In September 2013, veteran doc maker Fergus O’Brien took up a new post as Executive Producer at the BBC, working with head of documentaries Ayesha Rafaele. On his first day, he was handed a very big project: “Literally I was walking in the door and I bumped into Ayesha and she said ‘Do you fancy exec-ing the Met?’ I’m not sure I knew exactly what that would mean but I said yes.”
O’Brien soon found himself immersed in steering one of the biggest access-driven documentary series in the BBC’s recent history. Airing on BBC One, The Met: Policing London is the first time a broadcaster has been given comprehensive access to London’s police force.
For O’Brien, it has been rather a bumpy ride: “Inevitably with stuff that’s dealing with the law and criminality and so on, the phone never stopped. You’re often managing people’s worries, and people’s concerns, and keeping an eye on the legalities of things and keeping a steady line of contact open with our editorial policy team and our legal team.”
Initially a six part series, the team had to drop one of the episodes, when legal restrictions prevented them from airing a major storyline about domestic abuse: “That was very difficult – it’s hard to say goodbye,” says O’Brien. “It would have been a really strong story and often those stories, where the victim is willing to be on camera, aren’t told. Unfortunately through the peculiarities of the legal system we couldn’t show it.”
As director of such films as Channel 4’s Seven Days and the acclaimed, and very funny, The Armstrongs (BBC One) O’Brien is used to following a variety of strong characters across numerous settings. But helping the four shooting teams negotiate their way through the labyrinthine Met was a job like no other: “Each of the teams was assigned to a response team in a different borough of London, and a cross-section of boroughs which would reflect the diversity of the city,” he says. “And each team also took on one or two specialist units, whether it was homicide or Trident. The idea being that the bigger units would hopefully provide us with a spine for each film and something we could come back to, and then we could pepper it with a mixture of different response stories to flesh things out and give a sense of variety in each programme.”
Whilst access had been given from the top, it continued to have to be negotiated throughout: “We had to get consent from everyone, even if they were in the background,” says O’Brien. “It’s the usual thing, from our point of view: unless people want to do it there isn’t a point. If they feel they are being forced into it, it just isn’t that great.”
The production ended up with 2,000 hours of footage, shot over the year, and edited over many months. Even now, as the series is airing, O’Brien is still putting out fires: “It’s not the same as covering a story and when it is done and dusted in the courts you put it out. It is just ongoing; it’s daily. Every day now we have to check every single case across the series to make sure people haven’t re-offended and we’re not in contempt of court. It’s a huge part of it.”
The Met: Policing London is airing on Mondays on BBC One at 9pm until early July. Read about a very different way to film police docs here.
A film about an eccentric early adopter of autobiographical filmmaking kicks off the Open City Documentary Festival tonight. Sam Klemke’s Time Machine, directed by Matthew Bate (who made the fabulous Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure) tells the story of how Klemke for 35 years has documented his own underachieving life – in end of year video diaries detailing his spiraling girth and roller coaster love life. It’s just one of many intelligent, thought provoking docs dominating the festival, whose 5th edition sees it expand to cinemas across London.
Since its inaugural year in 2011 the festival has grown four-fold in numbers, from 1,000 to 4,000, according to festival founder and director Michael Stewart: “We’re trying to grow about 20% in terms of audience each year, up to the point where we have the right kind of audience. We’re not in the business being a 100,000 person festival,” he says.
The festival maintains a principle of showing films which otherwise wouldn’t get distribution in Britain. Whilst the first year showed an overambitious 180 films, the festival has decreased the number of films, in order to ensure each one receives the attention it deserves, according to Stewart. University College London continues to fund about a third of the festival, but this year all screenings have shifted from the university’s lecture theatres to cinemas. The ICA, Bertha Dochouse, Regent Street and Picturehouse Central are among the venues, which Stewart hopes will draw a diverse crowd of doc lovers.
It remains to be seen whether the geographical expansion of the festival will detract from its feel: “How you build a festival in the middle of London and which is all over London but has a festival hub atmosphere is a challenge,” admits Stewart. “We’re working on that.”
Open City is also running a number of industry events, including a session on Wednesday, A Smart Portrait of London, on the data generated by digitization of our cities. The industry events also include a number of radio sessions, as well as making online docs for the likes of the Guardian, Vice and Dazed. According to Stewart, practitioners in London are hungry for such fare: “What we have put on for industry has really expanded. We’ve got a whole week of events, doing things which people can’t get elsewhere. There are 100,000 people working in the digital film industry in London and they’re not served properly. They don’t all go to Sheffield by any means.”
