Docs as far as the eye can See

February 13th, 2010 posted by Helen Jack

I’m a big fan of Brighton. I’d argue that  it’s the best coastal city in the UK. I visited it lots as a kid and ended up studying film there for three years. It has an almost mythical status for students and is one of the few places you can still find dreadlocked boys beating bongos and protesting on campus. This is both annoying and comforting in equal measure.

The city is an artistic hub, with it’s own international film festival (Cine-City), museums, galleries, cafes and music venues. With this fertile ground of creativty it’s no surprise that Brighton is full of filmmakers and once a year hosts  the much-loved, See. In its fifth year, See is a three day docs festival that hosts screenings, director Q&A’s and workshops with some of the UK’s top professionals. Highlights this year include An Evening with Louis Theroux, a Nick Broomfield Masterclass and screenings such as Beadie Finzi’s Only When I Dance and Marc Isaacs’s Men of the City.

Of course, I’ll be making a trip to the seaside to host a screening of some of the best UK docs of recent decades in our 4docs shorts programme. Joining  me will be the lovely Pinny Grylls (dir. Peter and Ben) and James Lees (dir. The Apology Line, Pockets) who will provide a live director’s commentary and Q&A. We ran something similar at Enounters Shorts Film Festival back in November and it worked really well – it’s a real pleasure to have the directors in person to talk through their work and answer questions. If you’re in Brighton, please join us.

Also – for all the budding filmmakers out there – join me for the session before, Shooting People: Pitching for Docs, where a bunch of filmmakers will bravely step up to the podium to pitch their idea to a panel of industry experts. We’re lucky enough to be joined by Maxyne Franklin (Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation), Charlotte Dale (Current TV) and Charlie Phillips (Doc/Fest), who all know their stuff inside out. This is a great opportunity to pick up some priceless tips and get a feel for the real world of pitching to commissioners.

Small docs on the big screen: 4docs hits Birds eye View Film Festival

February 7th, 2010 posted by Helen Jack

During the winter months of ’09 I spent countless evenings sprawled on the sofa watching hundreds of short docs for Birds Eye View Film Festival (4 – 12 March, 2010). Having worked on the shorts programming team in ’08 I was keen to get stuck in again, but this time looking solely at documentaries. I was interested to know what kind of films were being made; what were people concerned about; what was the zeitgeist? And, of course, I was also looking to find some intriguing tales.

Finally after much debating with myself (the pitfalls of programming alone) I selected these seven shorts which I thought were really quite special. As well as the five films in the 4docs programme, you can also see Slaves by Hanna Heilborn and David Aronowitsch (Opening Night) and Kirran and the Hatchmaker by Amy Rose (UK Shorts).


Utopia, Part 3: the World’s Largest Shopping Mall

Dir. Carrie Lozano and Sam Green, USA 2009, 14 min

If you build it, they will come. Or maybe not. Located near Guangzhou in China is the world’s largest shopping mall, which remains desolate years after opening. A cautionary consumerist tale.

Read the rest of this entry »

And Finally: Benjamin Wigley

January 22nd, 2010 posted by Helen Jack

I’m very pleased to welcome the third of our BTG filmmakers who, like Amy and Jonathan, will be giving their unique perspective on the course. Benjamin Wigley is an independent filmmaker based in Nottingham. He works primarily in the public sector producing content for organisations such as Save the Children, Oxfam, Wateraid, The Arts Council and the National Trust. Ben’s first production was a film charting his journey to Siberia to visit a religious community of 5,000 people for a celebration of  their leader, a man they believe to be the second coming, called ‘In Search of the Vissarion’. Creatively, Ben tries to produce work that is both visually and intellectually stimulating, dealing with themes such as hope, obsession and fate.

Benjamin Wigley

BW: “The first BtG workshop led by Peter Symes was very insightful and the projects this year are of a very high standard – you can be certain it’ll be tough to get selected for the final 7. The projects range from old people in Arizonia living under constant threat of a bio-hazard attack, to a blind photographer.

