I remember exactly where I was when I first learned about the disappearance of Madeleine McCann from a holiday resort in Portugal. Not because the news should have had the impact of a flashbulb memory – I didn’t yet know anything about her or her family. I remember it rather because as I watched a news interview with the parents on TV, I was in my local hospital, cradling my 14 month old son Dillon. He would die the next day, as a result of complications from the rare brain condition he had suffered from since birth.
And yet as I sat there, knowing that Dillon was dying, that these were in fact his final hours, my thought was: “there but for the grace of God go I”. Because the McCanns had a gorgeous lovely happy three year old who had vanished, and their lives must be a living hell. I myself had a gorgeous lovely happy two year old at home waiting for me, and couldn’t bear the thought of anything happening to him.
With Dillon, the pain was different. He had always been ill, and we had long known his time with us would be limited. It was a different type of pain. And when you are a parent living a nightmare, your life can easily become a study of relativity: who has it worse than you? As far as I was concerned, the McCanns were in the minority of people who had it worse than we did.
After Dillon died, I watched the McCanns deal with endless media scrutiny which went on for many years, and brought no one any closer to understanding what had happened to their little girl. They had initially welcomed media attention, hoping that it would help them find their daughter. But it spiraled out of control. The public’s never ending appetite for the story, and the British tabloid’s press willingness to cash in on it, soon turned into a living hell for them. At one point even the McCanns themselves became suspects. Each time they pop up in the news, I always think of the Dorothy Parker line “what fresh hell is this?” I was able to grieve and try to move on with my life. Their torment continued.
I have always been a fan of true crime. My first docsonscreens blog waxed lyrical about my love of it over the years, and of how it had been rekindled by the podcast Serial. I enjoy the twists and turns of modern day factual storytelling; it’s a central theme in my media teaching. The feature doc, The Imposter, which does this to perfection, is a mainstay of my documentary class – students always engage with the way that it leads them through the story. I’m also okay with ambiguity, with not knowing how something turned out – both Serial and The Imposter are filled with it.
But the new Netflix series about the disappearance of Madeleine McCann leaves me feeling queasy. The McCanns have refused to take part in it, and urged others to abstain as well. Yet the series has been made, with Netflix forking out a fortune in documentary terms for the telling of it over eight long hours, with some forty interviews. I’m sure it will be glossy and compelling. I’m sure it will lead a younger generation of viewers through many twists and turns, spinning an often jaw dropping true life tale.
I’m also sure that it will bring fresh pain to a family that has now endured 12 years of agony – with Madeleine’s twin siblings growing up in the terrible shadow of their vanished older sister. And I’m sure that at the end of those eight compelling hours, viewers will be no closer to knowing what happened to her. I get why the series has been made – business is business after all. But to bring fresh hell to a family that has suffered for so many years, and to do so merely for entertainment, is something I just can’t support. I won’t be watching.
As Zara Balfour was getting ready for a limited cinema release of her award winning documentary Children of the Snow Land recently she received an unexpected blow: ourscreen, the platform which allows for one off community screenings was introducing a fee for new films. And for a documentary made on a shoestring, the price was enormous – £2,750 plus VAT. It was a death knell for any plans to use ourscreen to increase the numbers of communities who could watch the film.
“It completely excludes us from using it,” Balfour said. “It’s such a shame as it means community groups won’t be able to do their own special screenings of the film in cinemas. It’s such a high price point, it really sets the entry level at a place that just wouldn’t make financial sense for independent films.”
The fee was all the more of a shock given that it was introduced out of nowhere for Balfour’s distribution company, Dartmouth Films. “We’d been talking with them for a while about Zara’s film,” says Wayne D’Cruz, Dartmouth Film’s distribution coordinator. “ As of last week we were informed that a new model was meant to come into place, with the fee of £2,750. It’s simply exorbitant for any independent film distributor. More so with documentaries.”
Dartmouth Films has worked a number of times with ourscreen, to complement their distribution of feature length independent documentaries like The Ponds, and A Cambodian Spring. The company’s most successful use of the service has been for the documentary Resilience, which has had some sixteen screenings.
