Box of Illusions

By Elizabeth Wood

family-sami-martin-saif-phie-ambo-nielsen.jpgFamily, dir. Sami Martin Saif and Phie Ambo-Nielsen, 2001

The shrinking horizons for documentary on television

Last December, as part of its series on the state of documentary in Europe, Dox magazine invited me to cast a critical eye on the documentary output of a week on British television. I used my invitation to investigate these opposing standpoints. British broadcasters claim they commission more documentary than ever before, while independent programme makers insist that creative documentary has virtually disappeared from the terrestrial television screen. So what was the reality? Here is a summary of my findings.

I reviewed programmes shown between 6 and 12pm on the five terrestrial channels. Barring news reports, docu-soaps and presenter-led strands of the gardening/history type, I recorded and watched everything scheduled as documentary – in total, more than 50 programmes, although they added up to only 35 hours out of a possible 210 hours of programming.

I was shocked by what I saw. Only a meagre three hours of programming constituted what I would call documentary. These included a half-hour film by a new director, Stephanie RafanelliModern Habits, a film for BBC’s Correspondent by Rana Kabbani exploring why so many Muslims opposed the USA and a re-run of Errol Morris’s Stairways to Heaven. As for the rest of the 35 hours, well, here is a sample: Sunday, BBC2, Blood on the Village Green – a cynical exploitation of people in distress, encouraging cruel amusement at their misfortune. Monday, ITV, Man-Eaters – a disturbing account of rampant wild dogs inter-cut with cute domestic pets. Tuesday BBC1, Witness the Truth – the reconstructed tale, gory and sordid, of the Railways Murders; ITV, Manhunt – the chase for a horrific child abuser/mass murderer retold; and C5, The History of Punishment and Torture – needs no explanation.

And so the week wore on with more murder, bigamy, sex, terror and war. Over 32 hours of it! The content read like a tabloid newspaper. By Saturday night, Lethal Weapons on C4 almost made me want to go out and buy one!

It was not only the content of these programmes that shocked me, but their form. Virtually all were driven by relentless narration, hyped by heavy music and effects, with ‘show and tell’ images, including reconstructions of the gory bits, interrupted by the occasional, sync soundbite. The narrator’s voice was largely sensational and voyeuristic, apparently stating facts while actually giving opinion.

This kind of programme desensitises rather than enlightens. Documentary should offer the viewer an independent insight into the world and invite them to question their assumptions. If all the audience is offered are these made- for-television, lectures with pictures, then that will become the norm and soon the documentary that observes and questions in a carefully crafted way will disappear.

Six months on and a search of the schedules showed that nothing much had changed, except for the introduction of BBC4, the digital channel with a declared commitment to an extensive documentary component. Hope at last?

BBC4 has now been on air since March and critics are divided. Some see it as the final nail in the public service broadcasting coffin, an excuse for the BBC to finally remove ‘difficult’ documentaries from the terrestrial schedule. Others argue it is a good thing and the only way for documentary to survive in the multi-channel environment. But can it survive in such reduced circumstances? Roly Keating, the controller of BBC4 admits, “it has a five per cent reach, which is very pleasing for a new digital channel…. BBC1 and BBC2 serve broader audiences”.

Storyville is an interesting case in point. It used to be the BBC flagship series for quality documentary from this country and abroad, broadcasting in prime time, and with viewing figures in the millions. That said, in 2001, there were only eight Storyville slots in the entire year. This year on BBC 4, amazingly, there will be fifty-two. Even though they will be shorter in length and budget this is a welcome gain. However, most will be acquisitions and BBC 2 will now only commission two documentaries on full budgets, with the right to repeat programmes from the digital channel.

In the last two weeks there have been six Storyville titles on BBC4, three of them repeated on BBC2 at 11.30pm. All of them are consigned to late night slots, even on BBC4! It is heartbreaking to see documentaries like Laura Ashton’s The Unquiet Peace aired at 11.20pm (BBC2). More disturbing is that during the whole of April the only Storyville to reach the top 10 viewing figures on BBC4 was Leslie Woodhead’s A Cry from the Grave – aired at 10pm, it was seen by a miniscule 20,000 viewers. So while the BBC is undoubtedly making a major commitment to documentary on 4, it is sadly removing it from the gaze of the general public.

Even the series editor, Nick Fraser, is concerned that “a life spent watching factual shows made exclusively for television provides an unwillingly lopsided view of the world.” And he warns that ‘it may alas be possible in ten years time to look back at this moment, wondering where all the talent went.”

New initiatives are springing up out of frustration with this situation. Bypassing terrestrial television altogether, filmmakers are setting up their own venues – and they are getting audiences. In London the Documentary Filmmakers Group pulls in 130 eager young docs-fans every fortnight, willing to pay money to see independent work. This year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival hosts the launch of the DocSpace pilot project, which is putting documentaries into six UK cinemas, and my own initiative, the DocHouse, a resource centre, videotech and screening facility, has been approached by the Curzon Soho and Metro cinemas to run weekly screenings in London, starting this autumn.

But will all this be enough to sustain a healthy, active, independent documentary community? Young makers need access to a production base where they can learn from the past and grow with confidence into the future. They need access to budgets big enough to allow them to explore the frontiers of the form, and time enough to craft their material creatively in the cutting room. Terrestrial television used to ‘grow’ talent, with slots like 10x10, Picture This, and Short Stories, which gave space for experiment. But all three have gone, and young filmmakers have too few opportunities to develop their own voice within the traditional commissioning arena. Will the digital world and independent initiatives be able to sustain them? If not, both documentary makers and the viewing public will suffer.

The vast majority of us only watch the terrestrial stations. Many rely on them to form their opinion of the world. If the ‘tabloid’ factual programme is all that’s on offer, with no room for diversity of form or content, what will our collective view of the world become?

Elizabeth Wood is an independent producer/director and teaches at the National Film and Television School.