Manifesto for documentary filmmakers

Don’t demand a taster tape early in the process. Trust the filmmakers.

Roger Graef
18 June 2014

from The Truth About Adoption, Exec Producer, Roger Graef/BBC

On 12 May 2014, BAFTA held a tribute evening to celebrate Roger Graef’s 50 years as a documentary filmmaker. During the event he outlined a 12-point manifesto for the filmmakers and commissioners of the future.

The basis of this manifesto is that well made documentaries are islands of evidence and tools for change in a sea of noise.

We need good docs more than ever. The experience they provide is far deeper and more memorable than sound bites and rolling or internet news. They now sit at the centre of television culture and need to be recognised and protected as such. 

The world in which we make and broadcast our work has changed dramatically. Global communications bombard us 24-7 on many platforms. What passes for information too often is biassed or worse, driven by governments, media moguls, or just fanatics with their own religious or political agendas.

1  Time

This is a key to protecting our work. We need time to resist that bias. We need time to check our sources.This traditional journalistic rule has been swamped by the pressure of deadlines, by the need to be first online, on air or on twitter. People are now obliged to file at least six stories a day, or fill 24 hours of airtime. So they turn increasingly to prepackaged press releases or video, or they use wikipedia as a primary source. It’s the illusion of information.

A recent example: the bring back our girls twitter campaign used images of African schoolgirls. Have you seen them?  Millions have. The only snag is they are not Nigerian, not kidnapped, and not sexually assaulted. They are happily going to school every day in Guineau Bissau, a thousand miles from Nigeria. Their images were taken from a foundation website and went worldwide on trusted networks including the BBC. When the photographer complained and asked that they be taken down, the corporation resisted on the grounds, and i quote him, ‘that the images are already out there.’ The BBC finally took them down, but the singer Chris Morris apparently refused and is still using them. 

The impact on the girls and their families of this unwelcome and inaccurate publicity would be a good subject for a documentary. But in today’s climate, because it’s a foreign story not about a war or natural disaster, it would be very hard to get commissioned. That brings me to the next point.

2  More foreign stories

Not just about countries in extremis. In the past, there were many programme strands that specialised in foreign coverage, like Europa, Under the Sun, Granada’s Disappearing World and Correspondent. Its successor, the BBC’s This World was a favorite for me to make films for and to watch, but it had many more slots.  Channel 4’s excellent Unreported World is only a commercial half hour.  BBC4 used to have lots of foreign docs, but no longer has the money for them.

Today’s resistance to stories even from Northern Ireland and Europe as well as further afield leaves huge holes in our knowledge of the world.

It feeds the ignorance of diplomats and politicians about countries like Iraq, Ukraine and Afghanistan - with disastrous consequences.

Currently the radically different versions of news on US, Russian and Ukrainian television and websites reflect the bias I referred to above. 

Closer to home is the so-called debate about Europe in the run-up to the elections. If you don’t have alternative reliable sources like documentaries, you believe the fragments of what you see from politicians with an agenda. And you fill in the gaps with your own prejudices.

3 Commissioners and filmmakers need the freedom to take more risks

Panorama does take risks, contrary to the recent BBC trust report. It invests the necessary time to get the evidence - as seen in both its recent special hospital and care home specials.  So does Channel Four’s Dispatches, which the trust praises.

But doc makers and commissioners are constricted by the ed spec, the editorial specification that obliges us to predict our film’s content in detail before we even start shooting.

This is especially pointless for unstaged access observational films where nobody knows what is going to happen while we film. It’s fiction really, a best guess made far too early.

For example, in our recent series on Iceland, the supermarket chain, we had no idea the horsemeat scandal would break in the middle of filming. It became an important theme which we could not have predicted.   Every obdoc maker will have similar stories. That’s the point of not staging things. Unexpected events can happen right up to the end of filming. That happened with our itv series inside the British Communist Party, when we made an entire film in the last 24 hours of two years of filming. It won the RTS Award.

