Documentary Is Dead – Long Live Documentaries!

By David Naden, Francesca Pompili and Michael Grigsby

ghosts-of-rwanda.jpgGhosts of Rwanda, 2004

Report from a long weekend of viewing and talking, January 2004


"The Cinematographe… activates the senses on one hand and dulls them on the other. The thirst for such strange fantastic sensations will grow greater and we will be increasingly unable and less willing to grasp the everyday impressions of ordinary life." – Maxim Gorky on seeing the Lumière programme, Moscow 1898

Twelve documentary filmmakers gathered at the ThinkTank in Birmingham to debate the state of the art at a weekend event for new filmmakers organised by Screen West Midlands. The directors’ experience covered the development of documentary on television, from the enthusiastic expansion of the ’60s and ’70s, through the late ’80s, when documentary departments were subsumed into “factual programming”, to the present day, where mainstream television rejects non-format documentary as high risk and ineffective in delivering high ratings. At the same time all kinds of programmes are still marketed as ‘documentary’, trading on the kudos which comes with the name.

The category documentary has seen a lot of transitions. They nearly always involve shifts in audio-visual culture, what you can actually do with sound and camera – questions of technology as well as questions of conventions and formats. Secondly, They nearly always involve shifts in the televisual economy, what television companies are prepared to do, how they think about their audience, how they organise their production, how they fund and encourage programme-making. And thirdly, very broadly, they nearly always involve shifts in broader social and public values, in what is still usefully called ‘popular culture’.

“I think in fact that the relationship between the category of the public and the category of the popular is one of the crucial tensions in the history of post-war Britain and I think documentary has been right at the heart of that relationship and that is now changing in quite crucial ways.” – Professor John Corner of Liverpool University

documentary-is-dead-long-live-documentaries-1.jpgFrom the event

Christophe Dupin of the British Film Institute introduced the seminar with a look at Free Cinema in the late 1950s. This was the start of a major change in British documentary, with the coming of lightweight 16mm cameras and sync sound. Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and Italian student Lorenza Mazzetti were young filmmakers who, in 1956, decided to show their films under the BFI banner and accompanied the screening with a manifesto, coining the term ‘Free Cinema’ and gaining instant notoriety. Central to their manifesto was the belief that ‘no film can be too personal’, upholding the freedom of the filmmaker/artist as personally responsible for their films and free from the constraints of commercial filmmaking as well as the demands of propaganda. The artist should capture the ‘significance of the everyday’ and, in this way, ‘make poetry.’ (from 3rd Free Cinema Manifesto, May ‘57) Michael Grigsby, whose first film was made for the final Free Cinema programme, expressed the spirit of 1960s documentary filmmaking and the desire to talk about society when discussing his film I Was A Soldier (1970). The film, made at the height of the Vietnam War whilst he was working as a director at Granada in Manchester, is still relevant today for its personal portrayal of young soldiers returning home and trying to find ‘normality.’

“We were being bombarded with images from Vietnam every night and yet I felt I knew nothing about the people, about the Vietnamese, about the feelings of those American conscripts who had been dropped into a war zone from Texas, Ohio, wherever, and then suddenly picked out of Vietnam and dropped back again into their original ‘normality’. So I said to Granada, “I want to make a film about US Vietnamese veterans and I want to do it my way. I want to try and get inside their heads”. They just looked at me and said, “We’ll give you six weeks to do it there”. I didn’t have to justify it – they trusted me. So off we went to America, to a small town in Texas; and I decided I would make this film about three boys who’d come back from Vietnam. I didn’t want to make a film about the war as such, but instead a story about them trying to understand what was happening to them now. A film about personal feelings. One of the things I had learnt from Free Cinema was how important it was to let things run, to give people space to think, to feel, to listen. Not only the people within the film but to give the audience that freedom too. I always try to construct the atmosphere, the environment, the context in which people live and work. Without that then, how can we understand the person? Feature films do that all the time. Documentary doesn’t do that at all today.”

putins-mama.jpgPutin's Mama, 2003

At the time, documentary was still film-based and many films were produced with independent funds alongside those which were commissioned and produced by the television companies. Reflecting on The Free Cinema movement in the broadcasting context of its time, John Corner pointed out that the great television documentaries of these years differed from those of the classic documentary film movement of the 1930s, (associated with John Grierson, Humphrey Jennings, Basil Watt and others), in mode of address, in style, in content and method. What they shared was the idea of authored filmmaking and a concern both for society and the art of filmmaking. However, new possibilities of “capturing the real” were beginning to affect the spirit of documentary-making.