Open City closes on Sunday evening with a moving personal doc from Scottish filmmaker Karen Guthrie, The Closer We Get, in which Guthrie returns home to look after her ailing mother and explores some painful family secrets.
The worlds of gaming and documentary coalesce in a fascinating new project by a Grand Theft Auto producer. In 1979 Revolution, the story of the Iranian revolution is played out in a vibrant immersive experience that puts you in the middle of the crowd, and having to make a series of life and death decisions. Using extensive research, including audio interviews, still photography and academic consultants, the team takes users through a survival game that incorporates chaotic street scenes, and backroom interrogations. Told through the eyes of Reza, a young photojournalist living in Tehran, the project was developed in collaboration with contributors such as photographer Michel Setboun, whose photographs form an integral part of the experience. As described in Ink Stories’ website, Reza’s journey is a turbulent one: “Surrounded by a group of impassioned key figures involved in overthrowing the regime – Reza’s engagement becomes a high stakes chess match of decision making – whereby everything is at risk.”
At Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Interactive Exhibit, I spoke with Ink Stories founder Navid Khonsari about the project, asking him whether, by gamifying such events, he runs the risk of criticism. Here’s what he had to say:
Our goal is to educate people whose opinion of gaming is limited. So that’s part of the challenge – and it’s a challenge. Interactive documentaries are the step between us and documentaries, and we’re actually the full monty. With this we’re creating a new genre – we’re calling it vérité games. So the challenge of that has been great. If you really want to have an impact you have to follow that old saying of live a day in another person’s shoes. This lets you live, you make choices. When you are on the frontline with your brother and your cousin, and that relationship has been developed over an hour and forty five minutes, and they start shooting and you have to decide who you are going to push out of the way, that’s real. The suspense and the drama comes from that. And quite simply it has a greater outreach than interactive documentary.
Khonsari is convinced that the experience will appeal not only to the gaming generation, but also to an older generation interested in the topic: “We don’t alter the history that has taken place – that is defined as it is. But what we are doing is allowing you to have your own narrative in there, based on people’s experiences. What would it be like to be on those streets, to be those people that believe in the possibility of change? And then to have people go for it, fight for it, have it turn somewhat chaotic, and yet in their opinion all succeed because the Shah leaves. And then the aftermath winds up becoming that the most powerful, the most vicious of those who help the revolution succeed winds up taking over.”
Here’s a BBC item from its premiere at Sundance that gives you a glimpse of the game, and includes an interview with co-creator Vassiliki Khonsari:
With the support of the Sundance Institute, the team has crowdsourced memories of the revolution, and will be engaging in extensive outreach at they roll it out. For more information, check out the Ink Stories website – which features abundant press about a project which promises to break new ground in interactive learning.
British documentary Sean McAllister is known for launching himself into foreign lands, often in the midst of war, and finding unforgettable personal stories. Whether it’s via a piano player in Baghdad, a postal worker in Japan, Sean’s own “minders” in Iraq, these are stories of ordinary people – though always strong characters – struggling to survive in an often unkind world. Sean’s latest film, A Syrian Love Story, is perhaps his best yet. It begins as a very local story about Amer and Raghda, a couple who met as political prisoners in Syria and went on to have four sons together. When Sean is arrested with footage of them in his camara, the family has to abruptly flee to Lebanon, and the film turns into a larger story about lives in exile. Sean continues to follow them as they struggle to find solid footing, not least in their marriage, whilst watching a deteriorating Syria from afar.
I spoke to Sean a few days before the film’s world premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest, and he explained a bit about the circuitous way the film was made:
It’s been a long time in the making. Is this your longest project?
Yes, it’s a labour of love, isn’t it? It didn’t get commissioned. That’s why it went on and on and on. I suppose the interesting side of it is that I’d given up on it actually. Then Matt Scholes, who graduated from Sheffield University film school, read an interview with me about it, and contacted me and said rather than working in the industry I’d like to edit this material of yours. I said I’ve given up on it – it’s not happening. And he said, well let me just have a look at it. And he went off for three months and started cutting it together and got me excited again. So I went off filming again because of him.
That’s amazing. At what point had you given up on it?
