Monthly Archives: January 2016

Does British TV have a problem with independent documentary?

The Unorthodocs season at Somerset House features acclaimed documentaries never seen on British TV. Are UK broadcasters denying audiences access to a golden age of independent film-making?

At first glance, they don’t really have much in common. The Closer We Get is a first person documentary, where filmmaker Karen Guthrie uses a period of caring for her ailing mother to prod into her family’s painful past. In 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets, director Marc Silver masterfully investigates one of the US’s all too commonplace racially motivated killings. And in The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer follows up his groundbreaking multi-award winning The Act of Killing with a further journey through Indonesian killing fields, this time through the lens of a single traumatized family. But what these three disparate films do share is the fact that despite widespread acclaim, they have not found a place on British television. Instead they are all running as part of the Unorthodocs strand at Somerset House this winter.  Curated by Dartmouth Film’s Christopher Hird, a champion of independent feature docs, the films in the series collectively serve as an admonishment to UK broadcasters to up their game.

U.S. Protesters Gather For Peace In New York
We Are Many; photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Much has been written about how we are in a golden age of documentary. Indeed, with many more potential avenues of distribution – along with the technological advances which give us all the opportunity to become filmmakers – the future looks bright for those determined to persevere in this difficult art form. But what is less “golden” about this age, is the fact that British broadcasters – still powerful and still in control of the best way to reach the masses -have largely turned their backs on commissioning single feature length documentaries.

I recently sat on the Grierson judging committee for Best Documentary on a Contemporary Theme – International. It was striking that very few of the outstanding films on our longlist were given television money up front. All too often broadcasters hedge their bets, forcing independent filmmakers down the difficult path of self-financing, and only deciding whether or not to pick up a film once it’s been made.

The long-running BBC Storyville is often cited as an exception, showing some of the best documentaries in every given year, either through acquisition or commission. But Storyville’s commissions are modest, and usually require filmmakers to find substantial funds elsewhere (a process which took a film I produced, Secrets of the Tribe, eight years to finish). Channel 4’s equivalent strand, True Stories, seems to be defunct, and while Channel 4 claims to be open to pitches for single films, it can’t be seen to be championing them in a way we should expect of our public service broadcasters.

Yes, there are a number of outstanding films in any given year on the BBC and Channel 4. Recent examples to name but two include last year’s The Paedophile Hunter on Channel 4, and the BBC’s The Age of Loneliness. But in my mind, with both the BBC and Channel 4 battling for their future in a nightmarishly hostile political climate, these few standouts should be magnified by a factor of ten. Imagine a world where the same budget put into producing twenty-four episodes of Masterchef is plowed into a new strand featuring fifteen documentary features, all by different directors. Yes, they are more difficult to make, and yes some might fail to attract large numbers of viewers. But aren’t two of the most important tenets of public service broadcasting that it supports risk-taking and programming not driven by the marketplace?

Many filmmakers these days persist in making their passion project, broadcast commission be damned. It can be a long and lonely, but ultimately gratifying route. Franny Armstrong makes it look easy. Her 2008 climate change doc The Age of Stupid was funded entirely through crowd-funding, raising an impressive £430,000. But Armstrong, in addition to being a consummate filmmaker and networker, benefited from another factor: she was the first to fund a documentary through crowdfunding. Many more have followed. Today it is a much more difficult, careworn option which involves a lot of targeting, attention to detail and maintenance. Crowdfunding can work for issue driven films that have a built-in following, but it’s certainly not easy.

Amir Amirani struck out trying to get broadcast interest in his film We Are Many – a forensic examination of the global anti war protest of February 2003. A film that would have taken him roughly a year had it been fully commissioned, instead took him eight. Along the way he maxed out his credit card, and remortgaged his house three times, before a Kickstarter campaignand the endorsement of high profile supporters like Stephen Fry and Omid Djalili began bringing in substantial funding. But the end result has been worth it for Amirani: We Are Many has played to rapturous audiences globally, and continues to screen frequently. But there are still no plans for a UK broadcast.

SONY DSC
Gene Cernan, The Last Man on the Moon, photo courtesy of Mark Craig

Mark Craig also went his own way having not initially succeeded with securing British interest in his film The Last Man on the Moon, about astronaut Gene Cernan. But as he told me when I interviewed him about the making of it, he eventually relished producing it with Mark Stewart Productions, without broadcaster input: “In TV there is a lot of guiding and steering and mentoring from the channel, from the execs, to make it fit the remit of that channel. You’re always serving the requirements of that channel, of that slot, the ad sales, etc., ” he said. “So it was very liberating to be free of that and just be faithful to the story, and the character and tell that story in the most interesting and engaging way that one could.” He’s enjoyed an extended festival run with the film, which is soon to be on limited release in the US.

