One of my guest speakers pointed out the other day that we average 23 minutes a day searching for something to watch. That adds up to seven years of our lives. Gulp. To make it easier on you, assuming you’re reading this cause you love documentaries, here are some films well worth your time:
In the last few years I’ve guest lectured for the Grierson Trust’s DocLab, where participants as part of the mentoring programme develop doc ideas. One of the best ideas last year was from Ryan Gregory, who went on to win a new Sheffield Doc/Fest pitch. The film is now up on BBC Three. Below is a short version, with the full film available on the IPlayer:
Lots of good docs on All 4 and Netflix as well, but those will have to wait for another post.
If you live in London and want to dip more into great docs, please sign up for the course I will be teaching at the Crouch End Picturehouse. We’ll be talking about British docs for six Wednesday evenings from mid June.
In more than a decade at Channel 4 heading up factual multiplatform content, Adam Gee commissioned many multi-award winning productions, including Embarrassing Bodies and the Big Fish Fight. After a stint launching All 4’s short form video service, he is now commissioning for Little Dot Studios, who have earned astonishing viewing numbers with their flagship Real Stories documentary channel. A regular guest speaker for my digital engagement class, Adam excels at spotting trends and keeping ahead of the game in a dizzying, fast-changing media landscape. I chatted with him about his work finding new pathways for documentary filmmakers.
Carol Nahra: Can you tell me about your role at Little Dot?
Adam Gee: I was brought in last summer to commission the first original content for Little Dot’s Real Stories, their documentary channel, which is the biggest of their portfolio of channels. It’s a very pure form of commissioning in that I was given a blank sheet, a pot of money and instructions to fill up the blank sheet with stuff that would fit properly onto the channel. So I set about basing the brief on the data underlying the channel. The data makes it really clear both who your audience is and what they actually like. This does not constrict your commissioning, it just shows where the most fertile territory lies.
CN: What kind of films do you commission?
AG: One of the things that characterises Real Stories is by and large they are uplifting and inspirational and have a feel-good vibe about them. And that is probably to some degree a product of the time – I think people are quite up for hearing things which are uplifting about humanity. So I commissioned eleven documentaries in the second half of 2017. I’ve just started on the next five. They are very varied subjects which range from restorative justice to proxy marriage to social media addiction and all things in between. They also range from traditional observational documentary to things that are much closer to the border of factual entertainment. And to some degree they have been done in the spirit of experimentation, to see what fits happily onto the channel which has been built up on acquisitions, what people find an easy transition to if they’re watching the 60 minute, relatively high budget documentaries which are the foundations of the channel.
“There are plenty of places you can go to make documentaries about ISIS or fetishes and this doesn’t need to be one of them.”
CN: What don’t you commission?
YouTube is the core online presence of Real Stories and there are certain subject areas which are vulnerable on YouTube to being demonetised or slapped with an 18 certificate – in other words, are vulnerable to being made invisible. So I was careful to stay a long way inland from those borders so the investment wasn’t at risk in that way. There are plenty of places you can go to make documentaries about ISIS or fetishes and this doesn’t need to be one of them. My favourite part of the brief is the slide that says what we don’t want at the moment. And that reads pretty much like my Channel 4 job description – sex, drugs and rock and roll. I’ve been there, done that, got the t-shirt and am happy to move on.
CN: Who have made the films?
AG: By and large these commissions have been done with small indies and individual filmmakers. I have made a real effort that they not be the usual suspects. So when I read down a list of the commissions to date, the first ones were directed by the founder of a new BAME-owned company (Andy Mundy Castle, Brittle Bone Rapper); a woman returner who’s coming back from a career break (Debbie Howard, Absent From Our Own Wedding, below); a woman who has been in Holloway prison twice for gang-related offences but is now on the straight and narrow (Nicole Stanbury, Sorry I Shot You).
A number are first-time commissions. Taken as a whole, they are quite a weird and wonderful bunch that are really talented and have delivered without exception. At a tight tariff like the UK online video one, if you’re not going to take a risk on emerging talent then, when will you ever?
As well as straight-forward commissions, we have experimented with something a bit more like completion funding. Travelling on Trash is an example of this – constructed out of contemporaneous social video material. So the ability to have some flexibility of approach like that is also very interesting and helpful.
CN: Looking back on your time at Channel 4, what is your perspective on where multiplatform commissioning is in the UK right now in terms of health?
AG: I think the focus in the UK, as everywhere else, is on the online video wars – surviving and with a bit of luck thriving on this global battlefield. Multiplatform filmmaking is somewhat on the back burner because online video is so much the business imperative. There is still some really interesting stuff being done but it’s on nothing like the scale that it was in its peak in the UK. That said, it is still a powerful form and I have no doubt more juice will be squeezed out of it in due course.
CN: What are you most proud of from your days multiplatform commissioning?
AG: I think the thing that particularly stands out would probably be Embarrassing Bodies, because it was such a perfect blend of entertainment and public value. And the integrated roles played by television and interactive media were totally hitting the sweet spot, so that people were engaging with their health in a way they didn’t normally. At its peak, there were 70 million visits a year to the web site. It was the number one competitor to the NHS online, and, more importantly, it was also the number one referrer. So there is this sweet spot between popular TV and interactive media which Embarrassing Bodies perfectly typified – the TV prompting emotion and action, the online giving the opportunity to act on them immediately. It was also a great platform for experimenting because it was on such a massive scale.
CN: Do you envision a time when public service broadcasters will return to that kind of experimentation?
