Having begun her career working at BBC Storyville seventeen years ago, Shanida Scotland has now arrived at Doc Society, via the Guardian. In a recent zoom call, she reflected on her journey. Her voice has been slightly edited for length.
Storyville was such an incredible time for me and such an incredible place to be. Nick (Fraser) worked in a very collegiate manner. So on the one hand within the Storyville bubble I had some voice and I was able to develop a voice and develop my own language and thoughts and feelings around documentary filmmaking and the sorts of films that we did. Within the wider institutional space of the BBC, that’s a different story. I guess it’s that that I have been reflecting on since since the George Floyd protests, but obviously since before that as well.
After Storyville I went to the Guardian. That’s where it became clear to me what it takes to try to have a voice in institutional spaces. The idea of an industry or company or organisation believing or wanting to be deeply progressive, but also sometimes wanting to balance that with financial consideration. It was a great place to be and it was an interesting place to be.
Thinking through the work of image making within a new space is just an experience that I will treasure forever. It forced really strong discussions and revelations and thought processes around the work of image making when it pertains to black people, people of colour. When you are telling the story about police brutality, you need to consider that sometimes the only image of a black person in the paper and the online space might be a dead or brutalised black body. And one of the things I was really pleased to do when I was there was have Lubaina Himid come to the building to be an artist of residents of sorts. She is interrogating image making in the Guardian space specifically but also in the journalistic space around black people.
When you are telling the story about police brutality, you need to consider that sometimes the only image of a black person in the paper and the online space might be a dead or brutalised black body.
The Guardian was an enriching place to be: a place to test thoughts and beliefs around story and narrative, character driven elements that I had been building and working through at Storyville but in a much more agile shorter more reactive space. And I especially loved working on Windrush. I made a short documentary about Paulette Wilson the Windrush activist and of course a victim of the Windrush scandal for the Guardian. I wanted to explore the story from the Caribbean and looking back at the motherland if you like. My grandad was ill and dying at the time and he was in a hospital room that was opposite the Houses of Parliament and the scandal was happening at the time. And I thought of how across the river decisions were being made to deport Caribbean people and what it must be like.
Since about 2017 I’ve been experimenting with audio documentary. I was interested in what does my voice as a black person sound like in the space? I made a James Baldwin piece for the BBC which then developed into a strand called Afterwords, which continues. It’s really nice that the idea developed that something that can live and breathe on its own.
Over the summer I also worked on Mothers of Invention which is Doc Society’s only podcast, about feminist responses to the climate crisis. That was my first experience working with Doc Society. I always love the way that Doc Society were slightly ferocious defenders of documentarians and documentary filmmakers and image making. The importance of image making seemed to always be at the forefront of their consideration of documentary projects and film producers. And it was incredibly enriching working with that women- led team. But also on the specific season season three of the podcast it was working entirely with women of colour on our team. Which was great and wonderful.
Now as Head of Film I am looking after and distributing the BFI money. I started in October. In the UK the Doc Society distributes all of the BFI’s documentary funding. We do that through two key funds. The first is Made of Truth, which is the short filmmaking fund for emerging documentary filmmakers. There is an elasticity to that in that it can be character driven, essay style, observational. It’s really a space to solidify the work of emerging documentary filmmakers. Each film can get up to £15,000. They have just closed the funding round. And also through the Features Fund, for tried and tested filmmakers in the community who are trying to get their next feature documentary work off the ground. That round also just closed: it was a really strong selection of top topics and filmmakers who are really thinking about the world that we are living in right now through the most intriguing and thoughtful and illuminating actually unexpected ways. That’s really exciting – it’s like my Storyville sweet spot.
The way the role morphed ahead of me joining the team was actually Doc Society’s commitment for equity and human economic justice and climate justice. And so Doc Society had updated its mission statement at the end of summer to further commit themselves to that equity lens. And what that means pursuant to my role is that I will be looking at all of that strategy through an equity lens. Which is great – I love that.
When you think about the 80s and 90s and the Black Audio Film Collective and all that, there is so much brilliant work, but it’s also quite male led. The Black British female voice is really missing. It’s something that I’ve specifically had discussions around as we thought about recent funding rounds. There are voices that will be coming up, that are emerging but doing really interesting things.
