Tag Archives: BBC Storyville

James Jones and Olivier Sarbil: How We Made ‘On the President’s Orders’

Hot on the heels of their Emmy award-winning documentary Mosul, James Jones and Olivier Sarbil have delivered another masterful foray into the dark side of human behaviour. On the President’s Orders takes viewers to the Philippines where President Duterte’s brutal war on drugs has led police to murder thousands of drug users and dealers. Arriving to embed themselves with a police force in Caloocan just as Duterte pledges a killing moratorium driving the violence underground, Jones and Sarbil’s film is an astonishingly framed narrative which manages to tell a story full of menace and intrigue. In the lead up to their festival run, before it airs on PBS, BBC Storyville and Arte France, I sat down with the filmmaking partners to discuss how they made it. This has been condensed for length and clarity:

Carol Nahra: Can you tell me how you came to this story?

James Jones: Yes, we were finishing Mosul together and thinking what story we wanted to do and which subject might play to our strengths. I think we had both been aware of the mass executions in the Phillipines. We’d seen some great photojournalism. Basically we went out to Manila to try to get access to the cops. A lot of the coverage had been quite formulaic – dead bodies in the street and sobbing families. We didn’t really get under the skin of it, understand who was doing the killing, the rationale behind the murder. We wanted to see it from the police’s perspective – not sympathising with it but understanding how they could justify this mass murder. And so we showed up in Caloocan which is the hot spot. And Duterte the President had had to basically pause the drugs war and say ‘we’re going to clean it up’. So we actually had very little faith that they were going to give us access. We’d come halfway across the world – they would guess why we were choosing them. But we were lucky, we met the police chief, who quite liked the attention. And there was a kind of push from above to show that they had changed – the drugs war was going to be cleaner. So we just had full access and spent the next six months going back and forth.

Olivier Sarbil: We didn’t go through the official media centre for the police. We tried to get the access directly with the commander because we knew that if we had something too official obviously we would be on the radar of the police; obviously it would be more difficult.

JJ: It was great on the one hand because we had no official oversight. We were able to do whatever we wanted. But there was also this worry that because we had nothing on paper he could just wake up one morning and get fed up with us and kick us out.

CN: How would you define what plays to your strengths?

JJ: I’ve done a film about police shooting in America. So journalistically I was drawn to it and Olivier was drawn to it. And I think in terms of the type of filming Olivier had done in Mosul in terms of getting access to a group of men, it felt like a combination of the two of us. We could win their trust. We could get access that no one had got before. And Olivier would shoot it in a way that was incredibly cinematic. So it felt like on one level an important story – an injustice that we wanted to expose – but also filmically it was set up for film noirish atmospheric: quite dark and beautiful images.

CN: That of course is what is really striking and will gain some attention. How did you go about planning the look of the film?

OS: It’s a story filled with violence and darkness. For the film, we went for carefully composed shots. We wanted to create a style with a dramatic mood and an emotional connection with the city to enhance our characters’ feelings and the story.

CN: You had to build this picture of menace. Did you discuss how you were going to do this as you were shooting?

OS: First we had the shooting recce. We discovered the country and all the lighting and how we would be able to visually tell the story. So we had a pretty clear idea of what will work and how we will make it cinematically. And actually on a daily basis we were working and trying to edit short sequences to see how it works. So as soon as we decided to have a style for the film – the look – we really kept to it.

JJ: We wanted actuality, but actually the thing that was happening while we were there was the killing was going underground. Had we gone six months to a year earlier, there would have been more operations where they just bust into slums in uniform and shot people. Whereas now they were being a bit smarter and it was vigilantes or plainclothes off duty cops executing people on a motorbike. So the challenge was to kind of capture the fact that people thought the police were behind it – and even the cops privately were admitting to us that they were behind it. There were these clues along the way but it was a balance of not damning them by innuendo but making it feel solid that you knew that these guys were the killers.

OS: We didn’t want also to just be focused – if we had the chance to have more actuality with the police we would have followed them. But at the same time we didn’t want to make the film running after the police. We wanted to spend six months with the cops plus going underground, behind the scenes of the killing, and to have a chance to know the people a little bit better.

