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06 October 2010

The End of the Line for Documentary?

This news article by Kevin Maher was suggested by DFA member, David Forbes:

Across the board and the world, traditional documentary filmmaking has totally collapsed

It’s not quite Dragon’s Den. But it’s pretty close. For in a small lecture theatre in Mayfair, eight nervous candidates are throwing themselves at industry bigwigs and creative personnel in the hope of securing financial investment and business strategies for their long-cherished projects. However, unlike their televisual counterparts, the candidates here at the “Good Pitch” festival, which has colonised the grounds of the Royal Institution for the day, are all professional filmmakers. Their projects are documentaries, and what is ultimately at stake is nothing less than the future of nonfiction movie-making in this country.

Meet, for instance, 30-year-old Hugh Hartford. An aspiring documentarian whose previous work, Us Now, was broadcast on More4, Hartford has come to the Good Pitch toting a charming documentary about table tennis for the aged, called Ping Pong. The film is 60 per cent finished, and Hartford is hoping to secure funds for post-production, and to allow him to fly around the globe interviewing the pensioners who entered the world table tennis championships in Mongolia earlier this year. “We’ve already filmed the ending,” Hartford says. “And it works out really nicely. But one of the players, Dorothy from Australia, turns 100 in October, and we want to fly out to film her birthday. It would be a brilliant opener!”

Similarly, the acclaimed filmmaker Penny Woolcock ( Tina Goes Shopping) is also here with her documentary, about homelessness in London, called On the Streets. Woolcock’s film is finished and requires no funding, but she is hoping that today’s key meetings will ultimately effect a change in government policy on homelessness. “It’s a mental health issue,” she says. “Not a housing problem!” Or there’s Amir Amirani, a veteran of the television programmes, Arena and Timewatch, and who comes to Good Pitch bearing only a trailer and an idea — for a documentary called We Are Many, that will describe the day of February 15, 2003, when 30 million people in 800 cities around the planet marched against the impending war in Iraq. To realise his vision Amirani needs, well, lots of money.

The Good Pitch begins with a speech from David Abraham, the chief executive of Channel 4, that says something like, “Documentary filmmaking is at the heart of what we do at Channel 4, but, er, sorry, we don’t have any money left”. He is followed swiftly on to the podium by Jochen Zeitz, the chief executive officer of Puma. Zeitz is a smooth-talking German whose company has lots of money and who wants to get involved in documentaries because, he says, he wants to contribute to a better world and “a world that is more peaceful, safer, sustainable and more creative”. He then pauses and announces, with a f lourish: “We call it Puma-vision!”

And then, before you can say, “Branded documentaries? Isn’t that a bit, well . . .” the day begins in earnest, and names as hefty as Gucci, Pepsi, Tesco, Google and Saatchi & Saatchi are duly bandied about and promise a brave new world of non-fiction filmmaking where everyone benefits, where audiences become activists and where the world is changed, ultimately, for the better.

Yet this phenomenon is not exclusive to eight filmmakers in Central London. Across the planet and across the board, traditional documentary filmmaking has collapsed. A media form that dates back to the very origins of cinema itself, to the 1895

Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory short (the first film), and traces itself historically through Robert Flaherty documentaries in the 1920s, wartime propaganda films, Sixties cinéma vérité and right up to the Michael Moore years of Bowling for Columbine and beyond, is essentially no more. “We, as film-makers, can’t keep working with a business model that’s broken,” says Louie Psihoyos, the Oscar-winning director of The Cove. That film, a provocative and visually stunning $5 million (£3.2 million) production about dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan, was a winner on paper, he says, but nowhere else. “It was a successful movie in terms of audience reaction and critical appraisal. But we are still hideously in debt, to the tune of $2.4 million, and with no chance really to recover it.”