AG: I think multiplatform television is far from played out. It’s a very powerful combination of media. I have no doubt that at some point people will return to it and fulfil its full promise. I’ve seen some really good stuff in the last couple of years, but done on a more modest budget. And in fact the things that I’ve seen in recent times have come from perhaps unlikely sources such as LADbible, for example, which did an ambitious campaign around plastic pollution which was really imaginative and cost effective.
CN: Moving on to online video. Can you tell me what you learnt from your time at Channel 4 launching short form video?
It was exciting and a pleasure to set up the factual short form video service on All 4 for Channel 4 because it was to a large extent a matter of range-finding creatively, developing a distinctive editorial tone and voice. Also, it was an exciting area because, as I mentioned earlier, it is by its nature on quite a tight tariff, so it’s a great place to take risks with new talent and new approaches.
CN: And as you’ve shown in my classes you were really gratified by the number of people watching the content.
AG: It quickly became apparent what a large canvas one had to play on. The last piece of content I commissioned for All 4, when Channel 4 put it onto social media on Facebook, got 124 million views in ten days (Naked and Invisible, above). And that really underlined what kind of scale you’re playing on. I see the same kind of thing now at Little Dot Studios, where we have conversations with indies who have licensed their films to the Real Stories documentary channel. And when they come in they often seem as interested when you tell them “Oh, you know that film you let us have three months ago – that’s had another million views”. The money they get as a result of that is a nice cherry on the cake, but the increased exposure seems to fire them up just as much – getting more eyeballs on something they’ve poured blood sweat and tears into rather than it languishing in a cupboard or buried deep in a website or catalogue.
Adam’s latest commission, Vanished: The Surrey School Girl, can be found here.
Interested in documentaries? Live in London? I’ll be teaching an evening doc appreciation course in June and July at the Crouch End Picturehouse.
It’s been a busy three years for Charlie Phillipssince we last spoke, not long after he became Head of Docs at the Guardian. With so much changing in the land of online documentaries, I thought it was time for a check in with him about how the Guardian has evolved. Here’s an edited transcript of a recent conversation.
Carol Nahra: Talk me through what has worked and what hasn’t at the Guardian?
Charlie Phillips: In the early days we were trying different things out and we were initially doing shorter docs than what we’re doing now. Everything was around 10 minutes or something. It was always my hunch that what would work better for us would be to do stuff that you needed a certain investment in it. Films that were more like 20-30 minutes, and it was signposted that it was going to be really compelling. You’d have to sit back and concentrate and give it time to watch things through. If you made that promise to people that it was going to be worth 25 minutes of your time then they are more like to watch it, rather than giving them the impression that you can watch it really quickly on your mobile.
We also shifted from trying to do loads of films – we were initially trying to put them out every one to two weeks – to say it’s better if we do one approximately every three weeks or even four. Then we give it a massive publicity blitz, give it loads of love, make sure it’s the best it can be.
CN: How do you do that?
CP: We put a lot more time and effort into the promotion. We treat them like event releases, which is why you get a massive banner advert whenever we release a doc, on the front page of the site. They’ve got a different player. So it is more of a kind of immersive experience watching the films. It’s different than everything else we put out – so the whole experience watching is different. They’re higher resolution, we chapterise the films. And also it was my belief that this should be a really global strand. So we really doubled down to ensure that we cover as many countries as possible.
CN: How do you define success, and a good recent film that was successful?
CP: For me the main marker of success is that we put out a film that we are proud of and that has told an untold story. We then also want the films to be seen by lots of people. And we get pretty decent viewing figures – our viewing figures are constantly higher than I ever thought we’d get.
The film we did about Qandeel Baloch has done exceptionally well. Over 200,000 just on Youtube alone and a couple of hundred thousand more on site. That was a pleasant surprise, because it’s primarily a non English language, it’s about what would be a remote place. It’s about a feminist, almost entirely told through social media video and graphics. In some ways the aesthetic of it is quite scrappy, in a good way. But people really took to because it was about a young woman who was killed because of the politics around her. That was really gratifying for a film which is set in Pakistan, for which only a limited amount of original material was shot, and in many ways is quite experimental. We put in a lot of time and effort working with the filmmaker to get it right – it went through a lot of cuts. That was a Bertha partnership.
CN: Congratulations on the Grierson for Fish Story (Best Documentary Short). Of course that’s very different in tone and feel from everything else.
CP: Yeah that was a really rare one for us because we took it as an acquisition rather than as a commission. But I knew it would work for us, a) cause it’s a brilliant film but b) because it has a relationship with journalism. It is in fact an investigative journalism film, it’s just that Charlie (Lyne, the director) is also kind of deconstructing investigative journalism at the same time and doing it in a funny way. It’s just a brilliant film, and it resonates with people and it’s obviously very poignant and clever. There is a part of the Guardian’s general identity which is about being lighthearted and fun. We couldn’t do a whole strand of films like Fish Story, much as I’d like to, but it’s definitely part of our remit to do the occasional thing like that.
CN: What’s been the biggest surprise for you on this journey?
CP: I think genuinely that people want to watch the films. The hunch that on a news and journalism platform that you could get really good audiences for short documentaries that look like documentary films rather than news reports. I think we’ve shown you can get a pretty mainstream audience for what’s often quite challenging and hard hitting stuff.
If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to slow down, be mindful and connect with your inner self, I’ve got the doc for you. As I wrote about recently in Documentary Magazine, one of the London Film Festival’s stand out films for me was Max Pugh and Marc J. Francis’ Walk With Me, which opens in UK cinemas this week. The film takes us to southern France, deep inside the monastic community of Plum Village, where the Zen Buddhist inhabitants are utterly focused on leading mindful lives. The community is guided by the revered Thich Nhat Hanh, whose readings are brought to life in voiceover by Benedict Cumberbatch.
