How do the preliminary development meetings go for most of what’s on offer from television these days, “No, we’ve already done the fattest husbands with the skinniest wives, how about 15, in debt and competing for a plastic surgery makeover?”?
Flicking through the current array of television channels, one might be lead to believe that Britain has somehow forgotten about its rich history of documentary filmmaking. However, despite the tirade of trashy and, dare I admit it, at times, hilarious reality television shows which are aplenty, I would have to beg to differ.
With over 2000 delegates attending and a total of 114 documentary films screening over the course of five days, this year’s Sheffield DocFest is a testament to the ongoing power and survival of the documentary film. Challenging and arresting films were nestled in with humour and heart-warming stories. Dominic Allan’s striking portrait of the artist Jean Marc Calvet started off with a hardcore resurrection of Calvet’s dark past, a prolonged affront of shocking recollections, only to reveal a hidden layer of humanity lying deep within the heart of a troubled man. What emerged was a beautiful tale about the importance of family, of recovery and redemption. Music featured heavily with ‘A Certain Band Called Queen’, and the masterful ‘Mama Africa’, amongst others, featuring the story of Miriam Makeba from her exile under South African Apartheid to her subsequent record deal with Harry Belafonte, singing for Marlon Brando and JFK. With the recent wave of protests in the Middle East and at home, it was unsurprising that docs about protest featured heavily. ‘Just Do It – A Tale of Modern Day Outlaws’ is the latest film from Emily James, a film revealing the human side of a group of radical environmental activists. The film refuses to be drawn into the pitfalls of an activist film and focuses on the character’s stories and their motivations. Most engaging is Marina, who is obsessed with making tea, even in the midst of an aggressive eviction by the police. ‘We Are Poets’ tells the brilliant story of a group of young poets from Leeds, competing in Washington D.C. for the Brave Young Voices award. Lyrical, inspirational and offering an important, viable and ultra-cool alternative to gang culture, this film is a milestone in breaking down stereotypes and inspiring a generation to get out there and express themselves through the spoken word.
The number and diverse range of broadcast and independent documentaries at DocFest shows that the documentary form is still thriving. Yes, the television industry has changed; long gone are the days when commissioning editors would handover large sums of money which would fully finance a documentary film simply because they like the idea. But as one door shuts, others are opening. Many more organisations, institutions and charities are getting on board and helping to get documentaries made, and without demanding editorial control. If the film supports their work, many are keen to help. The recent and exciting phenomena of ‘crowd funding’ also seems to be gathering enormous pace. Crowd funding is where individuals, friends, members of organisations, in fact any citizen of the world who hears about the film, can buy into the film via a website. Rewards for funding can range from a signed DVD of the completed film, right through to receiving invitations to a premiere screening at film festivals, a mention in the credits, or being able to sit in on the editing process. Moving into genre movies, crowd funding becomes even more interesting, such as horror films, where some producers have offered crowd funders the option of being killed in any way that they want to be in the film. With documentaries, it is also often about the issue that the film highlights. Many people working in that field or who care about that issue may want to be involved in making these films happen. So, the reality is changing, but the future is looking bright for docos. As the saying goes, Just Do It.