Bowling for Europe

By Holly Aylett


UK documentary on the European pitch

Fear spoke through the broadcasters at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival two years ago. Digital revolutions, competition from audience-friendly interactive projects, the anticipation of multiple channels streaming in material from the web – it all called for strategies of survival. Bunkers were being planned with shelves of observational, character-driven films with storylines to freeze those channel-hopping fingers. One benighted Channel 4 executive claimed that the only honest definition of documentary would be the 7 o’clock documentary, the 8 o’clock documentary, the 9 o’clock documentary, and so, interminably, forth. Schedulers appeared on the platform, a logical if depressing response in an environment where the guardians of our documentary landscape were digging in.

When commissioning editors stand on trial before the ratings it is inevitable that judgement shifts in favour of perceived popular demand. Those who still subscribe to Berthold Brecht’s notion that the task is to create popularity and not to serve it, to lead and not to keep in line, must find alternative solutions. Strategies – older than the Hollywood hills – like balancing 20% risk against 80% safe product, are now claimed by commercial and public channels alike, pitted against each other in a multi-channel race, which is affecting the whole of Europe. Last year you could hear the strain in the branding statements of commissioning editors. Channel 4’s Danny Cohen sought documentaries ‘to puncture the public consciousness’ from a selection of subjects which would appeal to both Guardian and Sun readers alike. Richard Klein of BBC 4 described the channel as ‘promiscuous for knowledge’ seeking both re-interpretation and entertainment.

Last June, in Cologne, during a mini-forum on distribution held by Eurodoc, a Media funded, training scheme, most distributors advised the assembled documentary producers to engage realistically with current tastes. In response they were cautioned by Jacques Bidou, award-winning producer and Eurodoc Director of Studies. “You must take account of the market but never give in. If you do, we will end up without documentary”. Eghart Stein, inspiring originator of German broadcaster ZDF’s celebrated series Das Kleine Fernsehspiel and long-term champion of the creative in documentary, challenged television’s whole philosophical approach (which he saw the panel endorsing) one driven by fame and the distorting vanity of contemporary celebrity culture. He commented wryly that his own series had only survived because ‘it refuses to leave’. He himself has returned to the theatre.

Impassioned debates about the survival of documentary inevitably call into question its definition. What is the species which is endangered and how would we recognise it? At what point does a documentary distinguish itself from a factual programme, investigative current affairs, reportage or, for that matter, at what point does it become ‘creative’, assuming length is not the only criteria?

idle-ones-susanna-helke-virpi-suutari.jpgThe Idle Ones, 2001

The strength of feeling is symptomatic of the huge cultural agendas at stake. Locally it may be a question of the quality of the films themselves, but it is actually the structure and diversity of the broadcasting environment which is at issue and, in particular, a pluralism of remit traditionally safeguarded by public service television. Ultimately what are at stake are the values of the culture we are producing, whether in the UK, Europe or globally: it is about looking in the mirror and recognising ourselves. As Germaine Greer recently pointed out, “Reality Television is not the end of civilisation as we know it. It is civilisation as we know it” (The Observer, Feb 2003).

Looking back to some of the first statements about documentary, one can see John Grierson and Paul Rotha clearly distinguish between the naturalist’s ambition to record reality and the documentarist’s task to give it a creative interpretation: “he (the maker of documentary) does not march with the crowd but goes just ahead asking contemplation and discussion before action is taken on those problems with which he deals” (Paul Rotha, Some Principles of Documentary, 1946).

Rotha was writing over fifty years ago, but we can still learn from these concepts. They ascribe to documentary a clear function: to interrogate the society in which we live and to go beyond the surface shapes and rhythms of the image, to project the underlying social and economic reality.

In today’s debates, prejudice and fear tend to get wedded to prescriptive caricatures of documentary form – the anthropological versus the popular, the worthy rather than the entertaining, creative versus format. These debates ignore the fact that documentary at its best is an art form. It is a form of expression rooted in cultural, technological, and industrial considerations which are not in themselves either the problem or the solution, though they are critical, and determining, influences. At Sheffield last year, Peter Dale, Head of Documentary at Channel 4, called on delegates to “wake up to the fact that the conventional approach to TV documentary filmmaking is not the only one”.

It’s doubtful whether any two people could recognise ‘the conventional approach’ if they saw it, but the challenge to be responsive to the plurality of new techniques is important. There is no reason why new formats should not enhance both pleasure and meaning, but insofar as they become repetitive and reflect only the fashions which they both breed and feed off, they have little to do with the spirit of documentary.

