It’s a sign of the times that two of the winning docs from this year’s Grierson Awards, which I attended on Monday night, came from the heart of the migrant crisis. As it shows no sign of abating, filmmakers and broadcasters alike are struggling with how to tell the narratives emerging from the crisis in fresh ways. In the BBC’s Goodbye Aleppo which won Best Current Affairs Documentary, four citizen journalists film themselves under siege as the East Aleppo in December 2016. Against some stiff competition, the Best Documentary Series went to Keo Films’Exodus: Our Journey to Europe, which tells a range of astonishing stories, tracking refugees from the shores of Turkey, through harrowing sea crossings, to their unstable lives in Europe. Coupling refugees’ own escape footage with interviews, it makes for very powerful frontline testimony. To get a taste of it, check out this BBC extract from Exodus, which tells Hassan’s story:
Another notable award on the night was the Best Constructed Documentary, which went to Love Productions’ Muslims Like Us, for Channel 4. The two part series placed ten Muslim men and women in a house together for ten days, including a convicted extremist. The program not surprisingly generated a lot of debate about what Islam means to modern Muslims.
Although it’s a strange category to win – Best Entertaining Documentary – I was delighted to see the Channel 4 series 999: What’s Your Emergency? win a Grierson. Made by Blast! Films, it’s always a superb watch, taking viewers into the heart of the emergency response system, and tracking calls from origin through treatment, often via some compelling ambulance cab footage.
999: What’s Your Emergency? is one of a plethora of top quality public services series on British TV this year. They cumulatively demonstrate both the utter professionalism and quality of the National Health System and emergency services while at the same time showing how ever dwindling resources and escalating demand have left both at breaking point. Other outstanding series include Label One’s BBC series Hospital, which in its second series found itself at the epicentre of a response to a terrorism attack. Check out this astonishing clip:
And this one, as two of the victims – French school friends – reunite in hospital:
Some months ago I was taking notes on a student film about the impact of a high speed motorway on a community in the British countryside. A woman appeared briefly in it, telling how her husband had killed himself, leaving her raising seven children, most of whom were on the autistic spectrum. I made a note that she clearly needed a documentary all of her own. Fast forward to the closing night of the BFI London Film Festival last month, and the winner of the Grierson Award for Best Documentary goes to Kingdom of Us – taking us deep into the lives of this very same family. Shot over three years by director Lucy Cohen, the feature film focuses not so much on the children’s autism but on the ongoing impact of the suicide of their father some years ago. It’s a very moving gem of a story, with luminous filming, abundant family archive and creative editing – no wonder it was snapped up during production by Netflix, where it can now be found.
Finally, I much enjoyed helping shape the Best Student Documentary list this year. The winning film, the National Film and Television School’s Acta Non Verba is really remarkable, as director Yvann Yagchi undertakes a creative personal journey investigating his father’s infidelity and suicide. You can request access from the NFTS to see the film.
See here for a full list of Grierson Winners. And to listen to another story from the frontline of the refugee crisis, check out this newly released episode I produced: Rajwana’s Diary, in SE15 Productions’ A New Normal podcast.
We know we are all on a one way journey to the grave, but it’s not something most of us care to dwell on. Not so for filmmaker Sue Bourne, who has spent the last year traveling around the UK making a film about people who have been given a terminal diagnosis. A Time to Live manages an extraordinary feat: it’s a life affirming film about dying. But Bourne would be the first to argue that it’s not about death, but, as the title indicates, about living: in story after story, we are introduced to people who have heard the most unbearable of news, and are now navigating a new normal.
Bourne and editor Sam Santana (both have featured in Docs on Screens; this is their first film together) did a Q&A with journalist Stephen Armstrong following a London BAFTA preview screening last week. In introducing the film, BBC Two Controller Patrick Holland said that Bourne is “forensic and unrelenting when she mines the emotion of a very specific experience to reveal wider, universal truths.”
When Bourne approached Holland to say that she wanted to make a film about people make the most of their limited time left, he was quickly on board: “It was one of the easiest commissioning decisions I’ve ever had to make.”
A Time to Live tells the story of twelve people of various ages, and their responses to being told they don’t have long to live. Bourne deliberately sought a selection of people who have acted out in surprising ways, including Annabel (pictured below), a woman whose first act upon receiving her prognosis was to leave her husband.
“I mean what was interesting about Annabel’s story is that it was quite radical,” said Bourne. “I think she had been quite a timid person…what cancer did was it emboldened her. And she thought ‘Bloody hell, if I’ve only got a short time left, I really should do all those things I’ve been thinking about’.”
To make the film, Bourne kept to a small nimble team, as she recounted to the Bafta audience: “Natalie (Walter) joined in and the two of us did all the research to find the people. I don’t like filming until I knew exactly what is going to go in the film. Natalie not only shot it but also oversaw the whole sound; it was remarkable. And then we set off on this van around the country to film all twelve people. And we had to be flexible because these were really ill people…We just moved around the country more or less for three months. We all had flu injections and boxes of supplements because we couldn’t go into their house and be any risk to them at all.”