Being one of the only documentary women of colour in the UK it’s taken a long time to gain voice. And that is a problem that I think documentary in this country needs to reckon with. Not with me, necessarily, but it shouldn’t take this long.
The Painter and the Thief not only tells a remarkable story but it does so in a remarkable way. The film chronicles the unlikely friendship between the Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova and heroin addict Karl-Bertil Nordland – a friendship which develops after Nordland is jailed for the brazen theft of two of Kysilkova’s paintings from a gallery. Norwegian Director Benjamin Ree follows his two protagonists for three and a half years, as Nordland becomes a new muse for Kysilkova, even as he indulges in increasingly self-destructive behaviour. But what really sets this film apart is its approach to storytelling – Ree has viewers inhabit the perspectives of both Nordland and Kysilkova, going back to replay scenes with different narrative overlays. It’s an exciting film which keeps you guessing, and in my books makes Ree (who is 31 and also made the excellent Magnus) a filmmaker to watch. I spoke to him via zoom while the film had its BFI London Film Festival run, where it won Best Documentary. The following interview contains spoilers and has been edited for length and clarity.
Carol Nahra: At what stage was their relationship when you started filming them?
Benjamin Ree: I started filming them the fourth time they met. I read about the story in the newspapers in Norway and it always takes a bit of time to get access – in this case getting access to a thief who didn’t know anything about me! I was really fortunate because a friend of mine had documented Barbora’s life a lot – taking photos of her paintings being made, filming her exhibition – we even had surveillance footage! Barbora had brought with her an audio recording recorder to the trial because she doesn’t understand the region so she recorded the whole trial and also during the break when she approached Karl-Bertil. So there was so much footage there from the very beginning. It was just pure luck to have such great footage before I came along.
CN: I have read that you’re inspired by observational documentary filmmakers like Steve James. But was there any point in time when you thought that you might become part of the story? Because clearly you must have interacted with them all the time during the shoot.
BR: During filming we did a lot of interviews and and we hear my questions and of course we could have chosen another approach to this where I am more visible. But I do believe that I am very there in the film as well. What I do with those interviews is I convert that to cinematic language. The film is very self reflective in a way but it but it is self reflective in a way that I haven’t seen before in a verité documentary film. I am very present in the whole film because we force the audience to think about the filmmaking process, having overlapping scenes. And some people become a bit uncomfortable with that, some love it, but I think it’s fun to try something new in a verité documentary.
CN: Absolutely and I am in the category of loving it and I really enjoyed the non-linear storytelling and the fact that it always kept you guessing. Did you have any idea when you were shooting it that you were going to be doing this in the edit?
BR: It was kind of two choices that made the structure happen. For me dramaturgy is not only an artistic choice in documentary, it is also an ethical choice. And that’s very important to keep in mind. So during filming we really wanted to portray Karl‑Bertil in a complex way to show how funny he is, how intelligent, how self-destructive and sad he is. And the only way to really get to know Karl-Bertil was to show the world from his point of view. And in the editing room we found the way to do it: that we wanted overlapping scenes. And the reason that we do that is because the themes of the film is what we humans do in order to be seen and appreciated. We would explore the film’s themes in a playful, fun and complex way to see the scenes over again so we had both of the subjects’ points of view of each other. And I think that was really relevant for this film. But it was in the editing room we found out how to do it.
CN: How did you get involved with Morgan Neville and what role did he play?
Ben: Morgan Neville saw the film at Sundance, so he came into it after the film. He loved the film and wanted to support it. I asked him if he wanted to become an ambassador. But in film words we don’t call it an ambassador, we call it executive producer!
CN: In the film Karl-Bertil has a bad accident. How soon did you talk to Karl-Bertil before he had it, and what was that like for you?
BR: It was not right before he had his accident. There was a period when he almost died several times and it was almost pure luck that he survived that accident. And Karl-Bertil and I had several conversations, and I said to him and he agreed both of us thought that he was going to die during filming. And I told him ‘if you die we’re not gonna make this film’ and Karl-Bertil responded by saying ‘if I die you have to promise to me to make this film’. So those are some of the conversations that we had. I was nervous all the time. I was waking up in the middle of the night worrying about him. There were of course long periods of time when I couldn’t reach him at all.
CN: When he sees the portrait and cries in that very moving scene, was he using at the time? He seemed quite out of it.
