The new British doc fest BRITDOC has chosen to focus on being an industry festival, and it got off to a good start
By the time this goes to print, the extensive transcriptions of four of the masterclasses run by BRITDOC between 26 and 28 July will have already been posted on the festival website. All four–“Bad Guys and Good Journalism”, “Beyond Frontiers: Adventures in Co-production”, “I Love Archive”; and “The Avid Editing Masterclass”–make a compelling read, with other transcriptions still to come.
Making the masterclasses available to the broader documentary community is a fine way for a festival team to affirm its intention to play a role in the life of a professional community. Backed by Channel 4’s recently launched British Documentary Film Foundation and supported by More4, the new Oxford-based BRITDOC emerged this summer as a new platform for British documentary talent. At the heart of BRITDOC is the engagement with a certain isolationism of the British market and the commitment to encourage the younger British professionals to develop their projects for the international market.
In this vein, the festival started by tackling the basics through a fun presentation on effective networking, then went on to more burning issues. The emphasis at BRITDOC was on how to fund and circulate documentaries across newly emerging platforms rather than on how to make them.
One of the issues that has constantly confronted the international documentary community is that of the absorption of technological development, influencing not only documentary practice itself but also the relationship of the community with the public sphere. BRITDOC acknowledged the current, changing climate through a debate where participants were invited to discuss the state of the doc in the era of the user-generated content (UGC) in the company of representatives of MySpace and Google Video. Self-distribution, access to special interest groups on community sites, ‘house parties’ and the ability to generate word-of-mouth were tackled alongside other types of opportunities or changes recently forced upon documentary production and distribution. BRITDOC participants also tackled in detail their access to corporate finance, tax breaks and doc funding, fiction-style.
The masterclass on “How to Play the Festival Circuit” emphasized the proliferating puzzle of film festivals as a network with nodes, flows and exchanges, and addressed the capillary communication among them. John Cooper (Sundance) and Sandra Hebron (London Film Festival) offered practical advice on how to manage the festival circuit to gain cultural capital and press coverage and how to use that capital to penetrate various layers of the international exhibition market.
In spite of the guests’ calibre (Kevin Macdonald, Mike Figgis, Penny Woolcock and Pavel Pawlikovski), the masterclass exploring the issues involved in handling the shifting boundaries of fact and fiction in a creative documentary appeared less engaging than the ones focused on innovative strategies of audience reach. The only other masterclass considering documentary form and content and offering a close look at some of the recent top docs was “Bad Guys and Good Journalism”: Alex Gibney (“Enron”), Deborah Scranton (“The War Tapes”) and Tom Roberts from October Films discussed their films with Alan Hayling, touching on the role of feature-length access documentary and the need for a ‘thick journalism’ capable of going beyond the headlines. The dialogue concluded with a point about the filmmaker’s obligation to make the grammar of the film clear to the viewer to ensure a fair contract of mutual trust between the filmmaker and her audience.
BRITDOC included a Pitching Forum and a selection of ‘must see’ films already confirmed by major festivals. Although it focused mainly on the future of the practice, BRITDOC kept an eye on tradition through an interview with Albert Maysles. I attended the interview just after having viewed “John and Jane” (Ashim Ahluwalia, 2005), a poignant observational account of a bunch of young Indian call-centre operators boosting American consumerism by night while being consumed themselves by the American Dream by day. Showing a clip from “Salesman”, Maysles made a point about its relevance to a social history of buying and selling. Watching the clip alongside “John and Jane” I could not agree with him more.
Focused, fun and casual, BRITDOC offered an infrastructure of sociability provided by good meeting venues. Located in Keble, one of Oxford’s most atmospheric colleges, it had a certain conference feel, with poise and passion in its debates and a sense of “exclusivity” accentuated by the only two public screenings organized. From now on, BRITDOC will coexist in Oxford with OXDOX, a doc festival targeting the general public. On a larger scale, it remains to be seen how BRITDOC will negotiate its place and role on the British doc market alongside the other major player in the field, the Sheffield Documentary Festival.