“They didn’t fully wrap their heads around what a documentary is, and I think were probably surprised we kept coming back and back and back.”

James Jones

CN: So you were there off and on for six months. How did you plan that schedule?

JJ: We had twelve weeks on the ground, which is a good amount of time. And Olivier doesn’t shoot very much in a day. Visually it’s all very well covered but he’s not someone who just rolls for three hours. So twelve weeks on the ground. Four trips of three weeks. So for the first three trips filming almost entirely with the police and a bit with the funeral parlour director. And then on the last near the end of the penultimate trip we started filming with Axel and the family in the slums.

OS: It was a bit risky to suddenly leave the cops and go to the slums. We were quite conspicuous.

CN: What did everyone make of you?

JJ: They quite liked Olivier and were impressed by his military background and the fact that he had been in Mosul. They didn’t fully wrap their heads around what a documentary is, and I think were probably surprised we kept coming back and back and back. They thought we were more of a news crew but we kept coming back and we’d want to film stuff that to them felt quite inconsequential, which is often the way with documentaries.

CN: Was it just the two of you?

JJ: And local fixers. I was doing sound; Olivier was shooting. Which worked, was a perfect set up for the environment. We would put a radio mic on our main characters and a boom on a stick. In the slums we weren’t out on the streets with our characters that much. We did drone footage later on – a note from one of our commissioners was they wanted to get a sense of the space. With our characters in the slums we mainly filmed inside their flats. And we tried to get in and out as unobtrusively as possible. And the kit would be hidden in bags and we would dash quite quickly.

OS: One of the reasons the filming was stressful was by definition you might think the police were following where we were going.

CN: You were again working in a language not your own, although lots of people do speak English in the Philippines. But there were nonetheless some revelations in what they were saying that I assume you found out back in the edit?

JJ: It was kind of ideal in a way that we could communicate with them well enough in English. So we could establish a proper relationship and give instructions or get information. But because they knew that we didn’t understand Tagalong, they would be quite indiscreet. And say things like ‘I asked the boss if we could go overboard, and he said no’, ie we are not allowed to kill this one. Or ‘the killings have caught up with us sir’, or ‘there are things we should talk about later’. So those little moments which as you say when we are filming we have no idea about but when we get the transcript back realise it’s gold and that there’s something else going on.

OS: Because they got so used to seeing us in the station – at some point we could just walk in and walk out, sit on the sofa, spend the day in the police station, going from one building to another, and no one would ask the question: what are we doing there? We built that trust with the police officers, and sometimes they’d forget that we were there. That’s the magic in observational documentary.

On the President’s Orders, a Mongoose Pictures production, has its UK premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest, running 6-11 June 2019.

Advertisements

Henry Singer Interview: The Making of The Trial of Ratko Mladic

Henry Singer has been making films in Britain for more than twenty-five years. His body of work is extraordinary – his talent is in telling unusual stories in great detail, with tremendous nuance and respect. He is responsible for some of the most important films made over the past decade or so, including The Falling Man, considered by many to be the classic non-fiction film on 9/11, and The Untold Story of Baby P, about the terrible fallout from the death of a seventeen month toddler in north London back in 2006.


His latest film, co-directed with Rob Miller, is an examination of the Trial of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general found guilty of genocide and nine other war crimes in November 2017 at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Filmed over five years, it tells the story of the trial from both the prosecution and defence sides. I sat down recently with Henry to discuss the film. As usual, this has been condensed for length and clarity.

CN: How did you come to this topic?

The idea came from an executive producer at BBC Bristol – he thought it would be an important idea for a film. He asked me if I wanted to direct it but I said no as I’d just got on commission for a film on Baby P, a big feature length doc for BBC1. But I did say to him –‘Look, if you have trouble getting a commission internally from the BBC I’d be interested in taking it over as an independent’. I knew given the state of British broadcasting at the moment that it would be very hard for him internally to get money for a film that would take years to make that would be partly subtitled. Big important, feature docs commissioned by the BBC are generally made on British subjects; big international films are of less of interest to the broadcaster.