Ourscreen helped increase the visibility of documentaries which can be difficult to see on the big screen, according to Dartmouth Film’s founder Christo Hird: “Ourscreen was a valuable addition to the ways of getting independent specialist documentaries to audiences: if there was a proven audience for a film in a particular area the film would be shown,” says Hird. “It was a way in which the filmmaker – at no risk to the exhibitor – could back their hunch that people wanted to see their film.
D’Cruz says that the amount of return for ourscreen screenings can vary greatly, depending on the minimum guarantee requested by the cinemas. “With certain cinemas there have been times when we’ve sold out a cinema, offered a Q&A and we’ve only got £100 because of their fluctuating MGs (minimum guarantees).”
The move is a sign of the difficulty in making margins works between distributors, cinemas and platforms like ourscreen. The platform employs a crowdsourced model of screenings. It works with a number of cinemas and offers a 500+ catalogue of films to customers who organise screenings. More than a hundred of the catalogue are documentaries. If the customers sells enough tickets, the screening goes ahead.
According to Alex Huxley, ourscreen’s communication and publicity manager, the ourscreen model works best “with a title with a clear special interest audience and a target of around 20+ screenings. This hasn’t changed, and with this way of working we hope to provide filmmakers the opportunity to retain a high level of ownership, control and flexibility over their film.”
Huxley refused to confirm if the £2,750 plus VAT quoted for Children of the Snow Land would be a standard fee, saying the fees are “private and confidential”. He emphasised that the new fee reflects the costs of providing a range of services, including the web pages and logistical coordination of bookings. The new fee will be in part offset by offering films an increased share of the box office after the crowdfunded threshold has been reached.
According to Hird, this will not make a difference, as the new catalogue fee is insurmountable, and not close to something independent documentaries would be able to afford: “The new pricing structure makes no sense in the context of the way the vast majority of independent documentaries are made and funded.”
D’Cruz agrees, noting “I remain of the opinion that ourscreen is a great tool to democratise cinema programming, sharing that ‘power’ with cinema-goers. However, for it to be sustainable for all parties involved, concerns of independent distributors also need to be adequately represented with any change in model.”
That ourscreen might reconsider the size of its new fee, or introduce a sliding scale, is certainly possible, particularly if the company sees a drastic reduction in the number of films signing up. As Huxley notes: “Like any company or individual operating in this space we will always discuss and negotiate new ways of working with our partners. Depending on the project we will of course consider this on a case by case basis.”
Imagine you live in one of the most remote places on earth. At age four you are sent away to school, many miles away from your mountain home. You don’t return for more than a decade. What would that reunion be like? That’s the question at the centre of Children of the Snow Land, a new multi award winning documentary co-directed by Zara Balfour and Marcus Stephenson.
I first saw the film last year at the wonderful Valletta Film Festival, where it won not one but two awards. The film has now won ten festival awards, as audiences globally respond to its poignant themes and stunning footage, much of it shot by the film’s three main contributors who the directors taught to film themselves.
I interviewed Zara about the making of the film – as usual this has been cut for clarity and length:
CN: How on earth did you find this story in such a remote location?
ZB: I think it was fate. My co director Marcus and I went off to Nepal for a corporate job, filming charities. And we loved the charity in Nepal; we got along really well with them. We stayed in touch with them and they told us they started funding this going home trip for these kids from the Himalayas who didn’t see their families for 12 years. And they had decided they would sponsor all the kids aged 16 finishing their compulsory schooling to go home for three months. And we were just blown away by it.
I’ve always wanted to make documentaries, and have done a lot of short documentaries but really had a longing to get into longer form documentary. And I love Nepal hugely. So we went out and thought basically let’s see if there’s a story here. Let’s see if it’s true that the kids haven’t seen their parents for 12 years, and can they express it and are they willing to express it on camera? So we went over there and thought, well, a worse case scenario we’d make a fundraising film for the school and that will be that. And the kids were amazing. They were very open, hadn’t seen their parents in all that time. Very warm and wanted to learn. We taught them filmmaking and they wanted to learn.
