Is British TV killing Documentary?

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My problem with TV Documentaries

My contempt towards TV documentary could have something to do with the bad taste that still lingers in my mouth after my first and last attempt working in it. Obviously it would be a major discredit to the incredibly hard working people within the TV industry if this was my only reason. I mean, how dare I condemn a whole medium just because I happened to have a bad experience in it.

However, now I’ve had a few months to digest the situation, I feel there is more to my pessimism than sour grapes. The biggest problem with the majority of TV documentaries (in the UK at least), is they confuse what people should expect from a documentary and its format.

Just before I started shooting my film, my executive producer attempted to motivate my assistant and I by saying “Remember guys, we’re journalists!” I immediately thought, “No I’m not, I’m a filmmaker … aren’t I?” I knew from this point on that my filmic attitude towards documentary was going to clash heavily with Television’s journalistically driven ethos.

I’ve always felt that forcing a film to conform to the criteria’s of journalism is a fast track ticket to the death of both documentary and real journalism. Journalism represses documentary of its full artistic potential and documentary convolutes journalism of its moral responsibility.

I’m going to address several topics that I came across during my experience and hopefully have a stab at defending my concerns.
 

Style Over Content?

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(Our Daily Bread, 2005 Dir. Nikolaus Geyrhalter)

I’ve always had a problem with the term “style over content”, mostly because in reality it actually means nothing at all (unless you redefine words).

It is one of those phrases lazy critics use when they are either unable, or frankly can’t be arsed to elaborate their point. As a huge admirer of film criticism, I find it just as frustrating reading the words of idle critics, as I do watching the films of idle directors.

One of my Executive Producers used TV documentary director Leo Maguire as an example of someone who produces films that are “style over content”. Maguire is known for two major TV documentaries, Dogging Tales and Gypsy Blood. Both of these films were eminent for their popularity and lyrically idiosyncratic style.

For me a film is simply a piece of content and part of that content is style. What use is there pretending style and content are separate things? What do we really gain?

Of course arguing that a film’s style outweighs its story or narrative can be a valid point, but that is of course a different argument. Associating story and narrative as the only facets of film that constitute as content is extremely harmful, film is a style medium, if it wasn’t it would just be journalism.

You maybe thinking, “Well Television works differently, story and narrative is key”. I’d argue that people who think this are discrediting both television and the general public. Leo Maguire’s work has had far more rating success than most generic actuality documentaries, even with their harder hitting, headline driven stories. Television and its audience should be given more credit. Again, I guess this boils down to whether you are, as a director, motivated by journalistic values or film values.

Do you care solely about the information, and film is merely an outlet for it?

Or are your concerns routed in the idea that film is the only way your vision can be expressed? … This for me is what separates the journalist from the filmmaker. How can you be a filmmaker if you are not asking yourself before each project … why film?

I conducted an interview with British documentary filmmaker Marc Issacs not long back and he summed up my point perfectly regarding British cinema’s obsession with forcing journalistic standards onto documentary and eliminating style/aesthetics. Isaacs said:

“I am against these films because they are colonising the genre and squeezing out alternatives. Why people think cinema is a good medium for these films is beyond me – they never allow you to think for yourself or explore the mystery of life. They just want to play god and tell you something – they should be articles not films”
 

Confusing ‘Engagement’ with ‘Submission’

(Walk 17, 2011 Dir. Me, Manjeet S Gill and Andrew Walker)

(Walk 17, 2011 Dir. Me, Manjeet S Gill and Andrew Walker)

I was told by my exec, when conducting an interview the contributor must be at eye level with the audience or “how can the audience engage with them?”. This was a critique of my often obscure interview compositions, where the contributor maybe looking out of frame and away from the audience’s eye level. The main reason I felt my exec was wrong about this was due to a confusion of terms/definitions. He is not actually aiming to engage the audience with the interviewee’s words, but to manipulate them into a type of submission.