“If I have to point to one key transition between the classic documentary film movement of the 1930s and documentary television of the 1950s and 60s, it would be the way in which documentary for many people became a form of journalism, which opened up the space for new kinds of approaches to filmmaking but also closed down others. So, for some people, the question of documentary truth became a question of journalistic truth, which I think has been a continuing problem.” – John Corner

Documentary forms evolved alongside the development of new equipment to give filmmakers greater mobility and access to the actuality of events around them. This potential was being explored in Canada, the USA and in Europe, through films made by groups such as Drew Associates (Richard Leacock, John Pennebaker, the Maysles brothers et al), and the late Jean Rouch in France. These were times of discovery and debate between filmmakers exploring new methods of representation. Different practices emerged, but the one most associated with the legacy of this time is observational filmmaking, signalled by the arrival of a new phrase in the documentary vocabulary: ‘fly on the wall’...

“What that did was to set up another criterion of documentary truth. Documentary truth was now observational truth and to that which was in front of the camera. A very different kind of truth to that which Grierson thought he was working for in the classic films of the 1930s, and a very different kind of truth from the truth that journalists continued to think were current affairs programmes”. – John Corner

Moving on to the late 1980s and the 1990s, the seminar considered another significant transition in documentary values and one related largely to changes in the structure of television in the period. Professor Julian Petley of Brunel University explained how making documentary ceased to be a handmade craft, and moved towards formatted television. This was largely facilitated by the 1990 Broadcasting Act, which began the process of what is commonly called de-regulation, but which Petley preferred to call re-regulation.

“One piece of research by the ITV Network Centre published in January last year showed that, since the 1990 Broadcasting Act, the amount of current affairs programming across the four main terrestrial channels fell by 35%, the number of arts programmes more than halved and religious programmes were cut by nearly 75%. All of those areas were once where important documentary work could be done. It also showed that in peak time there has been a 133% increase in shows devoted to hobbies and leisure and a 125% increase in soaps. The Campaign for Quality Television produced a very interesting report in 1999, which claimed that the serious documentary has become an endangered species. In fact, that was the title of the report. Perhaps less well known, what used to be called The Third World and Environment Broadcasting Project, now called the International Broadcasting Trust, produced about seven different reports since 1990 that look specifically at how the world is presented by television, in particular the Third World, the non-European world. The last report, published during the run up to the Communications Act, was called Losing Reality and its pretty stark conclusion was that, “the international documentary is virtually dead. The realities of life for the majority of the world’s people who live in developing countries are receiving less attention from mainstream UK television than at any time in the last 43 years”. I think what’s actually happened here is that regulations that were in place to preserve and to further citizen values or public service values on television have increasingly been replaced by regulations that are designed to further corporate values.” – Julian Petley

The filmmaker David Pearson was editor of the BBC’s Under the Sun strand in the 1990s and experienced the ‘industrialisation’ of documentary making. One consequence of this was the marginalisation of documentary dealing with serious issues. These films would be pushed out into the ‘Siberia of television, shown when people are asleep’ (Marilyn Gaunt). Another consequence was the reduction in the number of voices given access, and the challenge to independent authorship.

“There was a development in what we might call corporate authorship. The power moved from producers and directors to executives. And you started to have these conversations where you were told that you should market your series. You were told that you had to have a minimum audience and that it would be compared with competitors and this was all very new. Before, if wanted to make a programme and someone like Marilyn came along and I thought the idea was good, I could commission it. That simply doesn’t happen at all now because it’s all done in committees. Increasingly, controllers had power. They still do, although even they have difficulties commissioning on their own now: they have to persuade legions of people around them. You’re not allowed to fail now. They want to know what is going to happen before you’ve done it, which is why people write out preposterous proposals in order to try and get commissions. This has resulted in formats like Wife Swap or Faking It, some of which are very good I think, but they are part of an industrialised process that takes away the uncertainty. And documentaries I think should be about the uncertain as much as the certain. You want surprises, and increasingly British television is not about surprises.”

death-in-gaza.jpgDeath in Gaza, 2004

This move away from individual authorship and public values to corporate interests was not seen an isolated development but one which reflected shifts in broader social and public values, or what usefully known as ‘popular culture’. Corner recognised the relationship between the categories of the public and the popular as one crucial tensions in the history of post-war Britain, and placed documentary right at the heart He also considered that this third, wider level of transition within cultural and socio-economic framework has encouraged a key shift towards entertainment, which some see, paradoxically, as the biggest threat to the form.