Shooting completed, Bourne and Santana holed up in Bourne’s house for a ten week edit. It was a new experience for Santana, used to cutting rigged and other narrative driven films: “For me it was the first time cutting a film without what you call evolving narrative or process or intercutting, where you start one character’s storyline and then intercut to another. We didn’t do it…So we kind of felt that we needed to make subtle transitions.”
On the whole the transitions did not employ Bourne’s voiceover, often a prominent feature: “Usually in my films there is quite a lot of commentary. Because I’m kind of the narrative thread, weaving through it. But it became quite apparent early on that I didn’t need to say anything. This was their story.”
As a one woman show at Wellpark Productions, Bourne continues to be the main interface with her contributors, and the edit was frequently interrupted. “Sometimes we’d get news that was not particularly good,” said Santana. “People who we were just about to cut their story or had just completed their story. And we just had to work really hard and keep plowing on. That would be tough.” Bourne added: “And then actually you’re motivated, and you go, okay we really need to tell this person’s story.”
The film proceeds from one story to the next, without interweaving. Remarkably, there are no hospitals or footage of anything medical. The interviews are solely with the twelve contributors – supportive spouses and family are seen but barely heard. At the end, there is no revealing of who has died since filming ended – Bourne wanted their stories to be about their lives rather than their deaths.
The film’s power is in its universality. As Holland noted in his Bafta intro: “We are all of course life limited. What Sue’s film does is make all of us reflect on our own choices. On what a good life means. And what you can do to make a difference to ourselves and others. It’s a profound and challenging film.”
A Time to Live airs on BBC Two on Wednesday, 17 May, 9pm. Extended contributor interviews, made in conjunction with the Open University, will be available via the website after broadcast.
Two British documentaries airing this week provide nuanced and balanced glimpses of a frightened American psyche. In Unarmed Black Male, screening on BBC Two’s This World strand on Wednesday, James Jones takes a 360° approach to telling the story of the trial of Stephen Rankin, a policeman accused of murdering a black teenager. The following night Channel 4’s Cutting Edge strand airs The Gun Shop, where director John Douglas brings a mini fixed rig to an American gun store. (The films are part of a noticeable uptick in British television programmes examining all things American in the run up to the November 9 election, which continues to grip and horrify Europe). I spoke to both directors as they were putting the finishing touches on their films.
For Jones, his focus on the Portsmouth Virginia shooting stemmed from his interest in the growth of police shootings in America documented by citizens. He was thinking of approaching it in a similar way to films he made in both North Korea and Saudi Arabia, where he employed an abundance of both curated and collected footage by ordinary people caught up in extraordinary situations. “I wanted to make a film about how technology is changing awareness of American police shootings,” he says.“In the past the police statement has been taken as gospel truth. So there was the idea that people being able to film it on mobile phones was transforming our perception of this issue.” Whilst scouting such stories, Jones came across details of William Chapman’s murder via the Guardian’s acclaimed interactive journalism project The Counted. In a brief early morning encounter outside a Walmart store in Virginia, police officer Rankin had shot and killed Chapman at close range. Extraordinarily enough in the US, Rankin was actually going on trial in the summer for first degree murder. Like many American trials, it would be filmed. Jones had his story.
In a documentary that never drags in the course of 90 minutes, Jones secures an enormous range of interviews from those caught up in in the highly emotionally charged events — including Rankin’s only interview to date. The interview came about through dogged persistence, by befriending both Rankin’s wife Dawn, who features prominently in the film, and then Rankin himself. Jones found that both were really wanting to tell their side of the story: “They felt very beaten up by the local media and it felt like she was almost like waiting for the call,” he says.
The Rankin interview succeeds in instilling viewer empathy for a man on trial for his freedom after seemingly just doing his job (Rankin argued he fired in self defense after Chapman dislodged Rankin’s Taser). But soon the film offers up two astonishing interviews providing a very different perspective. First Rankin’s ex-wife describes his obsession with guns, including continuously discussing scenarios where he would discharge against an unarmed suspect. Then Rankin’s former boss, Ken King, a highly distinguished officer, is interviewed saying: “(Rankin) was one of these guys who could cause a riot at a church social. He could go to any event and it would just escalate out of control.” It’s jaw dropping, powerful testimony which is impossible to dismiss.
Jones said that neither Dawn nor Rankin were aware of these damning testimonials when he interviewed them, but he has since talked Dawn through it. “She’s going to hate some of it, she really will,” he admits. “But I think the thing is, on their own terms they come across as sympathetic. The film is much more fair and balanced for having them in it. And you get a sense that there are two families’ lives destroyed by this, whatever the details of the shooting.”
