Tag Archives: sheffield doc/fest

One Rogue Reporter in a Tabloid World

Disgusted at some of the tabloid shenanigans he undertook as a reporter on the Daily Star, and the paper’s ongoing anti-Muslim slant,  Rich Peppiatt quit – only to find his resignation letter go viral. His departure coincided with an extraordinary period of scrutiny for the British press, as a scandal involving rampant phone hacking bled into the drawn out Leveson Inquiry. Four years on, and Peppiatt has made a documentary poking at the British tabloid press, and the culture which he claims all too often allows truth to be jettisoned for the sake of newsstand sales.

One Rogue Reporter is in the vein of documentary provocateurs like Michael Moore and The Yes Men – men pulling off outrageous comical exploits to make a larger point about injustice. In the film, Peppiatt conducts a series of stunts targeting some of the biggest names in the tabloid press – who Peppiatt found to be particularly egregious in their Leveson testimonies – including former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie and Mail Online editor Martin Clarke. Providing the commentary in between the capers are a range of interested parties, from the Guardian’s Nick Davies, who broke the hacking story, to actor Hugh Grant, a leader in the campaign for press reform. Combined with some brilliant Hollywood archive, it makes for a combination usually very difficult to achieve in documentary – entertaining and thought provoking. It’s a film marked clearly for the general population, aiming to make some serious points about press hypocrisies, while having some fun along the way. It seems to be succeeding – one fan has seen the film seven times since its world premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest in June.

At a recent screening of the film at Somerset House, running as part of their Unorthodocs strand, it quickly became evident that Peppiatt gives good Q&A. Together he and co-director Tom Jenkinson kept the diverse audience entertained in a session lasting nearly as long as the film. Here’s what Peppiatt had to say about the making of it, and the unique, often poisonous climate of British tabloid journalism:

The whole Leveson inquiry was quite academic and insular  – media types all navel gazing about their own industry. And we wanted to try to make  a film that was a bit broader than that, that our mates down the pub who were not in the media would watch, because it’s got me putting a dildo on a bloke’s doorstep. So you can have a broader audience watching because it’s funny, and then along the way you can have stuff with hopefully some information. Like with kids where you put the peas in their mashed potato, or something.

One Rogue Reporter - Still 3
Peppiatt and Mail Online Editor Martin Clarke

There was a lot of interest (in broadcasting it), particularly from Channel 4. The cuts that they were going to need wouldn’t make it the same film. So we were like, well do we want a film which is a poor imitation of the one that is out at festivals, or do we want to give it a life online and things like that.

American fair use law is a lot more friendly than British fair use law, which is why the film is copyrighted in America, and our lawyers are American, and our company, Naughty Step productions, is based in Delaware.

It’s very difficult making documentaries to come out the back end and line your pockets. It’s a tough gig. But we never went into it to make money. We just wanted to make the film.

Every TV channel says, ‘we really want to do that stuff – punching up at the powerful’. And the minute you then say, ‘right this is what we are going to do’, they go – ‘you can’t do that’! News organisations are the same – they all say they want really strong stuff that is going after people.

We’re not worth suing, but news organisations and TV channels are a lot more cautious because they know they are worth suing. So it does make it difficult to do in a way that is sustainable for us, and allows us to make a living, and to be able to do the type of journalism that we want to do, at the same time, which is going hard, which isn’t pulling punches. We are working on it, but it is difficult to strike that balance.

We certainly had Murdoch in our sights initially. But every time you see Murdoch, you’d be outside his house, you’d get three Landrovers. He’s in the one in the middle and there are seven ex-Mossad blokes with huge necks surrounding him and hustling him into the house, and you go ‘at what moment there do I throw a dildo at him?’.

Tom Jenkinson and Rich Peppiatt at Somerset House
Tom Jenkinson and Peppiatt post Q & A

The Leveson Inquiry was a great opportunity in my mind. Journalists like to talk loudly about how they like speaking truth to power, and they are fearless and brave, and this that and the other. And in the inquiry, a once in a generation opportunity comes up to speak up…and say these are the things going on. And how many did? Very few – everyone kept their heads down and pretended everything was hunky dory. I thought that was very disappointing.

It’s a tough place to work on tabloid newspapers. And if you’re the sort of person who hangs around there for 20-30 years and crawls your way all the way to the top, I think you’ve got issues. You’re not going to be a very nice person.

