As well as providing plenty of opportunities to debate and celebrate the genre, the festival also showcased a wide selection of thought-provoking, entertaining documentaries ranging from Marilyn Agrelo’s Mad Hot Ballroom to Mark Wexler’s Tell Them Who You Are.
SIDF has always been quite business and industry-focussed and this year was no exception. A series of sessions under the label “The Sharp End” gave delegates nuts-and-bolts advice on issues such as commissioning, co-production and distribution. Likewise the “Newcomers Day” provided a chance for those seeking to make a career in documentary to get tips from seasoned campaigners about the practicalities of filmmaking. A little later in the week, in a very well-attended session, delegates also heard more about the new opportunities for filmmakers emerging out of developments in broadband technology, developments which may enable them to escape the broadcasters’ stranglehold.
BBC on the Hot Seat
For many festival visitors the highlights of the week came in a series of sessions featuring some big names from both the world of broadcasting and that of documentary production. This year one of most talked-about events was the interview with Peter Kosminsky, best known for his work as a TV drama-documentary director. Interviewed by Thomas Sutcliffe, Kosminsky reflected on the challenges of producing ‘factually-based dramas’, including his recent film The Government Inspector about the death of Dr David Kelly and Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war. There was some irony in the fact that the Kosminsky interview, together with the screening of the film, should follow an earlier interview with Mark Thompson, the new Director-General of the BBC, the institution that had come under some scrutiny in The Government Inspector. In his keynote speech Thompson knew that he faced a potentially hostile audience, given that the BBC had recently announced 50% cuts in their documentary department. He therefore spent most of his allotted time in demonstrating his personal attachment to various landmark documentaries. These were mostly drawn from the last decade, but he started off -perhaps controversially- with Peter Watkins’ harrowing drama-doc The War Game (1965), the work that the BBC had banned for twenty years on the grounds that it was too horrifying for the broadcast medium. Responding to questions from the floor after his address, Thompson sought to mollify those who expressed anxieties, post-Hutton, that the BBC might retreat to politically safe territory, with the stern enjoinder Test us! Test us!, though there were clearly many in the audience who did not share the DG’s optimism.