Whilst still very modest compared to the US, there are a small number of funds that British filmmakers can tap into, particularly from foundations with explicit interests in the subject matter. The Wellcome Trust  supports films with a biomedical theme, such as the outstanding The Man Whose Mind Exploded. On a larger scale, BRITDOC operates as an energetic documentary enabler, supporting films in a number of ways, including partnering up filmmakers and NGOs, as well as helping fund more than 200 films in the ten years since its founding.

When I first moved to the UK from the US twenty years ago, the difference between how docs were made in each country was striking. The UK, with its fully funded commissioning system was seen as a utopia by envious American doc makers who usually had to spend years piecing together the budgets for each film. Now, with British television factual programming dominated by formats and presenter-led series, and with so many film-makers chasing so few slots, that gulf no longer seems so vast.

But there are reasons to be hopeful that the BBC will soon prioritise carving out new space for single documentaries. The much respected Patrick Holland is now Head of Documentaries, and speaks of  singles “as an essential part of what we do on BBC Two.” And with the announcement last week that doc champion Charlotte Moore now oversees the entirety of BBC television, now is the time to show that the production of feature length documentaries can and should be a priority for the world’s leading public service broadcaster.

This article first appeared at OpenDemocracy.net

 

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Dan Reed on the Charlie Hebdo Attacks

When your office door is just metres away from your neighbours,  you don’t have much need for their landline: it’s easy to stroll across the hall for a chat, or send an email. But the staff of the Paris-based television production company Premieres Lignes were to come to regret not having their colleagues’ number on the morning of January 7 last year. As two gunmen entered the building and stumbled around looking for the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, alarmed Premieres Lignes staff locked their own office door, headed to the roof, and waited helplessly as the massacre unfolded below. Their continuing regrets over their lack  of heroic action is one of the most compelling sequences in a remarkable film airing tonight on BBC’s This World. Directed by five time BAFTA winner Dan Reed, Three Days of Terror: The Charlie Hebdo Attacks lays out in forensic detail the sequence of events that kicked off with the terrible massacre in the magazine’s meeting room.

Martin Boudot
Premieres Lignes employee Martin Boudot

Reed is no stranger to this territory, having similarly masterfully dissected terrorism attacks in Mumbai, Moscow and Nairobi. He is one of the most accomplished documentary makers working in Britain today (his recent masterclass at Sheffield Doc/Fest is well worth a listen). Docs on Screens spoke with Dan about the making of the Charlie Hebdo film, and what it’s like to continually work in this dark terrain:

Carol Nahra: You start out the film with an acknowledgement of the November attacks. How much did that tragedy affect the making of the film?

Dan Reed: The very last guy we happened to interview was the chief medical officer of the Paris fire service, who was at Charlie Hebdo and is one of the first people into the room. It was Friday the 13th of November, which is the date of the Paris attack, and we were chatting away at the end of the interview. I was saying “Something is going to happen again soon, I can feel it in my bones. It will either happen in Paris or London, there’s going to be another devastating attack soon. And there is no reason why it wouldn’t happen in a way, because nothing has changed to prevent it happening”. Literally, 200 metres from the studio where we shot our interview – which was our regular hangout in Paris where we shot most of our interviews – three or four hours later gunmen turned up and killed 19 people at a cafe on the corner. And the Bataclan was a short walk from Charlie Hebdo. My office in Paris was literally three metres away from the attack where Charlie Hebdo happened. I was working with that TV company (Premieres Lignes). So it all felt very very close… So we had to reference it back and say to people “look this is a film about what happened in November”.  And then we had to find a way in the preamble and the wrap up to make a distinction between the attacks.

dan reed
Dan Reed

CN: So much has been published in the media regarding Charlie Hebdo. What was your aim with this film?

DR: For one thing, to try and actually research the story properly, and figure out what exactly happened. We went into mind numbing detail about what actually happened, when and where. There is always drama in the two story of things…in the unfolding of events. There is often a lot of dead time, when people are waiting for police to arrive, and those are dramatic pauses…We did a lot of research to allow us to understand the drama of the story. We also got hold of a lot of images which had never been seen before – a lot of still images from the security cameras at Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish grocery. There are quite a few kind of scoops and untold bits in our story…So it’s kind of untangling the truth from the lies and the misperceptions and really establishing a proper timeline for the story, that took a lot of work. A lot of these people hadn’t spoken before, or hadn’t spoken at the time.

