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The Documentary Challenge’s Five-Day Work Week

Are you addicted to large oil drums of coffee? Feel alive only when you’re a sleep-deprived stumbling zombie? Relish your emotions ripping from ice berg to flame thrower? Then you are made for the International Documentary Challenge.

Started in 2006, the International Documentary Challenge is a timed filmmaking competition — this year beginning on March 4 — where filmmakers have five days to craft a five-to-seven minute non-fiction film. In the last four years, more than 500 participating filmmakers — more than 125 each year — from some 20 countries chose to forgo sleep and sanity for this the ultimate in filmmaking madness.

“The Doc Challenge is an event for both novice and professional filmmakers,” director Doug Whyte says while relaxing in a soft chair in the Filmmakers Lounge at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. “Novice filmmakers have the opportunity to go through the whole filmmaking process in five days. They learn the art of film production in a trial by fire situation. Professionals have the opportunity to work on a creative, personal project without having to commit months or years of their life.”

A panel of judges selected by Whyte reviews the more than 100 films and narrows them down to the top 12, which are premiered at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary festival. From the twelve finalists a panel of judges at Hot Docs determines the Best Film, POV determines their award, and DER selects their winner. This is followed by theatrical screenings in major cities and at various film festivals, television exposure and a DVD release of the best films. Many of the Shorts can be viewed online at the SnagFilms Doc Challenge Channel.

Filmmakers cover the costs of their own films, and there is a registration fee of between $99-$115. The registration deadline for the 5th International Documentary Challenge is March 3.

A Healing Art (pictured), by Ellen Frick of Seattle, Washington, is a sensitive, beautiful film about the manufacture of artificial eyes.

“The Doc Challenge was a huge test of my directorial skills,” Frick says. With only five days from start to finish —pre-production, production, and post-production squeezed into an exhilarating, nerve-racking 120 hours — “you don’t get second chances.”

With no time for long meetings to plan each step meticulously, sometimes no time for any meetings, organization is critical. “Organization is the key when time is so precious,” Frick says.

Still, out of this hectic, intense process come splendid shorts of surprising insight and depth. A Healing Art takes us into the world of prosthetic eyes where each eye is hand painted, each eye is a masterful work of art that uniquely mirrors the patient’s natural eye, where patients — a young girl, a middle-age woman, and a Vietnam veteran — become “whole” again.

While filmmakers develop the personal and organizational skills necessary to make films under the shadow of the time-hammer, even more important, according to Frick, is the self-confidence that filmmakers acquire. Relying on instincts more than thought, action more than reflection, in the Doc Challenge one learns they can really make films.

Director Whyte, the director of Doc Challenge, says the Challenge is an innovative approach to make documentary filmmaking a thrilling experience and to instill in participants the “doc bug” to make bigger and better non-fiction films.

Whyte says that 80 percent of the participating filmmakers do finish a film by the deadline. Not surprising. Doc filmmakers are a thoroughly obsessive lot who thrive on raw caffeine and find spinning on the edge irresistible.

For more information on the 5th International Documentary Challenge, go to their website.

See last year’s Best Film, Ellen Frick’s A Healing Art, here.

Stewart Nusbaumer has been a journalist for several decades and has traveled in 109 countries. A veteran of the US Marine Corps and a graduate of Vassar College, Stewart has covered more than a dozen wars while also writing on domestic politics. Presently he is on the film festival circuit, next stop is SXSW.

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