BR: For me that is a great scene filmed by Kristoffer Kumar. Karl-Bertil explains that this is maybe the first time he has been seen in his life, and that’s why he behaved that way. But the first half of the film yes he’s on drugs all the time.
CN: Is he doing okay now?
BR: He’s doing great today. He’s not single anymore. Bad guys like that don’t stay single for long! He has finished his second year at a school of sport science and he has got a new job. He’s not counting months anymore of being sober, he is counting years. I’m extremely proud of him and I think that the journey he goes through from the lowest point in the film, almost dying and being addicted to heroin, to where he is today is the most impressive thing I have experienced ever in my life.
As we remain in lockdown for the foreseeable future it’s sometimes hard to focus on the positive. But I know what has given me a great deal of enjoyment and fulfillment during these strange, endless weeks. In late March, in the first days of lockdown, we launched a podcast at Bertha DocHouse, where I work as a Programming Associate. So every two weeks for the last couple of months I have had the chance to talk with one of my favourite documentary makers about their working lives. All four of my guests to date have a number of films available online to stream – so the idea is that you can dig deep into their body of work before listening to our chat. It’s been a fascinating journey – I hope you will subscribe and share with any doc lovers out there. It’s available on Apple Podcasts and just about any other podcasting platform.
Here are the first four episode guests, starting with the most recent:
In a documentary-making career spanning a quarter century, Dan Reed has established a reputation as one of the most dedicated and talented filmmakers working in Britain today. With a slew of awards under his belt, he is also one of the most heralded.
Long known in the UK, Dan came to worldwide prominence last year with his devastating portrait of sexual abuse Leaving Neverland. The two-part Channel 4/HBO film won a number of awards and was widely hailed by viewers and critics as a forensic examination of the longterm trauma of sexual abuse.
At the same time, Dan found himself bombarded by a global legion of Michael Jackson supporters, many of whom had never watched the film.
As Dan himself admits, he’s no stranger to navigating difficult terrain. From his work amongst gang members in South Africa in Cape of Fear (1994), to covering both sides of the Balkan conflict in The Valley (2000), he has often placed himself in dangerous positions.
In recent years, Dan has explored complex stories of trauma through intimate personal testimony. The films use user-generated content, CCTV and interviews to powerful effect, depicting the timeline of terrorism events as they erupt across everyday settings: an opera in Moscow, a mall in Nairobi, luxury hotels in Mumbai, and the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo.
Alongside his terrorism films, Dan has built up a stable of observational documentaries, embedding himself amongst Russian gangsters, drug abusers and escorts. The Paedophile Hunter (Channel 4, 2014) won two BAFTAs and a Grierson award for its portrait of paedophile vigilante Stinson Hunter.
In more than twenty years as a filmmaker, Daisy Asquith has told human stories the length and breadth of the UK, and beyond.
She has also taken viewers into the world of clowns, young mums, Holocaust survivors and house clearers, in empathetic, nuanced portraits which have earned her multiple awards. She forms tight bonds with her subjects, some of whom she has been filming for many years.
In Crazy About 1D for Channel 4, Daisy memorably explored the legion of passionate One Direction fans. The response to her film was so vitriolic that she decided it was worthy of further study. The resulting PhD thesis This is Not Us focuses on performance, relationships and shame in documentary filmmaking. Daisy now runs the MA in Screen Documentary at Goldsmiths.
Daisy’s most recent work includes her moving personal documentaryAfter the Dance. From behind her camera she embarks on a journey with her mum to find out more about her grandparents, who gave her mother up for adoption after she was born illegitimately in Ireland in the 1940s.
Daisy has also directed the archive based Queerama. Released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 the film edits together 100 queer films to an original soundtrack by John Grant, Goldfrapp and Hercules & Love Affair.
Orlando von Einsiedel is drawn to telling inspiring stories of humble heroism from around the world, often combining intimate personal narratives with macro level politics, powerful visual aesthetics and on-the-ground journalistic muck-racking. He has worked in impenetrable and difficult environments, from pirate boats to war zones, and has won over 100 international film and advertising awards.