The film goes on to show the ripples of misery stemming from the Walmart shooting, following the quest of Chapman’s family for justice, as well as a mother from Kazakhstan whose inebriated unarmed son also was killed by Rankin, who was never charged. To round out this story, Jones and his team managed the impressive feat of tracking down two of the anonymous jurors, one black and one white, who describe in detail some of the thoughts behind their deliberations, to which they each clearly brought their own personal experience to bear. “The white juror that we interviewed certainly had had experiences in her life that she told us about that shaped her worldview and her view of someone like William Chapman,” says Jones. “So that was key to the jury’s deliberations. And that’s quite scary that that would be the case.”
Indeed, like so many films about the US, Unarmed Black Male offers up a vision of dysfunctional race relations. What did Jones himself make of racial tensions? “The divide felt very stark. As an English person who lives in London where you are surrounded by people from all over the world and there are very few ghettoised neighbourhoods, it’s all a kind of melting pot, going to the south of America was a culture shock. You’d go into neighbourhoods and you’re the only white person there. And you’re viewed with great suspicion at first because white people usually spell trouble in that neighbourhood. So I was shocked that the legacy of segregation was so visible.”
Coming as a stranger into a volatile story, Jones is delighted by just how many people agreed to take part. “We were really happy with the way the film turned out. I don’t know if it’s America, or the South, but everyone was willing to talk to us. And that just never happens. Usually you’ve got like a one in three chance of people agreeing, but for one reason or another they really did want to tell their story.”
In the end, the type of mobile phone footage that was the seed for this film instead becomes a grim drumbeat of misery. In between scenes from the Rankin storyline, Jones uses such video to catalogue the many police shootings of black victims which took place, even in the relatively short time span of the film.
Made using very different techniques, The Gun Shop nonetheless sheds light on similar terrain, notably the current climate of fear in the US which contributes to a gun death rate at least ten times higher than the rest of the developed world. Director John Douglas says that he and the development team at Rogan Productions were very keen to find a shop whichb flew in the face of British perceptions: “It felt like we should try and move away from very stereotypical views of gun shops and gun owners. So finding somewhere where the shop was based in a community but was diverse, had young and old, and wasn’t just the community you’d normally expect.”
The shop they settled on, in Battle Creek, Michigan has a shooting range and runs educational classes, in addition to a constant stream of varied customers. I wondered what the owners of the gun shop made of the fixed rig style of programming they were proposing – using mounted cameras operated remotely – which is unknown in the US? “Yeah it is unknown,” Douglas agreed. “The sort of reactions we would get would be people would think it was like a reality show or Big Brother. It took a while. We showed them some 24 Hours in A&E and some other things I’d worked on which were not rigged but not sensationalising and treated people with respect. So I think that helped.”
For the six day rig shoot they kitted out the shop with 12 cameras (three would shoot at any one time); Douglas directing from a backroom gallery. Assistant Producer Rebecca Coxon manned the shop floor, seeking consent and fitting customers with radio mics. In a week of follow up filming they delved more into some of the stories, which together paint a rich tapestry of reasons underlying why so many Americans are arming themselves.
Back in London, working with experienced fixed rig editor Sam Santana (see this Docs on Screens interview), Douglas was painstakingly working to make a film which took a nonjudgmental tone. “It would be really easy to make an anti gun film. Really easy,” says Douglas. “But the way that I’ve hoped we approached it in this documentary — and to some degree all documentaries — is always to be able to put yourself in other people’s shoes a bit. Because clearly whether anti gun or pro gun there’s not all that anger and rhetoric because they’re bad people and they only want to hate one another and they want to ruin everyone else’s life. They’re doing it because they feel really passionate about the issue.”
Unarmed Black Male airs Wednesday, November 2nd at 9pm on BBC Two. The Gun Shop airs Thursday, November 3rd at 9pm on Channel 4.
It’s not surprising that in entrusting the storytelling of its darkest hour, the BBC has chosen documentary director Olly Lambert. For fifteen years Lambert has steadily forged a reputation as one of the most talented and nuanced directors working in factual television today. Whether piecing together stories from both sides of the divide in Syria (in the multi award winning Syria: Across the Lines) to putting a human face on the many families caught up in the London riots (or torn apart in divorce), Lambert is very adept at drawing out difficult stories from often traumatized interviewees.
It’s a skill he’d need in spades for tonight’s film, Abused: The Untold Story. The abuser left out of the title is, of course, BBC entertainer Jimmy Savile, the unfathomably long running serial abuser, the paedophile who lived for decades as a celebrated children’s entertainer, and went to his grave with his crimes still a secret. Lambert’s feature length doc dissects how the abuse finally came to light after Savile’s death. Most importantly it gives voice to a number of Savile’s victims, some speaking publicly for the first time. I spoke with Olly by telephone about the process of bringing their stories to the screen.
CN: It’s a dark topic to immerse yourself in for eighteen months.
