One of my guest speakers pointed out the other day that we average 23 minutes a day searching for something to watch. That adds up to seven years of our lives. Gulp. To make it easier on you, assuming you’re reading this cause you love documentaries, here are some films well worth your time:
In the last few years I’ve guest lectured for the Grierson Trust’s DocLab, where participants as part of the mentoring programme develop doc ideas. One of the best ideas last year was from Ryan Gregory, who went on to win a new Sheffield Doc/Fest pitch. The film is now up on BBC Three. Below is a short version, with the full film available on the IPlayer:
Lots of good docs on All 4 and Netflix as well, but those will have to wait for another post.
If you live in London and want to dip more into great docs, please sign up for the course I will be teaching at the Crouch End Picturehouse. We’ll be talking about British docs for six Wednesday evenings from mid June.
It’s been a busy three years for Charlie Phillipssince we last spoke, not long after he became Head of Docs at the Guardian. With so much changing in the land of online documentaries, I thought it was time for a check in with him about how the Guardian has evolved. Here’s an edited transcript of a recent conversation.
Carol Nahra: Talk me through what has worked and what hasn’t at the Guardian?
Charlie Phillips: In the early days we were trying different things out and we were initially doing shorter docs than what we’re doing now. Everything was around 10 minutes or something. It was always my hunch that what would work better for us would be to do stuff that you needed a certain investment in it. Films that were more like 20-30 minutes, and it was signposted that it was going to be really compelling. You’d have to sit back and concentrate and give it time to watch things through. If you made that promise to people that it was going to be worth 25 minutes of your time then they are more like to watch it, rather than giving them the impression that you can watch it really quickly on your mobile.
We also shifted from trying to do loads of films – we were initially trying to put them out every one to two weeks – to say it’s better if we do one approximately every three weeks or even four. Then we give it a massive publicity blitz, give it loads of love, make sure it’s the best it can be.
CN: How do you do that?
CP: We put a lot more time and effort into the promotion. We treat them like event releases, which is why you get a massive banner advert whenever we release a doc, on the front page of the site. They’ve got a different player. So it is more of a kind of immersive experience watching the films. It’s different than everything else we put out – so the whole experience watching is different. They’re higher resolution, we chapterise the films. And also it was my belief that this should be a really global strand. So we really doubled down to ensure that we cover as many countries as possible.
CN: How do you define success, and a good recent film that was successful?
CP: For me the main marker of success is that we put out a film that we are proud of and that has told an untold story. We then also want the films to be seen by lots of people. And we get pretty decent viewing figures – our viewing figures are constantly higher than I ever thought we’d get.
The film we did about Qandeel Baloch has done exceptionally well. Over 200,000 just on Youtube alone and a couple of hundred thousand more on site. That was a pleasant surprise, because it’s primarily a non English language, it’s about what would be a remote place. It’s about a feminist, almost entirely told through social media video and graphics. In some ways the aesthetic of it is quite scrappy, in a good way. But people really took to because it was about a young woman who was killed because of the politics around her. That was really gratifying for a film which is set in Pakistan, for which only a limited amount of original material was shot, and in many ways is quite experimental. We put in a lot of time and effort working with the filmmaker to get it right – it went through a lot of cuts. That was a Bertha partnership.
CN: Congratulations on the Grierson for Fish Story (Best Documentary Short). Of course that’s very different in tone and feel from everything else.
CP: Yeah that was a really rare one for us because we took it as an acquisition rather than as a commission. But I knew it would work for us, a) cause it’s a brilliant film but b) because it has a relationship with journalism. It is in fact an investigative journalism film, it’s just that Charlie (Lyne, the director) is also kind of deconstructing investigative journalism at the same time and doing it in a funny way. It’s just a brilliant film, and it resonates with people and it’s obviously very poignant and clever. There is a part of the Guardian’s general identity which is about being lighthearted and fun. We couldn’t do a whole strand of films like Fish Story, much as I’d like to, but it’s definitely part of our remit to do the occasional thing like that.
