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Festival Focus: BritDoc

By Carol Nahra

From Deborah Scranton's 'The War Tapes.'

When I first moved to the UK ten years ago from the US, I wrote about my new home as the golden land for doc-makers, where full commissions allowed the freedom to concentrate all your energies on making a film, rather than stressing about where the money would come from.

But the last decade in Britain has seen a narrowing of the types of programs provided with full commissions, with many documentaries--including creative or authored filmsleft out in the cold. Jess Search's recent career trajectory mirrors what's happening with independent documentaries in the UK. Search used to run the Independent Film and Video Department at Channel 4, a home for the channel's most innovative and authored output. But in 2004 the department closed and Search, after hatching a scheme with then Head of Documentaries Peter Dale, left to set up the Channel 4 British Documentary Film Foundation. The foundation provides grants to filmmakers for their "passion projects"--often films that wouldn't be able to find a home on television. The move was a shrewd one on Channel 4's part; for a relatively modest sum of money, Channel 4 could foster the independent documentary community, cultivate good relations with the most promising documentary players in Britain, and pick up the occasional film at bargain prices--by being only one of a number of funders, while maintaining a "first look" option.

Now Search and her team of colleagues at the foundation have taken this concept of diversified funding for documentaries and launched an annual event around it. BritDoc burst onto the UK documentary scene this summer as a well-run, three-day event that was determined to push British documentary makers out into the big wide world of international co-productions. The 650 festival attendees mingled and sweat on the stately grounds of Keble College at Oxford University over three of the hottest days of the year, talking the business of making docs.

While it's called a festival, director Beadie Finzi says that BritDoc was really more of a "doc think tank," with an emphasis on promoting different models of funding and distribution for documentaries. Much of the festival was designed to match British filmmakers with a range of people who could prove valuable in seeing their docs realized. Central to this strategy was a daylong pitching forum modelled after The Forum at the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam (IDFA). Only international commissioning editors and funders were invited; half of the panel, including HBO's Nancy Abraham, ITVS' Claire Aguilar and Orlando Bagwell from the Ford Foundation, was from North America, with the remainder being mostly European commissioning editors, including Arte's Christoph Jorg. Fourteen projects were pitched, and the standards for both the films and the pitches were extremely high. The most popular pitch came from American Mike Bonanno, who lives in Scotland (filmmakers had to either be British or living in Britain). Dressed in an enormous amoeba-like costume, Bonanno pitched a follow-up to The Yes Men documentary that would see the filmmaker and Andy Bichlbaum, his partner in political pranks, take on some of the corporations that are some of the worst environmental polluters.

Another popular event at BritDoc was the "Would Like to Meet" sessions, which speed-dated filmmakers with scientists and campaigners. BritDoc also hosted a Skillset Surgery, setting up one-to-one appointments with a range of distributors, sales agents and other key doc players. Other sessions included Foundation Funding: How the Americans Do It; A Beginner's Guide to Film Finance; and Adventures in Co-Production. Doc celebrities on hand included Albert Maysles, in conversation with More 4's Peter Dale, and a Fact vs Fiction panel with Pawel Pawlikowski, Kevin Macdonald, Mike Figgis and Penny Woolcock. Throughout much of the sessions, the emphasis was on making feature-length documentaries with cinema potential.

The film portion of the festival screened ten films in each of the two competitions, alongside some special screenings. Debra Scranton's The War Tapes won the International Feature Competition, and proved that a simple idea can sometimes make the most powerful film. Scranton provided soldiers from the New Hampshire National Guard with cameras before they were posted for a year in Iraq. Three of the soldiers' accounts of the eventful year are told in the film, in their own words and images. The winner of the British Feature Competition was Ben Hopkins' 37 Uses of a Dead Sheep, in which Hopkins creatively tells the story of the Pamir Kirghiz tribe of Central Asia. A selection of films funded by the Channel 4 British Documentary Film Foundation were screened at the festival. The highest profile fundee to date is Marc and Nick Francis' Black Gold, an investigation into the poverty facing Ethiopian coffee farmers. The doc premiered at Sundance and will have a US cinema release this fall; Black Gold screened at BritDoc in the British Feature Competition.

During the festival, organizers announced a new fund to encourage films that highlight social or political issues. The Joseph Roundtree Foundation and the Channel 4 British Documentary Film Foundation will each provide 35,000 ($65,850) annually to the fund.

The intense emphasis on funding opportunities and partnering sets BritDoc apart from the UK's biggest doc gathering, the Sheffield International Documentary Festival. Sheffield has a much broader film program, screening over 60 documentaries. The festival also does much to encourage newcomers to the industry by offering a Newcomers Day, as well as selling single tickets to screenings, so that filmmakers can come to Sheffield and just buy a few tickets, rather than a delegates pass.

BritDoc seems to be aimed at the higher end of the market, targeting documentary makers who have cut their teeth making films for television and are hoping to move on to bigger things. BritDoc is also priced out of the reach of many documentary makers, with the cheapest ticket being a whopping 100 ($190) day pass--not including lunch--with a three-day residential pass costing 450 ($850).

Is there room for both events on the diary? Certainly. The UK has always led the way in the world of documentary making, and having two complementary events per year can't be a bad thing. And with the trend being to push the best and brightest British doc-makers to have to beg for their supper, they're clearly going to need all the help they can get.


Carol Nahra is a journalist and documenatry producer based in London. She can be reached at