DOX visited a panel at Sunny Side of the Doc and checked out recent examples of the genre.
Prince Charles may become king of the United Kingdom one day – and should remain politically neutral. For Channel 4’s “Dispatches”, David Henshaw (Hardcash Productions) recently revealed the extent of Charles’ political interference, the silencing of critics, and questionable financial arrangements. The Prince of Wales, of course, was not amused, and launched a 21-page attack on the programme before it was even broadcast. Even after 15 years of making investigative docs, Henshaw admits “it’s still hard to make a living”. He finds them “very difficult to get off the ground, because they’ll cause trouble.” And they’re “incredibly expensive”, in regions beyond EUR 300,000, often due to pricey archives.
“In France we don’t have such freedom to make films about people in power,” says Paul Moreira about “Charles – The Meddling Prince”. Moreira was the creator of the investigative “90 minutes” slot on Canal+ which is now defunct. He explains how it’s in the nature of these programmes that “you can’t pre-write them, you can’t guarantee anything.” When Ric Esther Bienenstock set out to make the highly-acclaimed “Sex Slaves” (CBC, C4, PBS), she told her crew, “I don’t know where we’re going, I don’t know for how long, I don’t know if we’re going to eat.” The aim of “Sex Slaves” was not to tell a victim’s story in retrospect. The filmmaker wanted to find out how trafficking really works: “Why don’t these girls run away? Why aren’t they stopped at the border? Why don’t they go to the police?” While she was following an unfolding story in Ukraine and Turkey, TV channels couldn’t rely on the delivery. “We blew all broadcast dates by a year,” the director admits.
“Investigation means you have to find the people to talk about the issue,” says Marie-Monique Robin. The French journalist is completing a documentary about the practices of Monsanto, the leading producer of genetically engineered seeds. “People live in fear of getting fired or being sued.” The power of the Internet helps and hinders. “You can’t have censorship any more,” Moreira says.“Whatever happens, it’ll be on the web.” On the other hand, what will happen if you promise a whistleblower that “this film won’t be broadcast in your country” – but the film somehow ends up on the net, accessible to everyone? There’s no answer to this, but reassuringly, the filmmakers agree: “People still want to testify.”
“Criticising your government in North America makes for a good livelihood,” Ric Esther Bienenstock notes. “But criticising economics or religion is much more controversial because of the threat of advertising withdrawal.” To the Canadian filmmaker, getting investigative docs onto TV screens “is all about getting E&O [errors & omissions] insurance.” Marie-Monique Robin’s film is co-produced by ARTE. “It’s not an advertising channel, so there’s less pressure there. But the two Canadian partner channels are scared to death.”
Many broadcasters try to shift the legal responsibility entirely to the producers. The wording of the programmes has become extremely important, preventing any opportunity for a lawsuit. David Henshaw has observed a trend of doing investigations about consumer issues instead of tougher subjects. “You cannot help but notice the decline of investigative television in the UK.”
It has to be said that the Queen was amused. David Henshaw heard that “she really liked the programme because it put Charles in his place.”