DOX reflects over various aspects of this kind of “long doc”.
Human nature being what it is, interest in the work of creative or performing artists is often rekindled when they decide to bow out of their chosen field. So when the producers of two of the longest-running documentaries in European film and television history suggest they’re calling it a day, it seems a good time to look back at the history of these projects and offer a few general thoughts on what long docs can achieve.
The projects in question are Winfried and Barbara Junge’s German The Children of Golzow, which began life in 1961, and Swedish filmmaker Rainer Hartleb’s The Children of Jordbro, first launched in 1972. Both of these long docs are, by any criteria, considerable achievements. By early 2006-when the Junges (since 1978 Winfried has been ably assisted by his wife Barbara) screened the first part of their swansong film at the Berlin film festival-no fewer than 19 Golzow films had been produced. Likewise Rainer Hartleb has spent a large part of his filmmaking career working on the Jordbro project. By the time he had completed the final film, optimistically entitled Everyone’s Fine, he had been locked into the Jordbro filmmaking cycle for 34 years.
The other well-known long doc exponent is, of course, Michael Apted, though-unlike the Junges and Hartleb-he currently shows no signs of wanting to relinquish the stage. His 7-Up series, that began life back in 1964, is perhaps the best-known long-doc work ever to grace our screens.
What, then, do we actually know about the origins of these epic works? And what is it about long docs which has so endeared them to their respective audiences? To get the answers to some of these questions I caught up with Apted, Hartleb and the Junges to find out more about the pitfalls and delights of being involved in this type of long-haul operation.
DOX readers may be surprised to learn that many long docs start life without having the long-term idea as part of the original concept. Apted’s 7-Up long doc, for instance, began as a one-off programme in Granada Television’s World in Action series. It was only some time later that someone at Granada came up with the suggestion that it might be an idea to revisit the group of fourteen children featured in the original programme. The same applies to The Children of Golzow, and the programme that started it all, When I Go to School, an account of kids’ first day at a primary school in the small East German town of Golzow, was also conceived as a single piece of reportage. As with 7-Up some time elapsed before Junge and his team were urged to revisit the school to produce follow-up accounts chronicling the kids’ progress through puberty, adolescence and beyond.
Hartleb’s The Children of Jordbro is the one exception to what might appear to be a general rule. From the outset he was convinced the long-term format would be needed to do justice to what he was seeking to convey. He wanted namely to produce a documentary account that would reveal the full human impact of a new housing policy being introduced in Sweden in the early 1970s. For Hartleb, chronicling the lives of a group of children as they went through their first years at school would provide an excellent illustration of the gulf between government rhetoric and what ordinary people were actually experiencing. It did take him some time, however, to convince his paymasters at Swedish Television of the merits of a prolonged study. Like broadcasters the world over they were initially very resistant to the idea of supporting a project where long-term viewer interest could not be guaranteed.
The other point to make about the start of long-doc projects is that, in retrospect, decisions made at the outset often prove to be more momentous than anticipated. For instance, the World in Action current-affairs series, out of which Apted’s 7-Up programmes emerged, was noted for its uncompromising investigative journalism. It also had a distinctly political remit. The aim of Apted’s “World in Action” special was, accordingly, to explore the extent to which the Britain of the 1960s was still an irredeemably class-ridden society-and how this might impact on the lives of a cross-section of children from different social backgrounds, in particular on their job and career prospects. To enable him to point up continuing inequities, Apted deliberately included in his sample a higher proportion of kids from opposite ends of the social spectrum. In addition, since careers were to be a central focus of the investigation, he cast twice as many boys as girls. Four decades later-with the wisdom of hindsight- Apted ruefully concedes that these initial casting decisions had far-reaching consequences for the future course of the 7-Up series. It resulted in both an embarrassing deficiency of women subjects and in a dearth of middleclass representatives. As Apted remarks, “The film lives a bit in the extremes of the social system.”
If long-doc producers sometimes have difficulty getting projects underway, maintaining momentum also presents its fair share of challenges. A particular challenge is building and maintaining a good working relationship with the subjects. The nature of this relationship will differ according to the personality of the filmmaker, her/his style of interviewing and the frequency with which filming occurs. The fact that Apted has chosen to film his subjects once every seven years, for instance, has meant that his relationship with them is of a different order to that of Hartleb, who, throughout the duration of the project, has kept in close contact with his Jordbro brood. Even before the actual filming began, he was a regular classroom observer at the school, as well as having spent time talking to children and parents in their homes.
Wherever long docs originate, it goes without saying that, to be at all successful, they require a special kind of nurturing. Not only does the filmmaker or programme-maker have to make a long-term (sometimes lifelong) commitment to the project; a long doc also needs the continuing support of a broadcaster or some other sponsoring agent. Apted, for instance, expresses his debt of gratitude to Granada in the following terms: “One of the reasons that the “Up” films have survived is that Granada has always been there. Their support has been just as important as has my own commitment to the project.” He contrasts this largely positive relationship with his recent problems with US broadcasters concerning the production of his long doc “Married in America” (stateside tales of marital joy and woe). Constant changes in corporate structuring have meant huge uncertainty as to where future funding for this project would come from. As Apted grimly asserts, “I’ve kept it going, but it’s been a terrible struggle.”