I gave up on it so many times. But the most significant point probably was two years ago, when I finished my Yemen film. I took off from Syria and went to Yemen and made The Reluctant Revolutionary. Nick (Fraser, of BBC Storyville) had sort of wanted a film from Syria. I gave him the Yemen film. I think he felt after the Yemen film and post Arab spring that it wasn’t so interesting to have an Arab spring film again…So he then sent me off to Greece to make a film. So I used the development money in Greece to fly off to Lebanon to film them, with the development money from Greece.
There’s no Greece film, huh?
There’s no Greece film. But like at the beginning, when I wanted to go to Syria and couldn’t get Syria commissioned, they sent me to Dubai. So I used the Dubai development to go to Damascus. So where there’s a will there’s a way. At the end of the day Nick saw there was nothing happening in Greece, and I was very passionate about this. And by then it wasn’t Arab spring; it was a different story. The arc of it had changed over the course of five years; it became a story of exile. It became something a bit more unusual because of the time frame. And this was all possible because Matt had got on board to construct the material, so we had stuff to show. And then when the BBC came on board, we pitched to the BFI. It’s perfect for a BFI pitch because they need to see what they’re getting into. And we had certain scenes cut, and they were excited.
The family’s story arc changed thanks to you, probably in a more direct way than has previously happened in your films.
I just came back from the border, screening the film with Raghda, and one of my questions (in preparation for post screening Q&As) was did she blame me for life today? Because I got arrested and they were all thrown into exile….And she laughed and said “I cried when you were arrested, I cried for you. The only people I blame in any of this are the regime.”
A Syrian Love Story has its world premiere screenings 7 and 9 June at Sheffield Doc/Fest. It will then be playing at festivals internationally and following a cinema release will be broadcast on BBC Storyville in early 2016.
Twenty minutes into Kim Longinotto’s latest film, Dreamcatcher, which is screening at Sheffield Doc/Fest, a chilling scene takes place. The setting is an after-school club at a Chicago high school, where at-risk teenage girls are being counseled on how to say “No” to boys. As the teenagers munch through copious amounts of junk food, a girl confesses that she was raped at the age of 11 at a friend’s house. Another girl interrupts to tell a story of long-term abuse by a family friend, then another story of abuse follows, each more harrowing than the one before it. It’s astonishing to hear the details of these unreported crimes, and as they quickly pile up, to realize how endemic it is to these girls’ worlds. It’s the sort of scene that stays with you for a very long time.
For anyone familiar with London-based Longinotto’s extraordinary body of work, however, such moments are to be expected. Her subjects often take advantage of the presence of the camera to make their marginalized voices heard. While she is considered an “observational” filmmaker, and avoids interfering in the action while filming, she is well aware that by being there, she very much changes what is taking place. “It’s something that has happened a lot with making films,” she says. “People grab the opportunity to have a witness. It’s not ‘fly-on-the-wall’— a term I hate. You’re going in as someone who is going to make something with them. They feel part of it.”
Having seen most of Longinotto’s films, I point out to the filmmaker that my strongest memory of such a moment was the 8-year-old girl Fouzia in The Day I Will Never Forget (2002), who uses the camera to recite the titular poem, protesting the practice of female genital mutilation.
“Yes, The Day Will Never Forget poem is exactly like that scene; they grab their chance,” Longinotto exclaims. “Students at film school often say, ‘Being a documentary maker, I feel bad that we’re going in and we’re taking advantage of people.’ And I always say, ‘Well, why do you think that? Is it because you’ve been watching reality TV? That’s not the only way of doing it.’ If you are using that analogy, Fouzia completely used me: She told me where to stand, she bullied me into going into her house, and she wanted me there because she knew her mum would listen. So she used me, but I loved being used. We used each other. You wouldn’t even use the word ‘use.’ We were working together.”
Indeed, when Longinotto first met the Chicago teenagers, she encouraged them to take control. “I said to them, ‘Look, this is your film and I really want you to feel good about the film and be part of it. And you will have the film when it’s finished. And we’re doing it together; I’m relying on you. I’m not going to interview any of you. This is your film, so you do whatever you want.'”
Longinotto also showed the girls excerpts from two of her films that feature strong women working to fight abuse: Rough Aunties (2008) and Sisters-in-Law (2005). “They all went very quiet and went off and didn’t say anything, but we all had a bit of a hug because it was quite emotional,” says Longinotto. When it came to filming the girls in the after-school club, Longinotto felt that they had built up a trust that allowed for intimacy: “I knew in that scene, I could go really close and film them. I was half a meter away from them; you can see how closely it was filmed. And there was this real level of trust.”