OL: Weirdly, now that it is all done – we only finished it on Saturday – there is actually something strangely inspiring about the people in it. What I think comes across is they are so strong. There is nothing victimy about the people. Your starting point with them is a very dark place, the darkest moment of their life, usually. But the fact that they’re able to speak about it really clearly and really powerfully with a bit of distance is an obvious testament to how far they are able to move on from it, and how the very act of talking about it is such a release; almost a physical release. So that sort of becomes part of the film. The act of talking becomes profoundly cathartic. And in a few cases actually quite life changing. So even though it is a dark place to go to I think I’ll be able to look back at it and think “well that was worth doing; it was worth going there”.
CN:You said that with a couple of interviewees it was actually life-changing. Can you elaborate on that?
There was one woman, Dee. She’s found the very act of speaking to a stranger, who is also a man, and being able to tell everything that happened to her for the very first time, made her realise she could say it. And she wouldn’t be causing disgust in me, and she actually realised that she was accepted and that it wasn’t her fault and that there was somebody who would listen. Speaking about it in that way to a stranger, and being part of a chorus of voices within the film that all speak of the same experience, has just been really profound for her. She’s a completely different person to the person I met a year ago. It’s very moving. She’s just transformed.
CN: That is very moving. And it is very sad that it has come presumably decades after the abuse.
OL: Yes, absolutely. She’s an interesting story because when it was Savile’s funeral, she watched it. And she said that she didn’t feel anything about it. She said that she should have felt glad that he was dead. But at the time that he was buried she didn’t realise there were more people like her; she thought she was the only one. It was only when other people started coming forward that this kind of little solidarity developed between people.
CN: Can you talk about how you approach having Savile appear in the film?
OL: There are no images of Saville’s face. One of the first victims I met talked really powerfully about how distressing it was that whenever there was something on the news, that was effectively her story, a story about her, that changed her life. She was exactly the sort of person who should be engaging with the story and yet she wasn’t able to watch it on television because news editors, sort of understandably, but a bit thoughtlessly, would reach for the most garish gross images of Savile as an old man with these sorts of rose tinted glasses and looking very menacing. And of course that makes it very colourful for everyone else but for her it was like just being confronted with someone who had just fucked up her life. Like being confronted by her rapist. There are a few fleeting images of him as a kind of ghost in a way. And it made the film very difficult to edit. Because obviously having images of him would have been the perfect thing to cut to. But it felt absolutely wrong direction to go in. So that means that the film is viewable, or more viewable, to exactly the kind of people who’d be most affected, so it’s keeping them in mind. It’s also honoring the wishes of the people in the film that don’t want to confront his face any more.
CN: What was the biggest surprise to you in the making of the film?
OL: The thing that really jumped out from the very first conversation I had with a victim of Savile was the way that this single event, which might have been a matter of minutes, decades ago, was how they had completely reshaped a person’s life. Had configured everything in their life. In the case of one person, there was a very serious sexual assault which probably took about ten minutes. Immediately, that little girl never really trusted her mum again, because she felt that her mum had allowed it to happen in some way. She cannot have a relationship with a man; she couldn’t have a physical intimacy. She tried to have a relationship with a woman and couldn’t really have physical intimacy. Because of the nature of the assault she had a phobia of being sick, or being around people being sick. And that meant she would never get on an airplane. So she wouldn’t travel. And you know it’s completely present when you’re sitting in the room with her. You sit down with her in her home, there’s nothing remotely “historical” about her abuse. She’s absolutely living it every day… That was the thing that stuck with me that I didn’t really feel had been covered. So that really became the focus of the film – the way that these assaults ricochet down an entire lifetime. And they’re still being played out now in real time. And the film shows that.
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.
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.
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.
When your office door is just metres away from your neighbours, you don’t have much need for their landline: it’s easy to stroll across the hall for a chat, or send an email. But the staff of the Paris-based television production company Premieres Lignes were to come to regret not having their colleagues’ number on the morning of January 7 last year. As two gunmen entered the building and stumbled around looking for the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, alarmed Premieres Lignes staff locked their own office door, headed to the roof, and waited helplessly as the massacre unfolded below. Their continuing regrets over their lack of heroic action is one of the most compelling sequences in a remarkable film airing tonight on BBC’s This World. Directed by five time BAFTA winner Dan Reed, Three Days of Terror: The Charlie Hebdo Attacks lays out in forensic detail the sequence of events that kicked off with the terrible massacre in the magazine’s meeting room.
Reed is no stranger to this territory, having similarly masterfully dissected terrorism attacks in Mumbai, Moscow and Nairobi. He is one of the most accomplished documentary makers working in Britain today (his recent masterclass at Sheffield Doc/Fest is well worth a listen). Docs on Screens spoke with Dan about the making of the Charlie Hebdo film, and what it’s like to continually work in this dark terrain:
Carol Nahra: You start out the film with an acknowledgement of the November attacks. How much did that tragedy affect the making of the film?