In the case of The Children of Golzow it’s a not dissimilar story in that, latterly, the filmmakers’ quest for adequate levels of funding has become an ever more time and energy consuming business. During socialist times the Junges-as employees of the State-enjoyed relative financial and professional security, even though this support sometimes came with strings attached. All this changed dramatically, however, following the fall of the Wall in 1989 and the absorption of the GDR into the Federal Republic. In the post-Wende era, the Junges have found themselves increasingly exposed to the chill winds of a commercially oriented media system, and it has been a constant struggle for them to keep the Golzow project afloat.
Constant Learning Process
All the filmmakers I have talked to have been keen to stress that their involvement in these long-doc projects has been a constant learning process. This is particularly true of their interactions with subjects during filming and interviewing. Apted, for instance, refers to the various strategies he has devised over the years for getting subjects to articulate thoughts and feelings on camera. In his words, “I’ve learned how to press people’s buttons…You kind of know how to wind them up.”
The Junges, for their part, have faced a different set of challenges in their dealings with subjects. For almost three decades the whole The Children of Golzow project was produced under the aegis of DEFA, the state-owned East German film production company. As such, Junge and his team had to be very sensitive to the fact, even though their primary intention was chronicling the lives of some of the junior citizens of Golzow. As far as the latter were concerned, the filmmakers were still regarded as “state emissaries” and had to be treated with caution. In other words, whilst Junge may have been clear in his own mind that he did not want his Golzow chronicle to be hijacked for blatantly propaganda purposes, his subjects-especially as they grew older- were probably practising a degree of self-censorship in their dealings with him.
For Hartleb, on the other hand, the learning process had more to do with what he concedes was his initial failure to recognise the kind of impact that this type of serial documentary could have on his youthful subjects. He admits, for instance, that in the early stages of the Jordbro project he seriously underestimated the effects that nation-wide media exposure would have on his participants. In his own words: “Once they [the Jordbro children] had seen themselves on TV, they became mini-celebrities. And it became impossible to approach them in a serious way.” Hartleb also faced difficulties when some members of the community took exception to the “warts and all” picture of Jordbro that was being projected through these films. For a time it seemed that the ensuing controversy might jeopardise the whole project, but after a frank exchange of views the difficulties were resolved.
Source of Long-Doc Appeal
What, then, are the distinctive qualities of long docs which so endear them to their respective TV and cinema audiences? And what features, if any, might explain their relative international popularity? It is by no means insignificant in this respect that all three long docs reveal similar patterns of development. It is quite striking, for instance, that they all move from an initial attempt to see events in a wider social context to a later preoccupation with the course of individual life journeys. Apted’s starting point was the concern to establish whether class issues would still play a role in shaping the lives of the younger generation. Hartleb’s initial focus was on assessing the impact of a new government housing policy on the members of one particular suburban community. The producers of The Children of Golzow for their part set out to show how one small GDR community was attempting to introduce members of a new generation to the ways of a socialist society.
In the fullness of time, however, all these long docs have slowly acquired a different emphasis, as individuals have moved away from the communities in which they were originally nurtured and have begun to establish themselves in new living and working environments. In part this has to do with documentary’s concern to chronicle social change: it shows how most of us have to adapt to ever greater mobility in our lives. The change of focus is also connected, it must be said, with what seems to be a structuring principle of long docs. Initially, they home in on a group of children contained within the collective environment of a school, but later concentrate on them more as individual lives, as new relationships or career paths carry subjects ever further from their original roots. Accordingly, the long docs with which we are presently concerned have all, as they have matured, tended to privilege individual paths of development rather than tackle more sociologically oriented themes.
All this has implications for what viewers themselves get out of long docs. For audiences, much of the fascination of long docs seems to lie in their ability to key into some of the central concerns of all our lives. More powerfully perhaps than any other cultural artefact, long docs enable viewers to become involved in the lives of a number of individuals with whom, over the years, they become increasingly familiar. This familiarity means that even in the periods of “unrecorded time” between successive episodes, viewer expectations are heightened as to how life may be treating long-lost friends.
Thus, even though long docs retain some value as thought-provoking chronicles (especially when they focus on rapidly changing societies), their primary appeal for audiences seems to lie in the opportunities for becoming involved in the life journeys of individuals. In identifying with subjects in this way, viewers may develop the same strong bonds of identification as they do with characters in soaps. Unlike soaps, however, long docs have an additional appeal, one that is based on the perennial question as to whether lives are shaped more by nurture than by nature. Sharing in someone’s life for more than four or five decades arguably provides ample evidence to form a judgement as to whether our destinies are determined more by environmental factors than by our genes.
When all is said and done, however, the essence of long docs’ appeal may boil down to one particular element: their ability to communicate the realities of life’s ebb and flow more poignantly than practically any other form of filmmaking or programme-making. As Michael Apted perceptively observed after working more than twenty years on his 7-Up project, “I realised that I hadn’t made a political film at all. What I had seen as a significant statement about the English class system was in fact a humanistic document about the real issues of life – about growing up; about coming to terms with failure, success, disappointment; about issues of family and all the things that everybody can relate to.”
The author would like to acknowledge support received from the AHRC in the preparation of this article.