Orlando’s debut feature documentary VIRUNGA charted the story of a group of courageous park rangers risking their lives to build a better future in the Democratic Republic of Congo. BAFTA and Academy Award nominated, the documentary won over 50 international awards including an EMMY, a Grierson and a duPont-Columbia Award for outstanding journalism. The film was also recognised for its role in protecting the Virunga National Park winning a Peabody, a Television Academy Honor and the prestigious 2015 Doc Impact Award.
Orlando’s forty minute film THE WHITE HELMETS follows the lives of a group of heroic Syrian civilian rescue workers in 2016. The film was released as a Netflix Original and won the Academy Award for best documentary short. It was also nominated for two EMMYs, including one for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking.
His subsequent feature EVELYN, a deeply personal story and road trip odyssey about the loss of his brother to suicide, won the 2018 British Independent Film Award (BIFA) for Best Documentary. The Evening Standard newspaper called it “Phenomenal” and “Life-changing”.
Victoria Mapplebeck doesn’t shy away from telling difficult stories about her personal life. In her first smartphone short 160 Characters, Victoria documents the highs and lows of raising her son alone.
She took the journey even further in the BAFTA-winning film Missed Call, made in collaboration with her teenage son Jim, as they decide to reconnect with a father who’s been gone over a decade.
Victoria was nearing completion of Missed Call when a routine mammogram revealed she had breast cancer. She decided to keep filming, using her iPhone to chronicle life after the diagnosis, as she undergoes chemo and months of uncertainty. The resulting film, The Waiting Room, is a nuanced and intimate account of the toll of undergoing cancer treatment. An accompanying VR piece takes you even further inside Victoria’s perspective.
During the global lockdown caused by COVID-19, Victoria is continuing to film. As she told me in this interview “There’s something about scrutinizing the hell out of difficult stuff that I find helps. It maybe doesn’t help everybody but it helps me. It’s almost like it brings emotional dramas into closeup and puts it at a distance at the same time.”
Here are some recommendations we came up with at Bertha Dochouse, where I am working as a Programme Associate. I will be posting more content soon – including highlighting docs for kids. Stay tuned!
Two years after resigning from Congress for tweeting a picture of his bulging briefs, Anthony Weiner is running for Mayor of New York. His loyal wife Huma (Hillary Clinton’s right-hand woman) is at his side, and the tenacious politician has even invited a documentary crew along for the ride. The trouble is, he’s neglected to curb his digital dalliances, giving us jaw-dropping access to a campaign that is soon in total meltdown.
A good one to distract you from pandemic woes, this is a highly original and entertaining personal documentary. In the early 1990s young punk cinephile Sandi Tan wrote and starred in Shirkers, a quirky girl road movie, directed by her older, enigmatic mentor Georges. But her dreams of making a big splash in Singapore’s nascent film industry were cut cruelly short – find out why.
In this nonfiction thriller, which won the 2018 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Director Brian Fogel immerses himself in the world of performance enhancing drugs, and soon stumbles into the centre of Russia’s extensive state-sponsored doping programme. It’s a wild ride – and one of the most electric nonfiction films in recent years.
After years of silence as a child, Owen Suskind amazed his family by beginning to communicate through his biggest passion: Disney films. Now leaving home, Owen is learning that not every step in life has a Disney guru. Director Roger Ross Williams’ masterful film shows how one close-knit family navigates life with autism. The film won a number of awards including the Critics’ Choice Award for “Most Compelling Living Subject of a Documentary.”
In this double Sundance winner, Matthew Heineman 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.
Experience the gripping, life-or-death true story of commercial deep-sea diver Chris Lemons in Last Breath. Lemons had spent weeks in a claustrophobic decompression chamber with his diving partner, preparing for their routine maintenance dive to a North Sea oil well off the coast of Scotland. Once submerged, the pair were tethered to the ship by umbilical cords providing light, oxygen and pumping heated water around their suits to protect them from dangerous sub-zero temperatures. When a storm caused total loss of control for the ship, it became a race to get the divers back to safety.
With a combination of interviews with colleagues, reconstruction, and Lemon’s own footage, Last Breath is a visceral story of how it feels to be lost on the North Sea bed, with 5 minutes of oxygen, and a rescue team over 30 minutes away.
You can see a Q&A that I did with the makers of Last Breath (and a special guest) here.