CN: What’s been the biggest surprise for you on this journey?
CP: I think genuinely that people want to watch the films. The hunch that on a news and journalism platform that you could get really good audiences for short documentaries that look like documentary films rather than news reports. I think we’ve shown you can get a pretty mainstream audience for what’s often quite challenging and hard hitting stuff.
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.
I’m just coming up for air after a bout of intensive lecturing. I teach a few different classes for American university students in London, but my favourite, semester after semester, is my documentaries class. It is here, in a deliberately darkened classroom near Holborn, that I share the highlights of twenty years immersed in the world of British documentary. We cover the whole factual spectrum, from independent feature documentaries to heavily formatted reality, and everything in between.
Usually, my students arrive having been exposed to roughly two kinds of factual fare: worthy subject based documentaries, like Ken Burns’ marathon series that their parents watch, or the far-from-real world of the Real Housewives or Kardashians. If I’m lucky these days, and frequently I am thanks to Netflix, they will have streamed a few American documentary features like Blackfish or Girl Model. They know Sherlock, and Doctor Who but have never heard of Louis Theroux or the term “fixed rig“. They are a blank slate when it comes to British factual, and I have fifteen weeks to make my mark.
I have to begin by introducing them to something else they have never heard of: Public Service Broadcasting. For while the BBC is in a perilous state at the moment, with no reprieve in sight, the PSB tradition it stems from is crucial to understanding just how the Brits got so great at making documentaries. I wrote my entire MA thesis on the topic. It’s important.
In class, after we look at the notion of public service broadcasting, and how it was extended with the creation of Channel 4 in the 80s (also, sadly, under threat), we turn to John Grierson, who coined the term documentary, defining it as the “creative of treatment of actuality”. We have a look at Grierson’s most famous sequence in his seminal film Night Mail, which shows the postal train rhythmically chugging north to Scotland, to words by W.H. Auden and music by Benjamin Britten:
We learn just how Grierson came to make propaganda films for the British government, by dipping into Britain Through A Lens: The Documentary Film Mob, made by the excellent Lambent Productions. It includes a clip from Grierson’s box office hit Drifters (1929), about the British herring trade. While I recognize I need to tread softly and not show Drifters in its entire, silent, black and white glory, my students were gratifyingly engrossed when I showed a modern take on deep sea fishing, Channel 4’s recent The Catch, a fixed rig series which was mesmerizing from start to finish.
After our crash course in PSB and Grierson, we look more in depth at contemporary examples of Grierson’s creative treatment of actuality, in its many guises. We explore the topic with the help of a specially curated Flipboard Magazine; I often ask students to use articles in it as a starting point for further research. We also hear from a number of leading filmmakers – Kim Longinotto, Brian Hill and Christopher Hird have all been recent guest lecturers.
As students gear up to make their own three minute film for a final project, it’s critical for them to see how a simple construct can make a powerful film. Marc Isaac’s beautifully made first film Lift – shot entirely in the elevator of a tower block in East London – is a great example.
While it would be a joy to spend our entire time looking at the work of talented British independent documentary makers, my charges are about to enter the real world and many are hoping for a career in television. So a large chunk of our time is spent looking at the world of formats, with the occasional help of the always entertaining Gogglebox and Charlie Brooker. My students are surprised to learn just how many of the American shows they watch are British formats made by British production companies. But our focus is not so much on this crossover as on those reality formats in the UK that traditionally haven’t had a hope in hell of appearing on mainstream US television. In the hopes of fostering transatlantic fertilisation, I spend a lot of time exploring the intersection of public service and reality, looking at how some UK production companies are doing both, in really interesting ways. For more on that, stay tuned…
March’s South by Southwest in Austin will host the North American premiere of The Last Man On The Moon, a stirring biopic of astronaut Gene Cernan, which needs to be seen on the big screen. In the film, Cernan looks back on his eventful life, and the highs and lows of being one of the first NASA astronauts – and the ensuing decades in the media spotlight.