Dan Reed: The very last guy we happened to interview was the chief medical officer of the Paris fire service, who was at Charlie Hebdo and is one of the first people into the room. It was Friday the 13th of November, which is the date of the Paris attack, and we were chatting away at the end of the interview. I was saying “Something is going to happen again soon, I can feel it in my bones. It will either happen in Paris or London, there’s going to be another devastating attack soon. And there is no reason why it wouldn’t happen in a way, because nothing has changed to prevent it happening”. Literally, 200 metres from the studio where we shot our interview – which was our regular hangout in Paris where we shot most of our interviews – three or four hours later gunmen turned up and killed 19 people at a cafe on the corner. And the Bataclan was a short walk from Charlie Hebdo. My office in Paris was literally three metres away from the attack where Charlie Hebdo happened. I was working with that TV company (Premieres Lignes). So it all felt very very close… So we had to reference it back and say to people “look this is a film about what happened in November”. And then we had to find a way in the preamble and the wrap up to make a distinction between the attacks.
CN: So much has been published in the media regarding Charlie Hebdo. What was your aim with this film?
DR: For one thing, to try and actually research the story properly, and figure out what exactly happened. We went into mind numbing detail about what actually happened, when and where. There is always drama in the two story of things…in the unfolding of events. There is often a lot of dead time, when people are waiting for police to arrive, and those are dramatic pauses…We did a lot of research to allow us to understand the drama of the story. We also got hold of a lot of images which had never been seen before – a lot of still images from the security cameras at Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish grocery. There are quite a few kind of scoops and untold bits in our story…So it’s kind of untangling the truth from the lies and the misperceptions and really establishing a proper timeline for the story, that took a lot of work. A lot of these people hadn’t spoken before, or hadn’t spoken at the time.
“There’s this strange process where you start from completely on the outside of events, and six, eight months later by the time you’ve corralled all these people together and got them to talk to you, you end up like a single point of contact for all these experiences.”
CN: Yes and they’re talking about very traumatic, harrowing and recent events. So what was that like?
DR: Again, there’s this strange process where you start from completely on the outside of events, and six, eight months later by the time you’ve corralled all these people together and got them to talk to you, you end up like a single point of contact for all these experiences…Every eyewitness is trapped in their often very narrow perspective. And often has a lot of misperceptions, a lot of questions, a lot of frustrating gaps that we’re able to fill in. So the satisfaction of being able to, if you like, piece together the narrative not only for filmmaking but also for sharing with the other victims – the survivors – that’s satisfying. I happen to speak French fluently, because I grew up speaking French. And that really helps. You’re immersed in this world of trauma and loss and people who can’t get these violent images out of their heads. It’s familiar territory I’m afraid.
CN: Can I ask you about Premieres Lignes. They’re your co-production partners, is that right? What was it like for them continuing to work in the same building?
DR: Really really hard. I don’t think I’m betraying confidence by saying there are a number of people within that company who would very much like to move, and of course it’s difficult and very expensive and may not even be a good idea. Very much to varying degrees some of them are definitely haunted by what happened and are reminded every day. It’s difficult not to be.
CN: It’s quite different from some of your other “Terror” films. Terror in the Mall had such abundant multi camera archive. Can you talk a little bit about the archive collection process for this?
DR: The key word is frustrating because I knew in particular that security camera footage existed from a number of locations where the attacks had happened. Because the footage was immediately impounded by the police, and because the prevailing attitude is “don’t let people see anything”, it was impossible to prise the moving pictures from the French authorities. And that was very frustrating because of course we would have used it responsibly.
“There is a huge world of difference between having something shocking in a twenty second clip on the web, and having it in a documentary where the people involved speak, and it’s done with care and compassion and sensibility.”
CN: So there’s a lot of footage that you couldn’t get?
DR: We just literally couldn’t get. There’s a really, really strong taboo in France against any images showing pain and suffering. I found it kind of unhelpful in some ways…I think you can understand, but at the same time that really blocks a huge amount of journalism and seals off a lot of images. We live in a world where images are often the key to understanding situations. If they are used responsibly in the form of a longform narrative in particular then I think you can definitely justify the use of quite shocking images, if they’re in a context which creates understanding rather than used for just shock purposes. There is a huge world of difference between having something shocking in a twenty second clip on the web, and having it in a documentary where the people involved speak, and it’s done with care and compassion and sensibility. But no matter how you treat the material, the French are like not into that at all… Notwithstanding that I think we got a huge amount. It’s a more emotional story in a way than the others.
CN: Is doing film after film of darkness taking its toll on you?
DR: I don’t think I can do another one like this. I said this after Nairobi – I was being interviewed by the New York Times, saying “this broke my heart and I don’t think I can do another”. And here I am. But in fact I just turned down Terror in Paris 2 for the BBC, because I said “I can’t do this again. I can’t do this again in the same place.” The nature of the material, the darkness is enveloping, and you can kind of get lost in it. I think I can safely say I’m not going to do another blow by blow like these for a while.
Three Days of Terror: The Charlie Hebdo Attacks airs 6 January on BBC Two at 9pm.