“This mirrors an irreversible shift in the public culture of Britain towards a more leisure-centred, lifestyle-oriented way of living and of thinking. You could put this, a little bit snobbishly perhaps, as a kind of crisis in public values in Britain. I don’t think it’s terminal, but it’s big. And it’s not being helped by the programme of New Labour. It’s crisis in public values, and since documentary has been so central to public values and to public culture in Britain for so long, it’s not surprising there’s a crisis in documentary too.” – John Corner

This crisis was summarised by Michael Grigsby as perhaps a loss of several essential elements: a loss of something relevant to say, a loss of an appreciation of the importance of research, a loss of craft, of a close-knit team/crew and a loss of respect for the audience.

“You must have something to say as a filmmaker, you’ve got to find out what you want to say and then work out a way of saying it. The way of finding out how to say it lies in a very essential platform that is called research. And you go and spend as much time as you can on location, for many weeks, many months before you shoot a frame. You owe it to the people you’re working and filming with, to reflect them and their lives as honestly as you can. It’s about respect.”

To work in such a way depended on working with a team with shared understandings and the time to work carefully with image, sound and pacing in documentary. This he recognised as increasingly difficult, given the time schedules with which the current new generation of filmmakers are having to work. At the same time these are values which can be translated into the new context of production by those who are committed to them. One of the younger filmmakers present, Marc Isaacs, explained how his own working practice evolved to challenge the formats of the TV projects he was working on.

“I got interested in the research work I was doing – going out with a Hi-8 camera, providing the director of a BBC documentary with characters and storylines which he’d film later with a crew – and I always felt that what I was doing was more interesting: very alive, spontaneous. I was filming stuff he would never have got because he was filming in a very structured sort of way and the final film was more tame, packaged for the TV audience I suppose. When I made The Lift for Channel 4’s ALT-TV, it opened up a new world, I was given space to experiment. With Calais, the Last Border, I wanted a more cinematic experience than something just for TV. A producer who had seen my previous work got some money from the BBC for development. So I went to Calais with no idea in mind. I discovered that 90% of the town was boring and what was interesting was the 10% of the town that was no man’s land… I met Ejaz (an Afghan asylum seeker) and fell in love with his character. I filmed him for two weeks. I wasn’t interested in telling his story – we don’t really get to know what happened to Ejaz and his family – he says they were killed but I’m not interested in revealing a situation journalistically. The journalistic instinct and the filmmaker’s instinct are very different. Documentaries have given me the chance to go out in the world and express what I want to express in a very personal way”.

Echoing the commitment of filmmakers from John Grierson to Michael Grigsby, Isaacs expressed the essence of public service broadcasting. In the 1930s John Grierson and his group of documentarists made a concerted attempt to alert and enlighten the audience about the circumstances of their society. They did this in the hope that greater knowledge and understanding would inform their contributions to debates and decisions within the democratic process. ‘Documentary is dead - Long Live Documentaries!’ reaffirmed that documentary is alive. However, the main difference today is that filmmakers wanting to express their concern about society are not supported in the same way that previous generations were. From the 1960s to the 1980s, television offered a platform where documentary truth could flourish (“We trusted the talent” – Sir Denis Forman, GTV) but as television was re-regulated and market forces redefined citizens as consumers, the documentary perception found itself sidelined by the more appropriate – and pliant – journalistic perception. Today, the pressure of viewing figures and the safety of extreme formats imply that the television infrastructure very rarely offers a space for factual filmmakers to experiment and grow. The event did not offer any solutions to new filmmakers, except to be prepared for a long hard struggle to find their space. However, the last session, organised by DocHouse (www.dochouse.org) offered some alternative routes. Producer Hal Vogel (Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine) and directors Mike Uwemedimo (of collective Vision Machine) and Alex Cooke (Arnold Schwarzenegger: The Governator; former programmer for Sheffield Documentary Film Festival) considered avenues such as the internet and cinema release. In fact, if television no longer offers itself as a mirror to society, the success of films such as Etre et Avoir, Capturing the Friedmans and Bowling for Columbine indicates that there is a strong need for alternative voices that can communicate to viewers on a personal level. Moreover, despite having to face the challenge of corporate attitudes, these voices’ potential audiences are perhaps wider than in the past because of a more urgent present need to understand ‘reality’, what is happening around us. This recognition that documentary cannot die ended an inspiring weekend. And what emerged from it ultimately was the sense that there is a necessity to rekindle fundamental values of community and caring, a need to inspire, to question, take risks and to liberate the imagination.


The event featured Christophe Dupin; John Irvin; Brian Moser; Michael Grigsby; Marilyn Gaunt; David Pearson; Martin Smith; Norman Hull; Penny Woolcock; Marc Isaacs; Julian Petley; John Corner and DocHouse with Hal Vogel, Mike Uwemedimo and Alex Cooke.