So you want to make documentaries?

brianThis year’s Watersprite film festival hosted a documentary panel led by BAFTA award-winning Brian Woods (pictured left) of True Vision; director of the BBC Academy Anne Morrison; BBC producer and director Sarah Waldron; director Eva Weber and the venerable criminologist and filmmaker Roger Graef OBE. Even if you’re not making dramatised “reality” TV and sensational body shocks, documentary can still be a very self-indulgent medium. The documentary panel at Watersprite demonstrated that the restrictions of broadcast television can enforce precision and clarity, and the opportunities that it offers can even lead to a filmmaker changing the world.

Dispatched to Florence with the brief “Get your facts right”, Graef was greeted with an unexpected spectacle.

Following samples of Waldron and Weber’s more recent work, Roger Graef screened a clip of his documentary WHY SAVE FLORENCE? (1968), filmed at a time when freelance filmmakers were unheard of. Dispatched to Florence with the brief “Get your facts right”, Graef was greeted with an unexpected spectacle. Florence is the birthplace of modern soccer, and on 24th June every year, the “Calcio in Costume” takes place. When Graef arrived with his camera at the Piazza Santa Croce, he found it transformed into an improvised stadium, teeming with football players in doublets, knickerbockers and ostrich feathers. Footage of this lavish festival raised questions about Florence’s financial priorities – its poor flood control resulted in devastation when the Arno River broke its banks in 1966. Graef urged would-be filmmakers to concentrate on gaining an understanding of the subject, allowing the subject to dictate the content, and not deliberately courting controversy. He also showed considerable restraint in a brief declamation of reality TV, which is widely known to be heavily scripted: “The reality TV bible has acts“.

Woods stressed the importance of seizing the moment – you never know when fortune will favour the filmmaker.

Brian Woods & Kate Blewett’s THE DYING ROOMS is an example of how film can make a difference. This Peabody award winning documentary exposed the horrendous neglect suffered by children and babies in Chinese state orphanages. Woods explained to the Watersprite audience that the Chinese government had filmed a rebuttal titled A PATCHWORK OF LIES, and presented it to any venue which planned to screen THE DYING ROOMS. This did nothing to stifle Woods and Blewitt’s message. By chance, the foreign secretary Michael Rifkind was visiting China around the time of the film’s release, and the issue was raised with him by people who had seen the documentary. He demanded a public inspection of the institutions, and the resulting outcry provoked a change in policy and an improvement in the quality of life for Chinese orphans. Woods stressed the importance of seizing the moment – you never know when fortune will favour the filmmaker. Sarah Waldron agreed that it’s important to proactively take advantage of circumstance: “Grab the luck”.

It’s important to build up a portfolio of work – not just films but pitches, blogs and research.

Eva Weber advised that although it’s tricky to stand out in the industry today, it’s also easier than ever to prove your worth. It’s important for any would-be documentary director to build up a portfolio of evidence – not just films but pitches, blogs and research. Anne Morrison recommended BBC Academy Training as one of the best ways into the industry. Successful applicants to the production talent pool have an excellent chance of being recruited into the production trainee scheme. The whole panel agreed that the cynical saying, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” isn’t entirely untrue – it’s important to build a network of contacts, crew and mentors to help you make your way into the business.

Read our interview with Sarah Waldron here soon.

INTERESTED IN DIRECTING DOCUMENTARY AS A CAREER?

It’s not cheap, but scholarships are available for bright new talent.

The National Film and Television School runs more behind the camera courses than any other film school in the world. For the past 40 years the School has run courses which produce graduates who have gone onto phenomenal success in the film, television and new media industries. The application deadline for the DIRECTING DOCUMENTARY course is 9th May.The National Film and Television School runs more behind the camera courses than any other film school in the world. For the past 40 years the School has run courses which produce graduates who have gone onto phenomenal success in the film, television and new media industries. The application deadline for the DIRECTING DOCUMENTARY course is 9th May.

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