4 Loosen control of commissioning from the top

The reason both Panorama and Dispatches succeed so often is that they are strands. The strand editors can back their hunches, and filmmakers’ hunches as Nick Fraser does at storyville. We need to bring back more strands like modern times and cutting edge. And controllers need to give strand editors the freedom and resources to take risks that may not always pan out on air. 

For example the Panorama Special on Winterbourne View involved over a year of research in various special hospitals. When shown it became a national scandal and led to changes across the sector. The recent shocking care home special looks like having a similar impact. This is public service broadcasting at its best. But it takes time and patience.

The Dispatches Syria: Across the Lines was a huge gamble. But it worked because the filmmaker, Olly Lambert had the time and backing to find a village that crossed a river, with opposite sides fighting each other. In these extremely difficult conditions, he had the time to win the confidence first of one side, and then go back and win astonishing access to the other.

This tells you more about the intractability of the conflict than most articles and certainly newscasts. The same long term support was involved in the highly influential undercover film the Secret Policeman, another BBC doc that brought about change.

I was at the BBC making The Space Between Words when they created the pyramid structure of group heads above department heads, and reference upwards for anything difficult. That later led to the abolition of strands, and putting the money and editorial control in the hands of channel controllers. The double tick system with commissioners has restricted adventurous commissioning as everyone double guesses controllers’ taste. And they in turn are constrained by other more internal political considerations.

It all works against funding and placing adventurous single docs. So bring back more strands.

5 Let subjects speak for themselves... don’t tell viewers what to think

What makes Syria Across the Lines work so well, and many others like Ben Anthony’s 7/7, BBC3’s Our war, Keeping Britain Alive/nhs in a day, Educating Yorkshire and Bedlam, is that you hear the largely unmediated voices of the people in the films. Commentary is used sparingly if at all merely to set the scene.

This is in marked contrast to the ‘voice of God’ narration that featured so heavily in traditional documentaries and tells you exactly what to think.

6 Find characters viewers will care about

Documentaries are not fact driven, even though they are factual. They are story and character driven. We need to mind about what happens to the people we film. They don’t need to be celebrities. And they don’t need to be in extreme situations.

They can be ordinary people like Maureen in Driving School, a lavatory cleaner in a Liverpool police station. She became a national figure as well over ten million people  followed her efforts to pass her driving test.  (If I pitched that today, do you think I’d get a commission?)

But it takes time to find good characters and win their confidence. It took Marilyn Gaunt and her intrepid people finder, Emily Pinckney, eight months of touring the country to find the unforgettable Kelly and her sisters who broke the nation’s heart with their cheerfulness in the face of poverty. 

So it is unwise and unproductive to force early casting decisions on unstaged documentaries. Don’t demand a taster tape early in the process. Trust the filmmakers to find good people as they immerse themselves in the story. That is our job. It is what we all want to do. It has worked time and again in our films, but by no means at an early stage in development. Some emerge during filming. 

7 Don’t try and predict the ratings

The reason for taster tapes and ed specs is to help commissioners justify their decisions to their bosses who run the channels and to the schedulers. All of them are under increasing pressure to increase ratings - as both the BBC Trust and Ofcom have demanded.

Yet they also want originality, distinctiveness, surprise, and impact – which the best documentaries provide. But predetermining a surprise is a contradiction in terms. Demanding the proof before the films are commissioned and made risks defeating those very goals. 

For itv, which depends wholly on advertising, the pressure to put bums on seats is understandable. Though advertisers increasingly want light viewers in higher income brackets, who are drawn by high quality programmes – especially documentaries.

But for public service channels there is less of an excuse. The remit of channel four makes no mention of ratings. It calls for diversity of content and audiences, for original and distinctive programming.

For the BBC, the need to please a broad spectrum of license payers should not be confused with simply the total number of viewers. Moreover, the iplayer catchup numbers have yet to be added in. Even average Panorama audiences around 2.3 million equal all the broadsheets put together.

