The Documentary Film Council (DFC), a new national organisation for UK documentary that launched at Sheffield DocFest in June, has published an open letter to the UK screen industries warning that independent documentary is at risk.
The letter argues that “independent documentary in the UK faces an existential threat and that there is urgent need for coordinated, long-term interventions across the sector.”
The DFC argues that, while true crime and celebrity fronted doc is booming, that has “fostered the widespread misconception that the entire documentary ecosystem is booming. It is not.” and that “films at the independent end of the spectrum – creative, observational, character-led films, films that originate outside of a commissioner’s brief or which explore difficult-but-vital political or cultural questions – are increasingly hard to get made.”
This is an open letter from the UK’s independent documentary film industry. We are raising the alarm about the very serious challenges facing our sector and the urgent need to support the Documentary Film Council (DFC), a new national organisation for UK documentary that launched at Sheffield DocFest in June.
Owned and run by and for its members, the DFC has been developed in consultation with hundreds of filmmakers working in collaboration with UKRI-funded researchers. It was co-designed with all the major organisations in the field – Doc Society, Sheffield DocFest, the Grierson Trust, The Whickers, Scottish Documentary Institute, Docs Ireland, BBC Storyville and others – and is based on the recognition that independent documentary in the UK faces an existential threat and that there is urgent need for coordinated, long-term interventions across the sector.
If you work in independent documentaries, you know this already. But many colleagues, executives and policymakers outside the indie docs community are unaware of the crisis unfolding in our midst. In some ways, this is understandable. Despite repeated efforts to expose the ‘golden age of documentary’ as the corporate age of true crime and ‘celebrity’ docs, the success of the commercial end of the spectrum, though welcome in many respects, has fostered the widespread misconception that the entire documentary ecosystem is booming. It is not.
As demonstrated by the UKRI-funded research project that led to the DFC’s development, films at the independent end of the spectrum – creative, observational, character-led films, films that originate outside of a commissioner’s brief or which explore difficult-but-vital political or cultural questions – are increasingly hard to get made. Production funding for independent docs is chronically low and support for development, let alone distribution and exhibition, is practically non-existent. Sustaining careers in these conditions is all but impossible aside for a relatively privileged few, which has direct implications for filmmaker wellbeing and the docs sector’s devastating lack of diversity.
Despite these and other barriers, British documentary filmmakers continue to find ways to make vital, award-winning films – but the odds are against them and getting worse. Yet we need documentaries. Their ability to challenge our assumptions and help us understand the past, present and future of the world is vital to our culture and democracy. Nonfiction is an essential part of the independent film landscape, but it is unique, distinct and requires bespoke support.
Intervening in this situation is thus urgent and requires coordination at a national level by a democratic organisation with the remit and the resources to act on behalf of the sector and which is accountable to those it is designed to represent. As a member-led charitable co-operative (the first of its kind in the UK screen industries), the DFC is legally owned by its members. It has an elected board and, like all co-ops, is independent and committed to the values and principles of co-operativism.
More importantly, the DFC will enable the documentary community to generate, for the first time, a clear strategic agenda for this sector, with a clear set of priorities held in common. These priorities will shape the Council’s activities and the member-led committees it will support across each of its three-year terms (beginning 2024-26). Early consultations with members indicate that the DFC’s first set of priorities will focus on funding (especially development funding and the standardisation of application processes); policy (contributing to DCMS inquiries and consultations on, for example, the Media Bill, the Audiovisual Media Services Directive, the impact of AI and so on); distribution and exhibition (improving support for exhibition across the nations and regions; harnessing distribution support more effectively to production funding); and developing the DFC’s membership base (including regional chapters).
But this work needs funding. The DFC’s development has been supported with a seed-funding grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Since the DFC launch at Sheffield DocFest in June, we’ve approached every major broadcaster and streaming service in the UK, as well as a host of philanthropic and charitable organisations. Everyone has been extremely positive about the DFC, but we still only have our members’ fees in the bank. Obviously, raising funding for a new national body is challenging in the middle of an industry downturn. But organisations like the DFC don’t come along every day, and with the seed-funding ending in December, it’s really now or never.
If you can help support our pioneering work with a funding contribution, please contact the DFC at email@example.com or donate here. And if you’re not a member yet, please join today here.
Documentary Film Council Interim Board:Emily Copley – Operations Manager and Joint Acting CEO, Documentary Film CouncilFlore Cosquer – Managing Director, Scottish Documentary InstituteRoisín Geraghty – Head of Industry, Docs IrelandDewi Gregory – Producer, Truth DepartmentJessi Gutch – FilmmakerZeynep Güzel – Filmmaker, Senior DAE Consultant, Head of Doc Station Berlinale TalentPriscilla Igwe – Founder & CEO, The New Black Film CollectiveKeisha Knight – Director, IDA Funds & AdvocacyJenny Horwell – Director & Programmer, Bertha DocHouseSandra Whipham – Director, Doc SocietySarah Mosses – Founder & CEO, Together FilmsDr Steve Presence – Associate Professor of Film Studies, UWE Bristol and Joint Acting CEO, Documentary Film CouncilPaul Sng – DirectorDr Christo Wallers – AHRC Research Fellow, Aberystwyth University
DFC Members, Allies, Supporters and Doc Lovers:
Alice Aedy, Mandy Chang, Mark Cousins, Orlando von Einsiedel, Saeed Taji Farouky, Jeanie Finlay, Nick Fraser, Daniel Gordon, Sonja Henrici, Brian Hill, Christo Hird, Kim Hopkins, Marc Isaacs, Andrew Kötting, Olly Lambert, Derren Lawford, Mike Lerner, Jez Lewis, Kim Longinotto, Kat Mansoor, Sean McAllister, Andy Mundy-Castle, Rebecca O’Brien, Charlie Phillips, Jerry Rothwell, Elhum Shakerifar, Dr André Singer OBE…
For the full list of signatories, and to sign visit
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