Tag Archives: documentary

London Film Festival 2020 Interview: Director Benjamin Ree

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.

Nordland and Kysilkova

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.

Benjamin Ree

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.


The Painter and the Thief is released in UK cinemas and on demand 30 October.

New Podcast: DocHouse Conversations

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:

Dan Reed

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

Watch Dan’s films: 

Leaving Neverland (2019)

Calais: To The End of The Jungle (2017) 

Three Days of Terror: The Charlie Hebdo Attacks (2016)

From Russia with Cash (2015)

Escorts (2015)

The Paedophile Hunter (2014)

Terror at the Mall (2014)

Legally High (2013)

#SHOUTINGBACK (2013)

Children of the Tsunami (2012)

Terror in Mumbai (2009)

Terror in Moscow (2003)

The Valley (2000)

Cape of Fear (1994)

Daisy Asquith

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 documentary After 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.

WATCH DAISY’S FILMS

THIS IS THE REAL ME: DOC PARTICIPANTS SPEAK! (2018) 
QUEERAMA (2017) 
AFTER THE DANCE (2015) 
CRAZY ABOUT 1D (2013) 
MY GAY DADS (2010) 

Orlando von Einsiedel

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”.

Watch Orlando’s films: 
SKATEISTAN (2011) on Vimeo or YouTube.
VIRUNGA (2014): watch on Netflix.
THE WHITE HELMETS (2016): watch on Netflix.
EVELYN (2019): watch on Netflix and DocHouse’s Q&A
RADIO AMNIA (2011): watch on IDFA.
AISHA’S SONG (2011): watch on Vimeo. 

Victoria Mapplebeck

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.”  

Watch Victoria’s Films:
THE WAITING ROOM (2019)
THE WAITING ROOM VR
MISSED CALL (2018)
160 CHARACTERS: (2015)
SMART HEARTS (1999) 


You can sign up to DocHouse Conversations here. The next episode will feature a panel of filmmakers whose plans for the release of their latest documentary have been blown up by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Paddy Wivell on the Making of Prison, Series 2

The last time I interviewed Paddy Wivell, he was just putting the finishing touches on the first series of Prison. The three part series, filmed in Durham Prison, was a revelatory look at a system in crisis. It took a themed approach, with an episode each focused on mental health, drugs and violence. It won both the Grierson and Royal Television Society awards for Best Documentary Series.

Now Paddy has turned his attention to women prisoners, filming for months in HMP Foston Hall in Derbyshire. I caught up with him over the telephone to find out more about Prison: Series 2. 

Carol Nahra: Can you tell me about the approach to this series? 

Paddy Wivell: It felt like a natural progression after the Durham series to then look at the women’s estate. There are 80,000 male prisoners (in England and Wales) and something like 4,000 female. So I knew I would be encountering something quite different. I wanted to take a sort of present tense approach – looking at the culture within the environment. But actually what I did find was the women’s backgrounds became seemingly more relevant as I started to pick up on some of the main themes. You just couldn’t look away from the effects of trauma played out in the lives of the women in terms of sexual and domestic abuse.  It felt really important to then spend some of the time with the women looking back at what brought them into prison.

Each film again has a theme. The first film is really looking at short sentences. Something like 75% of women in prison spend less than 12 months in prison. And within that to be able to look at issues like drugs, relationships, trauma within a setting where women are coming in and out routinely. And ultimately sort of questioning the validity of a system that doesn’t seem to rehabilitate or help women with the kind of difficulties that they come into prison with. Because the prison has a very short window, you’re not doing anything to rectify or help with the problems. So that’s one of the films. 

Paddy Wivell, holding his Grierson, and a beer

Another of the films looks at the issues of family.  Something like 95% of children when the mother goes to prison has to leave the family home. So I was really interested in how do you continue to parent from within the prison and what sort of dilemmas does that bring up? How important is it that family ties are maintained in order to help with reoffending?

And then another film looks at the issue of trauma in more detail through a prisoner led therapeutic course called Healing Trauma. So that’s a map of the three films. Although the approach was similar to the first series, the content feels very very different.

CN: So much of the series is dependent on your interactions with your contributors. I’m wondering if your interactions were different than with the men and how you were received?