The single documentary The Age of Loneliness looks at the “epidemic” of loneliness in Britain, telling the stories of 14 very different contributors. It’s a profoundly moving exploration of an often taboo subject – and one that resonates with most of us, whether we’re currently lonely, have been in the past, or worry about the future when we might be. Docs on Screens spoke to veteran director Sue Bourne about the film, which airs 7 January on BBC One.
Carol Nahra: You were very careful to get a good range of people. How did you go about finding your contributors?
Sue Bourne: Four months research. It just took us forever (laughs). I said ‘I’m not doing a film just about lonely old people – that’s boring and it’s obvious and that isn’t the problem. It’s an epidemic, and it’s about all ages and there’s something happening’. It was very much for me about a societal change and what was going on. But then I’m not doing a Panorama so I just wanted to give a voice to all those different people. So I said I want a voice from every decade, from every age group. So I drew up my list and then we just hit it for four months. We were in touch with 500 odd people to narrow it down to the 14 who appeared. Charities, blogs, internet, just everything. The thing about lonely people is they’re not out there shouting about it from the rooftop. And so that’s hard. And a lot of the people we met were just too vulnerable to go on telly.
CN: The ones featured are also vulnerable. You have very emotional scenes where it seems to me they are often articulating their loneliness for the first time, which I found quite painful. How did you find interviewing them?
SB: Well, basically I think they were wonderful, all of them. I think they were brave. Because no one wants to admit to being lonely because in the back of your mind you’re thinking ‘well, why am I lonely? Is it because I am horrible? Why am I Johnny no mates? What’s happened?’ Some of them they have lost their partner so it was obvious why they were lonely. But other people were lonely and wondering if it was their fault, are they to blame. There was certainly one person I thought would be very good for the part because they epitomised a very large group. And I phoned them up and said ‘I want you to be in the film but you have to be honest. And I think your default position is to put on a brave face. And frankly you’re going to have to take that off. And bare your soul. Because if you put the brave face on you’re not telling the truth and the one thing I want this film to be is truthful’. So I was asking a lot….but I think it’s one of the most moving interviews in the film.
CN: Which interview was it?
SB: It was Jaye, the single girl. Because she wants to be a jolly person. But I thought the interview she gave was so honest. It was extraordinary She was really brave to be so honest. But I knew what her default position was – she was battling through life being jolly saying ‘I can cope with it. I can cope with it’. But inside it was tough.
CN: Are you a lonely person?
SB: No. I think I’m alone. My daughter’s dad, my ex partner, is dead. All my parents are dead. I have no brothers and sisters and really no family to talk to. So really it’s just me and my kid and she’s in her twenties and I don’t want to be a needy mother. So I’m acutely aware of the life ahead of me. That it will involve aloneness. So I better get used to it. So I try to train myself to be a bit more positive about it (laughs).
CN: Is that what brought you to the topic?
SB: I think so…In Fashionistas (which profiled six extraordinary older women) I wanted to find role models for the next 30 odd years, who were going to be upbeat and enjoying life and squeezing the pips out of it. Because that’s what I wanted to do. And then again a lot of them were on their own, so what I got from that is you need a particular spirit if you can find it to carry you through life because it ain’t easy and you might well be on your own.
CN: Did you ever think of matching people up? Cause it seems like there’s some people who would benefit from each other’s company in The Age of Loneliness.
SB: Well in a way sometimes you look at these films that we do and it’s like – I feel like a social worker. Because what I’m doing is I’m opening them out. I’m giving them a voice. Then I want other people to talk. I want people to look and think ‘why is nothing being done to help them?’. I now want to do Contact the Elderly tea parties because I think that it’s just wonderful. It transforms their lives for one afternoon a month and that’s all it takes…We have to be kinder. That is the wettest things a filmmaker can say – “I just want people to be kinder” – but I do!
CN: I can imagine that a doc about loneliness might not make for like the most filmic pitch.
SB: It took a bit of time and eventually I got in front of Charlotte (Moore) and said ‘Please, just give me this commission’. And she said ‘Okay, it’s yours, go.’
CN: It’s beautifully shot. It looks lovely.
SB: I had (producer) Daniel (Dewsbury) at my side from February. We did all the research together; we talked constantly about what we were trying to achieve, four months of that. And then I decided not to use a cameraman but to use him, and gave him a beautiful camera, nice lenses, and three months to shoot it. And we were this tiny little team. And it paid off. And then we got the drones (used for aerial shots throughout the film). I don’t like gimmicks. I always thought I only want to shoot it if it’s relevant to loneliness. But for me the drones were critical because I wanted to say “It’s everywhere in Britain – anywhere you look you’re going to find loneliness”.
The Age of Loneliness is on BBC One at 10.35 pm, Thursday, 7 January.
I’m just coming up for air after a bout of intensive lecturing. I teach a few different classes for American university students in London, but my favourite, semester after semester, is my documentaries class. It is here, in a deliberately darkened classroom near Holborn, that I share the highlights of twenty years immersed in the world of British documentary. We cover the whole factual spectrum, from independent feature documentaries to heavily formatted reality, and everything in between.