Psihoyos nonetheless believes that the changes affecting modern documentaries are twofold. The first, in an era of global recession, is economic. There is little money out there to fund documentaries, and even less to be made from watching them. Consequently, his next movie, which is called The Singing Planet and analyses the extinction of species around the globe, will be screened on the internet, in cinemas and on television without charge. “My goal is to raise enough money to give it away. And I’m nearly halfway there,” he says.

The second and, perhaps, even more profound change affecting the genre is ideological. Documentaries are not about giving us information any more, but about transforming us into activists.

“To me documentaries are running out of time to simply inform and create awareness,” Psihoyos says. “That used to be the buzzword about documentaries during the past 20 years. ‘We’re just there to create awareness and to be fair!’ Well, I still want to be fair, but I also want to inspire audiences to take action. Give people the facts, yes. But it’s more important to give them the tools to create change.”

Thus, throughout the industry, a contemporary documentary is now perceived as incomplete unless it arrives equipped with its own internet campaign and so-called “outreach programme”. The End of the Line, for instance, examined overfishing and subsequently forced Waitrose, Pret a Manger and Marks & Spencer to support sustainable fishing practices. Likewise, the eco nightmare predictions in The Age of Stupid triggered the “10-10” campaign, which asks companies to pledge an emissions reduction of 10 per cent by the end of 2010. The modern documentary film is consequently placed in the paradoxical position of downgrading itself to a mere component of change within a wider campaign that it, ultimately, inspired in the first place.

And what’s wrong with that? asks Jess Search, chief executive of the Channel 4 Britdoc foundation, and someone who has been tracking and fuelling the changing shape of modern documentaries. “If you’re making a feature doc now, you want a version that can play at major festivals, a TV version that can play for 60 minutes and a shorter online version too,” she says. “You want a Facebook group, and a film that can be sold in different territories, and turned into different things for different avenues.”

Search is excited by the breakdown of old business practices and rigid filmmaking methods, and instead sees only opportunities in the new template — where the films are flexible, where funding can come from anywhere, and where social change is the ultimate aim. “I think documentary filmmakers have often been motivated by wanting to draw attention to something that was happening in the world and needed to be examined,” she says. “But what’s changed over the past ten years is that filmmakers have become smarter and more strategic about exactly how to use their content to do just that.”

Perhaps the most refined example of the new template is the 20-minute animated online documentary The Story of Stuff. Written and narrated by Annie Leonard, an environmental activist, it is a short, sharp, eco-shock of a film that exposes and analyses the excesses of consumer society with a tone (occasionally wry) and timeframe that makes Al Gore’s big screen An Inconvenient Truth look lumbering and ineffective. “When we first put it online, at the end of 2007, we said that success would be anything up to 50,000 hits over a long period of time,” Leonard says. “We got 50,000 in the first day. And now we’re already past 12 million.” The Story of Stuff has spawned a series of sequels ( The Story of Bottled Water, The Story of Cosmetics), has been shown in schools across America, and has earned Leonard the enmity of a large swath of angry consumers. “A small but scary element are sending me repeated death threats, saying that I’m undermining American democracy,” she says. “We had to get the FBI into the office, it got that bad.” If the film hit a nerve this was partially due to the format, the ease with which it was disseminated across the web and, crucially, how effortlessly it turned viewers into activists (a link on The Story of Stuff page leads you into the anti-consumerist fight). “If you look at a big screen feature like The Cove,” says the Story of Stuff producer Erica Priggen, “they did a good job at weaving an engagement campaign into that film. But by its very nature they needed to trust that people would go home from the theatre and start to take action. Whereas with our film you are right in front of the resources you need to take the next step. It’s just a click away.” Better still, Priggen says, the ultimate aim of an online campaigning film is to make the viewers feel some sense of ownership over it. “Having the viewer being able to identify themselves in the story, and see themselves as a catalyst for change is very important. Viewers are starting to feel like storytellers as well.”

