Documentaries for the Big Screen

By Alex Woode


A few months ago I was part of a team that brought eight international, feature-length documentaries to the National Film Theatre as part of the Sheffield International Documentary Festival on Tour. The films were screened first in October, in Sheffield. By January, with the support of the British Film Institute, five of these films had toured thirteen cities across the country. For UK audiences this was their only opportunity to see them. The majority will never be shown on television, let alone be given a release in the cinema.

images-of-a-dictatorship-patricio-henriquez.jpgImages of a Dictatorship, Patricio Henriquez, 2000

What was so satisfying about the National Film Theatre event was that most of the screenings sold out. These were not big music or celebrity documentaries like Buena Vista Social Club or In Bed With Madonna, but social, political and personal non-fiction films. Neither were the majority of the audience dedicated docuphiles. They came from the general public, and the passionate and vocal way that people responded to the films was remarkable. Campaigners turned out in full force for Images of a Dictatorship, a powerful collage recording popular resistance to Pinochet’s regime, and at the end of Just, Melvin, a harrowing personal portrait of a serial child abuser made by the abuser’s grandson, one tearful member of the audience hugged the film-maker, thanking him for his courage in speaking out.

For me there is nothing more powerful than being able to sit in a cinema, watching a film with a room full of people, in a concentrated environment that allows me to reflect on or identify with the daily lives of other people with whom I share the world. It is not that I believe, for one minute, that all documentaries deserve a place on the big screen. Many are made for the box and should remain there. However, television has been both the friend and enemy of the genre. Whilst it has nurtured documentary and experimented with its shape and form, and made some brilliant films in the process, it has also begun to stifle it.

images-of-a-dictatorship-patricio-henriquez-2.jpgImages of a Dictatorship, Patricio Henriquez, 2000

As with other aspects of our culture, television has become homogenised. Its emphasis on filling programme slots, on sticking to the formulaic, its need for short turn-arounds and the constant decrease in programme budgets means that it is harder than ever to find the different, the challenging, the individual, the independent voices. The all-pervasive trends of branding and stranding have literally boxed in the documentary, and as niche channels multiply, it is unlikely that this trend will ever be reversed. The notion that more channels offer us more diversity is simply untrue. In reality they just bring more of the same. For ambitious, creative documentaries to retain their passion and voice, film-makers now, more than ever, need to look beyond television to other sources of funding – to foundations, to the lottery, to other commercial partners.

For me, the genre of creative, feature-length, non-fiction stories is one of the last bastions of truly independent film. Like the Indie movement of the eighties in fiction cinema, it is in the documentary world that I have seen the most innovative, courageous and powerful films in the last ten years. And I do not seem to be alone in this view. Year after year I hear critics at key international festivals arguing that it was the documentaries, not the fiction films that created the most “buzz.”

genghis-blues-adrian-belic.jpgGenghis Blues, Adrian Belic, 1999

Significantly, even key individuals working in television are aware of its growing limitations. Nick Fraser is the editor of BBC’s Storyville, one of the few surviving strands which support these challenging, often international films.

“Television, to the degree that it becomes more commercial and format-obsessed is proving incapable of affording a home to many ambitious documentaries. We now desperately need non-TV funding. My own budgets and the poor status of British documentaries tell me this.”

american-movie-chris-smith.jpgAmerican Movie, Chris Smith, 1999

His views are shared by Peter Dale, Head of Documentary at Channel 4 and editor of True Stories: “I’m afraid most of the social observation documentaries that populate telly would really struggle in the cinemas given the costs involved. I’m optimistic that this will change – as the broadcasting world changes. I believe that people will pay to see feature-length stories that matter told by people at the top of their game. If TV can’t or won’t fund them then I believe they will find other outlets.”

just-melvin-james-ronald-whitney.jpgJust, Melvin, James Ronald Whitney, 2000

The question of theatrical release for these films needs be taken seriously. In the US, television is notoriously unfriendly to documentaries. Yet countless films get made by sheer determination, as labours of love, and with the most creative financing going. Many more documentaries end up on the big screen because there is literally nowhere else for audiences to see them. There are a host of smaller distributors who know their niche markets and they do get results. Ironically it is this environment that has produced some of the most inspiring work in recent years like Hoop Dreams (Steve James, Fred Marx, Peter Gilbert), Roger & Me (Michael Moore), Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris), Crumb (Terry Zwigoff) and not our television reliant model.

Whenever I open a paper, I am constantly being told that we live in a world where we participate less, whether in politics, in community activity or in culture: ours is a world where we exist only in our isolated environments and have disengaged. But this is not what I witnessed during those memorable four days at the National Film Theatre. I am a firm believer that films have enormous power to provoke and enrage, as well as to entertain and inform, and even more so when the stories told are about real people and real lives.

Alex Cooke is a film editor. From 1997-2000 she programmed the Sheffield International Documentary Festival.