I’m sure all the members of the workshop will be entrenched with the dreaded question “but what is the film?” which is thoroughly ingrained into my psyche, and is my new boomerang question when developing a pitch. I had huge input from all filmmakers and workshop leaders on my project and I feel I’ve made progress by boiling my concept down to a descriptive one liner and title. Despite having a lot of reserachnunder my belt, it’s a tricky puzzle to work out.

My project is about fashion designer Paul Smith, his ‘Stamped Objects’ and their mystery sender. Paul has been receiving random and bizarre objects in the post, each unwrapped with the postage stamped directly on the objects, for over 15 years.  I managed to film at Paul Smith’s London offices, and interview the man himself. As you might imagine, he was very comfortable on camera and I was able to shoot around 30 mins of interview with him talking about the ‘Stamped Objects’ and their story. I also interviewed the receptionist and shot the objects that were there.
Now I need to go through the footage and do some research considering the ideas and concepts that the workshop has helped me to develop. The group itself is extremely supportive and everyone wants to offer suggestions that might improve each project, which Peter even said, “is rare and something to cherish.” I’m very much looking forward to the next workshop weekend in February and in the meantime you can check out my site for regular updates.”

Next Up: Jonathan Carr

January 22nd, 2010 posted by Helen Jack

In yesterday’s post Amy shared her thoughts on the first of Bridging the Gap’s workshops. Today I’m pleased to welcome Jonathan Carr to the fore to talk about his project Get Luder . Following a 10-year career in national journalism, Jonathan retrained as a filmmaker at the New York Film Academy. After working in various jobs in the film industry in London, he moved back to his native Glasgow to set up Plainview Films, an independent video production company that produces short films and offers hands-on filmmaking courses and budget video equipment rental. Plainview projects and collaborations have picked up awards and been shown at international film festivals.

Jonathan Carr

JC:  “Funding schemes and project workshops often seem a little like X Factor for filmmakers. One fellow participant in this year’s Bridging the Gap talked of a friend who had been involved in an initiative in which 10 projects were to be funded from 11 workshoppers. Even Simon Cowell might think that brutal! I was told BTG was different, and so it proved.

This was the first of three development weekends before final pitching in March. Chaired by the immensely warm and inspiring documentary guru Peter Symes, each of the 12 in our group introduced their films in a sentence, and then developed them by opening the ideas up to the room.

My project focuses on the Brutalist architect Owen Luder, who faces the prospect of seeing his three key buildings demolished in his own lifetime. One is already gone, one has been left to rot, and the third, the Dunston Rocket in Gateshead, is scheduled to come down in the next few months. Each building has, over the years, attracted huge amounts of criticism, one in particular having been voted the ugliest building in the UK.

I found the story irresistible, particularly as Luder is in his eighties, surely a time in one’s life when you look back over your achievements and failures. My writing partner and I researched every news item available, and tracked down the key players. We tore down to London on the overnight train, and met Luder in his plush apartment in the shadow of Big Ben. Rather than the bitter, broken man I had expected, however, Owen was open, charming and pragmatic. What was our story now? I was hoping the workshop would help me focus.

Remarkably, there were no pumped egos or shrinking violets in the group, and any comments that strayed close to criticism were always taken in the right spirit – with a bright smile masking a seething undercurrent of anger and resentment. Actually, the group was enthusiastic, open and encouraging, and every project was received and dissected with equal enthusiasm. Even though each was wildly different, there were some common themes: alternative living, intriguing mysteries, unusual spaces, eccentric characters and a lack of working electricity. We travelled from Arizona through Japan to Beirut, and ended up in a bowling green in Balham. Food was eaten, drinks were taken, relationships were cemented and our projects were turned upside down.

My idea seemed well received, but it became clear that I had three or four films in my head and that I should concentrate on one. We were all in agreement that Luder himself was the film. By stripping away all the peripheral aspects of the story, I can now see a clear way to progress, and the group’s interventions were invaluable.

Once it was all over, we all agreed we couldn’t wait for the second round – particularly since we hadn’t lost anyone along the way.”

