FourDocs site provides a mix of amateur docs for fun and the works of up-and-coming professionals who use it as a way of getting into the industry.

FourDocs is the broadband channel for documentary from UK-based Channel 4. It is a place where anyone can upload a film as long as it’s between 3–5 minutes, and represents, in its own words, ‘the democratisation of documentary filmmaking’. Since its launch in August 2005, over 250 short documentaries have been uploaded to the site, made by a wide variety of filmmakers, from first-timers to more experienced amateurs and professionals.

Patrick Uden

In the words of Patrick Uden, Executive Editor of FourDocs, the site was formed because, We wanted to establish a new medium for the public to air their views on issues they felt passionate about. FourDocs is the first time that anyone has given both practical support and a high-profile platform for people to make and display their own personal documentaries. The site is free to use and open to everyone, whatever their level of experience.

The quality of the films varies, as one would expect when they aren’t vetted, but there’s plenty to enjoy and educate. In just half an hour of viewing, I learnt about Long Horn cattle, the animals that apparently made British beef famous (Long Horn Jim); the history of Japanese Kokeshi Dolls (A Day, A Death, A Doll); and Britain’s first officially registered witch (Experiences of a Village Witch); and I entered the worlds of amateur boxers (Gloved Up); street children in Kenya (Street Kids); and finger painters (Finger Painting Society). A useful star system also indicates how much other people have enjoyed each film.

Career-Development Opportunity

Not only does the site offer filmmakers the chance to inform and entertain viewers, it’s also an opportunity for career development. Each month a selection of docs are seen by commissioning editors at Channel 4, one of whom is Kate Vogel, the Commissioning Editor for ‘3 Minute Wonder’, a documentary strand for new directing talent that is broadcast weeknights directly after the Channel 4 news. It is commissioned as a series of four films (usually by the same director), connected by a theme.

Tomas Leach, a documentary-maker who uploaded his film The Glass Eye Maker to the site shortly after it was launched, had no expectations that his move would lead to other commissions, although the link with Channel 4 was undeniably enticing. Keen to move one filmmaker from site to broadcast in the first year, FourDocs took his work to Kate Vogel. She really liked my work, so we met and she asked me to put together some ideas. I wrote quite a few different proposals before we finally settled on the Amazon… the films ended up being called I Am Amazon and went out in January this year.

It has definitely been a positive step,Leach attests. I had long wanted to do some ‘3 Minute Wonders’ and this sped the process up. I’d worked abroad directing commercials and documentaries before I submitted the Glass Eye film, and I’d really wanted to get into the UK broadcast world, having moved back to the UK.” Leach is currently working on post-production for an hour-long film for TSI, the Swiss broadcaster, about a family preparing for the annual drunken horserace of Todos Santos in Guatemala.

In addition to the opportunities FourDocs offers within the UK, the site also provides possibilities for broadcast outside its own territory, and ZedTV in Canada has already licensed and shown several films from the website. FourDocs also actively creates outside links to the films, particularly if a documentary’s subject matter warrants wide or specialised attention. One such example is Rachel Cares, a film about an 8-year-old who writes a letter to her future daughter explaining how she takes care of her disabled older brother, which links though to Sibs, a charity for the brothers and sisters of people with special needs.

Collaboration with Sheffield

Heather Croall

To celebrate its first birthday, FourDocs teamed up with Sheffield Docfest. Sheffield has always included strands aimed at students, young people and emerging talent, but their collaboration with FourDocs allowed them, in Festival Director Heather Croall’s words, to reinvigorate and freshen up a part of the programme that was languishing. In 2006, they decided to change their usual school day into something much more hands on. That is how we partnered with FourDocs. The event was called DocDay Afternoon and it allowed 200 students to come and get practical, hands-on mentoring from a range of directors, editors, cinematographers and writers where they could get tips and advice on making a documentary for FourDocs. The mentors were some of the best documentary talent from around the UK and the world. The day was attended by students from all over the UK-it was sold out and a huge success. Since then we have seen some shorts from people who came to DocDay Afternoon getting uploaded to FourDocs and we expect to see quite a few more.

The festival also ran a competition to find the best short documentaries submitted to the FourDocs during the year. A panel of three-Patrick Uden, Kate Vogel and documentary-maker Roger Graef -selected two winners and two runners-up from a shortlist. Lark, a portrait of a philosophy student and stripper, directed by Bronwen Parker-Rhodes, and Zeina Aboul Hosn’s I Remember Lebanon, which encompass the last images the filmmaker had of Beirut before she left-one week before the first bombs fell-were the two winners. Louise Camrass’s Cows and Jonathan Milburn’s Ringing The Changes, a simply but beautifully observed and well-edited film about a church warden making calls to organise funerals and organists, were the runners-up. The directors of all four shorts had their films broadcast on Channel 4 in the 3 Minute Wonder slot in November, received EUR 600 in prize money and an executive producer to help them re-edit their documentary. The two winners were also invited to join Channel 4 on Newcomers’ Day at Sheffield.

In Heather Croall’s opinion, FourDocs is a great way for aspiring young filmmakers to get their work seen and to get noticed by others in the industry. While anyone can upload videos to YouTube, FourDocs is a much more targeted space for young filmmakers to upload their short docs – it means you have a chance of industry decision-makers and experienced documentary makers viewing your work.

 Lark, which was also the overall viewer’s choice winner, is a firm favourite on the site. It’s hotly debated on the forum, a place where people can discuss all things documentary, from technical or distribution issues to the work of other filmmakers.

Great Resource

Aside from the open forum, and the short documentaries themselves, the FourDocs site also features an archive of significant documentaries from the last 100 years included in a timeline beginning with the moment that Marconi receives a transatlantic radio signal, the very origin of broadcasting. Throughout the timeline, significant dates in the history and development of documentary and moving image are noted. Along the way if any film mentioned has Play next to it, the film or piece of footage can be watched. Films include John Grierson’s 1929 film The Drifters about herring fishermen in the North Sea, Humphrey Jennings’ 1942 doc Listen to Britain, two 1953 docs Operation Hurricane and O Dreamland, Albert Maysles’ first documentaries Psychiatry in Russia and We Are the Lambeth Boys(1959). More recent films are represented by The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife (1992), Nick Broomfield’s documentary about Eugene Terreblanche, the leader of the neo-Nazi Afrikaner resistance movement, Kim Longinotto’s excellent “Divorce Iranian Style” (2001), Marc Isaacs’ enticing short The Lift and Mike Figgis’ The Battle of Orgreave (2001), in which artist Jeremy Deller organised a re-enactment of a violent encounter between police and workers during the 1984 miners’ strike. These are a great resource, particularly for students, although watching a full-length documentary in this way can be a bit wearing, what with the glitches and slow streaming. This will assuredly improve as technology catches up.

Interviews with filmmakers such as Franny Armstong, Nick Broomfield and Kim Longinotto are also included on the site, where they provide insight into their experience of documentary making; pithier and less demanding in terms of concentration, these are definitely easier to watch on your computer.

For anyone interested in submitting films to FourDocs, the site has recently launched a new strand on the site called MicroDocs, for documentaries of 59 seconds or less. If traditional documentary is an essay,” says Charlie Phillips, site editor, “and a four-minute FourDoc is a statement, then a MicroDoc is an exclamation, like a retort, a headline, or a joke with a punchline.

 Three choices of FourDocs’ editor Charlie Phillips:

Rave Dog by Dom Phillips
Photo Synthesis by Barry Gibb
Lark by Bronwen Parker-Rhodes.