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Don’t shoot the messenger: a response to Leah Borromeo

Years of budget cuts have hindered the documentary world’s freedom to invest in new voices. A new funding structure is needed across the industry to support working class talent.    

Charlie Phillips
20 June 2016

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Image: Flickr/Haaijk. Some rights reserved

Leah Borromeo’s critique of the cost of attendance at Sheffield Doc/Fest, and her wider concern for the economics of the documentary industry, was the talk of Sheffield Doc/Fest….or maybe it wasn’t. It was the talk of the small clique of us who read articles about film festivals and the documentary industry – a clique that includes Leah. The majority of festival attendees carried on having an inspiring and productive time at the UK’s major documentary gathering. That small clique of us enjoyed our flagellation over the state of the industry – we’re nothing if not self-reflexive, especially when it comes to kvetching over diversity. 

Leah’s a friend of mine and someone I deeply respect as a creator and an activist. She was very right about one thing – the increasingly monolithic culture of the UK doc industry – and very wrong about another – that Doc/Fest is somehow to blame for this.

I’ll take the second one first and I’ll declare my interest – I was Deputy Director at Doc/Fest and organised 7 festivals there. In that time we grew from a small UK- and TV-focused documentary screening festival into one of the world’s biggest documentary industry events. I used to run the MeetMarket, the pitching forum that Leah mentions. Like the team I was part of, the current team running the event care about being open and democratic to all areas of the industry – you don’t get into the documentary film festival business if you’re looking to make a profit from an elite. There are much better ways to make money and schmooze with the stars. Like some of the bigger all-genre film festivals, for some of which you effectively have to pay to volunteer, let alone attend. If you do attend, your hopes of getting into anything anywhere that will help your career are close to nil. It’s those festivals that tend to be the ones creaming a profit and orienting themselves towards an elite, not Sheffield. 

But let’s return to the economics of Doc/Fest – yes, a full pass is £349 if you buy it at the last minute, but if you buy a Lightning Pass it’s £159. If you organise a conference session or help the festival in another way – and get in there early to do so – it might be free. A hotel and train ticket booked the week before the festival will cost hundreds. If you book it now, it won’t. If you bring your own food, or buy it from a supermarket, rather than eating out every day, it won’t cost as much. It’s the same with that summer music festival you’re going to – get an early ticket, camp, get a cheap train ticket, and cook your own food, and it won’t be as expensive. But at Glastonbury or Latitude, you won’t get 6 days of access to the majority of the world’s key documentary decision makers, you’ll just have a nice time. Sheffield is fun and useful for your documentary career – isn’t that worth the money? 

Maybe it’s not, if you’re on the breadline. Which brings me to my first point – our inside-baseball discussion about Doc/Fest doesn’t matter. What matters is the systematic breaking down of low-income access to arts and culture training and work in the last 20 years. University fees, the growing cost of living in cities, the centralisation of cultural commissioning, and the unfashionability of public service broadcasting have combined to create a perfect storm of lower income young people fearful of a career that won’t pay them properly, and a documentary industry unable to take risks on new talent. This is a bigger problem than documentary – cultural funders, with their own budgets cut, don’t have the freedom to spend on new and difficult voices. Trusting those you’ve already worked with, perhaps making safer responsible stories, has to be the norm. This is not the space for taking a risk on someone working class with access to a story that will make the audience uncomfortable. Middle-class commissioners give space to middle-class filmmakers – not because they don’t want to hear other voices, but because that’s all they see and hear. 

This isn’t Doc/Fest’s fault. This is the abandonment across the film industry of any meaningful support being given to training new working class talent. What Leah should be calling for is for documentary/film industry bodies clubbing together to provide funding that would allow a full journey for new ambitious filmmakers from training to producing to exhibition to, yes, festivals. But it has to be long-term and cover the entire life cycle of a documentary in this industry, or it won’t work. It has to be well-funded and it has to reach into communities right across the UK who don’t even know right now that they want to be documentary-makers.

Doc/Fest, like all festivals, is a symptom of the state of its industry and not a cause. The festival exists in a cultural ecosystem that’s been undermined by successive governments – as Leah said, art is awkward and often hard to commidify, so governments like ours don’t like it. Leah and the filmmakers in that article know this. But like all visible parts of a system, Doc/Fest is the easiest one to attack, even if you know the real culprits are hidden elsewhere. So rather than shooting the messenger, why don’t we go back earlier into the cycle of documentary training and talent development and make that bit better?

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