Sheffield ’18: The state of UK doc filmmaking

SHEFFIELD – Commissioners and industry leaders discussed the state of the British documentary scene during a recent panel at the 2018 Sheffield Doc/Fest. On the panel, “Best of Times, Worst of ...
June 12, 2018

SHEFFIELD – Commissioners and industry leaders discussed the state of the British documentary scene during a recent panel at the 2018 Sheffield Doc/Fest.

On the panel, “Best of Times, Worst of Times: The Future of Feature Documentaries,” BBC ‘Storyville’ commissioner Mandy Chang spoke of her concern about the pull of significant sums of money, both private and public, coming from America, on the British doc scene.

“I don’t want us to lose our directors – because we have very good talent here – to the [United] States,” Chang expressed to the audience.

Along with Chang, Lisa Marie Russo, executive at BFI Doc Society; Elhum Shakerifar, producer; and Kim Christiansen at Danish Broadcasting Corporation, joined moderator Rajesh Thind at Pindu Productions for the discussion on feature filmmaking.

‘Storyville’ commisioner Chang said some filmmakers are so caught up in gaining access and their budget that they don’t think about what will set their feature documentary apart from the field.

“The power of storytelling is not just about observational films,” she said, noting there are many other types of films she’d like to see on the ‘Storyville’ slate. She is looking for films that “push the form,” noting Peter Middleton and James Spinney’s 2016 award-winning Notes on Blindness.

BFI Doc Society’s Russo said people should be watching films beyond what’s offered on Netflix. If directors are part of the British film scene, she said, they should familiarize themselves with such talents as Sean McAllister, Andrew Kötting and Carol Morley, and understand how their work fits into the doc space.

“It’s been shocking to me that people don’t always know what is going on in the British scene,” Russo stated.

She also touched upon Chang’s point of Brits heading to the United States, and wondered whether there’s more to it than for monetary reasons. Chang responded by noting it’s more than just about capital – America inspires filmmakers with its rich tradition of storytelling.

Making films is often about taking risk – and few will jump in with first-time directors, said Shakerifar, the producer behind director McAllister’s A Northern Soul. This is often the reason, she said, why so many first time directors head to the U.S. where foundation funding is more accessible to tap.

“You can go with a kernel of an idea and people will trust you to develop it, and will trust first-time directors or directors who don’t have any particular experience but who have something to say,” Shakerifar said.

The producer said it’s something to mull over in the doc landscape in the UK. If they want more diversity, they have to support them on their own terms and in their own voices.

Chang agreed with the producer, saying there isn’t enough support for those coming into the documentary world. There aren’t enough spaces in British media for first-time filmmakers to go to with ideas. She said mediums in British broadcasting and other areas that support filmmaking need to think about this reality and how to help filmmakers at the grassroots level.

When asked about what the future might look like, the ‘Storyville’ commisioner said, “All we can do is support the industry, to commission really great films, and bring on new talent and bring on new voices.”

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.