PW: To be honest with you it was much more gratifying. Women handle incarceration very differently to men and the fact is that they do it through relationships with each other. So in terms of filmmaking in many ways it was far richer than the first series. Because women want to communicate.

That’s not to say that it wasn’t quite difficult at first just gaining the trust of the prison as a whole. Obviously a lot of women in there have had very difficult experiences with men. So when somebody like me comes in it takes a long time to build a sense of trust, and a feeling that they’re going to be safe with us wandering around. So that took some time. But once I found the contributors who could speak to these wider themes it was immensely gratifying because the conversations were richer and more detailed. So I think what it might lack in the sense of a system in crisis it absolutely points to a sort of richness of humanity.

CN: Did you get a sense that there was a way that the men could be learning from the women?

PW: Definitely. I think there is a certain sort of narrative that is applied to women in prison that isn’t necessarily applied around men. There is a public recognition that for most of the women in prison that they’ve had worse crimes visited upon them than they have actually perpetrated. And trauma has a huge effect and there is a sense that a lot of women are going to prison and being punished when they’ve already been punished throughout their lives. Because these narratives aren’t as prevalent with a male population it doesn’t mean to say that it doesn’t exist. I would say obviously huge numbers of men have had the same issues. 

But one of the other really shocking things is what happens when women are released. There are only six hostels nationally with 100 places a huge amount of women are being released homeless. So there is a real problem in sending people back outside without proper accommodation or support. There is a big push that hasn’t really materialised as much as it should do where women carry out their sentences in the community instead. And get support for issues that are common to them, like substance misuse debt or homelessness

CN: I know that it was tricky in the first series getting your third episode to broadcast because of people getting caught up in the legal system. Have you had any issues with this series?

PW: Anybody that’s released can pick up a charge at any time so it’s always quite anxiety inducing. We have to do a check a week before the TX, and the first program can go out. We will keep our fingers crossed for the next two!


The first episode of the second series of Prison goes out on Channel 4, 9pm Monday, 17 February.

Kristof Bilsen on the making of Mother

Beautifully shot and multilayered, the new documentary Mother centres on a care home in Thailand, which provides intensive one-on-one 24 hour care for 14 Western dementia patients. At the heart of the film is Pomm, who we see lovingly doting on Alzehimer’s sufferer Elisabeth. But Pomm’s reality is that at the same time she looks after her patient, she is always thinking of her three children, who live many hours away. I recently spoke over the phone with the film’s director Kirstof Bilsen, about the themes of the film, and how he came to make a film set so far from his native Belgium.

Carol Nahra: Can you tell me a bit about its origins?

Kristof Bilsen: I am always looking for stories that are micro but work on a macro level too. So far I focus on people stuck in a certain reality. In Elephant’s Dream it was people in a post colonial situation, and public sectors workers stuck in a job which didn’t exist. With this film it was to do with my mother; it was very personal. She was suffering a combination of dementia, though not literally Alzheimer’s, for quite a lot of time. We lost her this spring. She was going downhill for many years. Eventually we felt there was a point of no return coming: what would be the best for Mom? Would it be informal care at home? An old-people’s home, care centre? If so what would then be the consequences?

Kristof Bilsen

So yes, I threw myself into researching various approaches to elderly care and one of them was thinking “beyond” borders. In my research I found out about this place in Northern Thailand, where only 14 patients get 24/7 care by means of 3 caregivers per patient who do a rota. We initially went there for a two week research trip, where I made a seven minute short, which was really a portrait of place. But while researching and shooting that short I found and fell in love with Pomm. I mainly fell in love with her and Elisabeth because I mainly saw a grandmother and a child rather than a Thai woman and a patient, or a ‘guest’ as they call them. That for me was revelatory as I thought ‘that could be a story’. She could be a character. Without really knowing her back story, it was just the dynamic and bond that struck me as a good way into the story. 

CN: Did you know going in that you would focus so much on Pomm and what’s it like to be a mother away from her children?

KB: What I prefer most in making documentary is to trust the process. A story leads you where you need to be. In the case of Pomm that was really key to the film. Pomm quite soon started talking about her children, started talking about what she had to cope with as a single mother. And sort of almost gently diverted me to this is actually the story that we are telling. To really be humble to the process. 