The producer of the film, who did an extraordinary job negotiating access to the court, along with the exec, was somebody that I’ve worked with a lot — Rob Miller. He started off as my assistant producer years ago on a 90 minute film on a working man’s club in Bradford. He was my AP, then he became my co-producer then he produced me. He was the in-house producer at the BBC Bristol and he is the one who supervised the initial shoot – the opening of the trial. The BBC Bristol exec called me up a few month later and said ‘Henry, the film is yours if you want it as an independent’. And I was thrilled because, of course, I knew Rob and had worked very intimately with him, and knew what a talent he was, and because it was an incredibly important story – really, history in the making. So I leapt in on a heartbeat.

Henry Singer

CN: How did you come to be co-directors?

At that time the trial was supposed to take two more years. The trial ended up taking five years in the film and sort of took over my life. And I was making this film as I was making other films for the BBC I did one on Baby P, a film on the The Rochdale sex abuse scandal and the death of Diana Princess of Wales and the week that followed.


In amongst that I was juggling the Mladic film with Rob. And Rob had directed parts of the opening of the trial and we realised that it would be incredibly difficult for me to direct it on my own. And so we decided early on that we would co-direct it. It really worked out wonderfully. I don’t know if I could codirect with too many people. We know each other very very well; we share responsibility and we are very close friends. It really worked out extraordinarily well.

CN: The numbers involved in the trial are hugely daunting, aren’t they?

HS: Hugely daunting. It took place for four or five days a week for over five years and there were over 560 witnesses by the end and 10,000 artifacts – not that the latter played much of a role in the film. We obviously couldn’t film every day – no one could have afforded that. So we had to be really strategic in terms of what we filmed and when we filmed. A trial like this isn’t like the O.J. Simpson trial where there are two or three or four key witnesses around whom the trial pivots and will be decided. These huge war crime trials are almost like a tableau, a mosaic, where every witness called by the prosecution and by the defence plays a small but crucial role in putting together a larger narrative –one of guilt or one of one innocence. But there are some witnesses that play a slightly bigger role – either factually or should I say legally, or emotionally in terms of getting the judges’ attention, and we filmed quite a number of those, some of whom became the foundation for the film.


CN: Were there any restrictions on what you filmed?

HS: No, I don’t think there was. One of the reasons we got access and maintained access is that we wanted to shoot both sides. That had never been done before. And, in fact, if you look at the films that have been made of the Balkans conflict, representing both sides really doesn’t exist. I think that was one of the reasons the court – I’m talking about the ICTY now, the judges and what’s called the registry, the body that runs the institution – thought it could be an important, a significant film. This did mean that we had to create a Chinese wall between the two sides. We never spoke to the defence about our conversations with the prosecution. We never spoke to the prosecution about our conversations with the defence. In fact, the two sides very rarely meet except in court.

©Int’l Commission for Missing Persons

CN: It’s striking how professional both sides are, particularly the defence team. Was it more difficult for you filming the defence side given the charges?

HS: Because it was a trial, you had to approach the subject with real objectivity – an accused is innocent until proven guilty. Obviously, that was incredibly hard with someone like Mladic, who had a terrible reputation across the world as the so-called Butcher of Bosnia. But you very quickly checked that at the door because first, it was a trial, and if you were going to be fair and objective and try to make a proper film of it, you couldn’t go in it with bias. And second, we had a lot of respect for the defence. They absolutely believed their client was innocent and we watched them work excruciatingly hard over months and years. And, of course, everybody must have legal representation – our systems of justice are built on that.

CN: How much did you know about this conflict before you began?

