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Viewpoints from the frontline of content.

Conspicuous by absence

By Clive Whittingham 18-06-2012

DOC/FEST: The running theme of Doc/Fest 2012 was things you couldn’t see, rather than things that you could. Clive Whittingham reports from Sheffield.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Amidst the usual raft of high-quality screenings and factual commissions there was a sense in Sheffield last week that the things you don’t see are more important than those you do.

Whether it’s the absence of Current TV from the UK’s EPGs, the last-minute withdrawal of the Chinese delegation due to attend the festival or the massive corporations funding factual programming with thinly veiled agendas of their own, most of the talking points were about things you won’t find in the panel sessions.

The Chinese withdrawal said more about the problems facing factual programme makers in that part of the world than it did about Doc/Fest. A delegation of 10 channel executives from CCTV9, Phoenix TV, Golden Eagle Documentary Channel and others was due in town for meetings and a session on coproduction opportunities in that part of the world.

This was part of a global push during 2012 sparked by new legislation from the Chinese government aimed at building the country’s television production community and promoting the country abroad. There was a huge Chinese delegation at the recent MipTV in Cannes and executives are due at Sunny Side of the Doc in France later this month.

But they pulled out at the 11th hour, officially citing restrictions on the number of trips they can make to Europe. It didn’t take long for a fuller picture to emerge though.

In a statement, festival director Heather Croall said: “Officially, we have been told the reason they cancelled is related to a restriction on the number of travel trips they can make to Europe. Unofficially though, there were a number of difficult conversations regarding films we are screening in our programme that are critical of the Chinese Government.”

Delegates were told that a series of heated discussions had taken place between the festival organisers and the Chinese about the decision to screen Alison Clayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a film about the Chinese artist and activist who is under house arrest by the country’s authorities. This culminated in the Chinese Embassy telephoning organisers the day before the festival demanding the film be pulled from the schedule and then, when that request was refused, the delegation’s withdrawal followed soon after.

“Editorial independence is critical to the Sheffield DocFest programme and so allowing any delegation of any kind to have influence on the film programme is an idea that we could never contemplate – we cannot censor our film programme,” said Hussain Currimbhoy, the festival’s film programmer. “We air documentaries that turn the lens on the Chinese way of life, just as we have films which examine the American, British, Russian and Canadian establishments. Examining different world cultures is a key part of any documentary film festival.”

This theme of unwanted external influence on documentary films has become a running one this week. Picking up on a concern she first aired at MipDoc earlier this year, Mette Hoffman Meyer, head of documentaries at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, reiterated her belief that impartiality is coming under threat from corporations and charities funding factual programming.

In a Thursday session titled Fund Your Doc, But at What Price? Hoffman was joined by BBC Storyville editor Nick Fraser in encouraging filmmakers to exercise caution when seeking finance for their projects.

Hoffman said: “When I first started to commission films, documentary filmmakers came to me with ideas for stories that were born out of indignation or something important taking place in our society or the world.

“Most of the time they wanted to figure out what was happening and what went on behind the scenes. They wanted to find out political scandals. They had no reason to fix the outcome of the research or the film; they just wanted to document the events and wanted us to think.

“We still have filmmakers who think like that, but recently more and more films are being made with a different narrative. Films have very fixed endings and they want you to see the world the way they see it. They want to send the message of a specific interest group on how the world should be. They are used as vehicles to tell the story that the funder wants.”

Hoffman drew comparisons with propaganda films from the Cold War. Fraser concurred and held up the forthcoming Why Poverty? strand of eight factual programmes, entirely funded by public broadcasters, as an example of best practice.

He said: “I have encountered private investors, rich liberals, NGOs, charities, broadcasters, the whole lot. I can tell you with my hand on my heart the best people to work with are public broadcasters. We managed to fund these eight shows wholly through broadcasters so they are as independent as you can get under present circumstances.

“It all comes down to independence; the freedom to make what you want and have it shown to many, many people. I don’t see the point of being a documentary filmmaker if these conditions don’t obtain.”

All well and good, but filmmakers have to find funding from somewhere and increasingly stringent economic times make that difficult. Is it practical, or fair, to say to filmmakers that one increasingly lucrative funding path should be completely off limits to them? Audience participation later in the session suggested there are companies willing to fund films and relinquish all editorial control.

A session earlier in the day titled A Manifesto for Emerging Documentary Talent highlighted the problem. Sheffield’s town hall council chamber was absolutely packed, with hoards of people standing at the back, just to get some snippet of information from the BBC’s Charlotte Moore or Channel 4’s Stuart Cosgrove on how they can get a foot in the door.

Jane Mote, non-executive director of relaunched online filmmaker resource The Smalls, also sat on the panel and later told C21 that the demise of Current TV in the UK, where she previously been MD, had left a vacuum for budding filmmakers.

Mote said: “After the closure of Current, throughout Doc/Fest it’s been very apparent that people who had their first break on the channel now wonder where they can go and what they can do to get noticed.” Perhaps not surprising that some find cash from sources with ulterior motives a necessary evil then.

But there was a sense of real optimism and bullishness at Doc/Fest as well. On the opening night, Esther Van Messel, CEO of Swiss documentary distributor First Hand Films, brought the house down with her assertion that “fiction is for sissies”. Watch out for that one on the front of the Doc/Fest catalogue next year.

But perhaps the highlight was the lighthearted, uplifting manifesto and utopian vision of factual television in the future from independent filmmaker Peter Wintonick.

Wintonick said: “In the future, the words documentary and democracy will fuse together, documentary as an art form will be reborn. Access to the system will be blown wide open, fair-trade media will inform the future, freedom will be the new currency and will be issued in units of love and tenderness. Fiction will cease to exist because people will find pleasure in non-fiction.

“Documentaries will save the world. Documentary makers will be appreciated and paid for their services. Robots will direct all documentaries allowing us to take a well-deserved rest and happiness will rule so there will no longer be a need for sad documentaries, or any documentaries at all, but we will continue to make them out of habit.”

today's correspondent

Clive Whittingham C21Media
Clive Whittingham Perspective

Clive Whittingham is news editor at C21 Media and also edits C21's Factual Weekly newsletter.

Prior to joining the company as senior reporter in 2011, he worked for several regional newspapers in the UK, including the Northants Evening Telegraph. He has also worked for The Daily Telegraph.