The Luckiest Nut in the World stars an animated barbershop quartet of nuts singing backup for a guitar-strumming peanut with a cowboy hat and a Texan drawl. It’s a program that wouldn’t look entirely out of place as filler between live-action segments on a children’s program. But forget Sesame Street – these nuts are admonishing international institutions for unfair trade practices that prevent struggling Third World countries from catching up with the West.
This quirky 30-minute doc by London-based American director Emily James aired on U.K. broadcaster Channel 4′s ‘Alt-TV’ in August 2002. The three-year-old strand’s mandate is twofold: to give new directors a break, and to experiment with the documentary form.
According to Peter Dale, chair of C4′s contemporary factual group and head of docs, the idea for ‘Alt-TV’ was inspired by Tim Gardam, then-director of programs, who in 1999 challenged a group of commissioning editors to establish a strand that clearly demonstrated the channel’s commitment to documentaries. Notes Dale, ‘Channel 4 has always had a remit to innovate, to risk and to develop new talent, wherever it may be.’
The strand airs 10 times a year on Fridays at 7:30 P.M. and is championed by commissioning editor Jess Search. Says Search, ‘With a half-hour, you can really push the boat out. We try a lot of things on ‘Alt-TV’ that you couldn’t over an hour – it would be too much of a risk.’
Miraculously, no one thus far has gone over the tiny £40,000 (us$67,000) budget ‘Alt-TV’ hands out, partly because Search takes care to match neophytes with experienced producers who know how to rein in costs. For example, another U.K.-based American, Paul Berczeller (whose This Is a True Story launched this season’s ‘Alt-TV’ in July), was paired with Jacques Peretti of Diverse Productions in London, a prodco that has backed such films as Eugene Jarecki’s The Trials of Henry Kissinger and Leo Regan’s 100% White.
However, Search is more than a matchmaker to indie doc-makers just entering the biz. She’s also a guidance counselor, check-writer and, perhaps most importantly, cheerleader. Search exudes a palpable enthusiasm for the work she commissions, and the filmmakers she works with adore her for it. One fan is True Story‘s Berczeller. Search commissioned his film when it was merely a concept: to tell a story using only still photographs. Says Berczeller, ‘I don’t think I would have been able to make [this film] if Jess weren’t at Channel 4.’
Directors of ‘Alt-TV’-commissioned projects have continued to hone their craft in the field. Olly Lambert, who made 4 Weeks to Find a Girlfriend in 2001, went on to direct Rasputin: Devil in the Flesh for C4; Hypersex for BBC2 (with London-based prodco Blast Films); and, most recently, another C4 project, about a military field hospital on the Iraq/Kuwait border. Sophie Key (Love Sophie) has directed three episodes of C4 format Dinner Party Inspectors, and John Dower (Sneaker Freaks) just directed his first feature-length doc, Live Forever.
Observes Search, ‘I have the best job in television, because I get to work with first-time filmmakers, who are so much fun… I really like that when Emily [James] says she wants to do an animated musical about world trade, it’s either going to be genius or absolutely terrible, but we’d better make it or we won’t know.’
Adds Dale, ‘We’re encouraging [directors to] make the film that is burning a hole at the back of their minds, not [one] that is a good calling card for the future, because if you [do that], you end up with safe programming. The whole point of this is that it should be taking huge and terrifying risks.’