Pomm and Elisabeth

CN: We also follow the story of Maya, who suffers early onset Alzheimer’s, and is being moved by her family to Thailand. How did you begin to incorporate Maya’s storyline?

The Alzheimer’s patients are at a certain stage quite down the line. You are limited to what you can film..How much can you empathise? The urge for me was to ideally follow a patient coming from Europe or specifically from Switzerland. It was serendipity because we were gently warned ‘well if want to film a patient, just be aware that it is a very stressful time’. It’s very problematic for a family to allow someone to film like that. They are stigmatised, get a lot of judgements from people in the West, you could say the Christian guilt thing – how do you dare to outsource someone all the way out to Thailand? And then suddenly there was this email coming from the man running the centre, who said ‘well actually you might be lucky, there is this family who will have their wife/mother – Maya – going there. And they are happy to meet you in theory’. So I went to Zurich and met them. Fortunately I had the 7 minute short I could show them, so they at least had a flavour of what I was up to. Plus I was very upfront about my own messy situation – we have our mother, and we are struggling and it’s huge taboo when it’s no longer home care. It was just being very up front and honest with them, and they were like let’s go on the journey together.

CN: How do you go about getting access to patients with dementia who can’t give informed consent? 

KB: Well it was quite straightforward, being very transparent and common sense. That is my responsibility as a filmmaker in terms of representation. But then also for the organisation themselves, they had in the past a bit of media attention, specifically in Germany and Switzerland, and some radio pieces here and there, so they know what media can and cannot do. They were themselves quite confident in terms of the situation. But in terms of the patients it was always just a matter of being very clear to the family members – we are filming your beloved mother for example, in the case of Elisabeth – are you okay with us filming – and they would write informed consent. 

Maya and her daughter

CN: Did Maya notice your presence at all?

She did. But it was always a mystery how much. It’s interesting because what filming does and what editing does is you really empathise with them – with Maya in the film. Sometimes I feel that it might make them seem more conscious than they are, in the film, on the filmic frame, than in reality. 

CN: Do you mean it makes it look like there is more cognitively going on than there is?


Yes, yes. Just because we do the drama shots – you see them leaving and the reactions of Maya. It’s all true but there is at the same time the deep mystery of how conscious are Alzheimer’s patients. How aware are they of the dynamics? I don’t mind that it adds to the empathy. We would also partake in giving care, that was part of the filming process. 

CN: How long did it take you to film this? 

KB: For me it’s really important that I take my time, that it’s a mixture of poetical and observational but also that the characters get the agency they deserve…So I think I really needed time to tell the story properly – you can’t do it in half a year. Filming technically started in fall 2016 and ended spring 2018. And then there was an editing process of four months. In total we did three trips. It’s not like there’s an incredibly amount of rushes – it felt quite sane. We shot about 50-60 hours, which allowed us to really be with them and be with Pomm, and be with her. 

CN: What is your ideal care scenario? 

KB: Ideally there really would be a world where there is space and time to give care. So if you give home care you would be supported by nurses that you know and that are affordable and you can really be a team. And you still keep a certain sense of privacy of your family, but you are also are a community. That is an ideal scenario – not an exhaustion route for the beloved partner or children to give care and not be able to talk about it. 

CN: What are you hoping people will take away from the film?

KB: I would say a sense of empathy, open to discussion, to see that it’s not something that you need to hide away from – it’s just the continuum of life. We’re also expecting a little one, a little daughter in February. We are going to childcare places and I’m seeing children and toddlers. And the image of someone being so dependent is an image very familiar to me when I see people with dementia or Alzheimers, or more specfically my mother in the weeks before she passed away, that I still had the honour to feed her. For a lot of people that is unimaginable – feeding your parents? Now for me that taboo is gone – I am familiar with that concept. I would like for people to be much more open and kind to the continuum of life.


Mother is playing this week at Bertha Dochouse and JW3 Finchley in October. See Mother website for trailer and full list of screenings.

Why I Won’t be Watching Netflix’s Madeleine McCann Series

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.

ourscreen’s New Fee Structure: A Blow For Independent Documentaries

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.”