CN: Talk me through a bit about how you taught them filmmaking.
ZB: Our first trip was basically working out who our characters were going to be – which children were most going to be able to express their story and also have an interest in filming themselves. We then went back a few months later and took some cameras and solar chargers. We basically gave them GoPro kits and solar chargers and batteries and loads and loads of memory cards. There was no way to back it up. It was very unlike most film shoots. It had to be so light because their walk (back home) was so long and so hard. And it has to be kit that’s capable of being charged. We went with them for some of the way and took slightly bigger cameras with bigger chargers, solar charges and such. And they carried on for three months out there. So the film is a combination of our footage, footage shot by Mark Hakansson our cameraman and photographer, and their footage. The training was a few days in Kathmandu. It wasn’t hugely extensive. We introduced them to YouTube.
CN: What was their experience of technology up to that point?
ZB: Nothing; they literally had nothing. The school didn’t even have a computer room at that point. And they didn’t have any smartphones or anything like that. They do now. And they’d never seen YouTube. So we introduced them to people like JacksGap, and those guys that are travelling and doing their own stories, and they loved it. They were like sponges, they really were. And when the earthquake hit, I had some friends that were going out who work with the Disasters Emergencies Committee. They went out to help after the earthquake and as they were out there they actually helped us get some of the footage back. So we got the footage back much earlier than we were going to.
CN: How were they able to communicate when they were up in the remote mountains with their families?
ZB: We said when you come back, bring back whatever you can. I will never forget watching the memory cards that first day. We were just blown away.
CN: What was it like being there for the reunions? The reunions are not in fact a very visible part of the film.
ZB: It was surprising. Coming from our background, if we see someone we haven’t seen for some time we just want to cry and hug them so much. But they weren’t like that; they had this very kind of shy nature. They were very stoic and don’t show their emotions. We found that the adult and the child way of dealing with the separation was very different. The kids hang onto the memory of the parents and think about it every day. The parents, in order to deal with the pain of separation basically cut off and didn’t think about it. So they were quite cold, at least to our western eyes.
CN: It seems like it should have been the opposite – you would think it was the other way around.
ZB: They couldn’t afford themselves the luxury of thinking about it too much – it was just too painful. So when they saw each other there was this strange formality.
CN: How did you swing this with a full time day job?
It has been tough. It was great having the support through post production with McCann. They basically accepted that during my day job I would be in the edit working on the film a lot. And took quite a lot of chunks of time off. It took four years to make it – two years worth of shooting and two years of post production. They’ve been incredible and really really helpful. For Marcus he’s been making a TV show, Stately Homes with Phil Spencer. So he’s had to do that and take breaks.
CN: What was it like winning two awards at the Valletta Film Festival?
It was incredible. We were in the teen section which was a mix of documentary and drama. And it was amazing that we won that. Not only that but we won the audience pick for the whole festival. I was completely blown away by that because we were a small film made by independent means. And there were so many films there by well known filmmakers with a lot of industry support behind them. It was a tremendous validation of what we’d done and an amazing honour.
In fifteen years of directing documentaries, Paddy Wivell has made a name for himself for the seemingly effortless way he connects with his subjects, from African tribes, to Orthodox Jews, to psychiatric inpatients. His warmth and curiosity elicits often astonishing intimacy from his subjects – a skill on ready display in his new Channel 4 series, Prison. The three parter uses a 360 degree approach to take us deep inside Durham Prison where a constantly revolving population of nearly 1000 men do daily battle with a skeletal staff long on patience but short on resources. It’s a layered, sometimes shocking peek into a world most of us know little about other than crisis-screaming headlines.
I sat down with Paddy as he was finishing up in post, to find out the making of it. This interview has been edited for length and clarity:
CN: Can you talk me through the access?
