‘Storyville’ editor Nick Fraser on the future of docs

Strap on your seatbelts - Nick Fraser is about to take you on a ride. The famed editor of BBC's 'Storyville' strand unabashedly outlines his pleas about how to save docs. Hot off being bestowed Hot Docs' Doc Mogul Award, Fraser writes of broadcasters' waning interest in docs, filmmakers' waning interest in television, and his far-from-flattering take on niche-focused doc-makers.
August 13, 2008

Let me first go 10 years back, and think of myself sitting in a BBC office. I realize for the first time in my life that I no longer have to think about what I am doing. I must fight to ensure that more films such as the one I am watching are made. What is this film? It’s called Hoop Dreams, I am told that it is almost three hours long, and I know it is about the trials of two black American teenagers in Chicago as they strive to become basketball stars. As you will have deduced, I am not familiar with basketball. I didn’t grow up in a ghetto.

But I know that I will watch all of this film with passion and engagement. I will be sorry when it is finished. It will affect me more than any feature film. What I will take from it, and what will stay with me, at its simplest, is a sense of the truthfulness of things, or, to express it another way, the state of grace that comes from being utterly literal. I will know so much about these two protagonists that they will exist for me. And the impact of the film isn’t solely, or primarily, a matter of style. People live for you or they don’t. That’s the message of great docs; it’s why novels or even journalism are important.

Docs let us see things before we are told about them. They create, or imagine reality on our behalf. But they work with real things. I suppose you could say that they attend to our craving for reality. For we do crave reality. The craving is somewhere between greed and hunger. The craving is not insatiable; indeed it can be suppressed, by governments as well as ourselves. But it’s always there. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t live at all.

I found a poem by Robert Lowell, one of the last things he wrote, that expresses what I am trying to say. He finds that he cannot invent anything – in him the Harry Potter gene appears to be atrophied, if indeed it was ever there.

But he figures out what we have to do: just look around ourselves…

Yet why not say what happened?

Pray for the grace of accuracy

Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination

stealing like the tide across a map

to his girl solid with yearning.

We are poor passing facts,

warned by that to give

each figure in the photograph

his living name.

You can spend a lifetime giving living names to photographs. I think it’s not an ignoble ambition, and I have been happiest (apart from experiencing and enjoying all the private things which constitute the real purpose of existence) doing this. And I’ve been so lucky – so many filmmakers have prayed for the grace of accuracy. In film after film (and how many wonderful docs there have been in the past 10 years!) their prayers have been answered.

As you might expect, I have more prosaic things to say – but I want to stay a bit longer with the poetry. We should not require the films I am talking about to legitimate themselves, either by classifying them as art – probably mistakenly – or by devising spurious definitions of social utility. They are so great because they contain truths about the world. These are truths only available to us if we are especially alert, and indeed willing to accept them.

The best docs, no matter how personal, are impartial, cold-eyed. They gaze coolly on whatever they create for us. Whatever they show – the destruction by a fish of the ecosystem of a lake in Africa, an insane expedition to the polar caps to uncover the origins of the universe, a walk on wire between the Twin Towers, a man who goes each year to Ukraine in order to make holes in skulls with a Black and Decker drill, a democratic campaign organized in a class of nine-year-olds in China, a country where there is no democracy – enhances our understanding of the entire world. ‘Narrative is everything,’ the writer V.S. Naipaul remarked recently. So it is – but we need narratives to free us from ourselves. Only narratives indistinguishable from the truth both take us from ourselves into the world and return us, maybe even wiser. So: why not say what happened?

I used to think I inhabited a bizarrely mythical golden age of truth-telling. That was, after all, what the pile of films each month, complemented by those I was able to commission, using the BBC name – I hoped to good effect – told me. Lately, however, times have gotten worse. The weather has changed. Not that the pile is worthless, far from it. But it is getting harder to find money. I don’t want it to get any harder – because there is only so much you can ask from people in the way of sacrifices. If making difficult documentaries becomes too difficult – I mean the ones I have been talking about, the really hard ones, the ones that are really good – people will stop making them. I really do not want this to happen.

It isn’t primarily a question of money. Any glance through a catalog of one of the growing number of markets at which docs are sold will show you that there are more than enough titles each year to fill any demand for docs on cable television or the Internet. But these are not the kind of films I’ve been talking about.

Good work, I now know, exists in a nexus of relationships supplying a minimal level of security. Broadcasters, festivals, film funds, film distributors – all of these have combined, albeit accidentally, to create some sort of context in which money can be found, films appreciated and viewed. They haven’t been viewed by large enough numbers of people, and that failing may lie at the heart of our current predicament.

The system, which was ad hoc, fragile even as it delivered good results, is under strain. Many broadcasters are losing interest in docs – because the audiences are low, and anyhow most television is busy annexing the appearance of reality, often with documentary techniques, to create what is now called ‘reality TV.’ Television has become unfashionable for filmmakers. A showing at Sundance or Toronto is more satisfying. And the festivals cater to filmmakers’ needs. So, increasingly, do many funds, which commission in a civilized vacuum without excessive regard for who gets to see the film.

More and more docs are made for niches within niches. They do not even pretend to reach audiences. The movement to encourage ‘advocacy docs’ – soft left agitprop in which the ills of the world are selectively addressed – has further encouraged the idea that micro-audiences can matter. Meanwhile the performance of docs in markets where do audiences matter – on television or in movie houses – remains mediocre. And yet many filmmakers continue to disdain all but the smallest audiences. Often they seem to make films for (and often merely about) themselves. In many instances the elitism is masked by politics – you know, lefties can’t be elitists. But docs have always striven to reach audiences. In a niche age they should surely address, simultaneously, as many niches as possible.

I don’t think the situation is hopeless, far from it. I’d just like to end with a small number of pleas. Maybe they amount to a petition: ‘Save Docs’…

My first, and most important one, is to filmmakers: stay ambitious and stay real. You’ll make more money with formulae. Maybe do both – some trash and some good things. But the best, most important work depends on your willingness to risk yourselves. You created this astonishing body of work. Be wise, be counter-intuitive. Even if the occasion requires it be bold, bloody and resolute. Shun PC.

My second is to the commissioning editors: commission bravely. If you work in television, try harder to find audiences for really good work. The trend in television is away from considerations of what is really good. Where editors have believed in their work, taking real risks, the results have been surprising. Imitate these brave, hardy souls. Honour them. And please remember how hard it is for filmmakers. They cannot be expected to live on air. We cannot find ourselves in a position where only people who have made a fortune in dot-coms, or failed to lose a fortune at Merrill Lynch, can make docs. Un peu de générosité – a bit of generosity, please.

My third is to someone whose existence I can only guess at. Docs will shortly be distributed over the Internet. We know too little about the possibilities of this development. Will there be a doc equivalent of Amazon? Is that the sort of thing a place like the BBC or HBO should be sponsoring? The danger is that the audiences will be further fragmented and that – as we have seen with respect to the press – no one will find a way of getting people to pay in order to watch films. Funding docs will become still harder. But the problem is so large that it needs rigorous study. I hope someone will commission good work on this subject. If you know anyone, please tell them to do so. I’ll be happy to help out.

My last petition is to myself. All I have to do is get up each morning and dream of reality. There will be more great films, and we shall make or enjoy them together. Why not say what happened?

Compiled by Alicia Androich

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.