I remember exactly where I was when I first learned about the disappearance of Madeleine McCann from a holiday resort in Portugal. Not because the news should have had the impact of a flashbulb memory – I didn’t yet know anything about her or her family. I remember it rather because as I watched a news interview with the parents on TV, I was in my local hospital, cradling my 14 month old son Dillon. He would die the next day, as a result of complications from the rare brain condition he had suffered from since birth.
And yet as I sat there, knowing that Dillon was dying, that these were in fact his final hours, my thought was: “there but for the grace of God go I”. Because the McCanns had a gorgeous lovely happy three year old who had vanished, and their lives must be a living hell. I myself had a gorgeous lovely happy two year old at home waiting for me, and couldn’t bear the thought of anything happening to him.
With Dillon, the pain was different. He had always been ill, and we had long known his time with us would be limited. It was a different type of pain. And when you are a parent living a nightmare, your life can easily become a study of relativity: who has it worse than you? As far as I was concerned, the McCanns were in the minority of people who had it worse than we did.
After Dillon died, I watched the McCanns deal with endless media scrutiny which went on for many years, and brought no one any closer to understanding what had happened to their little girl. They had initially welcomed media attention, hoping that it would help them find their daughter. But it spiraled out of control. The public’s never ending appetite for the story, and the British tabloid’s press willingness to cash in on it, soon turned into a living hell for them. At one point even the McCanns themselves became suspects. Each time they pop up in the news, I always think of the Dorothy Parker line “what fresh hell is this?” I was able to grieve and try to move on with my life. Their torment continued.
I have always been a fan of true crime. My first docsonscreens blog waxed lyrical about my love of it over the years, and of how it had been rekindled by the podcast Serial. I enjoy the twists and turns of modern day factual storytelling; it’s a central theme in my media teaching. The feature doc, The Imposter, which does this to perfection, is a mainstay of my documentary class – students always engage with the way that it leads them through the story. I’m also okay with ambiguity, with not knowing how something turned out – both Serial and The Imposter are filled with it.
But the new Netflix series about the disappearance of Madeleine McCann leaves me feeling queasy. The McCanns have refused to take part in it, and urged others to abstain as well. Yet the series has been made, with Netflix forking out a fortune in documentary terms for the telling of it over eight long hours, with some forty interviews. I’m sure it will be glossy and compelling. I’m sure it will lead a younger generation of viewers through many twists and turns, spinning an often jaw dropping true life tale.
I’m also sure that it will bring fresh pain to a family that has now endured 12 years of agony – with Madeleine’s twin siblings growing up in the terrible shadow of their vanished older sister. And I’m sure that at the end of those eight compelling hours, viewers will be no closer to knowing what happened to her. I get why the series has been made – business is business after all. But to bring fresh hell to a family that has suffered for so many years, and to do so merely for entertainment, is something I just can’t support. I won’t be watching.
As Zara Balfour was getting ready for a limited cinema release of her award winning documentary Children of the Snow Land recently she received an unexpected blow: ourscreen, the platform which allows for one off community screenings was introducing a fee for new films. And for a documentary made on a shoestring, the price was enormous – £2,750 plus VAT. It was a death knell for any plans to use ourscreen to increase the numbers of communities who could watch the film.
“It completely excludes us from using it,” Balfour said. “It’s such a shame as it means community groups won’t be able to do their own special screenings of the film in cinemas. It’s such a high price point, it really sets the entry level at a place that just wouldn’t make financial sense for independent films.”
The fee was all the more of a shock given that it was introduced out of nowhere for Balfour’s distribution company, Dartmouth Films. “We’d been talking with them for a while about Zara’s film,” says Wayne D’Cruz, Dartmouth Film’s distribution coordinator. “ As of last week we were informed that a new model was meant to come into place, with the fee of £2,750. It’s simply exorbitant for any independent film distributor. More so with documentaries.”
Dartmouth Films has worked a number of times with ourscreen, to complement their distribution of feature length independent documentaries like The Ponds, and A Cambodian Spring. The company’s most successful use of the service has been for the documentary Resilience, which has had some sixteen screenings.
Ourscreen helped increase the visibility of documentaries which can be difficult to see on the big screen, according to Dartmouth Film’s founder Christo Hird: “Ourscreen was a valuable addition to the ways of getting independent specialist documentaries to audiences: if there was a proven audience for a film in a particular area the film would be shown,” says Hird. “It was a way in which the filmmaker – at no risk to the exhibitor – could back their hunch that people wanted to see their film.