3.8 million people watched Films of Record’s Kids in Care.and the recent Don’t Cap Our Benefits - both Panorama Specials up against fierce competition at 9pm. But none of us could have predicted those numbers in advance.

And I must be clear that we celebrate the BBC as a precious institution, especially with the license fee renewal looming.

And we’re in show business, so we celebrate ratings success, especially with challenging films. It means we are reaching people.  But it’s simply counterproductive to try so hard to predict them in advance. 

8 Make room for failure

Lip service is often paid to the room to fail. But in practice, the pressure on ratings, and the fight to get commissions makes for caution at every stage.  Channels need to be seen to support bolder commissions  ike Morgan Matthews’ deeply moving The Fallen , Angus Macqueen’s Gulag – both were three hours long. Each were shown uninterrupted on one night on BBC2. The best example of risk taking by commissioners and schedulers was the astounding collaboration involving John Willis at Channel 4 and Richard Creasey at itv: the four hour series about the iron curtain coming down in Latvia, Hello, Do You Hear Me?  It was made by a brilliant but unknown director, the late Yuris Podnieks. It launched on itv and the other three hours were shown on channel 4. Can you imagine that happening now about Russia and Ukraine?

Those gambles paid off brilliantly. But often the best ideas emerge from dead ends, wrong turnings, or failed efforts. But like drug companies burying bad news from their failed trials, we don’t learn from our failures because we do our best to avoid them. It took five years of iterations to win the commission for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? 

Now for some thoughts for filmmakers:

9 Think about what you’re doing, and keep track

When we shot on film, every roll lasted ten minutes and cost £140 to process and synch up with the sound. It made you think about what, when and why to shoot even in unstaged films.

On digital, you can shoot for hours without editing in your head. The editors drown in material. Directors often have not enough time to view all their rushes. This is a terrible waste of potential gold. One of the key scenes in our film Inside the Brussels HQ was only discovered after the final cut had been approved because it seemed technical problems made it unusable. But thanks to Norma Percy’s persistence, we solved the sound problems and put it in the film. It changed the story dramatically.

10 Trust your material

You have to shoot long enough to get good material and good characters. But once you have found them there’s no need to play around in the edit. Avoid being formulaic - like cutting out of sequence or jokey commentary for effect. Audiences are now more telly literate and mistrust manipulation.

But crucially it matters that you keep the faith with contributors. For a sustained career in docs you must be able to say to your next subjects, you can check with the past ones. We doc makers must always keep our promises. Trust is the currency from the subjects right through to the commissioners, publicists and controllers.

The above needs time.

Time to think, to reflect, to research and go back again, to film when ready, and film again if needed. And to make the sure the edit uses the best material and does justice to it.. 

11 Try new talent

In front of the camera, and behind it. The huge pressure on commissioners and producers to predict ratings and play safe works against giving opportunities to new people. That’s everyone’s loss. It’s especially true for young ethnic minority filmmakers as Lenny Henry eloquently said at BAFTA last month.

12 Trust the viewers

We know from research and viewing figures they value high quality programmes and want more of them. They will come out in their millions for important films. But in the new noisy environment ratings will drop inevitably as viewing habits change. So publicity is even more vital now.

Make sure the viewers know about good documentaries.

If the BBC Trust wants to complain about lack of impact, it needs to change the cautious policy at the BBC of only promoting a small number of programmes that in most cases would attract viewers anyway. Apart from diminishing the annoyance of repetitive trails, promoting a wider spectrum of docs has the added benefit of telling license fee payers what the corporation is doing with their money.


Abandon the attempt to predict ratings and content in advance and you will all be pleasantly surprised by the freshness and distinctiveness of what emerges. Promote the hell out of your films on all platforms - not just on television - to reach people who don’t watch tv. And try to include subjects, countries and people who are not already familiar to us. Worry about standards not only about ratings. Make time and room to trust your instincts. Above all don’t play safe.

Documentaries are alive and well. Long live documentaries.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData