May 1, 1999

Video Nation and Britain's Camcorder Citizens

You're dozing late on a Monday evening in Britain, as a BBC2 film airs its final credits. Suddenly, image shifts and a Welshman is talking to the camera, so excited at the prospect of holding his grandson for the first time that he can barely speak. In the next shot, his big moment comes, and you can feel your heartstrings tightening. Before you know it, the program is over, and a nightly news wrap-up begins. In less than the space of a commercial break, you've become an intimate observer of an unforgettable moment in a stranger's life.

Welcome to Video Nation Shorts, a regular feature on British television. Now in its fifth year, the series is a case study in how the British television industry has nurtured the documentary genre.

In Britain, documentary means television. Since its early days, broadcasters have used the medium to explore the documentary form, recognizing its integral role in fulfilling British television's mission to inform. educate and entertain the public. While the public service function of American television has long since eroded under commercial pressures (producing what FCC chairman Newton Minnow famously declared to be a "vast wasteland"), Britain has gone to great lengths to protect its public service philosophy.

Today, the breadth and variety of documentaries on the major British channels is breathtaking. While some formats can be found in abundance on American cable stations—particularly science, anthropological, historical and nature documentaries—Americans have had much less exposure to the main staple of the British factual industry: the observational film. This documentary genre allows the British to indulge their infinite capacity for "navel gazing"—exploring the most minute aspects of everyday life in an effort to understand British culture, its commonalities and differences. Americans are perhaps most familiar with the British love of observational films through Michael Apted's 42 Up series (see I.D., Jan.-Feb. 1999). 42-Up is unusual in its longevity—tracking subjects over the course of 35 years—but very typical in its style, i.e., observing subjects from a broad range of backgrounds in an attempt to comprehend British society.

Currently, the most talked about observational films on British TV are the explosion of "docusoaps": fly-on-the-wall series which track the travails of various groups-veterinarians, airport employees, driving school students, even zookeepers. Although they garner extremely high ratings—competing with dramas and sitcoms at a fraction of the cost—docusoaps are considered the low end of the documentary food chain and have generated heated controversy within the television industry (read more about it.)

But docu-soaps are just one of many types of observational documentaries to be found on British TV. In fact no topic is too small for navel gazing: banquet caterers, a day in the life of a National Health Service bed, chronic complainers, local swimming pools—all have been the subjects of carefully crafted, artistic observational films airing on primetime television.

The emergence of camcorders has given the British the chance to navel-gaze in new ways. As the technology developed and allowed for broadcast quality films to be made by a single person, British broadcasters began exploring how the camcorder could be used to provide access to a broader range of voices.

Ten years ago, the BBC launched Video Diaries, which commissioned fifty-minute camcorder films from members of the public with a story to tell. Its success prompted broadcasters to consider other ways of engaging the public in filmmaking. Video Nation was conceived as a way to bring to television a version of the Mass-Observation project from the '30s and '40s, a landmark social experiment that enlisted a cross-section of the British public to record their lives through written diaries. The aim of Video Nation is to take the temperature of the nation through multiple perspectives by providing a cross-section of the public with camcorders. Contributors are trained for a day and asked to turn the cameras on themselves to film what is important to their lives over the course of a year. They are also asked to film on broad subjects—relationships, housework, children—common threads in the lives of most Britons. Not only can contributors choose the content of what they film, they also maintain editorial control.

Since 1993, more than 250 members of the public have participated in Video Nation, averaging about fifty a year. Some contributors have remained with the series since its inception. Current participants include a Scottish clan chief, a Morman housewife and a professional deep sea diver.

Remarkably, Video Nation was conceived with no clear idea of how the footage would be used. "The idea was we would offer the channel controller programs in different shapes and sizes on the basis of what came in," says producer Mandy Rose. As a run-up to the first fifty-minute program on the topic of money, the makers produced a series of two-minute shorts, using some of the nuggets of material which contributors had been sending in on a fortnightly basis. After the airing of the full-length program, the producers were asked to continue making shorts for weeknight viewing.

At first the public was bemused. "I think it took a little while for the format to get accepted," says producer Chris Mohr. "Initial reactions were puzzled, people said 'what is this terribly short thing?' The only short things that people had seen really were ads or trailers, and here was something which was a program of that length. Some people got it immediately and thought it was great. Eventually it became part of the language of television. And other programs and advertisements started to copy it."

The power of the films is the intimate glimpse they provide of the contributors, often filming themselves in the privacy of their own homes. The lack of a crew allows for an immediacy not accessible through other observational films. The films are very brief, moving moments: a very pregnant woman, musing over her feelings for her unborn baby while stroking her huge belly, which takes up the frame; a couple drunkenly arguing over the wife's smoking; a Muslim couple describing their happy arranged marriage. The series now produces two hundred shorts a year; and there are few viewers in Britain who haven't seen one. The shorts tend to inherit the audience of the program that precedes them, which on the BBC2 can represent a different demographic snapshot each night of the week. The shorts therefore succeed in introducing a wide range of viewers to an equally wide range of perspectives, giving voice to broad swathes of the British public, people who normally are under-represented on television.

According to Mandy Rose, the series challenges the stereotypes that other television programs sometimes re-enforce. "What TV tends to do is make a space for somebody in a singular category. So if you want to hear what it means to be unemployed, you go to an unemployed person. To talk about racism, you go out and find a black person. What's brilliant about Video Nation is that it offers space for the black contributor also to talk about how she loves shoes, and the unemployed person gets to talk about how fantastic it is that spring's come. It allows people to be complex."

Although only a tiny percentage of footage from Video Nation contributors ever sees air time, all material is logged and cross-referenced to form a mass archive documenting British life in the late twentieth century. There are now more than 10,000 hours of videotape in storage, earmarked for the British Film Institute's National Film and Television Archive. What is impressive about Video Nation is how its makers have taken what is now a commonplace technology—the camcorder—and used it to develop a project that is having a real effect on the public. "It is a spyhole on the nation's secret mind, incidental fragments of humanity that weave together into a rich and glowing mosaic," Polly Toynbee recently wrote in The Radio Times. Five years into its life, the series has received critical acclaim, winning two awards and spawning projects in Africa, Hong Kong, Israel, Bangladesh and the Caribbean. Since the inception of Video Diaries and Video Nation, a number of other series on the BBC and Channel 4 now provide camcorders to the public to allow them to document important issues in their lives.

Colin Luke, an independent filmmaker, is one of England's most ardent advocates of the camcorder technology. His series Russia Wonderland gave cameras to a raft of Russian filmmakers to chronicle different aspects of Russian lives—from the incredibly hard-working widows known as "babushkas," to a young teenager being urged to desert the Chechnyan army by his mother to a day in the life of a stand-up comedian. The series was so successful that Luke went on to repeat the process in Britain with a BBC2 series entitled United Kingdom!—twenty-six films ranging from 2 to 60 min., aired over a period of three weeks. The series featured a plethora of new filmmakers documenting diverse perspectives, from a young man's determination to swim the Channel, to members of a strident Welsh language movement, to a theater company for disabled actors called Tottering Bipeds. A European Union series is now under development.

Luke says that the technology has succeeded in democratizing the documentary-making field. "There no longer is some tiny clique that has access to both the technology and the money and the craft skills: suddenly a lot more people are able to do it," he says. It has also lessened the chasm between filmmaker and subject. According to Luke, "If you have sitting on your shoulder a big piece of camera equipment that maybe cost forty or fifty thousand pounds, you might as well have a neon sign above your head that says 'I am from television... I am smarter and richer than you... I am important."'

 

Carol Nahra (carolruthra@hotmail.com) is an American journalist based in London. Her M.A. thesis in international journalism (City University, London) is a series of feature articles comparing the climates for television documentaries in Britain and the United States.

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