever met are.

Nina and I are the only native English speakers here and more than lucky to be working in our mother tongue - if I find the course intensity tiring think how much more it is for everyone else - I'm amazed they can summon anything beyond jibberish after lunch. The dynamic of a collective effort on each and every project is followed and Gualberto is extremely focused - to the point that he needs to be reminded to allow us the coffee-breaks we exoect if we are to devour all the excellent pastries they keep leaving around outside our room.

In between sessions and over lunch we have all-too quick chats with some of the fiction writers and directors from the other groups. They come from all over the globe and I can genuinely say I've never had a more stimulating week of conversation - ranging from the sexual politics of modern Turkey, to the influx of Russian dancers into the Bollywood scene, to how well Norway deals with snow (not as well as is always reported here in the UK, it seems), to the cuisine of Uganda, to internal politics of the Swiss Protestant church and mountain biking in Belgium.
I also enjoyed dropping listeners' jaws with my 'No, really, this is the true story of my family, and I'm making a film of it', and it was endlessly helpful to hear the many insights of a truly international and culturally-unbiased lunchtime table.

Back in the room, Gualberto rigourously emphasised the importance of building a structure in all feature documentaries - taking each project to task on probable starts and ends, even those whose directors were still in the starting blocks. However hypothetical these discussions were, they remained helpful to all of us as we drew parallels in our own projects and recounted experiences we'd had that could prove helpful to each other. Characters were discussed, sometimes watched in clips, and honest feedback offered. My father (on film) did not have to open his mouth to evoke appreciative laughter from the group - something he could perhaps develop for comic effect in real life....Directorial approaches - investigative, playful, strategic - were all shared - after all, how many of us indie doc directors ever get to watch another at work and see fresh techniques in action? At one point I remember recommending all-female crews as the antidote to macho film subjects, and there were enjoyable digressions into how to engage with Somalian refugees (as a postman as well as as a director) and with Lisbon's fado music scene (as a guitarist and portrait photographer, as well as a director).

Sources2 kindly programme the odd trip out (the thrill of the Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum cannot be done justice to here) and some guest speakers to give our weary heads a rest: I caught Barbara Albert speaking about her new film The Dead and the Living and Manuela Buono of Taskovski Films talking about something you hear a lot about in doc circles now - 'cross-platform'. As an unofficial godmother of the UK net art scene (I learnt how to write raw HTML back in the the heady days of 1994) I come to such talks with a lot of scepticism, so much being touted as groundbreaking online now was old hat even by the late nineties. It's just that most audiences were not online in those days, so it was all niche.

It's never easy to exactly wow an audience who have to watch your cursor click and the wifi buffer, but Manuela offered a nice tour of the kind of N American and European online plus TV projects that big broadcast players like Arte have been funding. I had to admit I knew of almost none of them - One Millionth Tower and Empire Me (which might have travelled if it had had a better English title!) being a few tackling the kind of big global subjects that - for better or for worse - the WWW as a medium attempts to describe. Towards the end of Manuela's talk someone from my group whispered to me 'What's the difference between this and a 'film with a web site'?'. If we'd had more energy left that evening this might have been a good question to throw open to the room but truthfully we were all by then looking forward to throwing open the door to the bar.

After what felt like much more than a week's work, I left travelling with our tutor Gualberto - we listlessly browsed the airport shop with its pumpkin-seed based local confections and talked about what was next for us, once we'd left our immersive Sources2 bubble. Our group meets again in March 2013 in Vienna and we all have an action list to complete by then - one thing's for sure, we'll not be idle in the interim.

Many thanks to the Scottish Documentary Institute for supporting my attendence at Sources2.