Escape to the Cinema [And Reconnect with Reality]

By Amy Hardie

china-blue-micha-x-peled.jpgChina Blue, 2005

In Vertigo three years ago I described an untapped audience for documentaries, and why documentaries deserved to be in a public place. Docspace grew out of that brash assertion, and documentaries have bigger audiences than ever before. We can’t claim all the credit for the huge increase in audiences and numbers of documentaries on the big screen since we started lobbying (thanks Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, et al) but we certainly helped create the zeitgeist. Since we launched in November 2004 we’ve introduced high definition digital delivery in the UK, reassuring exhibitors of its stability and audience appeal. We’ve screened documentaries in new venues such as galleries, community halls and art centres, as well as cinemas. We’ve shown the CinemaNet European premieres and run four seasons of films in Glasgow and Edinburgh which include shorts and more experimental work.

“The venues have enjoyed the experience: exposing the local community to an alternative view of the world than that offered by the bland Hollywood blockbusters . As a small venue with limited funds, Docspace gives us the opportunity to show our audiences the unique,hard-hitting and varied documentaries being made across the globe.” – Angela Gray, Film Officer, Falkirk Town Hall, Central Scotland.

“Docspace enables me to screen great quality documentaries from all over the world giving my audiences the chance to see films they wouldn’t normally have access to.” – Dan Thomas, Director, Burns Cinema, Dumfries

in-search-of-mozart-philgrabsky.jpgIn Search of Mozart, 2006

We’ve been a sort of experiment for most of the venues, by trying out different ways of attracting audiences and programming films. We’ve invited people who are not normally associated with documentary to set up a discussion after the film. We also surprised the cinemas by getting our highest audience ratings for Phil Grabsky’s compelling In Search of Mozart when we timed its cinema screening to coincide with DVD and television release. The marketing around those other platforms meant the audience were curious, the film was endorsed, and they booked tickets to go and see it with their friends. We realised that the audience didn’t pay for content, they paid for the experience of cinema on the big screen.

Docspace’s first two seasons focussed on core political issues of our time – war and global environmental destruction. Our first season highlighted four documentaries from the new Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo. Fiction writer A L Kennedy incisively underlined the relevance of Peter Davies’ Hearts and Minds, a 21 year old film that had unmasked the ‘spin’ around the Vietnam war:

Hearts and Minds remains a remarkable documentary – moving, subtle and intelligent – and more relevant than ever in these troubled and duplicitous times. It is chilling to realise that our politicians are still telling the same lies, more than thirty years on – they have simply removed most of the media from the equation. We have allowed them to do us and the world this profound disservice – it’s time to start demanding the truth.”

This plea to use films as a catalyst to get past political spin was punched home by foreign correspondent David Pratt:

“What this film does is remind us of the crucial need for different perspectives in the way world events are covered by the news media. Their telling should not only be the preserve of the CNN’s or BBC’s. This is Control Room’s central message, a message essential for our collective political well-being in these dangerous days.”

hearts-and-minds-peter-davies-1.jpgHearts and Minds, 1974

Over 80% of what we see in the cinema comes from Hollywood. Hollywood protects its interests vehemently, at present threatening all who don’t sign up to their new digital standards with obsolescence. Mass audiences in the UK have voted for Hollywood with their seats and wallets, and the UK Film Council has guaranteed that its digital screen network will conform to Hollywood standards.

Nonetheless, I would argue it is essential to our audiences, our creativity, and our industry to maintain a space on our screens for talent, stories and innovation outside the US mainstream. The documentaries Docspace has screened engage with the audience in a particularly satisfying way. They have space within them for reflection, they do something more fundamental than give us facts – however shocking, or extraordinary. There is a good example in Control Room, Jehane Noujaim’s film on the Iraqi war.

An American soldier didn’t ‘see’ the Iraqis as they crossed his T.V. screen on stretchers. As soon as he saw wounded Americans he wanted to get out of the war. There is a sequence in Hearts and Minds which I think illuminates his unconscious myopia: a young US pilot in the helicopter cockpit, enclosed in a glass bubble, aching to get home, says: “once you are in the plane you can’t hear, you don’t see people... you just focus on getting the cross in the centre of the hairline and press command... You want a hit, a mission accomplished. Then you can go back home”.

