Britdoc Festival 06: The Art and Business of Documentary

By Hannah Patterson

kz-rex-bloomstein.jpgKZ, 2006

Riding the wave of documentary’s current popularity, the Channel 4 British Documentary Film Foundation has launched Britdoc, a new annual festival – based in the UK for filmmakers from around the world.

Where Sheffield International Documentary Festival (20 Oct - 5 Nov 2006) mixes industry events with public screenings, and the younger Oxdox (launched in 2003) encourages extensive film viewing, Britdoc, for its first year at least, is aimed mainly at industry stalwarts and newcomers rather than out-and-out documentary fans. Aside from a few public screenings, to attend you will need to have a 1-day pass or a 3-day pass, and while students are encouraged, the respective price tags of £150 or £300 might prove prohibitive. If you can afford to go, however, then do. The plethora of screenings and events due to take place over the 3 days, just a few of which are detailed here, are extremely tempting.

black-gold-nick-mark-francis.jpgBlack Gold, 2007

Two feature competitions are planned, one focused on British films, the other on international documentaries. British films already confirmed include: Black Gold, a look at the darker side of the coffee trade, which previewed at Sundance this year; 37 Uses for a Dead Sheep, Ben Hopkin’s film about a tribe from the Pamir region of Central Asia, and their 27 year journey in exile, forced out of their homeland by communist Russia and then again by Maoist China; and Kimmie, the story of a boy who was left for dead aged 10 in his home country of Liberia, who then recovered and dedicated his life to helping other children in his war-torn country. Now 23 and a political exile living in the US, the film follows his return to Liberia after 5 years away. The International Feature Documentaries Competition includes the winner of the audience award at the Texas-based South by South West festival, Darkon, a tale of fantasy role playing and real life in modern day Baltimore; We Feed the World, Erwin Wagenhofer’s exploration of food and globalisation that traces the origins of what we eat and how it gets from field to table; and a study of childhood cancer filmed over six years following five patients and their families from the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, A Lion in the House.

war-tapes-deborah-scranton.jpgThe War Tapes, 2006

In one of the most highly anticipated events, legendary American documentary-maker Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens, Salesman) will take part in The More 4 Interview, discussing his career and presenting material from his personal archive – including outtakes from classics and early work never seen before. A variety of panels and master classes are also planned, bringing together industry experts to discuss filmmaking, funding, marketing and distribution. Film Festival directors talk about how to play the circuit, American Foundations give guidance on how they distribute their funds and in Fact vs Fiction, Nick Broomfield, Mike Figgis, Kevin Macdonald and Penny Woolcock will consider the relationship between documentary and fiction.

One particularly welcome event at Britdoc is a pitching session, where 12 documentary filmmakers are given the opportunity to pitch their project ideas to a panel of commissioning editors, film financiers and festival programmers. With commissioners from Sundance, HBO, SBS and Al Jazeera already lined up and a £1,000 cash prize, it promises to be both exciting and instructive. Although the closing date for submissions has now passed, ticket holders are able to view the sessions as part of the audience.

mystic-ball-greg-hamilton.jpgMystic Ball,  2006

Surgeries are also on offer for attendees who want to get one-to-one advice on their individual projects directly from specialists such as Morgan Spurlock; 'Would Like to Meet' sessions bring together filmmakers and scientists to discuss, explore, engage and share opinions, in order to lay the foundations for future collaborations.

Such a mix of events, in particular those based around alternative sources of funding and foundation grants, bodes well in a country where the main money supply currently comes from television, and carries with it that industry’s demands and constraints. Whilst taking advantage of the genre’s current popularity both in the cinema and – in more experimental forms – the gallery space, Britdoc will hopefully begin to make important inroads into the documentary-making landscape.

The Britdoc Festival took place from 26 - 28 July 2006 at Keble College, Oxford. To see the full programme of these and other events go to:

Hannah Patterson is a London-based writer, editor and filmmaker.