HS: Very little. Of course, you remember Sarajevo, you remember the images of Sarajevo, but I’d be lying if I told you it’s a story that has stayed with me. Of course, I knew a bit about Srebrenica – how could you not? But I didn’t know any more than your average consumer of news. So I was drawn to the story, not because of some familiarity with it, but because it was obvious the trial was a very, very important moment in European history – or rather, world history – and the issues that the trial and film would provoke – accountability, justice, immunity – are incredibly significant, even more now than when we started, given what’s happening in places like Syria, Yemen and Myanmar. I also like to make films about stories that are not known, or stories that we prefer not to look at, that we avoid. That trial and that war, even though it was this huge moment in European history – most people know very little about it nor do they particularly care about it. Which is rather extraordinary, given that it’s the bloodiest conflict in Europe since World War II and involved a genocide, or at least a an alleged genocide. So it fit into my sensibility of wanting to do significant work about things that we don’t know about or that we choose to look the other way about.

CN: How did the edit go? You told me you had shot 400 hours?

There’s a cliche that documentary films are made in the cutting room. It may be a cliché, but it was certainly true of this one. Because we had this massive amount of material. We shot close to 450 hours, we had access to all the court testimony over five years, and there was, of course, the archive. We began by cutting all the sequences from our material that we thought might work themselves into the film – this took three or four months. Over time we reduced that, reduced that, reduced that, and the narrative of the film started to emerge. As we did that, we started pulling the court testimony – the ICTY films the entire trial – from the witnesses who were in those sequences. And of course, we started to pull in archive to tell the backstories – the backstory of the war in Bosnia, of Mladic, of Srebrenica, etc. It was an extraordinary long edit because of the volume of the material, and because of the complexity of the trial and because of the complexity of the region. And we wanted to ‘show’ the film, rather than ‘tell’ it, to use another well-worn cliché. But we were really fortunate to have hugely talented editor in Anna Price, and other really talented colleagues – co-producer Ida Bruusgaard, archive producer Geoff Walton, and too many others to name.

CN: Can you talk about the aesthetic? You went to some lengths to show how beautiful the countryside is – what was your thinking there?

HS: The thinking there was to create a contrast with the handheld, always moving – sometimes even frantic footage of material around the court with the prosecution and defence, and the even more, sort of, ‘thin’ and bland footage of the court testimony. It’s a sort of gritty, handheld on the shoulder documentary look. It’s very immediate – it’s now, it’s strip lighting, etc.  That was the feeling at and around the court.

In Bosnia, we wanted a very different feel. We wanted to get across the layers of history, a country that has so much history, so much bloodshed, so many narratives, so many myths. It’s a place, more than any place I’ve been, where the past is the present. So we wanted a much more layered, graded feel. You’ve got the sort of black and white gritty truth of the court – the film is really about the nature of truth – but in Bosnia truth is very grey, and the truths are very different there depending which side you are on. It’s truth mediated by culture, by history. And Mladic is a great example of that, because to his Serb supporters, he’s already a mythical figure, the saviour of his people, whereas to his victims and many others, he’s a mass killer.

And at the heart of the feeling we were trying to get across in Bosnia is the land. Land, territory, is obviously what wars are fought over, and it was true in this case. But the land is significant because so much blood has been spilled on it, not just in the 90s, but through the centuries. And it’s symbolic of people’s belief systems. So we were trying, in a sense, to juxtapose that gritty black and white truth in the court with a much more nuanced sense of truth in the countryside. I’m not sure that comes across, but that was the intention.

BBC Storyville’s Mandy Chang: “A lot of people want to make single authored documentaries. We welcome them with open arms.”

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.

 

Mandy Chang

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.

Henry Singer’s The Trial of Ratko Mladic is an upcoming Storyville
© ICTY

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.

Mandy Chang

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.

Nanfu Wang

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.

 

 

Docs You Can Watch Right Now!

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:

Real Stories

I recently interviewed Adam Gee about his original commissioning for the Real Stories channel on Youtube. Here are some of my favourite films that the channel has acquired:

One Killer Punch

I found this programme riveting – not surprising perhaps as it comes from the always outstanding Raw TV.

You can also see the below BMX storyline, which was left out of the original programme, but has gone on to gain many viewers, both through Headway and the Guardian:

Battleship Antarctica

This is an outstanding and overlooked little gem by the very talented Morgan Matthews, and a great example of how observational documentary can lead you to unexpected places.