The idea behind my obscure interview compositions is not solely aesthetic, but a technique to influence genuine engagement between the audience and my contributor. The words of my interviewee are hopefully interesting enough to influence the audience’s curiosity and the visual distance (the contributor looking away) puts them in a position where they have to willingly and actively engage with the contributor.

Without participation the audience are not engaging with anything, they are simply submitting to it.

If a contributor is staring at eye level with the audience, speaking about some fascinating personal information, the audience no longer have to engage. They are just sitting back getting drunk on information. The type of engagement my exec wanted was only an illusion, a buzz word used as an attempt to justify lazy technique.

Okay, this is getting bitter … let’s move on
 

Black and White People

(Benefits Street,  Love Productions, 2014)

(Benefits Street, Love Productions, 2014)

TV documentary generally tries to black and white characters and their relationships, not just for convenience but for accessibility too. There’s no better example of this than Channels 4’s recent docu-journalism failure Benefits Street, where real people were portrayed as having less depth than a white character in an early Spike Lee film. Even the dullest person on the planet has more layers to them, it just takes a film-maker with the patience and craftsmanship to find it.

My exec told me that “TV has to be obvious and clear, there is no room or time for subtlety”.

The problem with this is you miss what often makes characters and relationships interesting; nuances, complexities and mystery. Generally speaking life is not black and white, but a series of grey scales, this is part of the reason artists from all mediums have found the human condition so fascinating.
 

Access

(Dogging Tales, 2013 Dir. Leo Maguire)

(Dogging Tales, 2013 Dir. Leo Maguire)

‘Access’ is another buzz word that the executive producers threw around at each other. It’s used to sum up how much admittance you can get from your subject’s lives.

Apparently ‘Dogging Tales’ changed the way most TV commissioners viewed ‘access’, by having its contributors wear masks. According to another one of my execs, covering the interviewee’s faces at one point would not have been considered ‘real access’.

For myself, I’ve always liked the creative ways documentary filmmakers depict their subjects, whether is it vague or not. The journalistically fuelled TV industry on the other hand is more concerned with the general idea of being able to infiltrate a person’s life. Almost as if it’s more about ‘access’ bragging rights than anything artistically or informationally substantial.

So if you are interested in putting together a proposal or taster video for a TV documentary, the degree of access you can get from your contributors is paramount to you getting your commissioning.
 

Actuality?

(Fires Were Started, 1943 Dir. Humphrey Jennings)

(Fires Were Started, 1943 Dir. Humphrey Jennings)

If you are not familiar with it, ‘actuality’ is both a method and a sub-genre of “observational documentary” that is almost common ground in Television nowadays.

It’s the technique you see in most bbc3, channel 4 and channel 5 docs that follow the life/lives of ‘interesting people’.

It refers to producing predetermined stories within real life events as they happen and manipulating contributors into saying clear, quotable, digestible and editable sentences (or synch as it can be referred to). It is essentially a method in projecting an overstated portrayal of the subject’s personalities and stories.

There are also technical considerations, for instance, whenever the director asks a contributor a new question, it is recommended that the shot size/composition is changed significantly to help break the scene up in the edit, avoiding long takes and jump cuts at all costs.

This is accompanied with other dated and frequently refuted rubrics, like never showing the back of a contributor or seeing them from an angle that is too high or too low. Rules that even the likes of Humphrey Jennings and Kamran Shirdel were breaking over half a century ago (but that’s a separate issue in itself).

Forgive me for lingering on the point, but all of these techniques scream journalism. It is almost like the film version of a column story you would read in a popular newspaper. Crammed with hooky quotations and narratives that were laboured out of nothing (or very little).

When I say journalism, by no means am I suggesting the likes of Hunter S. ThompsonMargaret Bourke or Jimmy Cameron, I mean half baked ‘scoop’ news. I’m sure you know who I mean.