Zara Balfour on Children of the Snow Land

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.

Zara Balfour

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.


Nima Gurung with his camera

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.


Tsering Deki

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.

Children of the Snow Land is screening at selected cinemas including Bertha Dochouse from 5 March. See their website for details.

Five of the best @SheffDocFest 2017

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:

The Cage Fighter

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.

Dina

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.

Trophy

Trophy

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.

The Road Movie

The Road Movie

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.

The Rise and Fall of Geoffrey Matthews 

The Rise and Fall of Geoffrey Matthews

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.

Meet Luke Moody, Sheffield Doc/Fest’s New Film Programmer

Coming from doc champion Britdoc, the Sheffield Doc/Fest’s new Director of Film Programming Luke Moody has deliberately set out carving a space for marginalised voices in his film programme, as well as encouraging more experimentation with the form. In a recent telephone interview he outlined his vision for film at Doc/Fest, and highlights a number of docs to look out for in the upcoming festival, which will screen some 133 features and 55 shorts. Here’s an edited transcript:

You joined in November and you’ve got a June festival so you’ve had to hit the ground running. I’m wondering what was it like putting together this huge programme in that amount of time?

It was a challenge, definitely. One of the major challenges this year was to restructure strands because I was quite clear in what I wanted to do in terms of reducing the number of strands Sheffield has. Partly for audiences locally to be able to navigate that programme and understand the different genres and themes within it, but also to allow me as a programmer and the festival to be able to expand into showing more creative forms of documentary, particularly with this new strand called Visions this year. But I think also for me it was very important to do that this year, to begin to create a kind of legacy or a bit of an identity for the programme. To basically allow authored filmmakers to know what we do. Now we have these six kind of core strands. I think they can also see their place within the festival.

I come from a background of funding documentaries, funding from development to post production film. So for that reason I’m very much across global production – what’s out there, what’s being made at the moment. But that relationship to films, where you’re looking at them as a funder as opposed to a programmer is very different because it operates between different criteria of what you want to support. So it’s been a challenge doing it in such a short space of time. But what I hope I’ve managed to do is change the structure in which I operate to allow the programme to flourish in future years. And to really permit a discovery and a champion. One of the things I most enjoy in programming actually is being a champion of voices who don’t have a platform elsewhere. I think the danger of a lot of documentary festivals is that they just become the best of fests. They’re safe – they repeat what is being programmed elsewhere. And that’s been a challenge, to not do that this year.

DocVisions.001

 

Can you give examples of films that were completely unknown to you until they came through the submission system?

I think our numbers this year for submissions officially were like 2200, which is an increase on previous years…There are a number of things which have come through the system from international filmmakers, that I’d not encountered previously. Armed with Faith is one of the films from that pile.  And that’s a story of a bomb disposal unit in the North of Pakistan, who are on the frontline of a terrorist infiltration of Northern Pakistan. And it’s really quite a visceral piece – you’re essentially accompanying a bomb disposal unit operating with very little equipment to dispose of landmines and various contraptions which are meant to terrorise local communities in the north of Pakistan.

Another one is Freedom for the Wolf, which I think is a very strong directorial debut from a British filmmaker who I think is not based in Britain at the moment called Rupert Russell. And it is a highly stylised, quite essayistic look at the question of freedom globally, and the question of what freedom means in relation to democracy and whether other systems of governance permit freedom more than democracy perhaps. And it just feels highly confident in what its trying to do. Normally on paper at least I’m quite dissuaded by things that are like pick a theme and visit ten places in the world to explore that theme, but he’s managed to do it in a very confident and articulate way.

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Freedom for the Wolf

Do you have a couple of examples of the short films that you would highlight?

What I’ve tried to do specifically with the shorts programme this year is firstly to have the ability to show more short form content, but also giving it a different range of the types of shorts that we show here. I think historically they’ve been reasonably conservative, the types of shortform storytelling that the festival has championed. But we’ve moved into things that are already online – investigative projects that are much more responsive to what’s happening in the world this year. And also experimental pieces that are also artists’ interpretation of the documentary form. Which I think gives the programme more richness in terms of just developing those voices.

