Documentary festival broadens your mind from the comfort of your seat

Like many lawyers, David Bigio is a man with a rich extracurricular life. As well as holding down a busy barristerial career and following his favourite sports teams from his native Canada and adopted New Zealand, David performs an integral role in the production of New Zealand’s annual Documentary Edge Film Festival. 

The Documentary Edge Festival was launched in 2005, and eight years on it is Australasia’s premier international documentary film festival. The Festival is the signature event put on by the Documentary New Zealand Trust, a non-profit organisation which promotes documentary filmmaking and advocating opportunities for New Zealand documentary filmmakers. 

Programming top-class non-fiction films from around the world, the 2013 crop boasts nearly 50 feature-length films and 15 shorts, including two features from this year’s Oscar shortlist. Doc Edge (as it is known in the industry) often provides audiences with the only way to catch certain movies that won’t be granted a theatrical or DVD release in New Zealand. 

It must therefore be the dream of most hardworking professionals to find a way to use their skills and expertise in a completely different industry. What is surprising is quite how varied David’s involvement has been, thanks to his legal background. 

It started about six years ago when his brother-in- law, Alex Lee (co-Founder and co-Director, and himself a qualified lawyer), asked David to become the trust’s legal counsel. Being married to a documentary film distributor and having always enjoyed fact-related content on television and in the major cinematic releases (like Michael Moore’s high profile documentaries), David’s interest in helping documentary find a wider audience was piqued. 

In terms of wearing his lawyer’s hat, occasionally David will have to use his dispute resolution skills to ensure commitments made by a film’s representatives are followed through. Such issues may include a conflict whereby a film has been committed to premiere at one festival and then finds itself scheduled for earlier screenings elsewhere in the world, causing problems for scheduling and advertising. Another surrounded the representative’s demand that a film only be shown once in order to bolster its commercial life later. David acknowledges that a non-profit organisation needs to resolve issues quickly and cheaply. “There has to be a way of getting through it short of legal proceedings because it’s really not something festivals want to be involved in.” So far, so good – problems arise infrequently, and the Festival has not lost a scheduled film yet. 

David is also on the Trust’s local advisory board, where his legal advice is valued in discussions about the positioning of future financing of documentary films, and deciding what kind of representations can be made to various bodies, including government, to promote or assist the support of documentary films. 

The third strand of David’s involvement with Documentary Edge will resonate with many barristers. For the last two years (and he is set to reprise the role on 10th April), David has compered the Festival’s opening awards night. He is not part of the creative decision-making on which films are programmed or who wins what, but he gets to stretch his artistic muscle by writing his own material for segments throughout the evening, an opportunity he finds very enjoyable. “I don’t know, I won’t speak for all barristers, but some of us might be frustrated performers,” he admits with a smile. 

And finally, an unexpected contribution from the legal profession to the documentary craft. As well as its annual film festival, the Trust hosts the Screen Edge Forum – a series of seminars, workshops, panel discussions and a pitching forum where industry participants can network and share ideas. A couple of years ago the panel organisers got their lawyer along to offer a few tips on interview techniques to two filmmakers and a producer. In front of an audience, David discussed the notions of open versus closed questions and fairness in interviews. “Essentially my message was whereas I take a point of view in a case, and somebody else takes the other point of view and the judge decides, the filmmaker is actually the advocate and the judge, so through the editing of the film the advocate can take you to what they want you to consider the outcome to be.” He explained that they may choose to do this, but that a filmmaker has an obligation, if they want to persuade from a legitimate basis, to present both sides to the greatest extent possible and to not inject their advocacy too strongly, but instead to try to let the issues or the position speak for itself. 

The panel also considered the difference between doing a personal story where you need to question in a particular way to elicit intimate details, and covering a political revolution which would require another set of techniques. The filmmakers then showed segments from their films and “it was really stimulating [hearing] how they got people to make the powerful statements that they had made in the context of their films”. 

It is unsurprising that a lawyer should find himself caught up advancing the cause of non-fiction filmmaking. Documentaries routinely cover human interest stories such as miscarriages of justice, crime-related tales and others for which the adage “truth is stranger than fiction” couldn’t be more apt. 

Legal and socially-minded topics are natural fodder for real-life filmmaking. David is particularly looking forward to just such a handful in 2013’s offering: Unraveled profiles Manhattan attorney Marc Dreier, arrested for orchestrating a massive fraud that garnered $700 million from hedge funds; the Oscar-nominated The Invisible War looks at the rape of soldiers in the US Military; and another Oscar hopeful, How to Survive a Plague, follows two organisations who are turning AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable condition. 

On a lighter note, the keen sports fan has also booked in The Four Year Plan about the recovery of the Queen’s Park Rangers football club in Britain. So there really is something for everyone’s tastes. 

The Doc Edge festival starts in Auckland on 10th April, then moves to Wellington from 8th May. Full programme details can be found at

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