Tag Archives: brian hill

From Grierson to Gogglebox: Teaching the Factual Spectrum

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.

grierson
John Grierson

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.

the lift
Lift

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…

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Films to Watch at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015

The Sheffield Doc/Fest programme, which I have been helping to write for some weeks now, is live! Here are a few of my favourites, with more to follow:

A Sinner in Mecca 

After releasing his film A Jihad for Love, exploring Islam and homosexuality, Parvez Sharma is a marked man, having been publicly labelled an infidel. But Sharma is unwilling to give up the faith that has been overshadowed by extremists. “Oh Prophet: Is there a place in Islam for sinners like me?” he asks – and decides to go in search of the answer. Leaving his husband behind in New York, he journeys to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, to undertake the Hajj pilgrimage, considered the greatest accomplishment within Islam. With filming forbidden and homosexuality punishable by death, he films surreptitiously on his IPhone. He follows thousands of pilgrims through garbage-filled streets, and from the holiest of sites, the Kaaba, through to the air-conditioned Starbucks 700 metres away. Throughout, Sharma weaves a thoughtful meditation on modern Islam that is also a brave and moving autobiographical documentary.

Carol Nahra

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.

Carol Nahra

The Look of Silence

In this multi-award winning companion piece to The Act of Killing, filmed before its release, Joshua Oppenheimer further explores the terrible legacy of the Indonesian genocide fifty years ago, this time through the lens of one family. Adi was born in 1968, two years after his brother Ramli was slaughtered in front of many eyewitnesses. Now an optometrist, Adi lives with his elderly parents and his children. Not only does he live under the ongoing rules of his brother’s killers, he has to listen to his children regurgitate the propaganda which led to the slaughter, and is still being perpetuated in schools. Adi decides to confront some of the murderers, who are surprised when his questions are more intense than Oppenheimer’s. His breaking of the silence leads to some electrifying scenes, in a film where the beauty of the Indonesian landscape belies the bone chilling horrors carried out there in the name of democracy.

Carol Nahra

A Syrian Love Story

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Amer met Ragda, when both were locked up in a Syrian jail for speaking out against an oppressive regime. Twenty years and four sons later, filmmaker Sean McAllister comes into their lives, as Amer is waiting for Ragda, who has once again been imprisoned. When she is unexpectedly released, the family is overjoyed – they need her, particularly three year-old Bob. McAllister and his subjects’ lives become irrevocably intertwined when McAllister himself is jailed, and footage of the family is confiscated. Amer and Ragda must flee overnight to Lebanon, with nothing but their children. McAllister follows their story over five turbulent years, as they struggle to find their feet as refugees; Ragda in particular can’t bear to be away from Syria in its hour of greatest need. As they watch Syria descend into chaos, they struggle to repair their troubled relationship. A powerful, moving story of family and exile from one of the UK’s most talented independent filmmakers.

Carol Nahra

The Confessions of Thomas Quick

A loner from an early age, Thomas Quick went on to become Sweden’s most notorious serial killer, openly confessing to the gruesome murders of more than 30 people. Held for decades in a psychiatric institute, Quick’s confessions emerged after years working with a group of touchy feely therapists, convinced that the recovery of memories would cure patients of their criminality. In a country with a low crime rate, the nation watched with horror as Quick’s confessions mounted, accounting for many of the country’s unsolved murders. With testimonials from a range of people whose lives have been dominated by this story – including Quick himself – and dramatic reenactment, Brian Hill weaves a stylish noir thriller that works a treat on the big screen. What appears at first to be a tale of unimaginable evil evolves into something much more layered as Hill digs deep into the motivations behind those working closely with Quick.

Carol Nahra