Having sold out its world premiere screenings at Sheffield Doc/Fest, where it proved one of the most popular films, The Last Man on the Moon is sure to draw a great deal of interest when screening in Cernan’s home state of Texas. British director Mark Craig is a regular guest speaker for my documentary film students. They always are particularly moved by his short Grierson-award winning film, Talk to Me, where he tells the story of his life through twenty years of answering machine messages.
Last time Mark spoke to my class, I grabbed him for a few minutes to talk about The Last Man on the Moon:
What was it like getting Cernan on board?
It was tough, because you’re talking about a guy who’s at an elderly stage of life. He had had so many cameras shoved in his face for so many years, and asked the same questions again and again and again. He didn’t really feel the need to invest so much of his time on a project, I’m assuming. But we slowly managed to convince him that we wanted to do this in a much more vivid and immersive and emotive way. I didn’t want to dwell on all the history of the science and all the other stuff — I just wanted his personal story. And he began to see it as a legacy that he could offer up to future generations that weren’t around when he did go to the moon, or weren’t even born today.
What was he like to work with when he did come on board?
He is the most dynamic, energetic charismatic old man – if I can call him that – that I ever worked with. His energy levels were incredible. The filming day can be a very long one, and it starts before the sun comes up. He was a real trooper – he gave and gave and gave, of his time, of his energy, of his emotion and of his access.
The film has really stunning cinematography. Can you talk a little about the visual approach to making it?
Because we always knew that it would be a cinema documentary, I was always keen to get a cinematographer with movie credits, and a movie approach more than anything. I wanted it to really work on the screen. I had seen Tim Cragg‘s work in another documentary, at a previous Sheffield Doc/Fest. I could see he had great movement with the camera. He could really follow the action and had a great fluid panning style. Straight away he was just cinematic, and I thought he’s the man for me.
Was it liberating making a film without television money?
It was. In TV there is a lot of guiding and steering and mentoring from the channel, from the execs, to make it fit the remit of that channel. You’re always serving the requirements of that channel, of that slot, the ad sales, etc. So it was very liberating to be free of that and just be faithful to the story, and the character and tell that story in the most interesting and engaging way that one could. We didn’t know where it was going to end up, we just wanted to make it as pure a film as possible.
Who has funded it?
It was a mixture of private investors. A lot of whom came from contacts that our executive, Mark Stewart knew. Without him and his company MSP getting involved in the project I’m not sure the film would have ever happened. Certainly not at the scale it ended up being. After we then had a rough cut which we then began showing to people in the space community, a couple more investors emerged who were very keen to make sure it got finished to the standard we wanted it to be.
It’s got some great archive. Can you tell what it was like plowing through all the sometimes iconic space archive from the 60s?
The thing about Apollo and going to the moon, it was very well documented at the time. Hundreds of hours was shot over a whole decade. And a lot of that was being used in many other documentaries. But we didn’t want to just rehash the same old second or third generation stuff you see on TV. It was fantastic to be able to discover stuff that we hadn’t known of before, and that meant a lot of research, going through logs and liaising with NASA’s archive, and then a lot of time was spent making sure that archive was beautifully transferred and graded and woven with the stuff that we shot along with some animation and visual effects. So hopefully it’s a very rich mix of material to view and tell the story.
What’s been the most exciting moment related to LMOTM for you so far?
I so enjoyed the process of meeting some of these legendary characters. Inevitably there comes that moment where you take your film and show it to an audience for the very first time. And that’s always a big moment of excitement and nervousness. It just so happened that the first time we showed the film was on the occasion of Gene Cernan’s 80th birthday, and a surprise party was organised by his family. And we the filmmakers were invited to be part of that. So we all assembled at the Johnson space center in Houston and showed our film. And in the audience was not only Gene Cernan and his entire family, but three guys who had walked on the moon, Jim Lovell of Apollo 13, flight director Gene Kranz, and some extremely top brass NASA management. I was thinking: ‘Oh God, I really hope we’ve got everything right’. Thankfully they gave it the thumbs up and were quite moved by the film, and were glad that it had been made. We left happy – that was a big night.