Nowadays, it is usually neglected to give space for quickly made, formatted infotainment programmes with no subtleties and a strong tabloid influence.
Classic British Documentary Tradition
2006.Seventy years ago “Night Mail” was made by Basil Wright and Harry Watt. It was a tribute to the British postal system. GPO paid for the film, but even if this made it pure propaganda, it combined information and aesthetics in a way that still makes it one of those absolutely-not-to-be-missed classics for the newcomer to the documentary genre. It was fresh, it had music by Benjamin Britten and poetry by W. H. Auden – and behind it all stood John Grierson as the producer of not only this but a lot of other important documentaries that told about Life and Work in the United Kingdom.
Most of the films were about how enormously well public institutions functioned. Later, during the war, the films became patriotic and a filmmaker like Humphrey Jennings could demonstrate, in “Listen to Britain” from 1941, how an almost symphonic montage adds a poetic dimension to the story and underlines Jennings’ mission: to emphasise the common values in society and to stress the importance of solidarity. All together now, let us build a common future.
Later on, in the fifties, filmmakers like Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz turned their backs on Grierson and his followers and pleaded for a ‘free cinema’ that had no intention whatsoever in terms of sending messages. They went to the harsh beauty of unscripted reality and filmed an old lady at Covent Garden or an amusement park or children at a school. They went for Life. They went for ordinary people.
Commercialisation of TV
Many years have passed and many wonderful BBC and C4 films have been made and travelled the world. But the commercialisation of British television changed a lot for documentaries. C4 changed radically and only documentaries dealing with sex one way or the other seemed to have a chance to pass. The lighter documentaries entered the stage, the docusoap series became the format for catching the so-called normal life. It had to be entertaining, and so it is, but more often than not it is also superficial.
Back to the Genre Roots
All of this comes to mind after watching the five new films of Luke Holland. His films have the same good old virtues found in the history of British documentary. He tries to capture the ordinary, he talks to people, he takes his time, he has many characters, not only one or two. In Ditchling, where he lives, he finds stories that develop, that’s true, but they are not as important as the characters, these wonderful people from a Sussex village near Brighton.
They are people like you and me-not the usual protagonists of mainstream British documentaries: serial killers, immigrants, porn stars, politicians or high-profile footballers. The Ditchlingers live in a village with a beautiful landscape surrounding its littleness and they have problems, they have a history. Luke Holland is one of them and he has used his camera for years to give us the chance to encounter life in a very English village, which could actually be anywhere the way it is presented to us. That universality is the quality of the film and hurrah for the Danish, Estonian, Lithuanian, Belgian (both French and Flemish), Swiss, Swedish, Romanian and Finnish television channel representatives for being so clever that they trusted the film and could see this touch up front. They put funding into the film series whose main broadcaster is BBC-the Storyville strand (broadcast in September–October 2005).
The Ditchling Series
“Going for the Kill” (feature length) is about a family that suffers due to the farming crisis at a time when fox hunting with hounds is to be banned in the UK. The four other films are all 48 minutes long. “Looking for Mr Gill” is about the eccentric local artist Eric Gill (early 20th century) and what he left in the village in terms of art and opinions on alternative lifestyles. “Closing Time” is about the closure of the local pub, The Sandrock Inn, by politicians and businessmen, who do not care about heritage and culture.
And then my two personal favourites, “Salad Days” and “Ditchling Ladies”, both of which clearly demonstrate what Luke Holland is good at: establishing the confidence of his neighbours in the village and conveying what they are telling him with respect. Even if his British accent is verrrry particular and far from his fellow villagers, he behaves like a gentleman who is very curious and wants to know everything but also knows when it is time to stop questioning. In other words, Holland asks questions and generates conversations. He is not an interviewer.
Local Theatre Group
“Salad Days” deals with the local theatre group and their stage preparation of a musical piece that was famous in England back in the ’50s. It is absolutely great fun to follow the rehearsals, to meet the director, an 80-year-old former professional actress, and the younger charismatic leader of the musical aspect of the play. But the main emphasis of the film is on a family, all of whom take part in the play: Roger Broadbent and his wife, Ginny, who have been married for 45 years and their daughter, Lucie. Gently the three unfold the story of a life that, especially for Ginny, did not turn out the way it could have been for a very talented singer who had children and gave up a career, and for a father, born in Egypt, not really attached to Ditchling and England but a very English man nevertheless. Lucie, who loses her voice during the last week before the premiere of “Salad Days”, and has to mime her way through the play accompanied by a colleague’s voice, is full of energy and opinions that she communicates not only in “Salad Days” but also in other parts of the film series.
Of course old ladies have a lot to tell. Luke Holland knows that and in “The Ditchling Ladies”, he makes four of them, all very old indeed, give that mature insight into Life that follows after being around as long as they have. The most touching story is told by a woman who longed for a career as a piano player, had the talent for it but contracted polio and had to give up her career. With a smile and without any kind of asking the spectator to pity her-on the contrary her approach is quite cynical-she utters one of those lines that stays in your mind: “I have not done a lot in my life, you know…” She believes in reincarnation and hopes for better luck next time.
Being Present and Taking the Time
Luke Holland is present in the film. You hear his voice behind the camera, abrupt and a bit hectic, always brief, also in the statements he makes to make a bridge from one story to the next. He focuses on Ditchling’s High Street as the place he goes back to. This is the street where cars pass to go through a village that has produced many an interesting citizen, some well known outside, as well, but most of them unheard voices that are now being heard. He takes a stand in the film. He is not just observing. He is committed to the cause of keeping the Sandrock Inn and describes his position on this quite openly in “Closing Time”. For those of us who do not live in Ditchling it may be a bit difficult to see why the closing of a pub is “that” dramatic, but to the people in the film who are fighting to save it, you can read their faces and understand why a small change can be big.
Allow me to be old fashioned in times where TV channels and festivals, afraid of boring their audiences, go for sensational, front-page matters to depict reality. The Ditchling films bring a classic quality of the non-journalistic British documentary back to screen: the ability to stay with ordinary people and make their lives extraordinary and interesting like all lives are when captured at the right moment by the right person who knows respect and has sensitivity. For many years Molly Dineen’s film on people working at the London tube station Angel, “Heart of the Angel” (1989), for me was “the” superb, multi-layered example of how to capture the atmosphere of a small environment. It is no longer the only one that can serve as a case study on why documentary filmmaking is much more interesting in the hands of a director who dares to take the time to watch and listen.