Attempting to learn these laborious ‘actuality’ techniques whilst simultaneously trying to throw away all of the innate methods I have developed over the past five years, was as close to an impossible task as you could get.

Actuality is tough even when you see the value of it, so of course I had no chance. This soon led to questions popping up like … Why the hell was I hired? Had they not seen my previous work? Or even my taster?

This is getting bitter again, sorry …
 

Truth and Reality

(24 City, 2008 Dir. like Jia Zhangke)

(24 City, 2008 Dir. like Jia Zhangke)

When working on a Broadcast doc there are several rules regarding representing actual events that you must adhere to. Even to the point where directly constructing events is a no-no (not indirectly like you do in ‘Actuality’). I was scolded for this very thing, when I set up a shot of a girl who spoke about converting to Islam in attempts of earning the affection of her boyfriend’s Muslim parents. I told her to repeat the story twice because I wasn’t happy with the shot. I was immediately told when looking back at the rushes “this is not REAL! You have set up the whole sequence … This is not documentary, it’s some other genre!”.

Even historically speaking, documentary is hard to pin down when it comes to such complex terms like ‘truth’ or ‘realism’. Documentary never really had a clear foundation, even Robert J. Flaherty was notorious for blurring the lines of what was actual and non-actual in his films, and that was in the 1920s.

You can have all the “real life” footage there is, but if you edit it insincerely it’s not truth. Remember, every cut is a lie, a subjective lure away from the so called “objective reality”.

Personally I feel documentary can either come from a sincere place or an insincere place, regardless of the methods used. It’s why a film like Jia Zhangke’s 24 City, that blurs the lines between real people and actors, has such a strong sense of sincerity, and why so many ‘to the book’ actuality documentaries feel so contrived.

Documentary works far more effectively when it aims for sincerity not reality.
 

In Conclusion/Retrospect

When I think back, the subject matter of my film seemed to be so tempting that my commissioner and his production company contacts just wanted to get it made as soon as possible. With a mix of naive urgency and neglected research, the whole project turned into a mess. Granted, part of the problem was due to my naive and ideologically motivated attitude. It would be unfair to burden the channel and Production Company with all the blame.

I was foolish and immature to think I could challenge the ideas of documentary on a broadcast format. TV wants headline reporters not wannabe filmmakers, like me.

– Matthew E Carter

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Matthew E. Carter

About 

Film-maker and writer for the Black Country Cinema collective. My films often revolve around the changing cultural identity of the UK. An avid cinephile with a love for Eastern Cinema.

  5 comments for “Is British TV killing Documentary?

  1. 14/01/2014 at 04:43

    Excellent.

  2. 14/01/2014 at 08:04

    Great article. I don’t know enough about the subject to comment in depth but I do know that British telly, certainly the documentaries we keep churning out, whether it’s about dogging or trying to foster kids, is both tasteless and poor. And always set to a collection of music or sounds to dictate how I should feel, emotionally, about a particular scene.

    • Black Country Cinema
      Matthew E. Carter
      14/01/2014 at 09:03

      Yep they love to use sentimental music to make up for their failed dramatic scenes.

  3. 27/02/2017 at 08:02

    Very well thought out and realised piece here. Broadcast documentary has changed quite drastically over the last three or so years, so not all of the points expressed in this article are as relevant. What I will say, is many people within Broadcast commissioned non-fiction have had similar opinions since the explosion of ‘weird people and weird lives’ documentaries post late-90s. It’s only recently since those documentaries are now looked back on in a dated and politically incorrect regard, that we can openly mock them. I hope this hasn’t put you off documentary as a whole, radical is exactly what’s needed right now.

    • Black Country Cinema
      28/02/2017 at 22:42

      Thanks for reading Gregg. Luckily things are certainly changing for the better. We have turned the documentary we made into a fictional feature now and currently working on taking it into production. Unfortunately we haven’t made a documentary since, though I’m sure we’ll return to it soon.

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