The argument that the pound on the counter of the newsagent is the only moral answer we need doesn’t stand up. It’s not a logical argument. If I was to go out there and grab a paedophile and hang him up a lamp post on Westminster Bridge I would probably gather a massive crowd and people will cheer along. It will be quite popular. I’d make it a weekly event. Does it make it right? Well no because we are in a civilised society, just because people want something doesn’t mean we have to give it to them. That’s why we don’t have hard core porn on BBC1 at 6pm in the evening. Just because there is a market for crap doesn’t mean you want to take that crap and serve it up and call it journalism.

Peppiatt and Kelvin MacKenzie
Peppiatt and Kelvin MacKenzie

Tabloid is not a dirty word. I’m not anti tabloid. I don’t pretend I’m some veteran of Fleet Street. They’re not going to erect a statue of me. But this is my view of the industry during my time. I don’t pretend it’s the whole story and I know everything by any means.

What we’re planning at the moment is doing a film in America, following the 2016 election from the perspective of how TV covers it – being on the campaign with the press pack.  From my research, the relationships that exist between people in politics high up in the Republican and Democratic party – are married to the news anchors – and the links are amazing showing just how close knit this world is. There is no holding power to account – the media political nexus of New York and Washington is so tight knit that the rest of America is really not served at all. We’re quite at the beginning of that journey.

One Rogue Reporter is available on ITunes, Amazon and Google Play – see the website for links.

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Time Travellers: Boyhood’s Doc Cousins

boyhood

I‘m delighted that Boyhood is getting some awards love. It’s one of my favourite films of the decade – watching it a second time on a transatlantic flight it again held me spellbound for nearly three hours. Like most people, its appeal lies mostly in watching its subjects age over twelve years – in this case actor Ellar Coltrane’s wondrous journey from a six year-old boy to a young man.

This on screen time-lapse is a pleasure I first encountered twenty some years ago, discovering Michael Apted’s Up series, which famously has been following the same documentary subjects since they were seven years old. They are now nearly 60. If you haven’t seen any of it, get thee to youtube for a sample (you might then want to binge watch the box set). It’s funny, and sad, and thought-provoking, and shows how film can make even the most ordinary of lives compelling. No wonder it topped a Channel 4 list of the greatest documentaries ever made – and led Roger Ebert to call the films “an inspired, even noble, use of the film medium”.

56-up-the-girls
56-Up

In thirteen years of watching and writing about films for Sheffield Doc/Fest, I’ve seen scores of documentaries that travel back and forth in time in memorable ways. As most of us now have the potential to cut one together, thanks to the smartphone archive in our pocket, it’s worth paying attention to how footage shot over many years can be crafted into a work of art. Here’s a few of the best of the Doc/Fest films I’ve seen, together with my original write-up:

112 Weddings (Doug Block, 2014)

 112 Weddings

Despite being one of the U.S.’s most acclaimed documentary makers, Doug Block still needs his bread and butter work. For him, it’s weddings – in fact he’s filmed 112 of them over the last 20 years. In this engrossing doc he revisits some of the couples he has made wedding videos for, asking how they stay married – or didn’t, as the case may be. His long-standing relationship with his subjects fosters an easy intimacy and his follow-up interviews take on the veneer of a counselling session. The passage of time shines a torch on the many issues that can derail the happiest of couples, from mental illness to crying babies and infidelity, whilst Block’s wedding archive allows us to look back on their most optimistic of days. The film is funny, moving and often tragic – much like marriage itself.

We Went to War (Michael Grigsby, 2012)

we went to war

In 1970, in the midst of a drawn out Vietnam War, a young British director Michael Grigsby made a film about three young veterans returning home. I Was a Soldier is an acclaimed classic – the first to depict the ravages of the war on soldiers considered to be home safe and sound. Forty years later,  Grigsby and his co author Rebekah Tolley have made an equally powerful follow up, returning to Texas to see what has become of his three characters. In a visually arresting, contemplative style that suits the dusty small town locales, and creatively merges past and present, we learn just how much their war experience shaped their lives. Still unable to understand what they were fighting for, the scars run deep. Dennis has tried not to be defined by his experience, but is unable to form lasting attachments. It took 38 years for David to receive counselling, while Lamar’s journey back to normality, would prove to be one of the hardest battles of all.

Photographic Memory (Ross McElwee, 2011)

photographic

One of the masters of autobiographical filmmaking, American legend Ross McElwee returns to Doc/Fest with another film very close to his heart. Having long filmed his children, McElwee is dismayed to observe that his once sunny young son Adrian has grown into a grumpy and sullen young adult. He uses his many hours of footage to remember and mourn Adrian’s lost childhood, his ruminative voiceover reflecting the universal realities of parenting: “The young child – the one you loved so much – is still contained in the obnoxious teenager…Teenagers have no idea of how they’re protected from a smaller version of themselves that rises up to defend them.” McElwee decides to go in search of his own younger self, and heads to Brittany, where he once served as a wedding photographer’s assistant. Flitting back and forth between his past and his present, McElwee offers up another moving and memorable exploration of the human condition.