PW: In England and Wales I think it’s been about five years since a documentary team have been allowed in to a prison – they’ve had such terrible negative headlines for such a long time. But Spring Films managed to locate a particular individual called Ian Blakeman who was then an executive governor of the Northeast Prisons. He could see the value of allowing a documentary team in. He introduced me to one prison that didn’t feel right – they didn’t feel confident or open enough. And then he suggested I go to Durham Prison. And as soon as I went there I knew that it was a great environment. The governor, Tim Allen, said “we’re getting such bad press, I don’t know why we don’t just open our doors and you can see what we’re doing in the face of extraordinary challenges”. He had complete faith in his staff. He’d been governor there ten years and felt confident and robust. And we got on really well.
CN: How did you approach making the series?
PW: I knew that I had to make a series that was specific to the prison that I was in, but that also spoke to the national crisis. And so as I started to get access around the prison, doing my research, it started to form in my mind that it would be good to do something based around different themes – so that each week the audience would feel like they were coming back to something different. And if you look at the indices of the crisis, you would find that mental health, drugs, incidents of violence are the themes people talk about: the trouble preventing drugs getting into the system, the prevalence of spice in prisons all across the country; the incredibly alarming rates of self harm which have tripled in five years; incidents of violence of prisoners on other prisoners but also on officers. So there was a ready made map of the series for me. I then just needed to find prisoners and staff who could start colouring in those sketches.
CN: How did the consent work? Do you gain it from each prisoner before you start filming? Sometimes it seemed like you would go up to a cell and film from the get go.
Paddy: Everybody who is on it consents. But sometimes I do just film from the get go and see how they go with it and then build consent off that first meeting. I had an amazing assistant producer, Josh Allott, who would be around all the wings with us as we were filming, getting consent from every prisoner. And he was just extraordinary. Because it was a big concern that we would end up having to blur everyone. And every prisoner you end up getting their consent but also you have to be across the legal proceedings – you have to avoid sub judice. If they are charged and not sentenced you can’t put them on the television. They have to be sentenced. So we’ve done a lot of work in post with the courts and prison service to make sure we’re completely across everyone that features. So in the background shots there are only a relatively few number of people blurred. If you look at other prison documentaries it’s a blurfest – the whole thing’s a nightmare!
CN: You came across as a bit of an anthropologist in there – did you feel like one?
PW: I was just really excited because I really felt like there were unchartered territories in prison documentaries. Always the space that excites me is the space I wanted to go but hadn’t had the opportunity to know. I always felt that a lot of the prison documentaries I’ve seen, the emphasis is so weighted on the shoulders of the staff members that you don’t really get the POV from the prisoners themselves. And I wanted a series that had equal weight among prisoners and staff. They both kind of cohabit the same space and they both have views on the crisis but from very different perspectives. So what might be a crisis to the officers might actually be seen by some of the prisoners as an opportunity. And I wanted that to be impressed somehow….Every day I l hear all these headlines and listen to the Today programme about the crisis in prisons but it’s from such a particular perspective. And it felt like there is a whole class of people who are not being spoken to or heard. It’s fresh territory.
CN: What was your responsibility when prisoners confided in you about all of their shenanigans? Obviously it’s going to come out on telly if the staff don’t know it already.
PW: They sort of know it already. But there’s a difference between knowing something and being able to prevent it. They know they stuff all these things up their bums to come in – they know the techniques. But they have six staff to two hundred prisoners. The prisoners have 24 hours a day to dream of ways to bring drugs into prisons or to hide contraband. It’s a never ending battle with the staff. What I wanted to avoid going in there was setting out too many rules to make my life more difficult. I didn’t ask the question “what do I do if someone”…I didn’t want them to tell me “you have to tell us”. But I did have my own sort of system. So if I felt that someone was in danger, of if I saw weapons, there were times I needed to tell staff. But the prisoners needed to feel confident that I wasn’t running with all the information to members of staff. There was this time when the prisoners showed me all their contraband and then they had their cells searched a week later by the intelligence unit. And then the word got out that we were a grass. So that was quite an awkward position – but I also quite like it when the lines get a little bit blurred. You can sort of incorporate that into the film.
CN: There are a lot of quite funny scenes.