Over the last decade producer Elhum Shakerifar has established herself as a vital voice in the world of international documentary, working with a range of directors on highly acclaimed films, including A Syrian Love Story and Almost Heaven. She has won numerous awards including the 2016 BFI Vision award and the 2017 Women in Film & TV’s BBC Factual Award; she was also named one of Screen International’s 2018 #Brit50 Producers on the Rise. As she explains below, Elhum is an outspoken advocate of the need to challenge mainstream narrative and to bring quieter voices to the big screen. I sent Elhum a number of questions about her work – her written answers are printed here in full.
Can you tell me a bit about how you came to be a documentary producer?
I have been making films for about 10 years and came to filmmaking from an unusual journey through Persian literature, photography, anthropology and many years working in a community centre with unaccompanied minors (young refugees who are separated from their families).
The first film I produced was about a long distance runner from the Western Sahara – The Runner (2015) by Saeed Taji Farouky. I actually became involved in the film out of sheer surprise that I didn’t know anything about The Western Sahara, a territory larger than the United Kingdom. It is the last colony in Africa, under Moroccan occupation since 1975. I thought that making a film about a territory most people have never heard of – by design – would be the most challenging part of the equation. But I was wrong – it was showing the finished film that was a bigger problem. We were told informally several times that the film “couldn’t possibly be screened”, some screenings were complicated by complaints from the Moroccan embassy, etc. This first experience already underlined that the biggest challenge is being seen and being understood on your own terms – whether as filmmakers from diverse backgrounds, or filmmakers making work that challenges the mainstream understanding of things, which is dictated by the loudest voices.
Making The Runner was in many ways my baptism of fire. I thought that things should be simpler after all the learning of that experience – how wrong I was! I have since produced films all over the world – in Yemen, in Nepal, in Syria, in Japan, in the UK. They each have their distinct worlds, issues and surprises. The one thing that unites all of my work, I believe, is that I am interested in the quieter voice, the untold side of the story. And sadly, it has not become easier to do that work – which really says something about the world we live in.
How do you decide to take on a project? What do you look for in stories? Can you give some examples?
I only work on films that mean something to me – there needs to be a strong personal reason and drive to getting involved in a film, because that determination will be key in carrying you through from conception to the finish line, from the good days to the bad. The creative process is a vulnerable one, and it is important to know why you are engaging in that space, even if just for yourself.
I would say that I’m a director’s producer – I work with people whose vision I understand, admire and want to bring to fruition. Shared vision and teamwork enables the strongest films to be made – teams make films. And so it is also important to work with people who you can have a cup of tea or an ice cream with and really talk things through, talk things out.
For example, Sean McAllister, who I have now made three films with, had been filming in Syria for some time when we first met. The footage he showed me was unlike anything I had seen coming out of the country, and his relationship with the family was intense, direct, and also complicated – just like human relationships really are. I respected this directness and honesty, and it is something that I value in our relationship as collaborators as well.
How has the documentary industry changed over the years you have been working? Is it easier or more difficult to get your films made? How has distribution changed?
I would say that reality TV and celebrity documentary biopics have all but destroyed the mainstream understanding of documentary, and have certainly changed the dynamic of making non-fiction. The prominence of these films have also made variety in documentary filmmaking styles difficult – the space for creativity, to stray from format and ‘known’ values much more challenging. The space for newer voices to emerge on their own terms is essentially impossible without external support (read: trust fund) to enable years of unpaid and never adequately funded work.
The documentaries I have made to date have all been fairly unknown entities at the start of the process. I enjoy the layered space of the documentary journey, rather than contrived formats where you know what you’re going to do and say from the beginning. In the absence of partners who will get involved early and share a creative risk with you, to really develop documentary work, I would say that no: things are not getting easier.
I feel that we have lost the ability to respect documentary’s value outside of box office and easy to quantify audience numbers – but film is an art form, should it be measured only in these terms?
Finally, I feel that we have lost the ability to respect documentary’s value outside of box office and easy to quantify audience numbers – but film is an art form, should it be measured only in these terms? To my mind, the art of non-fiction filmmaking is in holding a mirror up to the world. There is undeniable value in longitudinal, artistic, unexpected, creative, divergent and diverse approaches. We must see things from different perspectives to better understand the world, but also to challenge ourselves. If we valued the variety of mirrors, of voices and the range that non-fiction can represent – we would be living in a very different world today.