Mum and Me

As evidenced by her multiple appearances in this blog, I’m a big Sue Bourne fan. Here’s a very personal film she made about her mum:

Meet the Mormons

I found this fascinating – great access, great story, ’nuff said.

Other Real Stories films I recommend are The Drug TrialMy Sister the Geisha (which, admittedly, I worked on back in my development days at Stampede), My Fake Baby, and Fighting the Taliban.

BBC IPlayer

There are a couple Docs on Screens-featured films currently on I-Player: Sean McAllister’s A Syrian Love Story, is available for another twelve days and, for another three weeks Mark Craig’s The Last Man on the Moon.

And I highly recommend Jamie Roberts’ Manchester: The Night of the Bomb (exec produced by Dan Reed), as a gripping, moving and insightful account of the tragedy.

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.

 

Stream Now: Award Winning Docs

If you’re not fortunate enough to be attending Sheffield Doc/Fest this week, but are in the market for some great docs, here is a list of films that have played at the festival that you can now stream on Netflix or BBC IPlayer. Descriptions are from the copy I originally wrote for Doc/Fest.

NETFLIX FILMS 

The Hunting Ground

 

Excited at having landed a place at the University of North Carolina, Annie Clark’s elation evaporated when she was raped before classes began. She is far from alone: studies show that 20% of women will suffer a sexual attack at university. In a masterful, wide-ranging investigation, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering present dozens of testimonials detailing how universities of every shape and size collude to cover up sexual crimes on their campuses, creating an ideal “hunting ground” for serial offenders. Fear of damaging their reputation – and enrolment – drives shocking behaviour throughout the universities, with the fraternity and athletic communities covering up the most grievous assaults. For many victims, the institutional denial proves even more painful than the crime itself. But hope is in sight as Annie and other victims begin to fight back through the courts, hitting universities where it hurts – by threatening their revenue streams.

3 1/2 Minutes

It became known in America as the “loud music trial”. In an encounter which lasted a scant three and a half minutes, a middle aged white man named Mike Dunn repeatedly fired into a car of unarmed black teenagers, after they refused to turn down their rap music, killing 17 year old Jordan Davis. Now the case has come to trial, and the nation is watching. Dunn’s attorney is using Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law to argue self defence. In the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, in which a white man walked free in Florida after gunning down an unarmed teenager, tensions are running high. Director Marc Silver skilfully weaves a compelling narrative through beautifully shot courtroom scenes, interviews with the victim’s parents and friends, and shocking telephone conversations between incarcerated Dunn and his distraught fiancee. A riveting look at a flawed legal system in a country where race relations are balanced on a knife’s edge.

Cartel Land

In this double Sundance winner, Matthew Heineman (main pic above) takes us deep into the world of Mexican drug cartels by embedding himself with two vigilante groups on either side of the US-Mexico border. Camouflaged to help spy on drug runners, veteran Tim Foley is a man who wears his hard past on his face. Meanwhile, across the Rio Grande, surgeon Dr. Jose Mireles looks straight out of central casting, with chiselled features and a prominent moustache. As head of the Autodefansas, he is leading a group of men determined to obliterate the region’s most dangerous drug cartel, the Knights Templar. Heineman repeatedly places himself in harm’s way, filming the chaos as the group begin taking over towns – in so doing adapting many of the violent tactics of the drug lords they’re trying to overpower. A visceral journey into North America’s heart of darkness, Cartel Land will be talked about for years to come.

Searching for Sugar Man

Sixto Rodriguez was discovered by two music producers, whilst living on the streets of Detroit in the late 60s. They quickly recognised him as an inner city poet, his poignant lyrics about working class lives reminiscent of Bob Dylan. They made two albums with Rodriguez, and never understood why they were total flops. Unbeknownst to them, in a pre-Internet, apartheid age, a bootleg copy of a Rodriguez album made him an inspiration to a generation of South Africans just beginning to test the ties that bind. Yet all that his South African fans knew about Rodriguez, was that he had spectacularly killed himself on stage. After years of wondering, two of his biggest devotees set out to learn more, and eventually discover the shocking truth behind the legend. This beautifully crafted film scooped two major awards at the Sundance Film Festival, and shows in its edge-of-the-seat storytelling, just how powerfully a documentary narrative can grip.