There is a lot of humour. A lot of times in these institutions you think it is totally bleak. But inherently when you’ve got a lot of rule-breaking people in a rule-based environment trying to transgress the rules it provides quite a lot of humour and levity. And there’s a sort of David and Goliath dynamic going on which is quite pleasing.
CN: It’s relatively rare to see a series filmed in Durham. What was it like filming up there?
PW: Love it. It’s so refreshing. The Northeast has such warmth. And in a way there’s something quite nostalgic about the Northeast because they don’t have the same problems that southern prisons do – or almost any other region. The gang issues don’t affect the Northeast in quite the same way. So I think I benefited. The prisoners were pretty friendly. It wasn’t quite the same edge I don’t think.
CN: What was the biggest surprise for you making the series?
PW: I didn’t think I’d spend so much time talking about anal cavities!
The first episode of Prison airs 9pm Thursday, 19 July on Channel 4.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For the fifteenth year running I’ve had the good fortune to watch a good chunk of Sheffield Doc/Fest’s programme to help write the film catalogue. Of the 35 features that I’ve seen, here are five of my favourite:
This powerful vérité documentary (pictured above) tells the story of American Joe Carman. The 40-year-old blue collar worker gave up cage fighting years ago, but claims it’s the only arena where he feels confident. When he returns to fighting without the blessing of his wife and four daughters, his dangerous hobby soon threatens to tear the family apart.
A groundbreaking observational documentary with the feel of an indie drama. Dina and her fiancé Scott, both neurodivergent, have moved in together to ready for their upcoming wedding, and have set about the messy business of forging lives. In increasingly intimate scenes, Dina is determined to let Scott know that her difficult past doesn’t stop her wanting a passionate future.
Facing a catastrophic decline in wild animals, big game hunters and conservationists often make uneasy bedfellows, as highlighted in this gripping documentary. South African rhino breeder John is convinced that legalising the sale of rhino horns will save the species from extinction. Meanwhile, American hunter Philip ventures to the remote wilderness of Nambia and Zimbabwe in his personal quest to hunt the “big five” in their natural environment.
In Dmitrii Kalashnikov’s mesmerising compilation of dash cam footage, we are spectators to a series of extraordinary moments. From reckless drivers and hammer wielding thugs, to extreme acts of nature and the occasional wild bear, this film is an eccentric portrait of contemporary Russia, as seen, all too briefly, through the front windscreen.
A profoundly personal film from one of Britain’s most talented documentary directors. To establish a better rapport, Morgan Matthews begins filming his dad, and carries on for a decade. Once a high flyer, Geoffrey lives precariously with his eccentric partner Anna. As revealed in very intimate scenes, Geoffrey has more than a few regrets, not least his emotional distance from his six children.
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.
During the 60th BFI London Film Festival, which wrapped on Sunday, one of the most acclaimed dramatic features was British director Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, a coming-of-age story acclaimed by critics for its “visually fascinating aesthetic.” But far away from the buzz surrounding such Oscar hopefuls, in the relative quiet of the Documentary Competition, I found a clutch of coming-of-age films that equally shone. Together, they employ a battery of storytelling techniques to bring their young protagonists’ lives to the big screen.
All This Panic, a feature debut by husband-and-wife filmmaking team Jenny Gage (director) and Tom Betterton (DP), follows a handful of private school-educated teenage girls in Brooklyn over three years of their late teens. Ginger is “terrified of getting old,” clashes with everyone in her family, and finds herself adrift as her friends begin university without her. Her father tells her she can stay in the house, musing that they used to be best friends but have spent the last six years fighting (a haunting line that brings chills to those of us with young daughters with whom we are still on good terms). The other main subject, Lena, is self-possessed and articulate, and at the film’s outset, preoccupied with having her first stab at love. But Lena also has bigger issues on her mind: Her brother has significant behavioral problems, and both her parents—now separated—are living turbulent lives. Indeed, despite their privileged education, most of the girls here are dealing with significant issues, from broken families to self-harm and emerging sexuality. Photographers-turned-filmmakers Gage and Betterton manage, without formal interview or narration, to capture the complexity of teenage lives with the film’s striking visual style.All This Panic is beautifully shot, very close up, and in a dreamy-yet-pacey style that mirrors the girls’ inner lives, consumed with whom they are and whom they might become. The film is very effective at evoking the storminess of the high school years, as well as the fleetingness of this period.