Immersive is an overused term these days, but this film comes close to doing the term justice. Four years in the making, the co-directors learned they needed to become members of the community before they could tell its story. I spoke with Francis about the making of it before the film’s screening at the London Film Festival.
(Transcript edited for length and clarity.)
Carol Nahra: There are a lot of films out there at the moment where of course you would say it’s better to see on the big screen, but this in particular seems to have been made with a cinematic experience in mind.
Marc J. Francis: This really was a subject that lent itself to the big screen experience. Because our intention was to make a film which could be experiential, as a film that you kind of feel. So what does it feel like to be a part of this community that commits their lives to cultivating mindfulness?
CN: The audio is amazing. It seems as important as the visual in some ways.
MF: Yeah, we invested heavily on the sound. We really wanted the sound to play as big a part if not a bigger part as the visual experience. Because bringing you inside into the film really enhances that experience. And it is about, what they do is about how deeply do they listen.
CN: Tell me a bit about your coming to this topic.
MF: I came to it through Max Pugh, the co director, whose brother became a monk about eight years ago….There was a point where the monastery was starting to think about letting in cameras for the very first time. Thich Nhat Hanh always shied away from publicity throughout his life; never really wanted it. But he felt that maybe now was the time to try and be more open. The stipulation of Thich Nhat Hanh was to find a way to make it about community; don’t make it about me.
CN: You had access but it still took four years to make. What took all the time?
MF: It’s not a conventional film in the sense that you are not focusing on one to three characters and following their narrative arc. And that you’ve got your A to B and end up at C. It’s trying to create narrative out of a mood or feeling. So to do that was extremely difficult. Plus because we wanted to find a way to translate the energy of mindfulness as we experienced it at the monastery to the audience, the only way to do that was if we invested time in the monastery ourselves and started to practice, to tune into that energy field and feel it and edit in a way that reflects that mood and pace. And that is no easy thing to do – to find a way to keep your stress and your anxieties at bay and find a sense of inner presence and stillness and reflect that to the audience.
CN: So presumably that meant engaging before you picked up the camera, or putting the camera down to engage in the practices of the community?
MF: Yeah, well we started off with a camera. And then that didn’t work. Because we weren’t getting any cooperation. Only when they got a sense that we weren’t on a deadline, and we weren’t having a goal and we weren’t saying on a Monday okay by Friday we need these three scenes – if we ever did that we would fail. But if we let go of the goal and just started to feel present…We just kept our cameras at bay and in the event that something revealed itself to us we were unable to capture it. And the more that we did that the more open they became and the more the trusted us and our ability to capture that kind of vibration. A bit like don’t make a film about a kung fu master if you haven’t even tried kung fu itself.
CN: So what was that like for you? Because you come from strong narrative storytelling background and this whole process as you describe it must have been very intense for you.
MF: Yes it was very intense, you’d step into the great unknown of no direction. And you really don’t know what’s going to happen. A director wants to be in control. So to let go of these ideas of control and step more into a place of trust was a great learning curve. That ended up becoming a manual for life.
CN: So what will you be taking forward with you? Will you be living differently?
MF: I already am. One of the reasons I was attracted to the project in the first place was because I could see that the life of an independent filmmaker is a tricky one. There are highs and lows, there are disappointments. You get great moments and you get bad moments. And how does one find a sense of inner balance within that storm so that you’re not finding yourselves getting highly anxious when things aren’t going well or over excited when things seem to be going well? How can I make a film, how can I make a career for myself as an artist and as a family man in this career where I enjoy the process? And I’m happier inside myself for the process? These are the questions I was starting to ask myself before the film came along. I don’t want to win an Oscar and be depressed about it or stressed about it. That kind of thing. That feeling should be with me every day – whether I win one or not is not the point. So I got a sense that when I arrived to Plum Village for the first time that there were some really amazing things going on here that could be extremely beneficial to how I want to live my life.
Has the film been well received?
It has. I think there is a time now where people are getting a bit overwhelmed with what is going on politically. This Trump anger, this divisiveness which is coming through our feeds, it’s like do I want to go to the cinema and be reminded more about what is going on or can I go to the cinema and have an opportunity to breath and get back to myself or try to step away from it in some way? So seeing the film in that wider context is like an antidote to the larger context of what is in our faces on a day to day basis.
It’s a sign of the times that two of the winning docs from this year’s Grierson Awards, which I attended on Monday night, came from the heart of the migrant crisis. As it shows no sign of abating, filmmakers and broadcasters alike are struggling with how to tell the narratives emerging from the crisis in fresh ways. In the BBC’s Goodbye Aleppo which won Best Current Affairs Documentary, four citizen journalists film themselves under siege as the East Aleppo in December 2016. Against some stiff competition, the Best Documentary Series went to Keo Films’Exodus: Our Journey to Europe, which tells a range of astonishing stories, tracking refugees from the shores of Turkey, through harrowing sea crossings, to their unstable lives in Europe. Coupling refugees’ own escape footage with interviews, it makes for very powerful frontline testimony. To get a taste of it, check out this BBC extract from Exodus, which tells Hassan’s story:
Another notable award on the night was the Best Constructed Documentary, which went to Love Productions’ Muslims Like Us, for Channel 4. The two part series placed ten Muslim men and women in a house together for ten days, including a convicted extremist. The program not surprisingly generated a lot of debate about what Islam means to modern Muslims.
