I came late to a media career as a hospitality officer with the London and Edinburgh film festivals. A bit of a jack-of-all-trades, I was, in essence, a traveller and had been all over the world. This is, I believe, why I’ve always been drawn to non-fiction feature films/auteur docs – that subspecies of the documentary genre that I hold most special.
At their best, these docs take us on a journey and return us transformed to our own world. These journeys may be to some distant land or to a local neighborhood; into the bosom of a family or inside someone’s innermost thoughts and emotions – places we could never reach alone, but that we can enter through the unique access offered via the filmmaker. Many are among today’s most powerful films, telling us stories often more strange, more dramatic and more compelling than the fictions we invent.
These films are usually made with the big screen in mind and are best seen in the cinema, but for a long time now – at least in the U.K. – they have reached their audiences via TV. TV, however, has changed radically over the last decade. The huge increase in the number of channels has made the medium very competitive, and a range of new factual genres have developed that work much better for TV in the all important battle for ratings. As TV’s commitment to docs dwindles in favor of reality shows and make-over programs, the first to go to the outer limits of the schedule are those awkward length cinematic masterpieces. These have long been a bit of a cuckoo in the TV nest, as their natural home is the big screen.
If we are not to lose such work completely from our culture we must return them to the cinema or find other ways to watch them. I am supporting the work of Amy Hardie, an independent filmmaker in the U.K. who has researched and compiled The Docspace Report, a document that argues there are untapped audiences out there for docs in the cinema. An initial (but limited) survey of the audience at the Sheffield Festival tour in January 2002 indicated that this group watches less than the average amount of television, is around 30 years old, highly educated, and selects a film for its subject. These findings confirm similar research recently conducted in the Netherlands.
In August, a full-scale, 18-month pilot was launched at the Edinburgh International Film Festival to test various hypotheses in the report. Exhibitors, distribs, educators, broadcasters, funding organizations and the press are involved, each understanding that they all stand to gain from the aim of increasing existing audiences for theatrical docs, as well as identifying and nurturing new ones.
In my post-Jane Balfour Films life (JBF was liquidated in June 2000), I continue to do a little agenting and some consulting. My efforts are almost entirely devoted to working with a few feature documentaries and auteur films, and I am delighted to report that at the beginning of October last year I had two docs – Startup.com, by Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim, and Down From the Mountain, by D.A. Pennebaker, Nick Doob and Hegedus – in cinema distribution in the U.K. So, there are encouraging signs. Also, at the end of July in Time Out London, a weekly entertainment magazine, docs were at number one and four of the critics’ top choices. However, before getting too excited, we need to note that they were the only two documentaries showing in theaters.
This could be the last gasp of a beautiful genre unless major support for the cause is made immediately available by funding bodies and government institutions. We need to ensure the survival of such an important part of our culture. To quote the Chilean documentarist Patricio Guzman, ‘A country without documentaries is like a family without a picture album.’