We Are Legion

Few people cite Scientology as a force for good in their lives – outside of Scientologists themselves, of course. But it was communal hatred of the creepy cult – and their bullying, litigious online presence – that forced the hacktivist group Anonymous from a culture of pranksters to an influential cyber-army. As a number of the group’s most prominent activists face over-the-top prison sentences, director Brian Knappenberger explores the history of the radical collective, and how it rose from a patchwork of bloggers, to become an influential change-agent in the Arab spring. Inevitably with such an amorphous, all embracing group, schisms endure. Most want to use their numbers to promote civil disobedience and curb some of the world’s excesses. But others simply want to continue to cause anarchic mischief online, or as one of this doc’s many entertaining commentators puts it: “If you’re not out there making epileptics have seizures, then you’re a moral fag”.

National Bird

Lisa Ling regrets the 121,000 lives she spied on electronically in a two-year period for the US Air Force. She’s now trying to make amends by visiting bombing victims in Afghanistan. National Bird follows Ling and two other whistleblower veterans wracked with guilt about the secret US drone war, and the many civilian casualties that continue to be denied by the powers that be.

BBC Storyville on IPlayer

Client 9

At some point you would have thought New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who was an aggressive prosecutor of prostitution rings, might have written a note to self: Do Not Buy Hookers (no matter how high class). But no, alas, an FBI sting of a pricey escort service led to Spitzer’s fall and resignation after barely a year in the guv’s chair. Unfortunately for us small people, Spitzer was one of the good guys: he had built a career tackling excesses in the banking industry (before anyone else did), as well as going after environmental polluters and other baddies. Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney pieces together the rise and fall of Spitzer, and the long line of powerful enemies he left in his testosterone-fuelled wake. Accompanied by a breezy soundtrack, a range of entertaining interviews – including his chief nemeses, favourite call girl, and Spitzer himself – fill us in on one spectacular fall from grace.

Unlocking the Cage

Unlocking the Cage

In this legal thriller from vérité legends D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus , we follow Harvard professor Steven Wise, who is arguing to a series of sceptical judges that New York’s chimpanzees should be persons in the eyes of the law. Wise is convinced he can make legal history – if only he can keep his primate plaintiffs alive long enough to represent them in court.

Exposed: Magicians, Psychics and Frauds (formerly An Honest Liar)

An Honest Liar

As a magician “The Amazing Randi” spent decades wowing audiences with astonishing feats. But as Randi’s fanbase grew, he became uneasy at how conmen and faith healers used the tricks of his trade to deceive the masses for profit. Randi made it his life mission to expose psychics, even using the bullhorn of the Johnny Carson show to do so. Directors Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom take us through a hugely enjoyable series of Randi’s exposes, from the spoon bending of Uri Geller, to a televisual faith healer aided by an earpiece and a compliant wife. As he continuously worked to debunk the psychics, Randi met angry denial at all levels – even from the gullible scientists he did his best to aid and abet. As he eases into his twilight years still fighting deceit, Randi finds that a deception at the heart of his personal life might prove the costliest trick of all.

Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer

They knew how to make an impact: Pussy Riot’s performance inside a Russian cathedral might have lasted just a few seconds, but its repercussions continue to rock the Russian state. Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s absorbing documentary brings us straight into the centre of the ensuing trial, where three members stand accused of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. The filmmakers obtain astonishing access to the legal system, including the courtroom, where the girls murmur from within the confines of a glass cage at the sometimes farcical mayhem around them. Reviled by much of the Russian public, with even their closest family struggling to defend their actions, they stand firm by their convictions – and hatred of Putin. A truly compelling immersion into the clash between a generation determined to challenge an oppressive status quo, with those who are equally determined to maintain it.