D’Cruz says that the amount of return for ourscreen screenings can vary greatly, depending on the minimum guarantee requested by the cinemas. “With certain cinemas there have been times when we’ve sold out a cinema, offered a Q&A and we’ve only got £100 because of their fluctuating MGs (minimum guarantees).”
The move is a sign of the difficulty in making margins works between distributors, cinemas and platforms like ourscreen. The platform employs a crowdsourced model of screenings. It works with a number of cinemas and offers a 500+ catalogue of films to customers who organise screenings. More than a hundred of the catalogue are documentaries. If the customers sells enough tickets, the screening goes ahead.
According to Alex Huxley, ourscreen’s communication and publicity manager, the ourscreen model works best “with a title with a clear special interest audience and a target of around 20+ screenings. This hasn’t changed, and with this way of working we hope to provide filmmakers the opportunity to retain a high level of ownership, control and flexibility over their film.”
Huxley refused to confirm if the £2,750 plus VAT quoted for Children of the Snow Land would be a standard fee, saying the fees are “private and confidential”. He emphasised that the new fee reflects the costs of providing a range of services, including the web pages and logistical coordination of bookings. The new fee will be in part offset by offering films an increased share of the box office after the crowdfunded threshold has been reached.
According to Hird, this will not make a difference, as the new catalogue fee is insurmountable, and not close to something independent documentaries would be able to afford: “The new pricing structure makes no sense in the context of the way the vast majority of independent documentaries are made and funded.”
D’Cruz agrees, noting “I remain of the opinion that ourscreen is a great tool to democratise cinema programming, sharing that ‘power’ with cinema-goers. However, for it to be sustainable for all parties involved, concerns of independent distributors also need to be adequately represented with any change in model.”
That ourscreen might reconsider the size of its new fee, or introduce a sliding scale, is certainly possible, particularly if the company sees a drastic reduction in the number of films signing up. As Huxley notes: “Like any company or individual operating in this space we will always discuss and negotiate new ways of working with our partners. Depending on the project we will of course consider this on a case by case basis.”
Imagine you live in one of the most remote places on earth. At age four you are sent away to school, many miles away from your mountain home. You don’t return for more than a decade. What would that reunion be like? That’s the question at the centre of Children of the Snow Land, a new multi award winning documentary co-directed by Zara Balfour and Marcus Stephenson.
I first saw the film last year at the wonderful Valletta Film Festival, where it won not one but two awards. The film has now won ten festival awards, as audiences globally respond to its poignant themes and stunning footage, much of it shot by the film’s three main contributors who the directors taught to film themselves.
I interviewed Zara about the making of the film – as usual this has been cut for clarity and length:
CN: How on earth did you find this story in such a remote location?
ZB: I think it was fate. My co director Marcus and I went off to Nepal for a corporate job, filming charities. And we loved the charity in Nepal; we got along really well with them. We stayed in touch with them and they told us they started funding this going home trip for these kids from the Himalayas who didn’t see their families for 12 years. And they had decided they would sponsor all the kids aged 16 finishing their compulsory schooling to go home for three months. And we were just blown away by it.
I’ve always wanted to make documentaries, and have done a lot of short documentaries but really had a longing to get into longer form documentary. And I love Nepal hugely. So we went out and thought basically let’s see if there’s a story here. Let’s see if it’s true that the kids haven’t seen their parents for 12 years, and can they express it and are they willing to express it on camera? So we went over there and thought, well, a worse case scenario we’d make a fundraising film for the school and that will be that. And the kids were amazing. They were very open, hadn’t seen their parents in all that time. Very warm and wanted to learn. We taught them filmmaking and they wanted to learn.
CN: Talk me through a bit about how you taught them filmmaking.
ZB: Our first trip was basically working out who our characters were going to be – which children were most going to be able to express their story and also have an interest in filming themselves. We then went back a few months later and took some cameras and solar chargers. We basically gave them GoPro kits and solar chargers and batteries and loads and loads of memory cards. There was no way to back it up. It was very unlike most film shoots. It had to be so light because their walk (back home) was so long and so hard. And it has to be kit that’s capable of being charged. We went with them for some of the way and took slightly bigger cameras with bigger chargers, solar charges and such. And they carried on for three months out there. So the film is a combination of our footage, footage shot by Mark Hakansson our cameraman and photographer, and their footage. The training was a few days in Kathmandu. It wasn’t hugely extensive. We introduced them to YouTube.