Equally treacherous is the apparent access offered by the whole camcorder revolution, in privileging Dogumentary (sic) agendas over any other consideration. The fact that anyone can wield a camera often leads us to underestimate the craft of experienced camera-directors working in the tradition of Johan van der Keuken or Frederick Wiseman, where the camera provides the commentary, watching its stories, making connections, picking out the rhythm in a footstep, feelings as they travel over a face, and requiring the audience to watch and wait to reach their own conclusions. The preferred language of contemporary television is more authoritarian; it seeks to persuade the conscious mind rather than communicating through emotions or suspended contradictions. It also competes for the loyalty of its audience by colonising the unfamiliar and homing in on national stories to the detriment of an international perspective (cf Don Redding, Vertigo, new series issue 2, 2002).

These complex agendas are not peculiar to this country. With variations, they apply throughout Europe, since documentary tends to be hosted and financed by television, and public television values are everywhere beset by the pressures of global, commercial priorities. Seen from a European point of view however, the United Kingdom has lost its position as a leader, whilst Germany, France, Belgium and Scandinavia dominate the market, with southern European countries emerging after a long period of silence.

si-gueriki-la-reine-mere.jpgSi-Gueriki, la Reine-Mère, 2002 

Jacques Bidou claims that ARTE, the Franco-German cultural channel, still plays a key role in structuring the sector, not through its audience figures, which are low, but through the impact of its documentary output, its constant commitment to the genre and the influence of its creative work on the sector as a whole. The term ‘impact’ expresses the value of a documentary in terms of its total distribution and exhibition life-cycle, both in relation to its financial return and its cultural influence. As such, this concept is a radical challenge to the simplistic interests vested in ratings-driven criteria for success, and an indication of our European partners’ strong commitment to resist the distortions imposed by global, market practice.

The Eurodoc training programme is an exemplary case of what can be achieved by taking a pan-European approach in this area. So far 200 media professionals from 14 countries have participated in the scheme. It trains producers and directors in the creative and business skills necessary to guide ambitious, documentary projects to their co-production partners, distributors and potential audiences. Regrettably, in four years, only six of these professionals have been British and none of these rare birds were commissioning editors. Could it be the decline in documentary habitat which dissuades them, or just a fear of mixing with more migratory, European species?

Admittedly, there were some rigorous, conceptual tools in play. ‘La demarche’ was described to me by one participant as an alpine ascent, where, equipped with climbing gear, information and a map you absorbed the meaning of your project into blood and bone. The word ‘mindset’ offered itself weakly as an equivalent. Then there was the ‘dispositif’ or ‘strategy’ and lastly the keyword, ‘enjeu’ or ‘what is at stake’, expressing the fundamental belief, like Grierson’s own, that a good documentary can never be detached but must express an attitude. By the second session in April this year, pitching to commissioning editors, there were a wide range of strong projects on offer with ingenious and complex finance packages, daunting perhaps to the British, coming as we do from a sheltered tradition where 100% funding from the broadcaster used to be the norm. However, from the broadcasters’ point of view, the levels of investment sought by this stage were relatively small and the rewards promising.

From the distribution point of view, few documentaries can be confident today that they will negotiate the multiple demands of wide circulation. Commissioning editors from all countries pose the same important question: how will this work with my audience? To answer, and to capture the market, some producers descend into versioning hell. At a festival session in Sheffield in 2002 entitled ‘Exporting Documentary’, Steven Seidenberg of Café Productions shared the wisdom that if a Discovery version of 48 minutes involved roughly 9,000 words, its UK equivalent of 60 minutes would have about 6,000 words and the French cut probably less. For the USA the conclusion would come first and the rest would follow. For the UK the conclusion would follow beginning and middle and come at the end, and for France it was unpredictable. These general guidelines become tortuous once the hour must also be broken by commercial breaks, with each of up to the four sections demanding their own beginning, middle and end, not to mention the cliff-hanger before each break…

Documentary producers are now gearing up for the DVD market. Ambitious documentaries will need to be sold in two or three languages, packaged and marketed to help ensure circulation in the same way as the publishing industry promotes its books. This market opens up possibilities for subjects which wouldn’t otherwise reach television. It also raises difficult questions about rights of property and intellectual ownership for the archive collections of both broadcasters and distributors. However, together with digital projection, it represents a major advance for documentary. What is less clear is how to sustain production when broadcasters withdraw funds from creative documentary and governments lack the political will to regulate the broadcasting environment. In this context, engagement with Europe is vital if only to give us wider options than the dominant pre-requisites imported from the American market place. More positively, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there are audiences out there waiting for the next Bowling for Colombine (Michael Moore, 2002) and together we can find them.

"You must take account of the market but never give in. If you do, we will end up without documentary." – Jacques Bidou

This year, the Sheffield International Documentary Festival runs from 13-19 October, with over 70 new international documentaries screened and numerous master-classes/industry forums.

Holly Aylett is a documentary filmmaker and lectures in Film Studies at London Metropolitan University.