In the more experimental area, in the Visions programme we have some emerging talents including a lady called Emma Charles. Who’s a British artist filmmaker. And she’s made a 16 mm film of a subterranean centre. And it’s a really beautiful piece. And I understand that it was developed when she was studying at Royal College of Art and it’s her first piece since graduation.

We’re also giving a platform to a lot of films from the Stop Play Record programme which was a partnership between ICA and Dazed Magazine funded by the Arts Council, with Channel 4. It’s essentially a training programme for young filmmakers aged 16-22 to create 3 minute films. Championing those filmmakers showing new forms of documentary and animation for me is one of the best things a festival can do – to give a platform and exposure to those voices.

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how documentary storytelling is evolving creatively and expanding and overlapping with drama?

There are two directions, or trends that I’ve seen in particular. There’s a renewed interest and passion for verité storytelling. Really strong observational films produced over three or four or six years in some cases that are just like really close and warm narratives. The majority of those are family stories, things like The Cage Fighter, or Quest, which is a really outstanding debut by a filmmaker who was a photographer. And he started making a photo project with this family in Philadelphia. And gradually what he was doing evolved into a different form or storytelling, shooting a little bit of material here and there and increasing the confidence of the family and their trust in what they both wanted to do and achieve by telling their story. And Mama Colonel is another one of those,  by Congolese filmmaker Dieudo Hamadi,  which is like a Kim Longinotto film. So there has just been this – I guess it’s not a reemergence of that style of storytelling, because a lot of them are made over a long period of time –  but perhaps it’s a reaction to the presence of fake news these days. People are wanting to return to very much the nitty gritty of factual storytelling and observation and just being very embedded within a community that they’re trying to portray. So that they get some sort of shared truth within that development. And I think the majority are films which have not been initially funded. They are things that have evolved from other projects.

Quest_sm
Quest

Within the Visions strand but also within the Adventure strand there are films that have this really strong conceptual approach to filmmaking and the way that we interpret reality to storytelling. Ghost Hunting is one of the most powerful. A really reflexive piece that explores the power between direction of a filmmaker and those portrayed on the camera, to the point where the tide turns and they start to question what he’s trying to achieve with the film. And he has to then become open and become vulnerable as a director to be part of that shared experience of change within the film. And other films, Do Donkeys Act, a new take on ethno zoology. It’s looking at the relationship of individuals and animals. And again it’s something that’s not developed through the life of a donkey. The filmmakers had a concept and executed it in that case. 

 

You’ve taken the helm during a particularly turbulent time. How much does what is happening environmentally, politically and humanitarian wise inform your choices?

Definitely there’s a spine of films through the programme which are about the environment we live in. Particularly a reflection on European politics at the moment. We’ve got the world premiere of a film called Wilders, which is a portrait of Geert Wilders and has access to him being frank and very strangely open to potential criticism within that piece. 

We also have things like the Jo Cox: Death of an MP and Brexitannia too which are both very close to home reflections of changing politics within Britain and the question of who actually has the voice within media and who is represented through what we consider storytelling.  When politics are questioning essentially whether certain voices in society are ignored, you have to try to look and in some ways address that. And I don’t think there are enough films out there that are coming from the non represented communities within Europe. So yeah it’s a challenge as a programmer: if the film doesn’t exist out there which give an alternative perspective on that political shift then you can’t play it.

 

You are the first British programmer that Sheffield has had in many years. How to you approach to selecting British films for the programme and what are you throughts about the health of British documentary genre in particular?

We don’t preference British filmmakers in the programme. Obviously the festival as a UK institution has a responsibility to British cinema and developing particularly the kind of theatrical form of documentary with the film programme. For me exposing filmmakers to different forms of storytelling is one of the greatest ways to develop cinematic language and allow filmmakers to grow in their own confidence and storytelling…We’ve got a section called Focus UK which will continue to be in the programme. But this is a mixture of celebrating British storytellers but also allowing us to give a platform to filmmakers from other parts of the world looking in on Britain. Because I think that as important as British filmmakers covering stories at home. You can get entirely different interpretations of British narratives from people from other parts of the world. I’d like to see more of that to be honest. There’s been this historical imbalance of British, European and American filmmakers going to what they see as exotic parts of the world. I’d love to see the kind of turn where parts of the world that are now far more developed than they used to be in terms of the film industry and otherwise come and reflect on Britain and see this as an exotic and alien environment or interpret it through a different lens.