CN: What was their experience of technology up to that point?
ZB: Nothing; they literally had nothing. The school didn’t even have a computer room at that point. And they didn’t have any smartphones or anything like that. They do now. And they’d never seen YouTube. So we introduced them to people like JacksGap, and those guys that are travelling and doing their own stories, and they loved it. They were like sponges, they really were. And when the earthquake hit, I had some friends that were going out who work with the Disasters Emergencies Committee. They went out to help after the earthquake and as they were out there they actually helped us get some of the footage back. So we got the footage back much earlier than we were going to.
CN: How were they able to communicate when they were up in the remote mountains with their families?
ZB: We said when you come back, bring back whatever you can. I will never forget watching the memory cards that first day. We were just blown away.
CN: What was it like being there for the reunions? The reunions are not in fact a very visible part of the film.
ZB: It was surprising. Coming from our background, if we see someone we haven’t seen for some time we just want to cry and hug them so much. But they weren’t like that; they had this very kind of shy nature. They were very stoic and don’t show their emotions. We found that the adult and the child way of dealing with the separation was very different. The kids hang onto the memory of the parents and think about it every day. The parents, in order to deal with the pain of separation basically cut off and didn’t think about it. So they were quite cold, at least to our western eyes.
CN: It seems like it should have been the opposite – you would think it was the other way around.
ZB: They couldn’t afford themselves the luxury of thinking about it too much – it was just too painful. So when they saw each other there was this strange formality.
CN: How did you swing this with a full time day job?
It has been tough. It was great having the support through post production with McCann. They basically accepted that during my day job I would be in the edit working on the film a lot. And took quite a lot of chunks of time off. It took four years to make it – two years worth of shooting and two years of post production. They’ve been incredible and really really helpful. For Marcus he’s been making a TV show, Stately Homes with Phil Spencer. So he’s had to do that and take breaks.
CN: What was it like winning two awards at the Valletta Film Festival?
It was incredible. We were in the teen section which was a mix of documentary and drama. And it was amazing that we won that. Not only that but we won the audience pick for the whole festival. I was completely blown away by that because we were a small film made by independent means. And there were so many films there by well known filmmakers with a lot of industry support behind them. It was a tremendous validation of what we’d done and an amazing honour.
When it launched more than twenty years ago, the BBC’s Storyville strand stood alone as a home in the UK for independently made feature documentaries. Created and nurtured by the revered Nick Fraser, Storyville established a reputation in the global doc community for promoting authored storytelling, nurturing the likes of Sean McAllister, Alex Gibney, Kim Longinotto and Daisy Asquith. (Fraser also commissioned a doc I produced, Secrets of the Tribe, championing it over the many years it took to make).
While it still remains one of the few spaces on British television for feature docs, it’s now battling it out in a rapidly changing online universe where SVODs have become major players in longform documentaries. Mandy Chang has energetically taken up the Storyville reins, relocating to London from her job as Head of Arts at ABC Australia to head the strand. An accomplished filmmaker turned commissioner, Chang is determined that Storyville evolves with the times. On the day after the announcement of the Sundance doc lineup, which includes three Storyville films, I met with her to discuss the strand.
As usual this has been edited for length and clarity:
Carol Nahra: So you have been heading Storyville since October 2017. How has it been so far?
Mandy Chang: It’s been a huge period of assimilating a lot of information about filmmakers all around the globe; about who the major funders are, not just the broadcasters but not for profit organisations, and philanthropists as well. Because we fund via a patchwork of funding — we never fully fund Storyville; we just don’t have a big enough overall budget.
CN: What are your priorities for the strand?
MC: Diversity is really really important to me. It’s not just about picking the best films by the most experienced most famous documentary directors. It’s also about finding new talent and growing that talent and those relationships. It’s just hugely complex: the whole ecosystem of documentaries across the world. And the different ways that different broadcasters do things in different countries. To get on top of that has been my goal this year. Next year it’s about strategising and really making an impact with Storyville and where we are going with Storyville into the future. Because the whole marketplace is just changing so quickly. Everything is moving so quickly under our feet.
CN: How does one navigate the new world? I assume you are talking about SVODs like Netflix.