Although it’s a strange category to win – Best Entertaining Documentary – I was delighted to see the Channel 4 series 999: What’s Your Emergency? win a Grierson. Made by Blast! Films, it’s always a superb watch, taking viewers into the heart of the emergency response system, and tracking calls from origin through treatment, often via some compelling ambulance cab footage.
999: What’s Your Emergency? is one of a plethora of top quality public services series on British TV this year. They cumulatively demonstrate both the utter professionalism and quality of the National Health System and emergency services while at the same time showing how ever dwindling resources and escalating demand have left both at breaking point. Other outstanding series include Label One’s BBC series Hospital, which in its second series found itself at the epicentre of a response to a terrorism attack. Check out this astonishing clip:
And this one, as two of the victims – French school friends – reunite in hospital:
Some months ago I was taking notes on a student film about the impact of a high speed motorway on a community in the British countryside. A woman appeared briefly in it, telling how her husband had killed himself, leaving her raising seven children, most of whom were on the autistic spectrum. I made a note that she clearly needed a documentary all of her own. Fast forward to the closing night of the BFI London Film Festival last month, and the winner of the Grierson Award for Best Documentary goes to Kingdom of Us – taking us deep into the lives of this very same family. Shot over three years by director Lucy Cohen, the feature film focuses not so much on the children’s autism but on the ongoing impact of the suicide of their father some years ago. It’s a very moving gem of a story, with luminous filming, abundant family archive and creative editing – no wonder it was snapped up during production by Netflix, where it can now be found.
Finally, I much enjoyed helping shape the Best Student Documentary list this year. The winning film, the National Film and Television School’s Acta Non Verba is really remarkable, as director Yvann Yagchi undertakes a creative personal journey investigating his father’s infidelity and suicide. You can request access from the NFTS to see the film.
See here for a full list of Grierson Winners. And to listen to another story from the frontline of the refugee crisis, check out this newly released episode I produced: Rajwana’s Diary, in SE15 Productions’ A New Normal podcast.
For a good portion of the nine month fight to defeat ISIS in Mosul, veteran French cameraman Olivier Sarbil was embedded with a small elite team of Iraqi Special Forces. Airing this week on PBS’ Frontline (and on Britain’s Channel 4 in November), Sarbil’s film MOSUL combines beautifully shot actuality footage with direct interviews with the soldiers in their home. The often uncomfortably close up scenes take us directly into the fight against ISIS, focusing on four young soldiers. Having screened to packed, rapturous houses at European screenings, it has been entered for an Academy Award nomination in the short film category. I spoke with Olivier and his co-director and producer James Jones in London to find out how they made such a powerful film with minimal crew and little knowledge of Arabic.
(Edited for length and clarity)
Carol Nahra: This is your first time working together, isn’t it? How did that come about?
James Jones: Basically, Olivier had been a freelance cameraman in news, shooting this extraordinarily beautiful stuff that didn’t become anything bigger, so it was kind of wasted. So he was kind of known in that world for shooting really beautifully but hadn’t done that longer form stuff. So he went out to Mosul for Channel 4 News to doa long news piece. And then PBS had a film fall through and needed to fill half a slot and Dan Edge, the senior producer called me and said ‘We’ve got this amazing footage, we’ve got two weeks until broadcast, can you come and like help.’ And I had just finishedUnarmed Black Male so thought why not. The film (Hunting Isis) was very good but it was lots of commentary. But I think all of us came away from it thinking this could be so much bigger. He shoots so beautifully, he’s got this amazing access, where no one else on earth is filming, and the guys seem to trust him. So we were all like let’s send Olivier back and I will come on as a producer (Olivier shot the frontline scenes solo while James and a fixer joined him for the interviews).
Carol: How did you approach this shoot and gain the trust of the soldiers?
Olivier Sarbil: Somehow we started to build a trust between me and the commander….For me it was important that I wasn’t going to do a news report – I was going to tell their story, the story of the battalion. And I don’t speak Arabic so it’s all about how I smile, the body language. I’m covered in scars, it helps, from shooting the war in Libya. I myself am a former Marine – maybe it helps me, cause they understand I know how those guys work in the field. And it was a very long process, for weeks eating beans and rice with them every day, shooting almost nothing. I didn’t want them to feel frightened by the camera. I really wanted them to feel Olivier is there but he’s almost invisible.
James: He doesn’t speak Arabic, he didn’t have a fixer or translator with him….He’s so unobtrusive, they know he can’t understand what they’re saying, so they’re completely uninhibited. It’s like a documentary experiment. It’s like totally fly on the wall – if they’re calling their girlfriend or roughing up a prisoner, they just do it.
Carol: It was translated when you got back, correct? So there must have been moments where you thought ‘Oh my god I’m glad I didn’t know what they were saying!’
Olivier: That was one of the most amazing moments. When I was going back and I had all that footage, and finally I could understand what they were talking about.
Carol: What was the most shocking thing that you realised much later what they were saying?
Olivier: I would not say shocking because I had an idea, but for example, there is a scene in a school where they are talking with a kid. I didn’t know they were threatening him. I had no idea…. You really have to trust your instinct and your gut. The thing that is really interesting is if I had a fixer or a translator, it would have killed the connection between me and them. I think I would have missed some key scene because my fixer might have said ‘ they are just talking rubbish, don’t worry about it’ and maybe I would have been tempted to turn away the camera. Because I didn’t know, it’s like I’m being deaf, so you have to develop other senses. It’s a very interesting process.
Carol: How did you conduct the interviews?
