Two of the documentary world’s most respected commissioners have spoken out against third-party funding of documentaries. Clive Whittingham looks at the issues.
Andy Warhol may well have been right when he said everybody would be famous for 15 minutes, but seldom has anybody’s spell in the spotlight started and ended as dramatically as that of Jason Russell.
Russell co-founded the Invisible Children organisation in 2004 to bring attention to the activities of the Lord’s Resistance Army and its leader Joseph Kony in Central Africa. He shot to fame earlier this year when his online documentary Kony 2012 drew 91 million views on YouTube.
However, he’s now equally well known online for his subsequent meltdown, during which he allegedly walked the streets of San Diego naked performing solitary sex acts in front of passing motorists.
Mette Hoffman Meyer, head of documentaries at Danish pubcaster DR, didn’t much care for the Kony documentary in the first place as it was made by an organisation with an axe to grind. She told C21: “Obviously, it was amazing to get such a big audience but a lot of people did not like what they saw. As a commissioning editor, you would never allow a film like that to go out on any responsible media distribution because it’s a single-minded, naïve story.”
This question of hidden influence on documentaries from corporations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), charities and individuals is a real bugbear for Hoffman Meyer. “When I started to commission films, documentary filmmakers came to me with ideas for stories inspired by indignation or something that was important in our society,” she told delegates at Sheffield Doc/Fest.
“They wanted to figure out what happened behind the scenes. They had no reason to fix the outcome. We still have filmmakers who work like that but recently more and more films are being made with a different narrative. They want to send the message of a specific interest group or one person about how the world should be.”
It’s a concern shared by the veteran editor of the BBC’s Storyville documentary strand Nick Fraser, who joined Hoffman Meyer in expressing concern in Sheffield.
Both Hoffman Meyer and Fraser are part of the Why Poverty? initiative, centring on a series of feature-length documentaries about global poverty entirely funded by pubcasters.
Fraser says filmmakers risk their integrity by straying too far from pubcasters. “I’ve encountered private investors, rich liberals, NGOs, charities, broadcasters – the whole lot,” Fraser says. “I can tell you, with my hand on my heart, the best people to work with are public broadcasters.
“There is no excuse for messages creeping in. You know at once there is something wrong; they’re not independent and they have a slant on them. In a way it puts an astonishing burden on the filmmaker, who has to say ‘I took money from Shell and it made no difference in my film.’”
But in this world of budget cuts and challenging finances, which Fraser acknowledges, is this a reasonable point to make? He admits there has been a “slippage” in the way news and docs are treated by UK broadcasters.
And two filmmakers who have produced work for the BBC and other broadcasters while working with corporations and interested parties railed against the suggestion that it affected the content of their work.
Phil Coates, who has worked with the BBC’s Natural History Unit in the past, now produces documentaries for Discovery and others about scientific exploration of inaccessible parts of the world, often with corporate funding. North Pole: Living on Thin Ice is currently in post-production and was part-funded by the Catlin Insurance Group, which received promotional photography and video clips from the trip in return. The scientists involved had their expedition funded and Coates says he was able to produce the documentary without influence.
“The key thing I’ve learnt is to separate what the sponsor wants – PR stories, stills photographs, bits of video to use online – from the documentary,” Coates tells C21. “You have to take each thing on a case-by-case basis. It comes down to integrity.
“It’s not going to suit all subject matter and genres, but it certainly works for the kind of projects I’m doing, where I’m going to the back of beyond.” Coates says it can cost upwards of US$100,000 just to reach the locations for his films and it would have been impossible to find a broadcaster willing to fund them.
Likewise Mat Hodgson, co-founder of UK indie Ad Hoc Films, would have struggled to find a broadcaster to fund his documentary Four Year Plan, about the fortunes of London football team Queens Park Rangers after it was taken over by a group of billionaires.
The film was initially commissioned by the club’s owners themselves, Formula 1 supremos Flavio Briatore and Bernie Ecclestone, and steel magnates Lakshmi Mittal and Amit Bhatia, with whom Hodgson had worked previously. Their plans for the club, until the very end of the film, fell farcically flat but the cameras kept rolling as Hodgson insisted on producing a ‘warts and all’ account.
He tells C21: “They put their faith and trust in the production company. I wouldn’t have worked under any remit where there was an editorial control issue. The hardest thing for a filmmaker is to get the money to make their film, so you have to look at all options. Our film wouldn’t have happened under the broadcast model. Long-term documentary has no history within broadcast as a commission. It’s high-risk from their point of view, and expensive.”
Fraser sounds a further note of caution. “Even if the company is mysteriously benign and just wants to give the filmmaker cash, how do I know the company is benign?” he asks.
But Hodgson says the safeguards for broadcasters now come much later in the process, when they view and pick up completed projects. “It’s naïve and blinkered to think that if the funding isn’t coming from us we don’t control it and therefore it’s going to be abused,” he says. “It is open to abuse but don’t assume it’s going to be abused. At Ad Hoc we have four or five strong ideas, concepts and access with everything ready to go. Broadcasters won’t greenlight them from a financial point of view. So what do we do? As filmmakers and storytellers, it’s our duty to find another way to get that story out there.”
Hodgson was able to provide the assurances broadcasters were looking for, and Four Year Plan aired earlier this year on BBC2 and TV2 in Norway.
The Britdoc Foundation has pursued funding for independent films from corporations, charities and NGOs since it was formed seven years ago. MD Jess Search says she’s keen to see a code of good practice brought in to allay broadcasters’ fears, and disagrees with the claim that documentaries not funded by public broadcasters are automatically tainted.
“What [Hoffman Meyer and Fraser] are saying is wilfully simplistic; it’s backward-looking and a knee-jerk reaction that doesn’t take into account the complexity and reality of the situation,” Search says. “There has been a slow but steady decline in the amount of funding from public broadcasters for films that myself, Nick and Mette would agree are important and we want to see made. There has been a clear reason to step outside the broadcast model.”
The sacrosanct issues, says Search, are the editorial and creative integrity of the project and transparency, so the audience knows who is backing it.
Like Coates and Hodgson, Search is keen to point out opportunities in the private sector that aren’t on offer from broadcasters, such as Britdoc’s deal with sports brand Puma that makes €5,000 (US$6,150) available to filmmakers to make a trailer of projects based on the initial idea.
Search also disagrees with an idea put forward by doc journalist Jennifer Merin, who writes for publications including the New York Times and LA Times, that filmmakers who accept funds or commissions from companies now are unable to produce work that goes against them in the future.
Merin expressed concern about the Focus Forward series of short films funded by General Electric and produced by doc makers as well known as Morgan Spurlock and Joe Berlinger. “Corporate funding of documentary film is a very slippery slope,” says Merin. “General Electric has commissioned 30 respected American filmmakers, some of whom have reputations beyond reproach and are icons of integrity, and identified their corporate branding with their names. Have these filmmakers – who have made films about fresh water, energy and toxic waste – lost something of their position to take a firm stand on these issues because of their affiliation with General Electric?”
But Search says: “I’m not sure how it compromises them from turning around at a later date and telling another sort of story. There are journalists who work for The Times who also criticise Murdoch.”
Britdoc helped to fund The End of the Line, a documentary about dwindling fishing stocks funded by the WWF and supermarket chain Waitrose and supported by Prince Charles and Greenpeace. Search points out those four would not work together on other topics, and Britdoc is not precluded from working against them on other subjects in the future.
Broadcasters are right to be wary of documentaries being influenced by those who support them, but they should also be careful to not tar everyone with the same brush.