The in-class confessions came as a surprise to the girls’ mentor, Brenda, who had been running the group for two years and was trying to prevent the girls from being abused, not fully realizing the extent to which they already had been. Brenda is the “dreamcatcher” of the title—a mesmerizing woman who has overcome a horrific life on the streets to devote herself to encouraging girls to do the same. Articulate, impassioned, non-judgemental and utterly focused, Brenda exuded a strength in character that convinced producer Lisa Stevens that hers was a story well worth telling.
Stevens met Brenda through her coworker Stephanie, when producing the feature-length doc Crackhouse USA (2010); Stephanie’s son is currently serving 42 years in prison. Recognizing the strength of both the characters and the story, Stevens nurtured the relationship for several years, ultimately bringing the idea to Teddy Leifer of Rise Films, with whom Longinotto made Rough Aunties (2008). A trailer that Stevens shot of Brenda was integral to convincing Longinotto to come aboard the project. “If I’m being totally honest about it, I thought, ‘A film about prostitutes? Do I really want to do this?'” the filmmaker recalls. “I find films dispiriting, if there’s nothing to hope for or fight for. But when I saw the trailer, and saw her feisty and full of energy and joy—Brenda and Stephanie both are—and that they are actually doing things, they are changing lives, I thought, ‘I really want to do this.'”
Longinotto, Stevens and a sound recordist traveled to Chicago for a ten-week shoot. Dreamcatcher was a far cry from the other US-focused film Longinotto had directed—Rock Wives (1996), which looked at the privileged lives of wives and girlfriends of rock stars. Indeed, she found Chicago to have much in common with Durban, South Africa, the location for Rough Aunties: “The neighborhoods where we were living, the largely white neighborhoods, everything worked, the pavements were nice, the roads were nice, there was lighting,” she recalls. “And then you’d go into the black neighborhoods and a lot of the houses were boarded up. There were actually plants growing out of the middle of the road…It’s surprising because America is the richest country in the world, supposedly. And Chicago is where Obama lives. It takes your breath away.”
Dreamcatcher was edited by Ollie Huddleston, with whom Longinotto has made eight films. When I visited them halfway through the ten-week edit, it was clear, as Longinotto is quick to point out, that they are equal partners in the post-production process. They were working their way through a second viewing of the rushes—an impressively restrained 30 hours. “That’s what’s fantastic for me, because she really shoots very little,” Huddleston says. “And she knows why she shot it and she shot it with a beginning, middle and end-ish in mind—or some idea that you need one.” Longinotto frequently sits back while Huddleston brings his considerable story-making skills to each sequence, their discussion focused on what each scene contributes to the story. They often finish each other’s thoughts, in a shorthand that speaks to the many months they have passed together in close proximity. “I think editing is the bomb. It’s the most important thing,” says Longinotto. “I can’t imagine doing it with anyone else.”
Dreamcatcher follows Brenda in her day job, counseling incarcerated prostitutes, and at night on the streets, as she speaks to women in a roving van, an all-night cafe, or anywhere that can provide a brief respite from the ever watchful pimps. Brenda’s ever-changing array of wigs are testimony to the many facets of her character, as she shifts between champion, motivational speaker, sympathetic ear and confessor. There is nothing that her girls can tell her that she hasn’t seen before, or witnessed herself firsthand, nor seemingly any subject that is off limits. The film is full of revelations.
Like many of Longinotto’s films, Dreamcatcher is a story where many men do not come out well; the Chicago of the film is a world of baby daddies and violent pimps. Homer, the film’s major male character, is a reformed pimp who now works with Brenda as a public speaker, but, rather creepily, says he has few regrets about his past.
Dreamcatcher is an important contribution to Longinotto’s life work documenting the attempts of girls and women to recast themselves in a world dominated by men. It’s a compelling, harrowing and utterly uplifting story of redemption that should have a long life as a resource for those working to help those with lives mired in prostitution and substance abuse.
Longinotto’s hope is that the film, above all, will bring awareness to the inherent hopelessness of criminalizing prostitutes. “I want the film to decriminalize the women—that’s what I want,” she maintains. “And help them when they’re in jail. I don’t feel comfortable with using a film to criminalize anyone. I think films have to be seen in a wider way. It’s about changing a mindset and opening windows and getting people to think more humanely and differently.”
This article first ran in Documentary Magazine and on my blog in the run up to its Sundance World premiere in January…