Covering similar territory, in at times a strikingly similar visual style, is Alma Har’el’s Lovetrue. She interweaves the stories of three young subjects spread out across the US: a young erotic dancer in Alaska, a surfer-turned-single dad in Hawaii, and a teenage girl in a New York City family of singers whose parents have dramatically split. Each is navigating difficult relationships and trying to make sense of a world that often seems cruel. Har’el’s 2011 debut feature, Bombay Beach, was an innovative hybrid, with her rural Californian characters often breaking out in dance. She continues to break new ground inLovetrue, which features enacted scenes (filmed in a home-movie style reminiscent of Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell) that include both flashbacks and flashforwards, often with the subjects interacting with their dramatic counterparts (see featured photo above). While I admired the beauty and innovation of the film, the stories of the three protagonists were strong enough that in the end I felt the dramatic elements were sometimes more of a distraction than a service.
Less innovative in style, but no less compelling, were two additional coming-of-age films in the documentary competition. Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams takes us inside a detention center for 18-year-old Iranian girls. Their crimes sound shocking—they range from larceny to murder—but their back stories, revealed matter-of-factly to a sympathetic Oskouei, are even more disturbing. Together they paint a portrait of the most dysfunctional rung of Iranian society, where drug addiction rules and families violently turn on each other. But inside the center, the girls act much as any other high-spirited teenage girls living together, and the film says more about what we have in common than our differences. The press notes say that Oskouei worked for seven years to gain access to the institution, an effort that more than pays off for a film that has already garnered both an Amnesty International Award and a True Vision Award and went on to take the LFF’s Grierson Documentary Competition Award.
At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum are the French students who are the focus of Claire Simon’s observational documentary The Graduation. They have come from all over France to take an astonishing entrance exam to the country’s most prestigious film school, La Femis. Over three months the wanna-be auteurs undergo a host of tasks, mulled over by the film’s real stars – the industry figures who serve as the selection committee, offering up withering critiques once the candidates have left the room. I emerged in awe of the articulacy of the candidates, and in wonder at the complete Frenchness of the whole scene, which comes with more than its share of chain-smoking and Gallic shrugs.
Not surprisingly, many of the festival’s fare across the genres reflected the turbulent times in which we live, with a host of films focused on stories of migration and war. Among these was the winner of the short film category, the documentary 9 Days – From My Window in Aleppo. Finding his apartment smack-dab on the frontline when war breaks out in Syria’s largest city in August 2012, photographer Issa Touma begins filming from his window; this compelling short is an intriguing insight into the opening days of the ongoing destruction of Aleppo.
While nonfiction media is never going to dominate at the BFI London Film Festival, where the focus remains firmly on the dramas and the red carpet, it can be said that there has never been a better time for cinema documentaries in London. There has been a boom in arthouse cinemas opening up in the last few years (my North London neighborhood, Crouch End, which formerly had none now has three within a mile). And in order to differentiate from the temptation to remain at home in front of the television, cinemas are featuring many documentaries with Q&As or panel discussions afterwards. During the LFF I took a side trip half a mile away to the Bertha Dochouse, which has been exclusively showing documentaries for more than a year. There I hosted a panel following the screening of yet another coming-of-age documentary, Driving with Selvi. Directed by Canadian Elisa Paloschi, it’s an inspiring tale of how a child bride in India escaped her life to become a taxi driver. Having spent ten years filming Selvi, Paloschi eschews dwelling on the abuse that she suffered as a child bride, focusing instead on the confidence she gained as a taxi driver and through a second marriage, this time for love. This week I’ll be returning to moderate another panel, following Rokhsareh Ghaem Magham’s multi award-winning Sonita, yet another tale of an inspiring young woman whose story continues to put “bums on seats,” as they say here.
