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.”
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