“There’s this strange process where you start from completely on the outside of events, and six, eight months later by the time you’ve corralled all these people together and got them to talk to you, you end up like a single point of contact for all these experiences.”

CN: Yes and they’re talking about very traumatic, harrowing and recent events. So what was that like?

DR: Again, there’s this strange process where you start from completely on the outside of events, and six, eight months later by the time you’ve corralled all these people together and got them to talk to you, you end up like a single point of contact for all these experiences…Every eyewitness is trapped in their often very narrow perspective. And often has a lot of misperceptions, a lot of questions, a lot of frustrating gaps that we’re able to fill in. So the satisfaction of being able to, if you like, piece together the narrative not only for filmmaking but also for sharing with the other victims – the survivors – that’s satisfying. I happen to speak French fluently, because I grew up speaking French. And that really helps. You’re immersed in this world of trauma and loss and people who can’t get these violent images out of their heads. It’s familiar territory I’m afraid.

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Charlie Hebdo survivor Laurent Leger

CN: Can I ask you about Premieres Lignes. They’re your co-production partners, is that right? What was it like for them continuing to work in the same building?

DR: Really really hard. I don’t think I’m betraying confidence by saying there are a number of people within that company who would very much like to move, and of course it’s difficult and very expensive and may not even be a good idea. Very much to varying degrees some of them are definitely haunted by what happened and are reminded every day. It’s difficult not to be.

CN: It’s quite different from some of your other “Terror” films. Terror in the Mall had such abundant multi camera archive. Can you talk a little bit about the archive collection process for this?

DR: The key word is frustrating because I knew in particular that security camera footage existed from a number of locations where the attacks had happened. Because the footage was immediately impounded by the police, and because the prevailing attitude is “don’t let people see anything”, it was impossible to prise the moving pictures from the French authorities. And that was very frustrating because of course we would have used it responsibly.

“There is a huge world of difference between having something shocking in a twenty second clip on the web, and having it in a documentary where the people involved speak, and it’s done with care and compassion and sensibility.”

CN: So there’s a lot of footage that you couldn’t get?

DR: We just literally couldn’t get. There’s a really, really strong taboo in France against any images showing pain and suffering.  I found it kind of unhelpful in some ways…I think you can understand, but at the same time that really blocks a huge amount of journalism and seals off a lot of images. We live in a world where images are often the key to understanding situations. If they are used responsibly in the form of a longform narrative in particular then I think you can definitely justify the use of quite shocking images, if they’re in a context which creates understanding rather than used for just shock purposes. There is a huge world of difference between having something shocking in a twenty second clip on the web, and having it in a documentary where the people involved speak, and it’s done with care and compassion and sensibility. But no matter how you treat the material, the French are like not into that at all… Notwithstanding that I think we got a huge amount. It’s a more emotional story in a way than the others.

gendarmes

CN: Is doing film after film of darkness taking its toll on you?

DR: I don’t think I can do another one like this. I said this after Nairobi – I was being interviewed by the New York Times, saying “this broke my heart and I don’t think I can do another”. And here I am. But in fact I just turned down Terror in Paris 2 for the BBC, because I said “I can’t do this again. I can’t do this again in the same place.” The nature of the material, the darkness is enveloping, and you can kind of get lost in it. I think I can safely say I’m not going to do another blow by blow like these for a while.

Three Days of Terror: The Charlie Hebdo Attacks airs 6 January on BBC Two at 9pm.

Sue Bourne on The Age of Loneliness

The single documentary The Age of Loneliness looks at the “epidemic” of loneliness in Britain, telling the stories of 14 very different contributors. It’s a profoundly moving exploration of an often taboo subject – and one that resonates with most of us, whether we’re currently lonely, have been in the past, or worry about the future when we might be. Docs on Screens spoke to veteran director Sue Bourne about the film, which airs 7 January on BBC One.

Carol Nahra: You were very careful to get a good range of people. How did you go about finding your contributors?