Santana’s latest programme, Inside Birmingham Children’s Hospital, is currently running on Channel 4. The series, made by fixed rig experts Dragonfly TV, uses a wide range of filming techniques to supplement a 80 plus camera hospital rig, including mobile phone footage, still photography, single camera crews, as well as patient car footage using GoPros. The viewer feels like a privileged observer to the difficult and very inspirational journeys that families undergo when facing health crises, and I can’t recommend it enough as an example of riveting public service television. I spoke on the telephone to Sam about how his working life has changed with the advent of the fixed rig:
In a nut shell, what is the difference between editing from the rig and traditional factual editing?
Anything in fixed rig is completely different from anything in traditional factual editing. The main difference is there is no producer. You don’t produce your actuality because there is no producer or director filming – it’s a fixed camera. From a technical point of view, with traditional factual when a director brings you his or her rushes you can immediately look at them. You cannot do that with a rig. There’s quite a lot of groundwork you have to do before you can start looking at the material – organising the material, pulling the right microphones, syncing the cameras up. So from a technical point of view that is a big difference. Also, when you’re editing something that has been shot traditionally with a director on a single camera, you have an expectation at the beginning of editing a particular scene that you know how that scene is going to turn out, because the director has shot it with an idea. When you edit a scene that is shot on the rig, you have no idea how it is going to end, you don’t know if it’s going to deliver, and so really it’s in the lap of the editor to try to make it work in one way or another.
What do you enjoy most about editing from the rig?
Really what I enjoy most about it is how really organic is. How pure it is. Because of the fact that you have to go through all those hours and hours of material, not knowing how anything is going to turn out, not having any control over what people are going to say. Because people will forget the cameras are there. I’ve done probably over 40 episodes of 24 Hours in A & E, and Children’s Hospital, and more, and all the time people forget the camera. They may be quite self-aware at the beginning but they forget it. And I think that’s what makes it so pure, so different. And on top of that you have so many camera choices and so many angles. At times it feels that, although you are cutting real life, you feel you’re cutting drama.
What are the biggest challenges?
One of the biggest cons of rig documentary editing is the sheer volume of material and the fact that actually you need the luck of the draw. Because as I was saying before, when the director goes to film, he or she has met a family, a set of contributors. And that’s why they’ve decided to follow a story -because of the research they’ve done before. With most rigs, that research doesn’t happen. So you meet somebody there and then and you just embark on that mini journey with them. And you don’t know how things are going to end. And sometimes you have less choice of who you are going to feature in your programme and therefore that makes things more complicated. So a story that on paper may feel great because it looks big that happened on the rig, it may not then have the dramatic storytelling that you would like it to have.
For 24 Hours in A&E, you get all of your 24 hours of footage, and then, once you’ve looked through it, producers have to go out and do those follow-up interviews and dig out those background stories, correct?
Yes, for example there’s a particular story in 24 Hours in A&E, one of the last ones I worked on, where you had this tiny story of a young lad who had broken his leg. The doctor thought he was faking it, he was like three or four years of age. So medically it had nothing, you know? It was just a tiny thing. But then because we thought he was funny and quirky on the rig, we then went and interviewed the grandmother who brought him, and she gave an incredible interview that explained to you so many different things and the unconditional love which she had. It transformed the rig material. And a story that was only seven minutes in terms of screen time completely kidnapped the film I think.
How much do you think your fixed rig experience is informing jobs you do that aren’t fixed rig?
I think whenever you go back to traditional observational documentary making there are things that you have to untrain yourself about. Because the rig provides you with an amazing amount of multicamera footage to cut to. It’s easier to create dramatic pauses on a rig than on single camera. And so you have to sort of make sure that when you go back to single camera observational documentary making that you forget the rig quickly. Because if you don’t you won’t get it done.
Where is the fixed rig genre heading?
I’m hoping that the rig will provide us a way in the future to blend itself to the old techniques. You know that if someone is talking to you, you can use their voice to take you to the rig and use the rig as an example of what that person is saying. At the moment the rig is used as a bed of shots and actuality, which is unadulterated by anyone else’s voices apart from the interview. It will be interesting to see where the rig takes us in the future.