It was like a dream. I was standing centre stage at the Almeida Theatre in London. The audience sat, waiting to be impressed.
I was playing the familiar role of documentary director, but under unfamiliar circumstances. The audience consisted of actors and other members of the Almeida company, and they were waiting for me to come up with an argument which would convince them to participate in an observational film about their current production, Chekhov’s Ivanov. Because the Almeida has a democratic approach to things – where even stars like Ralph Fiennes, Diana Rigg and Liam Neeson agree to perform for the same low fee as the support players – I had to persuade the entire company.
They were highly suspicious: ‘How can we trust you not to make another House?’ they demanded. They were referring to the phenomenally successful bbc-commissioned series, which subjected the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, to merciless scrutiny. The House revealed the creative energy and commitment required to run a world-class opera and ballet company, yet it also exposed the vanity, pomposity, incompetence and nastiness of some of the people working for that great, but rickety institution. The series showed glimpses of fabulous productions, but it was the backstage rows and administrative blunders that viewers would remember.
‘I admire The House, but I do not want to remake it,’ I explained. ‘I want to make another kind of film. I am interested in exploring the creative processes. I do not want to concentrate on human weakness and folly. I want to focus on the craft of acting.’
As I spoke, I realized I was creating some serious problems for myself. If the company accepted my word, could I stick to it? If riveting examples of human weakness and folly were to display themselves to my camera, would I really choose to look the other way? And if the commissioning executives in British television were to overhear my spiel, would they think I had taken leave of my senses? How could a film about ‘creative processes’ compare with the blood and guts of people under pressure behaving badly?
Yet I meant what I said. Over recent years, I have become increasingly disturbed to see the British tv documentary dominated by essentially negative portrayals of people in moments of stress. In so much of what I see on British television, I sense the cold, detached gaze of the director, waiting for his or her subjects to stumble and fall. The better the filmmaker’s resources, the more steely the stare and resolute the patience, the more spectacular the fall they will record. And the more the film will be applauded by peers.
I am not arguing for only bland portrayals of the best of human kind, but I do believe that courage, flexibility, inventiveness, imagination, generosity and warmth are as essential to the human condition as weakness and folly. And sometimes an effective portrayal of these qualities can inspire the viewers and give them encouragement in their own lives.
As well as lurking in the shadows looking for people to screw up, filmmakers should sometimes celebrate their achievements. For every Secret History dishing the dirt on a figure of the past, there should be a program telling us why this person was interesting in the first place. Programs about neighbours from hell, monster nannies, cruel parents and people whose dreams crash to the floor are all very well, but perhaps their ultimate effect is to make viewers feel as superior and detached as the filmmakers.
It’s not surprising that a group of people as self-aware as professional actors should be wise to the dangers of exposing themselves to the documentary-maker’s gaze. But the Almeida company did take the risk, and a film about acting did result. ‘Thank God,’ I thought, ‘that I was commissioned by the arts department at Channel 4 and the National Video Corporation.’ Many other commissioners in British television would have considered my pact with the actors as folly in itself.
tales from the trenches: Submissions for the Back Page are welcome. If you have an issue to air, an axe to grind or an amusing anecdote, please contact
Mary Ellen Armstrong:
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