James: When they’d more or less declared victory in Mosul. Even then they were still on rotation. There was a week window – we didn’t know when that would be. As it happens it came in the middle of Ramadan, in the middle of summer;it was really hot. Half of them were wounded; half weren’t picking up their phone. It was just like a nightmare. It was actually a miracle that we got it. They were scattered all over Iraq. We didn’t want to think about what the film would be if we hadn’t got everybody. Each of them told crucial bits of the story – losing any one of them would have made it really hard. We probably would have had to use commentary.
Carol: What has been the reaction to the film at screenings?
James: It has been amazing. But the one criticism we’ve heard is some people have said “Is it too beautiful? It’s about the horrors of war, but does it look too beautiful?!”
Olivier: It’s an argument that unfortunately I’ve heard a few times. Some people are saying that because it’s war you don’t have to be worrying about the aesthetic of the shot. Which I find disturbing to a degree. Because it’s something that you don’t have in photojournalism. All the best photojournalists are painting with their pictures the misery, the death, the suffering with beautiful pictures. And no one told them ‘Why are your pictures so nice?’ But in fact I think the reality that you see for example in a news story that is not actually the reality. The way they build a news story with a shaky shot, it’s not reality.
James: It’s a cheap trick. To tell audiences it is dangerous, it has to feel wobbly. And actually there are a lot of tricks. Where this, it is well composed and it’s beautiful, and it looks sometimes like fiction. But I don’t think that that means it doesn’t seem visceral, or tense.
Carol: It’s beautifully shot and reminded me of Cartel Land. I’m amazed how you did it – because there is a fair amount of turmoil going on and you did the sound and everything too.
Olivier: I’m not a war junkie. The only reason I went to that battle is there was a story to be told. I said to Dan and James, we had to tell it in a way that was not just another bang bang. And there is bang bang – this is a war story – but I wanted to get more into the mind of those guys, to be more human, more intimate.
James: It’s a film about shades of grey – the horror of war. These kinds of guys going through really extreme things. What we were keen to do was to treat the soldiers with the same respect that we treat British or American soldiers. We wanted to go home with them, interview them, see their lives… It’s interesting, at a time when Trump is banning Muslims for all being terrorists, these men are fighting against ISIS. They are fighting our battle. We left Iraq to them. They are sacrificing themselves to fight ISIS. There’s this kind of irony that all Muslims are seen as enemies but these guys are doing great work.
If you’re not fortunate enough to be attending Sheffield Doc/Fest this week, but are in the market for some great docs, here is a list of films that have played at the festival that you can now stream on Netflix or BBC IPlayer. Descriptions are from the copy I originally wrote for Doc/Fest.
Excited at having landed a place at the University of North Carolina, Annie Clark’s elation evaporated when she was raped before classes began. She is far from alone: studies show that 20% of women will suffer a sexual attack at university. In a masterful, wide-ranging investigation, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering present dozens of testimonials detailing how universities of every shape and size collude to cover up sexual crimes on their campuses, creating an ideal “hunting ground” for serial offenders. Fear of damaging their reputation – and enrolment – drives shocking behaviour throughout the universities, with the fraternity and athletic communities covering up the most grievous assaults. For many victims, the institutional denial proves even more painful than the crime itself. But hope is in sight as Annie and other victims begin to fight back through the courts, hitting universities where it hurts – by threatening their revenue streams.
It became known in America as the “loud music trial”. In an encounter which lasted a scant three and a half minutes, a middle aged white man named Mike Dunn repeatedly fired into a car of unarmed black teenagers, after they refused to turn down their rap music, killing 17 year old Jordan Davis. Now the case has come to trial, and the nation is watching. Dunn’s attorney is using Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law to argue self defence. In the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, in which a white man walked free in Florida after gunning down an unarmed teenager, tensions are running high. Director Marc Silver skilfully weaves a compelling narrative through beautifully shot courtroom scenes, interviews with the victim’s parents and friends, and shocking telephone conversations between incarcerated Dunn and his distraught fiancee. A riveting look at a flawed legal system in a country where race relations are balanced on a knife’s edge.
In this double Sundance winner, Matthew Heineman (main pic above) takes us deep into the world of Mexican drug cartels by embedding himself with two vigilante groups on either side of the US-Mexico border. Camouflaged to help spy on drug runners, veteran Tim Foley is a man who wears his hard past on his face. Meanwhile, across the Rio Grande, surgeon Dr. Jose Mireles looks straight out of central casting, with chiselled features and a prominent moustache. As head of the Autodefansas, he is leading a group of men determined to obliterate the region’s most dangerous drug cartel, the Knights Templar. Heineman repeatedly places himself in harm’s way, filming the chaos as the group begin taking over towns – in so doing adapting many of the violent tactics of the drug lords they’re trying to overpower. A visceral journey into North America’s heart of darkness, Cartel Land will be talked about for years to come.
Sixto Rodriguez was discovered by two music producers, whilst living on the streets of Detroit in the late 60s. They quickly recognised him as an inner city poet, his poignant lyrics about working class lives reminiscent of Bob Dylan. They made two albums with Rodriguez, and never understood why they were total flops. Unbeknownst to them, in a pre-Internet, apartheid age, a bootleg copy of a Rodriguez album made him an inspiration to a generation of South Africans just beginning to test the ties that bind. Yet all that his South African fans knew about Rodriguez, was that he had spectacularly killed himself on stage. After years of wondering, two of his biggest devotees set out to learn more, and eventually discover the shocking truth behind the legend. This beautifully crafted film scooped two major awards at the Sundance Film Festival, and shows in its edge-of-the-seat storytelling, just how powerfully a documentary narrative can grip.