This image was referred to again in Docspace’s second season, Twenty to One, programmed as Scotland hosted the G8 summit. Western consumers don’t ‘see’ the facts: that almost half of the African continent is trying to live on less than 1 dollar a day and that our standard of living depends on ‘poorer’ countries producing cheaper goods than we will. Westerners are safely in the glass cockpit, and like the US pilots, when they score a hit – a pay rise, a new job, they can go home to the luxuries of western education, healthcare and shopping. What these films do is to shatter that glass cockpit, and reconnect us with the world – engage us with facts we prefer to avoid, and beyond that, transform our relationship with those facts. Their genius is that they make us want to engage with the facts.

Docspace’s most recent screening also created an involved and informed audience. Misha Peled’s China Blue played to a full house and showed them the young women who work up to 21 hour shifts making the trousers we love to buy so cheaply. One audience member rushed home to rip off her blue jeans. This passionate engagement with another country, another person – in this case a bright and mischievous 17 year old girl, is surely the key quality of cinematic documentary. The received wisdom has always been that most people go to the cinema to escape from reality. Our audience research in fact endorses that: we discovered from the focus groups that we ran in Spain, Netherlands, Austria and Scotland that everyone goes to the cinema to escape.

hearts-and-minds-peter-davies-2.jpgHearts and Minds, 1974

But, and this is the key – escape means two things: for the lovers of mainstream cinema, it meant relaxation with predictable storylines. For the documentary lovers, it meant being able to focus attention to the exclusion of all distractions, and have the attention repaid with the pleasure of learning something new. So you can escape from your overworked western stress by immersing yourself into another country, another reality, another moment in history. The greatness of a documentary can be measured by how pleasurably it entices its audience to reconnect with a world that is now seen differently.

Documentary is a particularly complex art form. Each frame, each sequence often contains more information than the director can realise consciously, at the time – and the different elements throughout the arc of the film work on us in different ways, as metaphor, as identification, as argument, as pleasure. When this volatile mix works, it creates a rich experience for the audience that engages them intellectually, emotionally, visually. It operates at a deep level, between perceptions and values, so that the way we perceive is itself transformed.

Docspace looks for the films that have succeeded in that attempt, and those film-makers. Now, at the end of 2006 we are looking for ways to further extend the audience’s cinematic reconnection with the world. We are developing the interface between the screen and the audience, and between the director and audience, bringing the first international interactive masterclass to be webstreamed to UK audiences.

control-room-jehane-noujaim.jpgControl Room, 2004

Audiences in Edinburgh were able to talk to Amnesty International Award winning director Misha Peled after the screening of China Blue. He was joined in the cinema by audiences from the Netherlands, Austria as well as Scotland, with the virtual debate between three countries beamed (rather intermittently… technology still has some way to go) onto all our screens. Later this month we take the process further with Docspace’s first screen creativity workshop where the audience’s response to a documentary turns them into screen stars themselves. Working with Discovery Campus in Dundee, the audience in this interactive experiment are children, whose response, in animation, silhouette, painting and model making is filmed and encoded straight to the screen.

The venues have welcomed these digital innovations:

“The sophistication of this digital network open the possibilities in Sutherland to become fully connected to Europe and beyond – particularly to opportunities related to the rich heritage of areas situated almost at the margin of Europe. With such equipment, Sutherland inhabitants can collaborate in the creation of new documentaries and films about their life with other young people, thinkers, artists, creators, visionaries from other corners of the globe.” – Roxanna Meehan, arts officer for Highlands, Scotland.

Docspace has succeeded in taking documentaries to new audiences in new venues. Our challenge now is to develop ways to bring audiences and screen into new and even more creative communication. The venues are ready: are the rest of us?

Amy Hardie is director of Docspace and head of research at the Scottish Documentary Institute.