What are the biggest challenges for the films you produce? Do women face particular challenges?
There is a vulnerability to making films that is seldom talked about, and that makes every film into a distinct struggle – creatively and financially. As an independent producer, it is a challenge to take the risk of jumping into a film, time and again – in knowledge that you will be carrying that risk alone for a long time before anyone else shoulders it with you.
My biggest challenge right now is understanding how we are going to challenge the industry’s in-built elitism. How can I keep – ethically, and realistically – producing so called ‘diverse’ filmmakers, in particular people who do not come from an affluent background? How can we possibly expect people with no fall back to take on the level of risk and uncertainty that a documentary requires? How can I ensure that people don’t feel more disempowered by the status quo, when it is exactly these voices that I want to hear? There is some good work being done out there, but I have been struggling with this question a lot recently – I don’t need any more training, accolades or schemes – I need cash funding to pay highly competent people properly.
Let’s not pretend that we don’t live in a patriarchal society, and that the film industry isn’t a sexist and elitist space.
And yes – women face particular challenges, most importantly to my mind, of not being taken seriously. When I first started working in the industry, people always assumed “Elhum” was a man’s name– sometimes to the point of telling me “no, I’m waiting for someone else”. I have been asked on numerous occasions whether I would like for a male colleague to corroborate my decision. I have been asked by Sales Agents whether I am dating filmmakers whose work I produce. I am currently developing work with a male and female co-directing team – nine times out of ten, people pivot to talk to the man to ask questions about the film, regardless of who had been speaking in the first place. The inability to dissociate women’s gender from their work is a burden placed on women by others. There is great work being done and some good spokespeople but let’s not pretend that we don’t live in a patriarchal society, and that the film industry isn’t a sexist and elitist space.
Can you discuss one of the projects you are most proud of, and why?
I am proud of all the films I have produced – the (often long) journeys of making them really are woven into my life, and I sometimes revisit them like I might old photo albums. The people in the films we’ve made become like distant relatives – you share some sort of genetic information and oscillate in and out of contact depending on the order of the world.
A good recent example, however, would be Island by Steven Eastwood. Island follows four individuals to the end of their lives, including one, Alan, who you see breathing until he doesn’t breathe anymore. When I first met Steven, I was already juggling quite a lot and certainly wasn’t planning of getting involved in another film, but the visceral connection I had to his idea of giving an image to death – a reality that we all too often turn away from – was something I had to listen to. I truly believe Island to be a film of distinct, bold beauty. I have seen it countless times, but it still mesmerises me, as if it had its own magnetic field. I am incredibly proud of having produced it, and I am moved every time it is screened. I am proud to know that it is a film that has challenged and helped many people reflect on death and dying – we still receive emails and messages to this effect, particularly from people as they prepare to say goodbye to their loved one, or reflect on the death of someone close. Challenging the silence around death was important to me on a personal level, but I am also proud of the relationships we build with the hospice where the film was shot (Mountbatten, on the Isle of Wight), with the families of the beautiful individuals in the film. We are currently developing pilot toolkits for the film to be used for training NHS junior doctors and nurses – this was a tangential outcome, but really underlines how far a film can travel when a story is told with intent.
How many projects do you have on the go at the moment, and what work of yours can we look forward to seeing soon?
Making creative documentaries is an all encompassing, all consuming reality. Whilst you might develop several ideas at once, I have learnt (the hard way!) that it’s too much to be involved in full production of too many films at once. You never known how long a film might take – A Syrian Love Story ended up being made over six years; Even When I Fall over seven. And once the film is finished – its festival journey, distribution, future…the full span of a film’s life is long. When you make documentaries, you’re also working with real human beings, whose life you have depicted in a moment in time, but the relationship exists far beyond the film. Does your responsibility to that representation ever end?
At the moment, I am developing a few exciting projects with emerging directors Ana Naomi de Sousa and Omar El-Khairy, as well as working on new ideas with Steven Eastwood, and Sean McAllister, which I look forward to sharing more information about in due course. I am currently putting finishing touches on a film called Ayouni by Yasmin Fedda, which reflects on forcible disappearance in Syria through the prism of families searching for their loved ones. We began making the film five years ago, after Father Paolo, the subject of a film we were making at the time, was forcibly disappeared in Raqqa. We still have no concrete or reliable information of Paolo’s fate, though the Italian press have recently been reporting on new evidence that would suggest he was killed shortly after he was disappeared. The film depicts his sister Machi’s search for him, alongside that of Noura Ghazi, lawyer and wife of Syrian Creative Commons developer and hacker Bassel Safadi, who disappeared in 2014.