Sheffield Doc/Fest runs from 9-14 June.

Sue Bourne’s A Time to Live

We know we are all on a one way journey to the grave, but it’s not something most of us care to dwell on.  Not so for filmmaker Sue Bourne, who has spent the last year traveling around the UK making a film about people who have been given a terminal diagnosis. A Time to Live manages an extraordinary feat: it’s a life affirming film about dying. But Bourne would be the first to argue that it’s not about death, but, as the title indicates, about living: in story after story, we are introduced to people who have heard the most unbearable of news, and are now navigating a new normal.

Bourne and editor Sam Santana (both have featured in Docs on Screens; this is their first film together) did a Q&A with journalist Stephen Armstrong following a London BAFTA preview screening last week. In introducing the film, BBC Two Controller Patrick Holland said that Bourne is “forensic and unrelenting when she mines the emotion of a very specific experience to reveal wider, universal truths.”

sue and sam
Sam Santana and Sue Bourne prior to Bafta screening

When Bourne approached Holland to say that she wanted to make a film about people make the most of their limited time left, he was quickly on board: “It was one of the easiest commissioning decisions I’ve ever had to make.”

A Time to Live tells the story of twelve people of various ages, and their responses to being told they don’t have long to live. Bourne deliberately sought a selection of people who have acted out in surprising ways, including Annabel (pictured below), a woman whose first act upon receiving her prognosis was to leave her husband.

“I mean what was interesting about Annabel’s story is that it was quite radical,” said Bourne. “I think she had been quite a timid person…what cancer did was it emboldened her. And she thought ‘Bloody hell, if I’ve only got a short time left, I really should do all those things I’ve been thinking about’.”

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Annabel – (C) Wellpark Productions – Photographer: Natalie Walter

To make the film, Bourne kept to a small nimble team, as she recounted to the Bafta audience: “Natalie (Walter) joined in and the two of us did all the research to find the people. I don’t like filming until I knew exactly what is going to go in the film. Natalie not only shot it but also oversaw the whole sound; it was remarkable. And then we set off on this van around the country to film all twelve people. And we had to be flexible because these were really ill people…We just moved around the country more or less for three months. We all had flu injections and boxes of supplements because we couldn’t go into their house and be any risk to them at all.”

Shooting completed, Bourne and Santana holed up in Bourne’s house for a ten week edit. It was a new experience for Santana, used to cutting rigged and other narrative driven films: “For me it was the first time cutting a film without what you call evolving narrative or process or intercutting, where you start one character’s storyline and then intercut to another. We didn’t do it…So we kind of felt that we needed to make subtle transitions.”

On the whole the transitions did not employ Bourne’s voiceover, often a prominent feature: “Usually in my films there is quite a lot of commentary. Because I’m kind of the narrative thread, weaving through it. But it became quite apparent early on that I didn’t need to say anything. This was their story.”

As a one woman show at Wellpark Productions, Bourne continues to be the main interface with her contributors, and the edit was frequently interrupted. “Sometimes we’d get news that was not particularly good,” said Santana. “People who we were just about to cut their story or had just completed their story. And we just had to work really hard and keep plowing on. That would be tough.” Bourne added: “And then actually you’re motivated, and you go, okay we really need to tell this person’s story.”

The film proceeds from one story to the next, without interweaving. Remarkably, there are no hospitals or footage of anything medical. The interviews are solely with the twelve contributors – supportive spouses and family are seen but barely heard.  At the end, there is no revealing of who has died since filming ended – Bourne wanted their stories to be about their lives rather than their deaths.

The film’s power is in its universality. As Holland noted in his Bafta intro: “We are all of course life limited. What Sue’s film does is make all of us reflect on our own choices. On what a good life means. And what you can do to make a difference to ourselves and others. It’s a profound and challenging film.”

A Time to Live airs on BBC Two on Wednesday, 17 May, 9pm. Extended contributor interviews, made in conjunction with the Open University, will be available via the website after broadcast.