Hit So Hard: The Life & Near Death Story of Patty Schemel (P. David Ebersole, 2011)

hit so hard

Aware that her rock and roll lifestyle was yielding some crazy episodes, Patty Schemel picked up a video camera in the early 1990s. A rising star in the flourishing music scene of America’s Pacific Northwest, Schemel’s pals included Kurt Cobain and his wife Courtney Love, who hired her as the drummer for her band Hole. Capturing some extraordinary scenes, including Cobain and Love at home with their baby daughter, Schemel also recorded her own descent from playing sell-out world tours to destitute heroin addict, and her ultimate rehabilitation. The footage is interwoven with entertaining interviews with Schemel and Hole’s surviving members (their base player Kristen Pfaff died of an overdose just two months after Cobain’s suicide) and Schemel’s own family. “I couldn’t get over that she gave up a good job at Microsoft,” says her mom. With a pace as fast moving as the music, director P. David Ebersole’s film is destined to become a classic music doc on the joys and perils of life in the fast lane.

A Man’s Story (Varon Bonicos, 2010)

a man's story

He’s neither white nor gay but somehow Ozwald Boateng has risen to the dizzying heights of British fashion. He was the first black tailor to have a business on Savile Row and the youngest to boot. A long line of A-list celebrities like Jamie Foxx and Paul Bettany sing his praises, while sporting his colourful suits. Director Varon Bonicos began filming Boateng in 1998, when his life was in tatters. A nasty divorce and the collapse of his business had left Boateng at a low ebb – not helped when his entire collection was stolen. Bonicos went on to follow the charismatic stylist over twelve years, as he was appointed Givenchy creative director, starred in his own American reality series and married a Russian model, a union made difficult by Boateng’s peripatetic, workaholic lifestyle. As stylish as the man himself, A Man’s Story is an enjoyable foray into the fashion industry through one of its most vibrant stars.

Position Among the Stars (Leonard Retel Helmrich, 2010)

position among

Twelve years after setting off to explore his mother’s homeland, Dutch filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich completes his trilogy on three generations of Jakarta’s Shamsuddin family with the masterful ‘Position Among the Stars’. Family matriarch Rumidjah has returned from the countryside to rein in her granddaughter Tari – the entire family’s hopes are pinned on the girl to lift them out of the slums. Tari’s Uncle Bakti is finding her difficult to control and would rather be cultivating his fighting fish business, much to the annoyance of his wife. As always, the family’s everyday tribulations reflect the wider, rapidly changing Indonesian society. Far from ‘fly on the wall’ Helmrich’s constantly roving camera is always in the middle of the drama, often at ground level in scenes of astonishing intimacy. Well deserving of its major prizes, including the Special Grand Jury prize at Sundance, this is not to be missed.

The Kids Grow Up (Doug Block, 2009)

the kids grow up

Director Doug Block has suffered from Empty Nest Syndrome for some time, and has been talking to friends and family about the traumas of having your children leave home. The thing is, his only child Lucy hasn’t gone yet, and she’s getting quite sick of Dad’s moping around after her with a camera. Anyone lucky enough to have caught Block’s last Doc/Fest outing, 51 Birch Street, will recognise his accomplished style of personal film making, with great use of family archive, and probing , funny conversations with those nearest and dearest to him. Block and his friends are the first of the new breed of dads totally involved in their children’s lives, rather than the detached providers that their own fathers were. Surrounded by images of his many filmed conversations with Lucy over the years, Block finds it difficult to be at peace with the rapid passage of time and can’t contemplate life without her at home, much to the annoyance of his sanguine wife Marjorie. A moving, intimate exploration of family life.

René (Helena Třeštíková, 2008)

Rene

A petty crime as a teenager earned Rene a prison sentence, and set him off on a life of crime. Misanthropic, intelligent and introspective, he spends his life in and out of prison, struggling to fit in anywhere in the quickly changing Czech Republic. Veteran film maker Helena Trestikova began filming Rene in 1989, and kept up with him over the next two decades, even after he robbed her flat. Their collaboration, and his brief fame as a documentary star, spur him to writing, and he becomes a published author. Yet the demons driving him remain. This engrossing film takes us on a journey of a life lived outside of society. As his rap sheet lengthens, his body tattoos multiply, a visual testimony to the anger fueling his blighted life. His letters to Trestikova and access to the many cells which he calls home enhance this must-see film.