Down on the farm

Photo: David White

Producer and director David White recently returned from Italy, where he took part in the Venice Biennale College – Cinema (VBC).

Mostly White has worked in documentary, or in a doco style. His is one of those names pops up a few times a year in various announcements – often from prestigious festival or market events.

Back in 2012 when Richard Driver sold the Documentary Channel, White was one of five filmmakers selected to make shorts for the new brand, BBC Knowledge. Coincidentally, when we spoke to White this December, he’d just completed work on one of the second season episodes for Decades in Colour, which screens on Prime, for Greenstone – of which Driver is now Managing Director.

Photo: Paul Wedel / David White

In 2012 White was already a well-established and award-winning director of music videos, and had been one of the producers on Shihad: Beautiful Machine. Towards the end of that year, after his short I Kill had played the Melbourne IFF, White was named one of two producers supported by the NZFC and SPADA to attend the Diploma of Entrepreneurial Producing for the Creative Industries course at the National Film Television School (NFTS), London. The other producer selected was Carthew Neal.

Shortly after the selection for the NFTS course, White’s short The Cleanest Pig went to Sundance.

After completing the 2013 NFTS course in the UK, White headed to the Hawkes Bay and hung out for a while. “I made a film by pressing record, running in front of the camera and acting. Then I edited it – it was all me.” The result was Killer?, which early in 2015 played in the Lab Competition at the world’s most prestigious shorts festival, Clermont-Ferrand. “I thought it could be a larger project,” White said, and he began to develop the idea further.

The Couple

In 2014, before Killer? went to France, White also secured funding for his feature doco Meat. The film was supported under the NZFC-NZ On Air fund Doc Connect – a fund which followed on from the agencies’ similarly short-lived if more prosaically-titled Joint Documentary Fund.

White also began to make his next short, The Couple, which he describes as having “a similar aesthetic and feel” to Killer?. It was selected in the same competition line-up at Clermont-Ferrand and played there at the beginning of 2016. A couple of months ago, The Couple returned to France to play (along with Oink) at the Festival des Antipodes with another Clermont-Ferrand selection, Ivan Barge’s Madam Black.

White continued developing his feature based on Killer?, and when it was selected for the VBC he had 40 pages of script. “I had quite a clear idea about Killer? going into VBC. Having gone through Doc Connect with Meat, I had a process from pre to delivery.”

Photo: David White

The College selects 12 projects for an intensive 10-day hothouse. Participants then get to write a full script and – after some more workshopping – three of those features are supported to go into production, with a guaranteed presentation at the Venice Film Festival.

One of the things White liked about the VBC was that he not only got to receive input from some very skilled people, but that everybody got to learn quite a bit about everybody else’s projects – seeing a treatment and a step outline before the College began.


During the 10-day residency everybody got to write a second step outline in response to the input they were receiving, before going home to write a full script – the script that would be the material the VBC used in deciding which three titles to invite back in January.

“They push,” White said. “They’re quite serious people. They ask questions constantly.”

As happens when you open ideas to input from others, White received some contradictory advice. The tutors contradicted each other, openly, and presented their reasoning. Some of the suggestions White didn’t care for, but he also realised he could push Killer? further than he had. While having differing opinions and suggestions isn’t always helpful, White believed all the input was coming from a good place.

“You have to remember that nobody’s there trying to make your film worse,” he said. “But at some points you have to make decisions. Overall they wanted you to think and make those decisions yourself, to explore your voice and how you create the best story you can.”

Photo: David White

The College sessions mix it up. Sometimes the sessions involve everybody, sometimes the three mentors (each of whom have different specialisms), sometimes just one mentor. One of the tutors (not for the group of films Killer? was in) was Mike Ryan, a producer on Jake Mahaffy’s Free in Deed, which won at Venice in 2015.

One exercise White found particularly useful was the Lego session, where filmmakers had to build aspects of their story and answers to questions with Lego.

White built a very large Lego model of one character, someone who was not really present in the script but who exerted significant influence on a key character. “We never realised he was so important to you,” his producer said, which forced White to re-exaimine how the script was (or wasn’t) conveying the importance of that influence to an audience.

“As a writer I’d lived with it for a long time, and I’d got some stuff that was clear in my head that wasn’t clear on the page. I had to change it, to keep it or adapt it. In the end I did make some quite drastic changes.

“There’s a lot on the line and you want to make them happy… but you have to make the best thing for you.”

Killer? wasn’t one of the three films selected to go forward at the College, and White is now looking at other ways to move it forward. And while he would have preferred to know that Killer? was funded and ready to go, White is looking at other options to finance the film. “I also have other projects I’m developing, with private support, and the release of Meat.”

The relationship with the Venice Biennale College doesn’t end with the news that other projects will be supported. The makers of the nine projects not supported are offered an online follow-up. In 2017 they’ll have opportunities to find co-producers in collaboration with Italy’s Torino FilmLab, the US-based Independent Filmmaker Project, and other initiatives and markets with which the Venice Biennale has relationships.

Photo: Paul Wedel / David White

David White’s Meat releases in 2017.

* * *

For the record, the titles selected for the Venice Biennale College were as follows. Those marked *** were selected for production support.

The Anthill, Hanna van Niekerk (director, Netherlands), Maarten Kuit (producer, Netherlands)
Clementine, Lara Jean Gallagher (director, U.S.), Karina Ripper (producer, U.S.)
*** Film di Confine, Giorgio Ferrero (director, Italy), Federico Biasin (producer, Italy)
Inaccessible, Loran Bonnardot (director, France), Jean des Forêts (producer, France)
In the Making, Kristoffer Borgli (director, Norway), Riina Zachariassen (producer, Denmark)
Killer?, David White (director, New Zealand), James Ashcroft (producer, New Zealand)
Lala, Ludovica Fales (director, Italy), Igor Princic (producer, Italy)
*** Lightning Ridge, Alena Lodkina (director, Australia), Kate Laurie (producer, Australia)
*** Martyr, Mazen Khaled (director, Lebanon), Diala Kachmar (producer, Lebanon)
Mirny Mining Town, Saverio Pesapane (director, Italy), Costanza Julia Bani (producer, Italy), Fabian Martin Diering (producer, Germany)
Night/vision, Eva Weber (director, Germany), Nicole Stott (producer, UK)
Voice of Silence, EuiJeong Hong (director, South Korea), Afolabi Kuti (producer, UK)


Written by Keith Barclay

Keith is the editor of SCREENZ, and the co-creator and founding editor of CREWED.