Bridging the Gap: Short doc filmmakers start their journey

January 20th, 2010 posted by Helen Jack

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll have noticed me pipe up now and then about Bridging the Gap. This scheme – run out of  Edinburgh College of Art – is the only documentary initiative for cinema in the UK offering training linked to production. Seeing as 4docs is all about short documentaries (as our strap line suggests), it seemed only fitting to follow some of the shortlisted filmmakers as they wade through workshops, wrestle their creative demons and eventually pitch to win a commission. It’s a bit like X Factor but with more emotional nourishment and original ideas. There are also fewer silly names and dance routines. In fact, why isn’t someone filming this and putting it on Saturday night TV? We could all sit in ITV’s studio audience wearing T-shirts emblazoned with pictures of our favourite filmmaker’s faces.

Before I get my fabric paints out, I’d like to introduce you to the first of our filmmakers reporting from the frontline – Amy Rose.

Amy Rose

Amy is a freelance filmmaker, mainly making documentaries. She did a Masters in Directing at Edinburgh College of Art, where she made Kirran and the Hatchmaker. This short documentary about a small boy and his chickens has played at festivals in the UK and abroad, and got selected for the Skillset Trailblazers strand at Edinburgh Film Festival ’09. Amy also works as a documentary and music camera person, and worked in TV for a few years before going to ECA. Amy’s project for BTG is called Twinset.

AR: “My film is called Twinset and is about a 61 year old transvestite called Jennifer, who lives in Holland-on-Sea in Essex. My best mate Jess met Jennifer a few years ago, when she was working for Marc Isaacs on his film about Frinton. Luckily for us, Jennifer didn’t end up in the film, so we went back to see her in October this year and our new film grew feet.

The workshop was billed as being about “research and development”. Basically, we all sat around a big table and discussed the 12 projects: 45 minutes for each one, 6 per day. It started with Peter asking us all to describe our films in one sentence. I was first and mine was spectacularly bad. Beginning with mild humiliation was quite fun, but going first was a little strange. Everyone else was working out how honest they should be and I felt a little woolly round the edges. I would have preferred to go a bit later in the day when the gloves had come off.

The big challenge, as always, is combing through the chaos to find the story: people’s lives are so full, and I get enchanted by their complexity. Deciding what I really want to explore and how I want to do it is difficult. In the past, I have made a few films – both documentary and fiction. One in particular is the main springboard for this one – more in approach and methodology than subject though. It’s called Kirran and the Hatchmaker, and is about a small boy who lives in the middle of Wales, writing wild stories and raising chickens. I shot the film over the space of about 4 months, ending up with countless hilarious moments but, overall, there was 35 hours of footage and a lot of different films that could have come out of the edit. I don’t really want that to happen again, but it’s probably inevitable.

The danger with these communal workshops is that people make so many suggestions that you lose sight of your own ideas for the film. Inevitably, people respond to what they find engaging… and that can be a confusing thing. Clarity! I will find it under a rock somewhere along the way.

The next workshop is in the middle of February, with Danish documentary guru Tue Steen Muller. It’s a “pitching and training workshop”… before that I need to start shooting to have some material to show. Before I start shooting I need to get my head around what I’m doing, so back to the grindstone; back to Essex…

Our 3 Minute Wonder winners announced

December 29th, 2009 posted by Helen Jack

A massive thanks to all of the 4docs filmmakers for uploading their films to the ‘Good to Know’ competition supported by the The Co-operative, and a huge congratulations to our four winners – Ashton John, Andrew Hinton, Ben Jones and Jeremy Riggall.

With over 200 film submissions it was pretty fierce competition and a tough selection process for the judging panel, but we’re all really proud of the final selection and hope you’ll find things you think are good to know.
The films will be screening on Channel 4 as part of the 3 Minute Wonder from January 11th – 14th at 7.55pm. Alternatively, you can see them here - Please and Thanks, Banking on Change , Open Film Cluband Dreams of a Dinner Lady .

Shortlisted Filmmakers for Bridging the Gap

December 29th, 2009 posted by Helen Jack

Emerging from my post-xmas hibernation, I’ve opened my eyes (and my inbox) after a week’s worth of food-gauging, film-consuming and present-handling. Trawling through emails, I searched for golden nuggets of doc news, and alas, amongst the junk, I found you something to chew on.