Few people cite Scientology as a force for good in their lives – outside of Scientologists themselves, of course. But it was communal hatred of the creepy cult – and their bullying, litigious online presence – that forced the hacktivist group Anonymous from a culture of pranksters to an influential cyber-army. As a number of the group’s most prominent activists face over-the-top prison sentences, director Brian Knappenberger explores the history of the radical collective, and how it rose from a patchwork of bloggers, to become an influential change-agent in the Arab spring. Inevitably with such an amorphous, all embracing group, schisms endure. Most want to use their numbers to promote civil disobedience and curb some of the world’s excesses. But others simply want to continue to cause anarchic mischief online, or as one of this doc’s many entertaining commentators puts it: “If you’re not out there making epileptics have seizures, then you’re a moral fag”.
Lisa Ling regrets the 121,000 lives she spied on electronically in a two-year period for the US Air Force. She’s now trying to make amends by visiting bombing victims in Afghanistan. National Bird follows Ling and two other whistleblower veterans wracked with guilt about the secret US drone war, and the many civilian casualties that continue to be denied by the powers that be.
At some point you would have thought New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who was an aggressive prosecutor of prostitution rings, might have written a note to self: Do Not Buy Hookers (no matter how high class). But no, alas, an FBI sting of a pricey escort service led to Spitzer’s fall and resignation after barely a year in the guv’s chair. Unfortunately for us small people, Spitzer was one of the good guys: he had built a career tackling excesses in the banking industry (before anyone else did), as well as going after environmental polluters and other baddies. Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney pieces together the rise and fall of Spitzer, and the long line of powerful enemies he left in his testosterone-fuelled wake. Accompanied by a breezy soundtrack, a range of entertaining interviews – including his chief nemeses, favourite call girl, and Spitzer himself – fill us in on one spectacular fall from grace.
In this legal thriller from vérité legends D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus , we follow Harvard professor Steven Wise, who is arguing to a series of sceptical judges that New York’s chimpanzees should be persons in the eyes of the law. Wise is convinced he can make legal history – if only he can keep his primate plaintiffs alive long enough to represent them in court.
As a magician “The Amazing Randi” spent decades wowing audiences with astonishing feats. But as Randi’s fanbase grew, he became uneasy at how conmen and faith healers used the tricks of his trade to deceive the masses for profit. Randi made it his life mission to expose psychics, even using the bullhorn of the Johnny Carson show to do so. Directors Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom take us through a hugely enjoyable series of Randi’s exposes, from the spoon bending of Uri Geller, to a televisual faith healer aided by an earpiece and a compliant wife. As he continuously worked to debunk the psychics, Randi met angry denial at all levels – even from the gullible scientists he did his best to aid and abet. As he eases into his twilight years still fighting deceit, Randi finds that a deception at the heart of his personal life might prove the costliest trick of all.
They knew how to make an impact: Pussy Riot’s performance inside a Russian cathedral might have lasted just a few seconds, but its repercussions continue to rock the Russian state. Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s absorbing documentary brings us straight into the centre of the ensuing trial, where three members stand accused of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. The filmmakers obtain astonishing access to the legal system, including the courtroom, where the girls murmur from within the confines of a glass cage at the sometimes farcical mayhem around them. Reviled by much of the Russian public, with even their closest family struggling to defend their actions, they stand firm by their convictions – and hatred of Putin. A truly compelling immersion into the clash between a generation determined to challenge an oppressive status quo, with those who are equally determined to maintain it.
For the fifteenth year running I’ve had the good fortune to watch a good chunk of Sheffield Doc/Fest’s programme to help write the film catalogue. Of the 35 features that I’ve seen, here are five of my favourite:
This powerful vérité documentary (pictured above) tells the story of American Joe Carman. The 40-year-old blue collar worker gave up cage fighting years ago, but claims it’s the only arena where he feels confident. When he returns to fighting without the blessing of his wife and four daughters, his dangerous hobby soon threatens to tear the family apart.
A groundbreaking observational documentary with the feel of an indie drama. Dina and her fiancé Scott, both neurodivergent, have moved in together to ready for their upcoming wedding, and have set about the messy business of forging lives. In increasingly intimate scenes, Dina is determined to let Scott know that her difficult past doesn’t stop her wanting a passionate future.
Facing a catastrophic decline in wild animals, big game hunters and conservationists often make uneasy bedfellows, as highlighted in this gripping documentary. South African rhino breeder John is convinced that legalising the sale of rhino horns will save the species from extinction. Meanwhile, American hunter Philip ventures to the remote wilderness of Nambia and Zimbabwe in his personal quest to hunt the “big five” in their natural environment.
In Dmitrii Kalashnikov’s mesmerising compilation of dash cam footage, we are spectators to a series of extraordinary moments. From reckless drivers and hammer wielding thugs, to extreme acts of nature and the occasional wild bear, this film is an eccentric portrait of contemporary Russia, as seen, all too briefly, through the front windscreen.
A profoundly personal film from one of Britain’s most talented documentary directors. To establish a better rapport, Morgan Matthews begins filming his dad, and carries on for a decade. Once a high flyer, Geoffrey lives precariously with his eccentric partner Anna. As revealed in very intimate scenes, Geoffrey has more than a few regrets, not least his emotional distance from his six children.
Coming from doc champion Britdoc, the Sheffield Doc/Fest’s new Director of Film Programming Luke Moody has deliberately set out carving a space for marginalised voices in his film programme, as well as encouraging more experimentation with the form. In a recent telephone interview he outlined his vision for film at Doc/Fest, and highlights a number of docs to look out for in the upcoming festival, which will screen some 133 features and 55 shorts. Here’s an edited transcript:
You joined in November and you’ve got a June festival so you’ve had to hit the ground running. I’m wondering what was it like putting together this huge programme in that amount of time?