On the curation side, this July will see the return of Shubbak, the festival of contemporary Arab culture, for which I have once again curated the film programme at the Barbican (it runs 3-7th July) around the thematic of generational change in an exciting programme of films from Algeria to Tunisia, and a focus on Arab-British directors, a hyphenated identity that is rarely discussed in these terms, which is in itself quite interesting.
How do you think the industry will change in the next few years?
I don’t know, but one thing I hope for is greater support for producers. Receiving the BFI Vision Award in 2016 was a game-changer for me – it gave me an insight into what working with a secure overhead could be like, it enabled me to develop new work from scratch and so to champion projects that were too malleable and raw to be pitched to funders before being more fully developed. Essentially: to be supported to take risks. It also positioned me amongst my peers – most of whom work with fiction exclusively – which also gave me a lot of insights into the bigger picture, broader industry. The way that I see it, documentary hardly has a place at the table.
I also think that there is a discussion around mental health that needs to be had in relation to both creative processes, and the industry. I found this recent Filmmaker Magazine article “Disclosed: Producers and Therapists on Dealing with the Stress of a Demanding Profession” painfully pertinent, and have seldom seen this addressed in a meaningful way. There are so many complex questions that need to be discussed, that would challenge the reality of this profession as a particularly lonely and complex space. Should independent producers be supported to be more mobile and visible in a dense and competitive international space? When do you pay for someone’s time – taking part in panels, hosting events, imparting wisdom in other ways? Should there be budget lines for therapy worked into complex projects? Shouldn’t the ‘aftercare’ for subjects of complex films be the responsibility of all film partners, and not just the filmmakers? I could go on. Rebecca Day is doing interesting work in this space, having recently set up Film in Mind and offering tailored therapeutic workshops, support and consultancy.
I know you also do an impressive amount of work outside of producing creative documentaries, including film programming, translation and publishing. What underpins all the work that you do, and does your other work inform your doc producing?
I would say that all my work looks to challenge a mainstream narrative. In the film world, I produce, distribute and curate – but I believe that all of these things are in essence a form of storytelling: deciding which films get seen, and how those films are framed. I crossed into distribution space after producing A Syrian Love Story and realising that if nobody inherently saw the ‘value’ of the film, that we would have to create the conditions for it to be understood – our self-devised release strategy enabled a reach of over two million people in the UK in the month of release alone.
Perhaps the film’s framing and visibility was so important to me because I had spent a decade working in a community centre with young refugees – in the years directly following the invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq. I think that all the different hats and spaces I’ve occupied – from translating Persian poetry, to producing photography (and even once upon a time, a band!) – have contributed to how I understand the world, and to the work I am doing today.
I produce, distribute and curate – but I believe that all of these things are in essence a form of storytelling: deciding which films get seen, and how those films are framed.
I think there is real value in this kind of cross pollination, and don’t believe that everything needs to necessarily follow a certain pattern or format. I remember walking around Paris’s empty streets on a hot August day (I grew up in Paris), wondering what I should do after school. I was drawn to the postcards outside a bookstore – one was a stunning piece of Arabic calligraphy, in brilliant blue. Its meaning was a saying by Lao Tseu “Le parfait voyageur ne sait pas où il va” – meaning, a good traveller doesn’t know where they are headed.That postcard (by an Iraqi calligrapher called Hassan Massoudy) has been up on my wall ever since. I interpreted it then as having the confidence to not always know the exact answers. This doesn’t mean not having plans or goals, but being open to enjoy the journeys that life takes you on, to see the opportunities as they present themselves. Similarly, Rebecca Solnit has written about getting lost in a way that reminds me of the creative process. (Apart from the fact that I have a terrible sense of direction ) I think it says a lot about why I make the films I make.
You can learn more about Elhum’s work on www.hakawati.co.uk. Shubbak’s film programme runs 3-7th July at Barbican – for more info about the line up, and the whole festival, see https://shubbak.co.uk
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.