I’ve talked about Bridging the Gap in previous posts (dig back through if you need updating), and I’m excited to see that they’ve announced their shortlisted filmmakers. This year, Bridging the Gap asked filmmakers to submit a treatment for a short doc around the theme of ‘Surprise’. From 125 submissions, they selected twelve to take part in their 2010 Bridging the Gap Production Scheme, which will help filmmakers develop their ideas through a series of workshops over the next three months, resulting in a pitch in March to have the film commissioned. For those of you based in Glasgow, you should pop along to the public masterclasses at Edinburgh College of Art – the first one is on 22 January at 14:00 and will feature Swiss filmmaker Peter Liechti.

The shortlisted filmmakers are Amy Rose, Edinburgh (Twinset), Benjamin Wigley, Nottingham (PS Your Mystery Sender), Derville Quigley, Belfast (No Toes), Emma Barnie, London (Switched Off) Eric Robinson, Edinburgh (Remembering Yellow), Holly Elson, Stratford (Letter to my Father), Ilinca Calugareanu, Manchester (Rosha-Mura), Jonathan Carr, Glasgow (Get Luder), Michelle Coomber, London (Lost Every Day), Rana Ayoub, Edinburgh (On Off), Sam Firth, Mallaig (Surprise! Your Body is Eating Itself), Tim Travers Hawkins, Canterbury (Surprise AZ). Of these twelve, seven will be commissioned and receive up to £16,000. Lots of luck to all the filmmakers and big well done for getting shortlisted.

Things beginning with D: Doc Heads, D-Word and Doc Marathon – Delightful!

December 12th, 2009 posted by Helen Jack

Doc Heads teamLast night saw the fourth (and most successful) Doc Heads night in London, with another strong programme of shorts and a great evening of bar talk – hats off to Prime Focus for shouting a generous tab. The intimate Brick Lane venue results in a pleasant cramming of bodies, letting you meet people with the turn of a head. I discovered the ladies toilet is also a hot spot for meeting new filmmakers (who knew?). Maybe the next Doc Heads will see people pitching ideas over toilet doors and leaving cards in hand towel dispensers.Filmmakers Joshua Neale (middle) and Tom Swindell (r)

The DH team pride themselves on showing quality docs, whether they were made last week or five years ago. This is great for those of us who missed gems like Karaoke Soul (Joshua Neale, 2007) the first time round. Neale’s film stood out last night for both its expressive characters and original style; with tracking shots and a use of music that wouldn’t be out of place in an artfully contsructed feature, Karaoke Soul reminded me of British cinema at its best. The film looks at locals in a Lancashire town who share one pinnyinterest – the escapism once a week of singing karaoke at their local pub. Following a young mother, a visually impared Queen fanatic and a single father who channels remorse through the lyrics of others, Karaoke Soul is a humble portrayal of the healing powers born from expression and creativity. It’s down to personal taste, I know, but I’m a sucker for films that show a darker, more cynical underbelly through a lens that’s beautiful but not beautified. Other films in the programme were Pinny Grylls’s lovely Peter and Ben (2008), Eva Weber’s Steel Homes (2008) and Tom Swindell’s Felix’s Machines (2009) – an inspired choice.

On to festivals…

This week, one of the most important festivals in the UK film calendar announced it’s line up. I recommend you snap up tickets to London Short Film Festival‘s Night of the Living Docs strand, which last year proved to be a marathon of films well worth staying up for. They’re screening some good’ns – I recommend catching Hunter (2009) by Federico Urdaneta, Kirran and the Hatchmaker (2009) by Amy Rose and Photograph of Jesus (2009) by Laurie Hill. Bunking down in in the Roxy Bar & Screen for a night of doc indulgence sounds like the perfect antidote to a cold January night. And whilst we’re on the topic of London festivals, I’d like to remind you that submissions for East End Film Festival are still open.