And yet, without wanting to discredit a global movement that clearly aims to benefit the future of mankind, there is something fundamentally counter-creative happening. In the heady rush to embrace the possibility of change and activism, we are also witnessing an attendant slide away from cinematic artistry. Eco-documentaries in particular, from The Vanishing of the Bees to Black Gold and Food Inc are being made by impassioned experts who are devoted to their cause, but are mostly lacking in all but the most rudimentary movie-making skills. The need to reshuffle movies into feature, television and online edits can only exacerbate this syndrome and push us closer to the day when all documentaries will feature angry people telling us that we’re going to die unless we click something, fast.

Lucy Walker, the award-winning director of the forthcoming “loose nukes” documentary Countdown to Zero, is one filmmaker who is uncomfortable with the foregrounding of social change over artistic content. “I come at it from a completely different perspective,” she says. “I am a filmmaker first and foremost. I am interested only in making 90-minute narratives that are engaging films that emotionally connect people to the world around them.

Countdown to Zero is obviously topic driven, yes, but I never started it from a place of activism. What I was trying to do was to make a brilliant film. But in terms of what people actually do with the information they get in it, well, that’s not really my primary interest.”

Walker instead eulogises about the power of the “well-crafted film” as the benchmark to which all documentarians should aspire, and says that we should have faith in their ability to move us, rather than demand that they change us. Her next film, Waste Land, for instance, is a stunning portrait of life in the largest landfill in Rio de Janeiro. A deftly executed and heartbreaking tribute to the city’s “pickers” (who trawl through the garbage for valuable recyclable materials), the film is already a multiple award winner. But more importantly, Walker says: “I am now a more vigilant recycler than ever, because of the film. And so I feel that if you make a powerful connection with a film like that, it can affect you.”

Despite her scepticism around the foregrounding of social activism, Walker is confident about the future — the new funding paradigms that will eventually emerge, the portable camera technology that allows filmmakers previously unimaginable access to every conceivable situation, and the new filmmakers themselves, who are rising to the challenge of filming in a financial vacuum. “We’re living in a moment of tremendous change, and the industry is spitting out filmmakers every day, and can’t afford them in the first place,” she says. “And yet it’s still a good time. It’s like the Wild West in some ways. It’s the gold rush without the remuneration!”

Meanwhile, back at the Good Pitch, the Kool-Aid is going down by the bucket load. It’s the end of the day and Zeitz has just given Ping Pong £7,000 to cut a trailer and take two flights to Australia. Everyone keeps saying the words “paradigm shift” and “awareness” and “global change”. Penny Woolcock has not managed to shift government policy on homelessness but she’s been given some good tips by James Purnell, the former Labour MP and current chairman of the Institute for Public Policy Research. And while lots of people have fallen over themselves to congratulate Amirani on his We Are Many idea, they have done so without signing any cheques. Backstage Zeitz is in ebullient mood and promises that there is nothing nefarious about a corporation like Puma getting involved with hard-hitting documentaries.

“I believe that we need a paradigm shift as a society,” he says. “We need to collaborate. We can’t any more say, ‘Evil companies!’ Because who runs companies? Human beings do. We all need to come together to solve the pressing issues of the day. Businesses have to transform themselves from a capitalistic model to an eco capitalistic model.” Zeitz makes a convincing case for a healthy, co-branded documentary future. And he will go on, throughout the evening, authorising cheques and grants for several more of the lucky filmmakers who have gathered here.

And though it’s difficult to stop imagining the pitfalls of this creative future, and to shake the worrying mental picture of pickers in Pumas in Waste Land 2: The Clean-Up, there are always the words of Psihoyos to remember. Hewas neither optimistic, nor pessimistic. He simply ref lected: “This is going to sound crazy, I know, but the Universe tends to support people who care. The money seems to find a way into the coffers if you put the message out there. When you are in the save-the-world business there seems to be just enough finance out there to support it, whether we make money or not. And we usually don’t.”

Waste Land is playing at the London Film Festival on October 15-16


Unknown said...

Great Article. From which website does it originate?

DFA said...

Hi Ryley - I think David said the article came from The Times, but you can also browse this site to see if it's there:

Good luck!