Usually, my students arrive having been exposed to roughly two kinds of factual fare: worthy subject based documentaries, like Ken Burns’ marathon series that their parents watch, or the far-from-real world of the Real Housewives or Kardashians. If I’m lucky these days, and frequently I am thanks to Netflix, they will have streamed a few American documentary features like Blackfish or Girl Model. They know Sherlock, and Doctor Who but have never heard of Louis Theroux or the term “fixed rig“. They are a blank slate when it comes to British factual, and I have fifteen weeks to make my mark.
I have to begin by introducing them to something else they have never heard of: Public Service Broadcasting. For while the BBC is in a perilous state at the moment, with no reprieve in sight, the PSB tradition it stems from is crucial to understanding just how the Brits got so great at making documentaries. I wrote my entire MA thesis on the topic. It’s important.
In class, after we look at the notion of public service broadcasting, and how it was extended with the creation of Channel 4 in the 80s (also, sadly, under threat), we turn to John Grierson, who coined the term documentary, defining it as the “creative of treatment of actuality”. We have a look at Grierson’s most famous sequence in his seminal film Night Mail, which shows the postal train rhythmically chugging north to Scotland, to words by W.H. Auden and music by Benjamin Britten:
We learn just how Grierson came to make propaganda films for the British government, by dipping into Britain Through A Lens: The Documentary Film Mob, made by the excellent Lambent Productions. It includes a clip from Grierson’s box office hit Drifters (1929), about the British herring trade. While I recognize I need to tread softly and not show Drifters in its entire, silent, black and white glory, my students were gratifyingly engrossed when I showed a modern take on deep sea fishing, Channel 4’s recent The Catch, a fixed rig series which was mesmerizing from start to finish.
After our crash course in PSB and Grierson, we look more in depth at contemporary examples of Grierson’s creative treatment of actuality, in its many guises. We explore the topic with the help of a specially curated Flipboard Magazine; I often ask students to use articles in it as a starting point for further research. We also hear from a number of leading filmmakers – Kim Longinotto, Brian Hill and Christopher Hird have all been recent guest lecturers.
As students gear up to make their own three minute film for a final project, it’s critical for them to see how a simple construct can make a powerful film. Marc Isaac’s beautifully made first film Lift – shot entirely in the elevator of a tower block in East London – is a great example.
While it would be a joy to spend our entire time looking at the work of talented British independent documentary makers, my charges are about to enter the real world and many are hoping for a career in television. So a large chunk of our time is spent looking at the world of formats, with the occasional help of the always entertaining Gogglebox and Charlie Brooker. My students are surprised to learn just how many of the American shows they watch are British formats made by British production companies. But our focus is not so much on this crossover as on those reality formats in the UK that traditionally haven’t had a hope in hell of appearing on mainstream US television. In the hopes of fostering transatlantic fertilisation, I spend a lot of time exploring the intersection of public service and reality, looking at how some UK production companies are doing both, in really interesting ways. For more on that, stay tuned…
In September 2013, veteran doc maker Fergus O’Brien took up a new post as Executive Producer at the BBC, working with head of documentaries Ayesha Rafaele. On his first day, he was handed a very big project: “Literally I was walking in the door and I bumped into Ayesha and she said ‘Do you fancy exec-ing the Met?’ I’m not sure I knew exactly what that would mean but I said yes.”
O’Brien soon found himself immersed in steering one of the biggest access-driven documentary series in the BBC’s recent history. Airing on BBC One, The Met: Policing London is the first time a broadcaster has been given comprehensive access to London’s police force.
For O’Brien, it has been rather a bumpy ride: “Inevitably with stuff that’s dealing with the law and criminality and so on, the phone never stopped. You’re often managing people’s worries, and people’s concerns, and keeping an eye on the legalities of things and keeping a steady line of contact open with our editorial policy team and our legal team.”
Initially a six part series, the team had to drop one of the episodes, when legal restrictions prevented them from airing a major storyline about domestic abuse: “That was very difficult – it’s hard to say goodbye,” says O’Brien. “It would have been a really strong story and often those stories, where the victim is willing to be on camera, aren’t told. Unfortunately through the peculiarities of the legal system we couldn’t show it.”
As director of such films as Channel 4’s Seven Days and the acclaimed, and very funny, The Armstrongs (BBC One) O’Brien is used to following a variety of strong characters across numerous settings. But helping the four shooting teams negotiate their way through the labyrinthine Met was a job like no other: “Each of the teams was assigned to a response team in a different borough of London, and a cross-section of boroughs which would reflect the diversity of the city,” he says. “And each team also took on one or two specialist units, whether it was homicide or Trident. The idea being that the bigger units would hopefully provide us with a spine for each film and something we could come back to, and then we could pepper it with a mixture of different response stories to flesh things out and give a sense of variety in each programme.”
