A long, hard road: SDI moves up

office3_320_c.jpgTen years ago, I had a dream of creating a space which will serve as a centre dedicated to creative documentary, bringing Scotland back on the map, proud of our Grierson heritage. The name Scottish Documentary Institute (SDI) denoted the ambition behind the idea, despite many raised eyebrows!

We started with a desk and two part-time salaries sponsored by Edinburgh College of Art. Then, with a lot of clever accounting and hard work from the then tiny team, Sonja Henrici and Amy Hardie, we started pulling grants from different institutions and slowly started developing programmes such as Bridging the Gap and other activities to develop documentary talent in Scotland. 

At the time, Amy was running Docspace – a unique European scheme to exhibit documentaries in cinemas. Back then, we could not afford bringing international talent to us. Yet by bringing their films we could start opening up to what international creative documentary is. Our first international gathering in 2004 was sponsored by the Finnish Film Institute who paid for their filmmakers to come to Edinburgh and talk about their work. I’m still ashamed to say that we had more Finnish filmmakers in the room than Scottish! That is when we realised that the road to success was going to be long and hard.

As we managed to acquire larger grants, we started employing more people in order to connect the different activities: from production of shorts to international distribution (thanks to valuable effort by Finlay Pretsell), from training through international masterclasses to The Edinburgh Pitch (thanks to Flore Cosquer), from training producers for feature docs (Interdoc) to producing feature docs ourselves (New Ten Commandments, Future my LoveAfrican Urban Dreams, I Am Breathing, and more in the pipeline). We are now developing new models of marketing and distribution through our Virtuous Circle initiative led by Ben Kempas.

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A couple of years back, it felt no longer beneficial for us to remain at Edinburgh College of Art except for the principle of keeping up with the synergy between academia and industry. We may call ourselves an 'Institute' but we are not funded like an institute. All our funding is clever management of project-specific grants and investments which are not guaranteed and need to be applied for on a yearly basis.

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However, the principle of staying linked to higher education remains more important than ever, at a time when the documentary world is once again struggling with the commissioning of creative films. It matters that we can keep a challenging eye on what is happening and to try to offer space and alternatives for documentary creativity. Our mission of working on an international level no matter what, is also serving as a cutting-edge tool to the Scottish funding body, Creative Scotland.

Over the last ten years, I’m proud to say, we’ve managed to develop graduates coming out of ECA's Film and TV Department through various SDI initiatives, and to mature them into international talent, as well as making Creative Scotland care about this unique form of storytelling.

When Edinburgh College of Art became part of University of Edinburgh a year ago, many question marks were thrown at the presence and the meaning of SDI there. Maybe all is not resolved, but the University of Edinburgh has offered us a prime location on the fifth floor of Evolution House, 78 West Port, with inspiring views over the castle – a recognition of good practice. Our Scottish Documentary Institute flag will go on fluttering across the cloudy skies, like a good pirate ship.

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More pictures of the new office on Facebook.

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