Sue Bourne: Four months research. It just took us forever (laughs). I said ‘I’m not doing a film just about lonely old people – that’s boring and it’s obvious and that isn’t the problem.  It’s an epidemic, and it’s about all ages and there’s something happening’. It was very much for me about a societal change and what was going on. But then I’m not doing a Panorama so I just wanted to give a voice to all those different people. So I said I want a voice from every decade, from every age group. So I drew up my list and then we just hit it for four months. We were in touch with 500 odd people to narrow it down to the 14 who appeared. Charities, blogs, internet, just everything. The thing about lonely people is they’re not out there shouting about it from the rooftop. And so that’s hard. And a lot of the people we met were just too vulnerable to go on telly.

Programme Name: The Age of Loneliness - TX: 07/01/2016 - Episode: The Age of Loneliness (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Isabel, 19 – Lonely at university - (C) Daniel Dewsbury - Photographer: Daniel Dewsbury
Isabel, 19                (C) Daniel Dewsbury

CN: The ones featured are also vulnerable. You have very emotional scenes where it seems to me they are often articulating their loneliness for the first time, which I found quite painful. How did you find interviewing them?

SB: Well, basically I think they were wonderful, all of them. I think they were brave. Because no one wants to admit to being lonely because in the back of your mind you’re thinking ‘well, why am I lonely? Is it because I am horrible? Why am I Johnny no mates? What’s happened?’ Some of them they have lost their partner so it was obvious why they were lonely. But other people were lonely and wondering if it was their fault, are they to blame. There was certainly one person I thought would be very good for the part because they epitomised a very large group. And I phoned them up and said ‘I want you to be in the film but you have to be honest. And I think your default position is to put on a brave face. And frankly you’re going to have to take that off. And bare your soul. Because if you put the brave face on you’re not telling the truth and the one thing I want this film to be is truthful’. So I was asking a lot….but I think it’s one of the most moving interviews in the film.

CN: Which interview was it?

SB: It was Jaye, the single girl. Because she wants to be a jolly person. But I thought the interview she gave was so honest. It was extraordinary She was really brave to be so honest. But I knew what her default position was – she was battling through life being jolly saying ‘I can cope with it. I can cope with it’. But inside it was tough.

CN: Are you a lonely person?

SB: No. I think I’m alone. My daughter’s dad, my ex partner, is dead. All my parents are dead. I have no brothers and sisters and really no family to talk to. So really it’s just me and my kid and she’s in her twenties and I don’t want to be a needy mother. So I’m acutely aware of the life ahead of me. That it will involve aloneness. So I better get used to it. So I try to train myself to be a bit more positive about it (laughs).

CN: Is that what brought you to the topic?

SB: I think so…In Fashionistas (which profiled six extraordinary older women) I wanted to find role models for the next 30 odd years, who were going to be upbeat and enjoying life and squeezing the pips out of it. Because that’s what I wanted to do. And then again a lot of them were on their own, so what I got from that is you need a particular spirit if you can find it to carry you through life because it ain’t easy and you might well be on your own.

age of loneliness sue bourne
Sue Bourne

CN: Did you ever think of matching people up? Cause it seems like there’s some people who would benefit from each other’s company in The Age of Loneliness.

SB: Well in a way sometimes you look at these films that we do and it’s like – I feel like a social worker. Because what I’m doing is I’m opening them out. I’m giving them a voice. Then I want other people to talk. I want people to look and think ‘why is nothing being done to help them?’. I now want to do Contact the Elderly tea parties because I think that it’s just wonderful. It transforms their lives for one afternoon a month and that’s all it takes…We have to be kinder. That is the wettest things a filmmaker can say – “I just want people to be kinder” – but I do!

CN: I can imagine that a doc about loneliness might not make for like the most filmic pitch.

SB: It took a bit of time and eventually I got in front of Charlotte (Moore) and said ‘Please, just give me this commission’. And she said ‘Okay, it’s yours, go.’

CN: It’s beautifully shot. It looks lovely.

SB: I had (producer) Daniel (Dewsbury) at my side from February. We did all the research together; we talked constantly about what we were trying to achieve, four months of that. And then I decided not to use a cameraman but to use him, and gave him a beautiful camera, nice lenses, and three months to shoot it. And we were this tiny little team. And it paid off. And then we got the drones (used for aerial shots throughout the film). I don’t like gimmicks. I always thought I only want to shoot it if it’s relevant to loneliness. But for me the drones were critical because I wanted to say “It’s everywhere in Britain – anywhere you look you’re going to find loneliness”.

The Age of Loneliness is on BBC One at 10.35 pm, Thursday, 7 January.