Whilst access had been given from the top, it continued to have to be negotiated throughout: “We had to get consent from everyone, even if they were in the background,” says O’Brien. “It’s the usual thing, from our point of view: unless people want to do it there isn’t a point. If they feel they are being forced into it, it just isn’t that great.”
The production ended up with 2,000 hours of footage, shot over the year, and edited over many months. Even now, as the series is airing, O’Brien is still putting out fires: “It’s not the same as covering a story and when it is done and dusted in the courts you put it out. It is just ongoing; it’s daily. Every day now we have to check every single case across the series to make sure people haven’t re-offended and we’re not in contempt of court. It’s a huge part of it.”
The Met: Policing London is airing on Mondays on BBC One at 9pm until early July. Read about a very different way to film police docs here.
If you haven’t yet tuned into it, get thee to the BBC I-Player to watch the first part of veteran director Vanessa Engle’s series Inside Harley Street. I’ve watched every minute, fascinated, and think it’s an exemplary portrait of a unique community – something very tricky to do. What Engle does so successfully is weave a rich tapestry of the human condition, through the many storylines we bear witness to over the three hours. Engle’s approach is very direct: conducting interviews, on site, as people undertake, or administer the myriad of medical, cosmetic and complementary treatments on offer in the Harley Street neighborhood. She also speaks to the community that keeps it humming, from the florists to the cleaners, to the rather fantastically powerful behind the scenes uber-landlord, who treats the neighbourhood like a Monopoly board (and indeed gleefully shows Engle his own custom made board replete with his properties).
Despite the simplicity of its construct, it’s clear that Inside Harley Street must have been a monster to put together. I spoke to Engle on the telephone to ask her just how she got inside the exclusive neighborhood:
Can you explain a little about the research and development process which went into making this series?
It was immense. I had this fantastic assistant producer called Liz Kempton. We started with all the conventional medical doctors, which is what Harley Street is best known for. And she just contacted enormous numbers of them…The levels of complication in putting this particular jigsaw together were beyond anything I’ve ever attempted, and I’ve done some pretty complicated ones. It’s not unusual for me to do a series where I have between 80 and 100 contributors. But for each contributor you had to get the doctor to go with the patient, you also had to get permission from the clinic. If they go for a scan in another hospital, you have to get permission from that hospital…the permissions proliferated. I’d never come across anything as complex as this. And they’re not only places where medical confidentiality is an issue but they are all private businesses who are extremely protective of their clientele and their reputation. So you can imagine the difficulty. But the starting point was Liz contacting literally hundreds of doctors as an initial approach. She met quite a lot of them. If she thought there was something there then I would meet them as well.
I know often when you go about getting access, people tend to club together one way or another. Did things get easier or harder for you?
My experience in any community is once you’ve got some really impressive names that have said yes, then it does get easier, it gets significantly easier.
And that happened with you?
Yes. With some of the doctors in the film, they hold a lot of sway – their reputations go before them – so once they say yes then others will follow.
Did you use any of your films as a calling card?
I do do that – I absolutely do that. And quite a lot of people in a lot of the clinics, they have hefty marketing and PR departments, and some of them asked to see my films and others checked me out online.
There have been quite a few series which are location based on British television lately, like Inside Claridges and Welcome to Mayfair. How did you plan your approach for this series – did these influence you at all?
That’s a very good question. There has been a spate of commissioning around luxury brands. I’m sure it is possible that Harley Street was also commissioned in that spirit – that there appears to be an audience for films about luxury. For me, right from the outset and in the original treatment I wrote, I always knew the series wouldn’t be about that. To make 180 minutes of television – as long as two feature films – on a premise that would just be ‘here are some rich people, and here they are paying for stuff the rest of us can’t afford’, for me as a filmmaker that doesn’t take me anywhere. There is nowhere to go with that proposition. And it’s certainly not going to keep me going for three hours. Not if you are a genuinely curious documentary maker and trying to find stuff out about humanity at a slightly deeper level. Rich people buying expensive shit isn’t of enough interest to me personally and I always knew that. It was clear from the outset that there would be huge issues thrown up about aging, about illness, about how we feel about our appearance, about why women are altering their appearance frequently, about why people are choosing treatments and therapies that are anti-scientific when we live in a scientific era. It was obvious to me that there was something meaty there that was never just going to be about rich people.
I’m very proud of the access that we did achieve. Because it’s one thing to make a film where you say to someone ‘oh you can afford a ruby necklace, or you can afford an expensive hotel room’. But to say to a very rich person, who is paying a lot of money for privacy and discretion, ‘can we film you butt naked having your prostate gland removed?’ is access of a different order really.
By the way, I love the soundtrack…
I’m glad you asked me about that. That’s what I mean about this series: I just worked so hard. All films are hard to make, but some films are really a lot harder to make than others. For this I listened to over 1,800 tracks to get the music for these films!
Episode 2 of Inside Harley Street screens Monday, 20 April, 9pm on BBC Two.