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The trouble with documentaries

03 November 2010

The UK's culture of TV documentary making came under attack last night from veteran filmmaker Penny Woolcock, who lambasted overly formatted docs and their lack of concern with telling the truth about the world.

Penny Woolcock films - from The Wet House to Tina Goes Shopping - are known for their ‘uncompromising’ attitude and ‘never shying from the more difficult aspects of life.”

It says as much in her citation for the Grierson Trustees Award, which she won last night at the prestigious Grierson British Documentary Awards, held at the BFI Southbank.

True to form, Woolcock was uncompromising in her take on the state of British documentary making when she took to the stage to accept the award.

The veteran documentary filmmaker used the occasion to hit out at heavily formatted docs and at the culture of TV documentary in the UK.

She also bemoaned the fact that commissioning is so centralised and that so many ‘terrific, innovative directors’ find themselves with no option but to take jobs on formatted docs.

“It’s like the civil engineers and doctors who put out deckchairs in Cuba,” said Woolcock, to applause and cheers from an audience packed with leading documentary makers and commissioners.

“A real documentary adventure is where the outcome is uncertain,” said Woolcock. “It’s not when a posturing hero pretends to be in the wilderness while sleeping in a hotel or undertaking tasks of derring-do which have been planned by the producer and his team of stunt coordinators.”

Woolcock then went on to criticise more directly formats like Secret Millionaire.

“Does it matter that we lie to people. I think it does even in relatively benign formats like Secret Millionaire. Essentially the film crew starts off lying about why they are there, the millionaires are so feeble apparently that they fall apart after a couple of days away from home, and then you meet some poor people and decide to give them some dosh. Then you pull in a poor old AP to do second camera so you make sure you can capture the tears, probably because they rumbled the millionaire and were hoping for more money.”

Woolcock added: “Have a look at the names of some of the terrific, innovative directors who are forced to take these jobs because they are down to their last £50. It’s like the civil engineers and doctors who put out deckchairs in Cuba.”

“Times change. They must. There is a thriving documentary scene outside television. Although I can’t be the only person in this room who receives a request for crowd funding several times a week.”

“Decisions seem to have been unmanageably centralised with no commissioners in control of their own budgets. Surely this will loosen up - it has to.”

“Television attracts a lot of brilliant and interesting people. And we live in a beautiful and terrifying world. One of the jobs of this most extraordinary and democratic of mediums is to try to understand the world as it is, and be as fearless and bold about telling the best truths we can.”

Woolcock’s words were made all the more poignant by the fact that the Griersons showcased so many original, intelligent films rather than formulaic documentary formats.

Over the course of the evening, fantastic clips from dozens of the nominated and winning Grierson films played out.

Many people in the audience, speaking at the Awards after-party, said how depressing it was that the nominated films got so little attention when they came out.

“I sat there thinking ‘oh, that looks good, how did I miss that’ to just about every nominee,” said one audience member.

For full list of Grierson winners, click here.

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Mike Brennan
Mike Brennan  | November 4, 2010
As a doc DP I felt it begin to fall apart with the simultaneous introduction of the use of DV cameras and the introduction to 100s of channels in the late nineties.
Camera ops with zero craft, literally on zero wages, could be sent into a reality situation and like a kind of mobile cctv record reality.
It then transpired that as cheap a production methodology as it was, interesting action annoyingly took weeks to happen in front of the camera(s). So enter the "setup" reality genre to ensure that the investment of production resources could be guaranteed a return in the shortest possible time.
This faux reality/fake honesty has slowly crept into numerous other genres.

I hope that the lowering cost of shooting documentaries will encourage a genre of truly independent self funded works that are not reliant on broadcast TV for distribution. Sadly the elements of camera sound editing directing and producing craft require more than one pair of boots on location, so although we can solve the lack of honesty and integrity in some doc styles by employing this by self funded and shot regime, the documentary that requires craft camera sound and editing has become the domain of international coproductions, a business,creative and operational framework that has its own problems that can results in style over substance and a kind of Euro sameness.

Mike Brennan

Mike Brennan

Frank  | November 3, 2010
I have to say that I agree here, I have been exposed to a huge number of documentaries that may as well be documentaries as very little of the content is "reliable". These docs have no factual basis at all other than a basic nod to the title, its very frustrating and something that people are now wise to from the word go, which makes is harder for really compelling and truthful docs, which ironically people just cannot bring themselves to fully believe.
Mark Insoll
Mark Insoll  | November 3, 2010
I could not agree more.

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