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14 October 2011

Al Jazeera English has ramped up its documentary output since hiring Oscar winning filmmaker Jon Blair to oversee a raft of singles and series. He talks about making docs the Al Jazeera way

Like many Brits, Jon Blair (pictured) was, until recently, aware of Al Jazeera English but had not really watched it. Now, however, Blair finds himself in charge of the channel’s burgeoning and acclaimed documentary output.

Rather like the Arab Spring that shot Al Jazeera English to prominence, it all happened very quickly. A veteran filmmaker, who won an Oscar for his doc Anne Frank Remembered, Blair was phoned out of the blue by Al Jazeera English director of programmes Paul Eedle last autumn. Eedle, who had admired Blair’s series The Age of Terror, subsequently hired Blair to help Al Jazeera get documentaries made.

It’s turned out to be a fortuitous move for Blair. Not only did his arrival coincide with The Arab Spring, but the very first film he steered through, Damian Clarke’s Tunisia - The Death of Fear, made it onto the longlist for the Grierson Documentary Awards.

In recent months Blair has greenlit films on 9/11, a six-hour ob doc set inside an Indian hospital, a 16-hour series on the history of the Arab world since Napoleon, a Rageh Omaar series on modern slavery and has launched doc strand Al Jazeera Correspondent.

“Most people think Al Jazeera is just a news channel,” says Blair. In fact, only 60% of its output is news – the rest is for more traditional programming, including doc series and singles which fall under Blair’s remit. “That’s a heck of a lot of original commissions,” says Blair.

They reach a lot of viewers too - Al Jazeera English is available in 250m households globally. Docs on Al Jazeera differ, however, to those on, say, the BBC and ITV, says Blair. They are not made through the prism of a British audience. “You have to totally rethink what your eyeline is. With an Al Jazeera audience you cannot use the word ‘we’. There is no such thing when it comes to a global audience of 250m."

Moreover Blair doesn’t expect his films to be as heavily formatted as, say, Discovery docs. He points to Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark (pictured above), made by May Welsh, who went undercover to record the smashing of the Bahrainian spring. “It’s a stunning film,” he says.

Budgets, he admits, are tight. "But there are no compromises editorially or in terms of quality."

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