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Does British TV have a problem with independent documentary?

The Unorthodocs season at Somerset House features acclaimed documentaries never seen on British TV. Are UK broadcasters denying audiences access to a golden age of independent film-making?

Age of Loneliness. Credit: Daniel Dewsbury. Age of Loneliness. Credit: Daniel Dewsbury.At first glance, they don't really have much in common. The Closer We Get is a first person documentary, where filmmaker Karen Guthrie uses a period of caring for her ailing mother to prod into her family's painful past. In 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets, director Marc Silver masterfully investigates one of the US's all too commonplace racially motivated killings. And in The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer follows up his groundbreaking multi-award winning The Act of Killing with a further journey through Indonesian killing fields, this time through the lens of a single traumatized family. But what these three disparate films do share is the fact that despite widespread acclaim, they have not found a place on British television. Instead they are all running as part of the Unorthodocs strand at Somerset House this winter.  Curated by Dartmouth Film's Christopher Hird, a champion of independent feature docs, the films in the series collectively serve as an admonishment to UK broadcasters to up their game.

Much has been written about how we are in a golden age of documentary. Indeed, with many more potential avenues of distribution - along with the technological advances which give us all the opportunity to become filmmakers - the future looks bright for those determined to persevere in this difficult art form. But what is less "golden" about this age, is the fact that British broadcasters - still powerful and still in control of the best way to reach the masses -have largely turned their backs on commissioning single feature length documentaries.

I recently sat on the Grierson judging committee for Best Documentary on a Contemporary Theme - International. It was striking that very few of the outstanding films on our longlist were given television money up front. All too often broadcasters hedge their bets, forcing independent filmmakers down the difficult path of self-financing, and only deciding whether or not to pick up a film once it's been made.

The long-running BBC Storyville is often cited as an exception, showing some of the best documentaries in every given year, either through acquisition or commission. But Storyville's commissions are modest, and usually require filmmakers to find substantial funds elsewhere (a process which took a film I produced, Secrets of the Tribe, eight years to finish). Channel 4's equivalent strand, True Stories, seems to be defunct, and while Channel 4 claims to be open to pitches for single films, it can't be seen to be championing them in a way we should expect of our public service broadcasters.

Yes, there are a number of outstanding films in any given year on the BBC and Channel 4. Recent examples to name but two include last year's The Paedophile Hunter on Channel 4, and the BBC's The Age of Loneliness. But in my mind, with both the BBC and Channel 4 battling for their future in a nightmarishly hostile political climate, these few standouts should be magnified by a factor of ten. Imagine a world where the same budget put into producing twenty-four episodes of Masterchef is plowed into a new strand featuring fifteen documentary features, all by different directors. Yes, they are more difficult to make, and yes some might fail to attract large numbers of viewers. But aren't two of the most important tenets of public service broadcasting that it supports risk-taking and programming not driven by the marketplace?  

Many filmmakers these days persist in making their passion project, broadcast commission be damned. It can be a long and lonely, but ultimately gratifying route. Franny Armstrong makes it look easy. Her 2008 climate change doc The Age of Stupid was funded entirely through crowd-funding, raising an impressive £430,000. But Armstrong, in addition to being a consummate filmmaker and networker, benefited from another factor: she was the first to fund a documentary through crowdfunding. Many more have followed. Today it is a much more difficult, careworn option which involves a lot of targeting, attention to detail and maintenance. Crowdfunding can work for issue driven films that have a built-in following, but it's certainly not easy.

We Are Many. Credit: Getty Images. We Are Many. Credit: Getty Images.Amir Amirani struck out trying to get broadcast interest in his film We Are Many - a forensic examination of the global anti war protest of February 2003. A film that would have taken him roughly a year had it been fully commissioned, instead took him eight. Along the way he maxed out his credit card, and remortgaged his house three times, before a Kickstarter campaign and the endorsement of high profile supporters like Stephen Fry and Omid Djalili began bringing in substantial funding. But the end result has been worth it for Amirani: We Are Many has played to rapturous audiences globally, and continues to screen frequently. But there are still no plans for a UK broadcast. 

Last Man On The Moon. Credit: Mark Craig. Last Man On The Moon. Credit: Mark Craig.Mark Craig also went his own way having not initially succeeded with securing British interest in his film The Last Man on the Moon, about astronaut Gene Cernan. But as he told me when I interviewed him about the making of it, he eventually relished producing it with Mark Stewart Productions without broadcaster input: "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., " he said. "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." He's enjoyed an extended festival run with the film, which is soon to be on limited release in the US.

Whilst still very modest compared to the US, there are a small number of funds that British filmmakers can tap into, particularly from foundations with explicit interests in the subject matter. The Wellcome Trust  supports films with a biomedical theme, such as the outstanding The Man Whose Mind Exploded. On a larger scale, BRITDOC operates as an energetic documentary enabler, supporting films in a number of ways, including partnering up filmmakers and NGOs, as well as helping fund more than 200 films in the ten years since its founding.

When I first moved to the UK from the US twenty years ago, the difference between how docs were made in each country was striking. The UK, with its fully funded commissioning system was seen as a utopia by envious American doc makers who usually had to spend years piecing together the budgets for each film. Now, with British television factual programming dominated by formats and presenter-led series, and with so many film-makers chasing so few slots, that gulf no longer seems so vast. 

But there are reasons to be hopeful that the BBC will soon prioritise carving out new space for single documentaries. The much respected Patrick Holland is now Head of Documentaries, and speaks of  singles "as an essential part of what we do on BBC Two." And with the announcement last week that doc champion Charlotte Moore now oversees the entirety of BBC television, now is the time to show that the production of feature length documentaries can and should be a priority for the world's leading public service broadcaster.

 

About the author

Carol Nahra is a documentary journalist, producer and university lecturer based in London. She blogs at http://www.docsonscreens.com/

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