It was a challenge, definitely. One of the major challenges this year was to restructure strands because I was quite clear in what I wanted to do in terms of reducing the number of strands Sheffield has. Partly for audiences locally to be able to navigate that programme and understand the different genres and themes within it, but also to allow me as a programmer and the festival to be able to expand into showing more creative forms of documentary, particularly with this new strand called Visions this year. But I think also for me it was very important to do that this year, to begin to create a kind of legacy or a bit of an identity for the programme. To basically allow authored filmmakers to know what we do. Now we have these six kind of core strands. I think they can also see their place within the festival.
I come from a background of funding documentaries, funding from development to post production film. So for that reason I’m very much across global production – what’s out there, what’s being made at the moment. But that relationship to films, where you’re looking at them as a funder as opposed to a programmer is very different because it operates between different criteria of what you want to support. So it’s been a challenge doing it in such a short space of time. But what I hope I’ve managed to do is change the structure in which I operate to allow the programme to flourish in future years. And to really permit a discovery and a champion. One of the things I most enjoy in programming actually is being a champion of voices who don’t have a platform elsewhere. I think the danger of a lot of documentary festivals is that they just become the best of fests. They’re safe – they repeat what is being programmed elsewhere. And that’s been a challenge, to not do that this year.
Can you give examples of films that were completely unknown to you until they came through the submission system?
I think our numbers this year for submissions officially were like 2200, which is an increase on previous years…There are a number of things which have come through the system from international filmmakers, that I’d not encountered previously. Armed with Faith is one of the films from that pile. And that’s a story of a bomb disposal unit in the North of Pakistan, who are on the frontline of a terrorist infiltration of Northern Pakistan. And it’s really quite a visceral piece – you’re essentially accompanying a bomb disposal unit operating with very little equipment to dispose of landmines and various contraptions which are meant to terrorise local communities in the north of Pakistan.
Another one is Freedom for the Wolf, which I think is a very strong directorial debut from a British filmmaker who I think is not based in Britain at the moment called Rupert Russell. And it is a highly stylised, quite essayistic look at the question of freedom globally, and the question of what freedom means in relation to democracy and whether other systems of governance permit freedom more than democracy perhaps. And it just feels highly confident in what its trying to do. Normally on paper at least I’m quite dissuaded by things that are like pick a theme and visit ten places in the world to explore that theme, but he’s managed to do it in a very confident and articulate way.
Do you have a couple of examples of the short films that you would highlight?
What I’ve tried to do specifically with the shorts programme this year is firstly to have the ability to show more short form content, but also giving it a different range of the types of shorts that we show here. I think historically they’ve been reasonably conservative, the types of shortform storytelling that the festival has championed. But we’ve moved into things that are already online – investigative projects that are much more responsive to what’s happening in the world this year. And also experimental pieces that are also artists’ interpretation of the documentary form. Which I think gives the programme more richness in terms of just developing those voices.
In the more experimental area, in the Visions programme we have some emerging talents including a lady called Emma Charles. Who’s a British artist filmmaker. And she’s made a 16 mm film of a subterranean centre. And it’s a really beautiful piece. And I understand that it was developed when she was studying at Royal College of Art and it’s her first piece since graduation.
We’re also giving a platform to a lot of films from the Stop Play Record programme which was a partnership between ICA and Dazed Magazine funded by the Arts Council, with Channel 4. It’s essentially a training programme for young filmmakers aged 16-22 to create 3 minute films. Championing those filmmakers showing new forms of documentary and animation for me is one of the best things a festival can do – to give a platform and exposure to those voices.
I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how documentary storytelling is evolving creatively and expanding and overlapping with drama?
There are two directions, or trends that I’ve seen in particular. There’s a renewed interest and passion for verité storytelling. Really strong observational films produced over three or four or six years in some cases that are just like really close and warm narratives. The majority of those are family stories, things like The Cage Fighter, or Quest, which is a really outstanding debut by a filmmaker who was a photographer. And he started making a photo project with this family in Philadelphia. And gradually what he was doing evolved into a different form or storytelling, shooting a little bit of material here and there and increasing the confidence of the family and their trust in what they both wanted to do and achieve by telling their story. And Mama Colonel is another one of those, by Congolese filmmaker Dieudo Hamadi, which is like a Kim Longinotto film. So there has just been this – I guess it’s not a reemergence of that style of storytelling, because a lot of them are made over a long period of time – but perhaps it’s a reaction to the presence of fake news these days. People are wanting to return to very much the nitty gritty of factual storytelling and observation and just being very embedded within a community that they’re trying to portray. So that they get some sort of shared truth within that development. And I think the majority are films which have not been initially funded. They are things that have evolved from other projects.
Within the Visions strand but also within the Adventure strand there are films that have this really strong conceptual approach to filmmaking and the way that we interpret reality to storytelling. Ghost Hunting is one of the most powerful. A really reflexive piece that explores the power between direction of a filmmaker and those portrayed on the camera, to the point where the tide turns and they start to question what he’s trying to achieve with the film. And he has to then become open and become vulnerable as a director to be part of that shared experience of change within the film. And other films, Do Donkeys Act, a new take on ethno zoology. It’s looking at the relationship of individuals and animals. And again it’s something that’s not developed through the life of a donkey. The filmmakers had a concept and executed it in that case.