MC: Yes. First of all there’s a lot more competition. Storyville used to be in this very privileged place where it kind of had the pick of all the best stories. And now we have to fight to do that. We go to all these pitching forums and the filmmakers are selling their films and themselves to us. We also have to sell ourselves and what we can bring to their films back to them. And I think that’s new – I don’t think people had to work as hard to do that as before. And I’m acutely conscious of it. Filmmakers have higher expectations of what they want from whoever is putting their film on their platform. Now filmmakers are starting to realise that with those big SVOD organisations, they may not get publicity – they might just be a tile on that great big platform, and their film might disappear way down the trail. Because it’s not the latest thing, or it’s more niche. I think that’s where the BBC can really bring that personalised approach to the film. We really look after our filmmakers. We try to partner them up with people who can bring impact to their films. And we foster a relationship that we want to be ongoing.
CN: You talk about partnering up. What do you do in terms of extending the life of the film? Because of course the big hit with Storyville is the broadcast, and then the relatively short IPlayer life. I’m sure an attraction about Netflix is that it will have a longer life on there, whatever the contract is. So how does that work for you in terms of enticing filmmakers?
The other thing that we are doing with Storyville is BBC Three and BBC News often take those films and do cut downs of them. So they appear on other platforms where they might get completely different audiences. Whether it’s current affairs or a younger audience. Again that’s after negotiation with the filmmakers because some filmmakers don’t want spoilers. But it’s a way of getting out there and getting the attention. Because we can’t always rely on the traditional press and publicity departments because they are so overloaded anyway.
CN: What was it like stepping into Nick’s shoes?
MC: It was really tough. I have huge respect and awe of Nick. He has left an incredible legacy for the Storyville brand. I feel very lucky that I don’t have to start from the beginning – he has created this very powerful strand that people know all over the world. You can’t underestimate the value of that. So it’s building on that and bringing my own sensibilities to it without losing the good things – and there are many many good things that Storyville has. And Nick is an intellectual giant. He is always sending me links to books and articles. He’s very aware of the world – he’s a very sophisticated thinker.
As all these right wing government and forces are menacing the world, it’s really interesting that there are a lot of very young women with big voices who want to tell stories.
CN: Can you name a new filmmaker that you’re working with?
MC: A really good example of someone new that I’m really excited about who is a new voice and has access to stories we don’t usually get access to is a woman called Nanfu Wang. Nanfu has made four films in four years about China. She brings a kind of inside track to China and a subversiveness that not many filmmakers can bring. She also lives in New York so she has the security of being able to go to China and make her films and get that kind of access that really gives us those insights. She has put herself in danger but it’s not the same as living in China. She’s made a really fantastic film about the one child policy in China called One Child Nation. She’s really young and an extraordinary woman. She was a victim of the one child policy….grew up in a rural village and now making international films which get into Sundance. She’s a major talent on the international scene.
There are lots of young women making stories about their own countries. It’s a really important time as all these right wing government and forces are menacing the world. It’s really interesting that there are a lot of very young women with big voices who want to tell stories. I’ve really noticed it. And I really want to support it as well.
CN: Do you have other Storyville films at Sundance?
MC: We have Mads Brügger’s film called Cold Case Hammarskjöld, about the death of the UN Secretary General. Mads is very provocative but brings humour to his storytelling. The team dig very very deep and what they have uncovered is extraordinary and very very horrifying. There’s also an Israeli film called Advocate, about an amazing woman named Lea Tsemel who is a lawyer who represents Palestinian people in Israel. Her story itself is amazing, but the story that unfolds in the film, is really shocking about a 13 year-old Palestinian boy who goes on trial for something he wasn’t guilty of.
I have noticed this year there’s a trend at Sundance as well to be going for more international stories. And more provocative international stories. All three films I found overseas at international markets literally by talking to people face to face.
CN: How many British filmmakers do you commission?
It varies but usually between 3 – 6 a year are British, out of 18 films. The British filmmakers come to us as they know we are there. There are a lot of people who want to make single authored documentaries and know they are never going to get that away on mainstream spaces. So they come to us and we welcome them with open arms.
CN: Anything else you’d like to say?
No except that I think Storyville does need to keep growing and changing. And I think that broadcasters will need to start growing and changing. They are going to need to move a lot quicker in the future. It’s very siloed at the BBC – I mean this is very political but I do think we need to be more joined up. We need to be talking to each other more. I think the model of copro is a really useful model for a cash strapped BBC. And they could learn a lot from the model that Storyville has where we make a very small amount of money go a long long way.