Some ramblings…

Finally, I thought I’d post something a friend of mine wrote in response to D-Word’s five day forum debate with Jon Reiss, author of Think Outside the Box-Office – The Ultimate Guide to Film Distribution and Marketing for the Digital Era. Tom’s response was a little sceptical, but refreshingly so. As Debra Zimmerman said at Doc/Fest a couple of months back – aren’t we all a little tired of talking about “new models of distribution?” I know, I know – we can’t ignore the white elephant, but it was interesting to hear Tom’s frustration (and fear) of what DIY distribution means to some filmmakers. On one hand it undoubtedly brings power back to the filmmaker (at last!), but with that, it also brings added responsibility and a fear that maybe we’re all going to end up forcing our films into a formulaic marketing spaghetti machine, resulting in thousands of blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds around people’s projects, eventually filling our heads with an indistinguishable noise. Maybe he has a point. Though, I’m also a believer in the utopian undertones that these discussions bring. I shall stop rambling, and pass you over to Tom.

In his filmmaking opus Think Outside the Box-Office – The Ultimate Guide to Film Distribution and Marketing for the Digital Era, Jon Reiss (Bomb It, Better Living Through Circuitry) has created an impressiveencyclopedic tome that attempts to navigate its way through the murky waters of DIY film distribution. In the new year he plans to expand this into a tools website, where filmmakers will be able to share advice, including the names of ‘safe’ organisations to work with.

Through the documentary forum site The D Word, Jon is currently engaged in a five-day forum debate on the importance of DIY and other alternative distribution models. The questions raised have been varied and plentiful, with a general emphasis on the the individual importance of networking and hosting sites, whilst also accommodating more specific queries on the best DVD replication companies.

It’s hard not to admire Jon’s fresh approach to marketing and distribution, alongside other digital trailblazers such as Peter Broderick, Lance Weiler and Ted Hope, who are injecting new life into the old model. However, I find myself feeling somewhat detached and cynical at some of these changes; my own anxiety to this changing landscape is in part due to my lack of knowledge in this area. When first reading about the posibilities of DIY distribution, instead of seeing it as a potential life raft, I couldn’t help but view it as a distraction from what I think is most important – the film. In one of his forum posts, Jon states that your marketing strategy needs to kick in ‘as early as possible,’ a view that is all well and good if you have a team of people, however, if you’re one little person trying to deal with the day to day stresses of filmmaking, the reality is that you don’t have time for this. I also worry that premature promotion of a film (this, Jon suggests, should begin before the first shoot) will create a pressure to meet audience expectations that might not be present when the project is wrapped.I say this from experience. The film I recently finished endured so many changes, that anyone who had shaped certain expectations in their head would have been sorely disappointed when it was finally shown. I don’t pretend to know what the solution is – I’m very much a novice – however, my gut instinct tells me that a film needs room to develop organically, rather than  being molded by the expectations and hype of a faceless audience. Maybe I’m just anxious about learning a whole process, but I figured someone should hear about the filmmaker’s fear in this ongoing debate

Tales of the City

December 8th, 2009 posted by Helen Jack

New York characters in sound and images: One in 8 Million

New York characters in sound and images: One in 8 Million

As 2009 draws to a close, so does our It’s good to know…a film competition. Submissions closed on 30 November and we were delighted to see over 200 entries in only a couple of months. Well done 4doc’ers, we knew you had it in you. But it’s in the hands of the gods now as the esteemed judging panel (Jesus, Joseph and Mary) sit down to watch the films and make their decision. But rest assured, the winning films will be announced before 2010 creeps in so you shouldn’t have bitten all your nails off by then. We encourage you to still watch all the films in competition and ‘heart’ them until your pumping organ’s content. Whilst this doesn’t effect the outcome of the competition, we think you’ll certainly get a lot out of watching them. Support each other. It’s nice.

Speaking of great storytelling, I’d like to direct your attention to The New York Times’ One in 8 Million project. Working in a similar vein to Austin Lynch’s Interview Project, One in 8 Million tells the stories of ordinary New Yorkers whose city is both the setting and the catalyst for their tales of adventure, love and absurdity. Told against the backdrop of black and white stills, the format reminded me of the opening scene in  Manhattan (1979) – a kind of love letter to the city and its urban romanticism. Part radio documentary, photography exhibition and short film, One in 8 Million is simple but engaging in its storytelling. I recommend watching Joshua Caouette’s piece, which is sweetly naive but also insightful. For those of you who recognise the name, yes, he’s the son of doc filmmaker  Jonathan Caouette (Tarnation, 2003 and All Tomorrow’s Parties, 2009).