You’ve taken the helm during a particularly turbulent time. How much does what is happening environmentally, politically and humanitarian wise inform your choices?
Definitely there’s a spine of films through the programme which are about the environment we live in. Particularly a reflection on European politics at the moment. We’ve got the world premiere of a film called Wilders, which is a portrait of Geert Wilders and has access to him being frank and very strangely open to potential criticism within that piece.
We also have things like the Jo Cox: Death of an MP and Brexitannia too which are both very close to home reflections of changing politics within Britain and the question of who actually has the voice within media and who is represented through what we consider storytelling. When politics are questioning essentially whether certain voices in society are ignored, you have to try to look and in some ways address that. And I don’t think there are enough films out there that are coming from the non represented communities within Europe. So yeah it’s a challenge as a programmer: if the film doesn’t exist out there which give an alternative perspective on that political shift then you can’t play it.
You are the first British programmer that Sheffield has had in many years. How to you approach to selecting British films for the programme and what are you throughts about the health of British documentary genre in particular?
We don’t preference British filmmakers in the programme. Obviously the festival as a UK institution has a responsibility to British cinema and developing particularly the kind of theatrical form of documentary with the film programme. For me exposing filmmakers to different forms of storytelling is one of the greatest ways to develop cinematic language and allow filmmakers to grow in their own confidence and storytelling…We’ve got a section called Focus UK which will continue to be in the programme. But this is a mixture of celebrating British storytellers but also allowing us to give a platform to filmmakers from other parts of the world looking in on Britain. Because I think that as important as British filmmakers covering stories at home. You can get entirely different interpretations of British narratives from people from other parts of the world. I’d like to see more of that to be honest. There’s been this historical imbalance of British, European and American filmmakers going to what they see as exotic parts of the world. I’d love to see the kind of turn where parts of the world that are now far more developed than they used to be in terms of the film industry and otherwise come and reflect on Britain and see this as an exotic and alien environment or interpret it through a different lens.
We know we are all on a one way journey to the grave, but it’s not something most of us care to dwell on. Not so for filmmaker Sue Bourne, who has spent the last year traveling around the UK making a film about people who have been given a terminal diagnosis. A Time to Live manages an extraordinary feat: it’s a life affirming film about dying. But Bourne would be the first to argue that it’s not about death, but, as the title indicates, about living: in story after story, we are introduced to people who have heard the most unbearable of news, and are now navigating a new normal.
Bourne and editor Sam Santana (both have featured in Docs on Screens; this is their first film together) did a Q&A with journalist Stephen Armstrong following a London BAFTA preview screening last week. In introducing the film, BBC Two Controller Patrick Holland said that Bourne is “forensic and unrelenting when she mines the emotion of a very specific experience to reveal wider, universal truths.”
When Bourne approached Holland to say that she wanted to make a film about people make the most of their limited time left, he was quickly on board: “It was one of the easiest commissioning decisions I’ve ever had to make.”
A Time to Live tells the story of twelve people of various ages, and their responses to being told they don’t have long to live. Bourne deliberately sought a selection of people who have acted out in surprising ways, including Annabel (pictured below), a woman whose first act upon receiving her prognosis was to leave her husband.
“I mean what was interesting about Annabel’s story is that it was quite radical,” said Bourne. “I think she had been quite a timid person…what cancer did was it emboldened her. And she thought ‘Bloody hell, if I’ve only got a short time left, I really should do all those things I’ve been thinking about’.”
To make the film, Bourne kept to a small nimble team, as she recounted to the Bafta audience: “Natalie (Walter) joined in and the two of us did all the research to find the people. I don’t like filming until I knew exactly what is going to go in the film. Natalie not only shot it but also oversaw the whole sound; it was remarkable. And then we set off on this van around the country to film all twelve people. And we had to be flexible because these were really ill people…We just moved around the country more or less for three months. We all had flu injections and boxes of supplements because we couldn’t go into their house and be any risk to them at all.”
Shooting completed, Bourne and Santana holed up in Bourne’s house for a ten week edit. It was a new experience for Santana, used to cutting rigged and other narrative driven films: “For me it was the first time cutting a film without what you call evolving narrative or process or intercutting, where you start one character’s storyline and then intercut to another. We didn’t do it…So we kind of felt that we needed to make subtle transitions.”
On the whole the transitions did not employ Bourne’s voiceover, often a prominent feature: “Usually in my films there is quite a lot of commentary. Because I’m kind of the narrative thread, weaving through it. But it became quite apparent early on that I didn’t need to say anything. This was their story.”
As a one woman show at Wellpark Productions, Bourne continues to be the main interface with her contributors, and the edit was frequently interrupted. “Sometimes we’d get news that was not particularly good,” said Santana. “People who we were just about to cut their story or had just completed their story. And we just had to work really hard and keep plowing on. That would be tough.” Bourne added: “And then actually you’re motivated, and you go, okay we really need to tell this person’s story.”
The film proceeds from one story to the next, without interweaving. Remarkably, there are no hospitals or footage of anything medical. The interviews are solely with the twelve contributors – supportive spouses and family are seen but barely heard. At the end, there is no revealing of who has died since filming ended – Bourne wanted their stories to be about their lives rather than their deaths.
The film’s power is in its universality. As Holland noted in his Bafta intro: “We are all of course life limited. What Sue’s film does is make all of us reflect on our own choices. On what a good life means. And what you can do to make a difference to ourselves and others. It’s a profound and challenging film.”
A Time to Live airs on BBC Two on Wednesday, 17 May, 9pm. Extended contributor interviews, made in conjunction with the Open University, will be available via the website after broadcast.