While Donald Trump refuses to accept climate change as a reality, it doesn’t take a stable genius to understand that we are all interconnected. And most of us now also grasp that the damage that we are doing to the environment is in turn having a very real impact on human health — the study of this is known as Planetary Health. Next week’s Global Health Film Festival will award a £10,000 Planetary Health prize to a film to help it achieve impact – getting it in front of those who need to see it the most. The subjects of the four films up for the award range from the Ebola pandemic, to chemical pollution in the US, plastic pollution in the Pacific Ocean and an agrarian crisis in India.
Throughout its programming the Global Health Film Festival focuses on the interconnectivity of the human experience. When I attended the festival last year – its third edition – I was really blown away by the atmosphere (as I enthused in the below highlights reel). A stimulating, diverse range of health professionals, journalists, filmmakers and students descended on the Barbican for two days. In a single afternoon I went from attending an NHS session fronted by Jon Snow to immersing myself in fascinating VR installations, to watching a film I still think about, twelve months on.
The festival’s fourth edition kicks off next weekend. Transferring to Bloomsbury with the Wellcome Collection as its hub, it promises to be equally engrossing and inclusive, with a number of intriguing themes. According to Festival Director Gerri McHugh, in addition to the planetary health strand, this year’s programme highlights the lack of access to healthcare throughout the world. “Inequity in health care is not just a developing world issue. There is poverty and hunger and exclusion in every city in the UK and just about any part of the world,” she says. “Some of those inequities in the developed world are actually far harder to tackle than the inequities that we have in the developing world. They’re quite hidden – society hides them.” A related theme is how belief systems interact with health choices.
The US comes under particular scrutiny in the programme. No Greater Law features a sheriff in Idaho determined to try to get a law changed that allows a group of evangelicals to refuse any health treatments for their ailing children – even as the bodies mount in their graveyard. A short, Restoring Dignity, will look at period poverty amongst teenagers in the US – something which should resonate with a group of American high school students attending the festival. Their inclusion is a deliberate attempt to broaden the range of delegates. “Often in a meeting like this the demographic breaks down to the giants and leaders in the industry and then the early career professionals,” says McHugh. “And whilst we have quite a lot of that in the film festival we also want to plug the gaps in between. So we’re increasingly bringing in mid career professionals but also increasingly a focus on even younger people. We have a collaboration with Brookline High School in Boston, Massachusetts, who bring a class of 16-18 year olds to London specifically for the film festival every year. We work hard to involve them as much as we can in all different parts of the programme.”
Another timely theme of the two-day festival is unresolved trauma, mental health and post traumatic stress disorder. On Sunday, 9 December I’ll be chairing a panel following a screening of Evelyn, in which Oscar-winning director Orlando von Einsiedel probes the long ignored impact of his brother’s suicide on his family more than a decade ago.
The festival will again have a strong focus on virtual reality, in partnership with Crossover Labs. A number of installations echo the themes of Evelyn. When Dan Hett lost his brother in the Manchester Arena attack, he used his skills as a game developer to create The Loss Levels as a way to document and share his experience. Homestay places viewers amongst a Canadian family mourning the loss of their exchange student, while Is Anna OK? considers the experiences of two sisters, one of whom suffers from traumatic brain injury.
The Global Health Film Festival takes place Saturday, December 8 – Sunday, December 9. The festival sells day passes; some single tickets to screenings are available.
In fifteen years of directing documentaries, Paddy Wivell has made a name for himself for the seemingly effortless way he connects with his subjects, from African tribes, to Orthodox Jews, to psychiatric inpatients. His warmth and curiosity elicits often astonishing intimacy from his subjects – a skill on ready display in his new Channel 4 series, Prison. The three parter uses a 360 degree approach to take us deep inside Durham Prison where a constantly revolving population of nearly 1000 men do daily battle with a skeletal staff long on patience but short on resources. It’s a layered, sometimes shocking peek into a world most of us know little about other than crisis-screaming headlines.
I sat down with Paddy as he was finishing up in post, to find out the making of it. This interview has been edited for length and clarity:
CN: Can you talk me through the access?
PW: In England and Wales I think it’s been about five years since a documentary team have been allowed in to a prison – they’ve had such terrible negative headlines for such a long time. But Spring Films managed to locate a particular individual called Ian Blakeman who was then an executive governor of the Northeast Prisons. He could see the value of allowing a documentary team in. He introduced me to one prison that didn’t feel right – they didn’t feel confident or open enough. And then he suggested I go to Durham Prison. And as soon as I went there I knew that it was a great environment. The governor, Tim Allen, said “we’re getting such bad press, I don’t know why we don’t just open our doors and you can see what we’re doing in the face of extraordinary challenges”. He had complete faith in his staff. He’d been governor there ten years and felt confident and robust. And we got on really well.