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

 

Jeanie Finlay on Orion: The Man Who Would Be King

Over the last few years, British filmmaker Jeanie Finlay forged a reputation for making fabulous films about stories from the fringes of the music industry.  The Great Hip Hop Hoax told how a couple of Scottish lads got a record deal by posing as Californian hip hop artists, and Sound it Out profiled the last surviving vinyl shop in the northeast of England.

Finlay’s  latest film, Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, about to be broadcast on BBC’s Storyville, continues this tradition in spades. It’s an utterly engrossing, layered story, beautifully told. Here’s what I wrote about it for Sheffield Doc/Fest, where it had its world premiere in June:

As a teenager in 1960s Alabama, Jimmy Ellis’ wonderful singing voice was unlike any other. Except, that is, for one Elvis Presley. Hampered by his over-resemblance to the King, Jimmy’s own singing career floundered. Then, in 1979 he found fame as a masked singer called “Orion”, a persona deliberately evolved to create intrigue in the wake of Presley’s death. Over the next years he played to legions of grieving Elvis fans, and developed his own fanatical fan base, many of whom remained in willful denial about the true identity of their idol. With his contract stipulating he never remove his mask in public, Ellis’ success came at a high price for the singer still hoping to succeed on his own terms. Jeanie Finlay’s nuanced portrait of Ellis serves as a riveting cautionary tale of the music industry, and a memorable exploration of identity. 

JeanieFinlay_Director_landscape
Jeanie Finlay

I spoke with Jeanie on the telephone, just before she left to take the film on a tour of the American South:

How did you come to this story?

I discovered an Orion record at a car boot sale with my husband 12 years ago. And was just intrigued by this kooky masked man. We took it home and played it. It was confusing: what is this? Because it wasn’t Elvis songs but it sounded like Elvis and the mask was intriguing. And then we did some research and discovered Orion’s whole story. It was a total chance discovery. I wasn’t making films then; I was an artist. Cut forward six years and I’d made Teenland and Goth Cruise and I thought what am I going to make next? I’ll make Orion. But I couldn’t get anyone to fund it. So I got a bit of development money and I shot most of the film on that initial development.

I was told by a senior programmer “If you continue to make music oriented work, no one will fund you.  You’ll get shown at festivals but only in a side bar, and you’ll never be taken seriously.”

It seems like such a great story. Why was it so difficult to get funded?

Part of it was timing. No one knew who I was. It is a guy who is not famous. The story takes quite a lot of explaining. It’s an easy story to dismiss as Americana. Some of the funders told me “We don’t fund Americana. This is Americana.” Also, six years ago, I was trying to make it pre Sugarman and pre 20 Feet From Stardom. At that time I did a panel for Sheffield Doc/Fest called “Just Don’t Call it a Music Doc”. Because I was told by a senior programmer “If you continue to make music oriented work, no one will fund you.  You’ll get shown at festivals but only in a side bar, and you’ll never be taken seriously.” Obviously films like Amy, 20 Feet From Stardom, and Sugarman have changed that discussion. I was always convinced that it was a really great American tragedy.

What kind of response are you getting from audiences, and particularly from Elvis fans to the film?

It’s quite interesting trying to reach Elvis fans. We’ve been going through Elvis tribute artists because they have access to a whole community. But actually going to Elvis fans is tricky. Because they love Elvis, and they have their favourite Elvis Tribute Artists, but they don’t want anyone else. So they are really not interested in Orion. So we’ve been doing some targeted ads on Facebook, and we’ve had no end of abuse from Elvis fans who haven’t heard of Orion and think this is someone trying to pull a scam!

Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, Monday, 16 November at 10pm on BBC Four.

Orion, photo courtesy of Sun Records
© Sun Records

Sean McAllister on his Syrian Labour of Love

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.

A SYRIAN LOVE STORY 10
Sean and Bob
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.

A SYRIAN LOVE STORY 04
Amer and Bob speak to imprisoned Raghda
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.