Finally, I want to flag up the UK broadcast premiere tonight of Eva Weber’s The Solitary Life of Cranes on More4 at 10pm (GMT). The film has screened at over fifty international film festivals including Telluride, Camerlmage, Seville and Sheffield Doc/Fest and has been nominated for the International Documentary Association Distinguished Shorts Award 2009. Make sure you catch it.

IDFA – it’s big

December 1st, 2009 posted by charlie

I’m your man in Amsterdam, or at least I was last week. I was atIDFA, the world’s largest documentary festival. They’re proud of their size, and rightly so – hundreds of films of all lengths and shapes, plus about 2500 visiting delegates. Most impressively, they have substantial public attendances, which is no mean feat for a documentary festival. They’re based in a major world cultural centre which I’m sure helps, but it’s a delight to see the public gorging on documentary.

People repeatedly ask me why I’m in Amsterdam – I think they mean it in a nice way, suggesting I should have been having a rest after Doc/Fest, but I think they also wonder what a festival person does at another festival when they’re not there researching for the programme. IDFA is an unusual one for me, because it’s more of a debrief for the Doc/Fest just gone than a prep for the festival coming, which is what festivals and markets usually mean in my schedule. I gather feedback from people who have gone from Sheffield to Amsterdam, possibly with Copenhagen in between. You tend to get the best feedback from people a couple of weeks after when the dust has settled and the relationships have blossomed. The working ones, I mean.

But enough of festival strategies. I spent a lot of my time at the FORUM which is their pitching forum and the general industry hang-out. You get a lot of talking in corridors and drinking of coffee, and some presenting of ideas too. It’s never possible to see all the projects being pitched because you’d go doolally, but of those I saw (from this list) I especially liked 10% (from a man being feted at the festival, Eyal Sivan – more on him below), Heavy Metal Islam (can’t fail with that name…unless it’s too much like Taqwacore, which is probably isn’t), The Immigration Project, The Pit, and To Marry My Mother. They were originals – that’s what I want when I hear of a new project. I get asked all the time what impresses me, and the concise answer is I want total face-slapping originality.

And I also enjoyed seeing MeetMarket projects from the last couple of years strutting their stuff – Farewell Comrades, Prison Valley, Donor 150, Inventando!, When They Are All Free, The Last black Sea Pirates and Sir Norman Foster, Free The Mind and Give Up Tomorrow. It’s a good plan to do a few of these pitching events, and carry through your connections and ideas. We’re all in this together in your service, us festivals, I hope.

I don’t normally get to see many films at festivals, least not in the cinema, because that’s not my bit of the Doc/Fest universe – sounds strange but I’m in the business of developing films on the up and not programming the finished things. But at IDFA I did watch quite a lot – seemed like a luxury to indulge in. And there were 2 I particularly urge you to look out for if they come near you – first, Jaffa, The Clockwork’s Orange, from Eyal Sivan. The history of Israel and Palestine through the Jaffa Orange, it’s an opinionated essay that informs and conceals its rage to deliver a nuanced and clear-headed account of orchards cultivated, neglected, reclaimed and destroyed. Sivan gave great Q and A, calmly critiquing some dodgy questions coming at him from across the spectrum and celebrating the watching of a documentary as a moment when we are all communally together without prejudice. Documentary is my model for peaceful cultural understanding, and I squirmed with delight as he said the same. Sivan also took part in a strained 2-hour session on the Middle-East and the Media. It’s not that it wasn’t good, it just reaffirmed everyones’ prejudices. Never going to be the communal understanding that Eyal proclaimed in his Q and A when there’s an audience mishearing and a stage of people proclaiming.

Second film I loved, and it has a similar ethos now I think of it, was Enemies of The People, featuring an amazing man whose family were wiped out by the Khmer Rouge, but who has not merely forgiven but also taken to interviewing some of the killers in order to provide a document of how misled people can be. He doesn’t blame or seek revenge, he understands that poverty and external domination creates a sense of powerlessness that leads to a loss of right and wrong. It’s totally pertinent as the UK continues to provoke further outrage across the world, to see a personal story of loss made into a political statement of the injustice caused by stupid and ignorant world leaders.

In both these cases, a superb statement of what documentary does with stunning power.