CN: How did you approach making the series?
PW: I knew that I had to make a series that was specific to the prison that I was in, but that also spoke to the national crisis. And so as I started to get access around the prison, doing my research, it started to form in my mind that it would be good to do something based around different themes – so that each week the audience would feel like they were coming back to something different. And if you look at the indices of the crisis, you would find that mental health, drugs, incidents of violence are the themes people talk about: the trouble preventing drugs getting into the system, the prevalence of spice in prisons all across the country; the incredibly alarming rates of self harm which have tripled in five years; incidents of violence of prisoners on other prisoners but also on officers. So there was a ready made map of the series for me. I then just needed to find prisoners and staff who could start colouring in those sketches.
CN: How did the consent work? Do you gain it from each prisoner before you start filming? Sometimes it seemed like you would go up to a cell and film from the get go.
Paddy: Everybody who is on it consents. But sometimes I do just film from the get go and see how they go with it and then build consent off that first meeting. I had an amazing assistant producer, Josh Allott, who would be around all the wings with us as we were filming, getting consent from every prisoner. And he was just extraordinary. Because it was a big concern that we would end up having to blur everyone. And every prisoner you end up getting their consent but also you have to be across the legal proceedings – you have to avoid sub judice. If they are charged and not sentenced you can’t put them on the television. They have to be sentenced. So we’ve done a lot of work in post with the courts and prison service to make sure we’re completely across everyone that features. So in the background shots there are only a relatively few number of people blurred. If you look at other prison documentaries it’s a blurfest – the whole thing’s a nightmare!
CN: You came across as a bit of an anthropologist in there – did you feel like one?
PW: I was just really excited because I really felt like there were unchartered territories in prison documentaries. Always the space that excites me is the space I wanted to go but hadn’t had the opportunity to know. I always felt that a lot of the prison documentaries I’ve seen, the emphasis is so weighted on the shoulders of the staff members that you don’t really get the POV from the prisoners themselves. And I wanted a series that had equal weight among prisoners and staff. They both kind of cohabit the same space and they both have views on the crisis but from very different perspectives. So what might be a crisis to the officers might actually be seen by some of the prisoners as an opportunity. And I wanted that to be impressed somehow….Every day I l hear all these headlines and listen to the Today programme about the crisis in prisons but it’s from such a particular perspective. And it felt like there is a whole class of people who are not being spoken to or heard. It’s fresh territory.
CN: What was your responsibility when prisoners confided in you about all of their shenanigans? Obviously it’s going to come out on telly if the staff don’t know it already.
PW: They sort of know it already. But there’s a difference between knowing something and being able to prevent it. They know they stuff all these things up their bums to come in – they know the techniques. But they have six staff to two hundred prisoners. The prisoners have 24 hours a day to dream of ways to bring drugs into prisons or to hide contraband. It’s a never ending battle with the staff. What I wanted to avoid going in there was setting out too many rules to make my life more difficult. I didn’t ask the question “what do I do if someone”…I didn’t want them to tell me “you have to tell us”. But I did have my own sort of system. So if I felt that someone was in danger, of if I saw weapons, there were times I needed to tell staff. But the prisoners needed to feel confident that I wasn’t running with all the information to members of staff. There was this time when the prisoners showed me all their contraband and then they had their cells searched a week later by the intelligence unit. And then the word got out that we were a grass. So that was quite an awkward position – but I also quite like it when the lines get a little bit blurred. You can sort of incorporate that into the film.
CN: There are a lot of quite funny scenes.
There is a lot of humour. A lot of times in these institutions you think it is totally bleak. But inherently when you’ve got a lot of rule-breaking people in a rule-based environment trying to transgress the rules it provides quite a lot of humour and levity. And there’s a sort of David and Goliath dynamic going on which is quite pleasing.
CN: It’s relatively rare to see a series filmed in Durham. What was it like filming up there?
PW: Love it. It’s so refreshing. The Northeast has such warmth. And in a way there’s something quite nostalgic about the Northeast because they don’t have the same problems that southern prisons do – or almost any other region. The gang issues don’t affect the Northeast in quite the same way. So I think I benefited. The prisoners were pretty friendly. It wasn’t quite the same edge I don’t think.
CN: What was the biggest surprise for you making the series?
PW: I didn’t think I’d spend so much time talking about anal cavities!
The first episode of Prison airs 9pm Thursday, 19 July on Channel 4.
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.