Daisy Asquith Gets Personal

In nearly twenty years as a filmmaker, Daisy Asquith has told human stories the length and breadth of the UK, and beyond – not least in Crazy About One Direction, where she memorably explored the legion of passionate One Direction fans. She has also taken viewers into the world of clowns, young mums, Holocaust survivors and house clearers, in empathetic, nuanced portraits which have earned her multiple awards.

Her latest film is a departure for Asquith, in that for the first time she points her lens at her own family. In My Mother the Secret Baby, she embarks on a journey with her mum to find out more about her grandparents, who gave her mother up for adoption after she was born illegitimately in Ireland in the 1940s. In going in search of details about her birth grandfather,  Asquith alienates a number of her Irish relatives, who vehemently resist airing their family’s secrets in public – their objections becoming part of the narrative of the film. I spoke to Daisy about the film, and what it was like making a film about her own family.

Daisy, middle, with her cousin Johnny and his wife Mary
Daisy, centre, with Johnny and wife Mary

Can you tell me a bit about the origin of the film?

I had a lot of wobbles over whether or not to make the film, because one of my aunts…is really really against my talking about our illegitimacy in public; she wanted it kept private and a secret. So I kept chickening out basically. (BBC) Storyville have supported it very patiently for about five years. I kept saying I’m not doing it. And they would say, hmm okay and then three months later it was back on again.

Is this a journey that your mum would have taken if the film wasn’t driving it?

No, she says she wouldn’t have done it. And that kept confusing me too – that I was dragging her into it. But I think it just needed all that time. We needed loads of time. She kept changing her mind as well. I tried not to push her and to be patient really. And they allowed me to do that. She came to the realisation that she really did want to know more about her father.  And now she’s so delighted that she made that decision. She loves the film and she loves the information that she has about who she is – who her father was. It’s somehow kind of filled in loads of gaps that you wouldn’t expect – why you are like you are. I think it has made her happy, actually.

You’ve pushed some family away, and others have become closer, like your aunt who is in it.

Yes, my Aunt Siobhan has been incredible. Her courage – I don’t know how she is so courageous. She is the one who has given us the confidence to do it. She kept saying ‘you have the right to know,’ and not backing down either.

J&Mdance
Johnny and Mary in NYC

And has that led to her having difficulties with her own siblings?

Yes, it has caused her all kinds of trouble.

What was it like discovering your main characters, Johnny and his wife?

It was delightful. When I first saw Johnny and he sort of emerged from his milking shed with hay sticking out of his hat, I thought, this is just amazing. I fell in love with him really. Luckily he likes me. I must be quite challenging for him, but he seems to like it and handle it, and is in full control of me when I’m over there.

You have made a lot of films – is this the first autobiographical film that you have made?

Overtly, yes. You could say all of your films have much subjective stuff in them, but yes overtly it is the first autobiographical film. It is so different. And of course they pressured me to be in it, which is of course out of my comfort zone.

You weren’t in it that much!

I don’t’ think I needed to be in it that much – do you?

Well I have a sense of who you are already. But I do usually find myself craving to see more of the strong personality behind the camera.

I think it is a bit of a cop out to hide and not do that and pretend that you weren’t affecting everything all of the time, so maybe I didn’t do it enough.

Can you expand on how it was different making this film?

You can’t see clearly when it is your family. It’s too emotional. You get sucked up into lots of different people’s feelings, all of whom you love and all of whom are not going to mince their words in their criticism of you. I try to treat the people whom I film with huge respect and some love, and to try to collaborate with them. But actually what happened was my vision was fogged by it. I had to separate how I felt about them being angry with me to how I present them in the film.

Will any of them end up watching it and coming around?

I want them to watch it – I’ve offered. They have not taken me up on my offer yet. But you never know. I’m hoping it is way better than they imagine.

—————————————–

My Mother the Secret Baby premieres at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival the 26th March (under the title After the Dance) and will be broadcast on BBC Storyville, 30th March, 10pm. There will be a special screening at the new Bertha DocHouse in London on 31 March at 7pm, which will include a post screening Q&A with Asquith.

Please like the Docs On Screens Facebook Group