Six weeks after September 11, the 8th annual Sheffield International Documentary Festival hosted fewer international delegates than in recent years, but for those making the trip the festival provided its usual down-to-earth, thought-provoking combination of documentary films and sessions looking at the art and challenges of doc-making.

Carol Nahra
Carol Nahra is a documentary producer, consultant, journalist and lecturer based in London. She blogs at docsconscreens.com.

One of the festival’s most admired documentaries was the world premiere of Battlecentre, by Leo Regan. Having turned to DV from photojournalism, Regan has carved a name by revisiting the subjects of his photography and emerging with extraordinarily intimate films. Following on from last year’s award winning 100% White about former British neo-Nazis, Battlecentre is a movingly empathetic portrait of a London house of Jesus Army Christians. Regan’s single crew films take us back to observational basics – a good lesson in the current British climate of gimmicky constructed documentaries. Despite the temptation provided by communal living and outbursts of speaking in tongues, Battlecentre refuses to patronize its subjects and instead serves up a compelling insight into the allure of redemption for people who have lost their way.

Widening the Doc Audience

As usual, festival sessions examined the challenges of bringing docs to a wider public, and the constraints of a television landscape increasingly dictated by stranding and branding. In a session on big screen documentaries, the Dutch Film Fund’s Kees Ryninks explained plans to introduce digital documentaries to Dutch cinemas. To circumnavigate the prohibitive cost of producing 35mm docs for cinemas, the Film Fund is equipping ten theatres with digital video equipment, with an agreement that they’ll screen documentaries once a week throughout The Netherlands.

Newcomers

At the annual Newcomer’s Day, the number of commissioning editors on hand to discuss slots for first-time filmmakers was noticeably fewer than previous years. The messages those who did appear had to share were also a sign of the times: Emma Read of Discovery UK (representing the cable & satellite industry – now responsible for 50% of factual commissions in the UK market) admitted that one-off commissions were practically extinct. In perhaps the understatement of the day she advised the audience that if a pitch is accepted by Discovery “you have to be prepared to watch your idea be moulded slightly.” Danny Cohen, representing Channel 4, was encouraging about the use of DV, a major theme of this year’s festival: “If you’ve got a good idea and get a hold of a digital camera, the possibilities are endless,” he told the audience.

Broomfield Disappoints

Nick Broomfield

The low point at Sheffield for many was Friday evening’s Stuart Cosgrove interview of Nick Broomfield, in the week’s most high profile slot. Having carved a reputation from provoking his subjects – most famously by deliberately showing up late to interview South African fascist Eugene Terre Blanche – Broomfield proved true to form, appearing forty minutes late for the several hundred assembled delegates. For many the wait was not worth it: Broomfield gave an indifferent interview to Cosgrove’s softball questions, with bland responses making no concession to the specialized audience he was addressing. Broomfield continues to provoke strong feelings among British documentary makers, with his early work revered as much as his recent work is scorned. I spoke to several filmmakers who claimed him as a friend while sharply criticizing his recent documentaries for their narrow focus on American crime and celebrity, as well as for Broomfield’s stale technique of starring in his own films. During the interview, after Broomfield spoke of once being given $800,000 to make a documentary and not knowing what topic to do, a small but steady stream of delegates began leaving the venue and heading for the bar.

Masterclass on Ethics

The atmosphere couldn’t have been more different in the same auditorium the next day when a Dennis O’Rourke masterclass yielded a substantive session about the craft and ethics of documentary making. Although O’Rourke was there with his latest film, Cunnamulla, questions as usual focused on his most controversial, The Good Woman of Bangkok. This 1991 portrait of a Thai prostitute, with whom O’Rourke had a relationship, was met with widespread condemnation upon its release. During the masterclass, O’Rourke candidly discussed his agreement with his subject, and the emotional entanglement of their relationship, rich fodder indeed for an audience working in an industry where the roles between subject and documentary maker are increasingly blurred.

 


© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).
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