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Lighten Up! BRITDOC Debates the Serious Side of Documentaries

By Christiaan Harden

In just its third year, BRITDOC has already become a must-attend event on the UK festival circuit, and after a stifling heat-wave in 2006 followed by torrential downpours a year later, organizers were blessed in 2008 with something much better: a beautiful, balmy three days. Held annually in the cozy, sumptuous surroundings of Oxford University's Keeble College, BRITDOC 2008 saw yet another record attendance, including some of the very biggest names in the business. Man on Wire, James Marsh's riveting account of tightrope walker's Philippe Petit's "artistic crime of the century," won the coveted Best Feature Award; Julie Moggan beat an extraordinary line-up of projects in the Big Pitch with her project Guilty Pleasures, on the phenomenon surrounding the British romance novel publisher Mills and Boon; and with banquets, live rock music and a Handlebar Moustache Disco, a great time was had by all. The themes for this year's event were music and comedy. There was just one question on everybody's mind: Are documentaries too serious for their own good?

To help answer this inevitably divisive question, sun-drenched festival-goers were treated to a unique series of debates and master classes including "You Cannot Be Serious," with the wonderful conceptual art team The Yes Men; a lively Oxford Debate on comedy and documentary; and on the final evening, a session with the king of comedy, Larry Charles.

Chaired by film critic Jason Solomons, the You Cannot Be Serious panel read like a who's who of comedic filmmaking talent, including Morgan Spurlock's producer Jeremy Chilnick; Kurt Engfehr, Michael Moore's editor on Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11; and Andy Bichlbaum, one half of the Yes Men. Who better to explore exactly what it is that makes a doc funny, the range of comedic techniques at a filmmaker's disposal, and whether humor is really a useful tool for telling the most serious stories? In the past few years we've seen a spate of box office hits that have used comedy to great effect, reeling in audiences that most documentary filmmakers can only dream of. But does the approach really work?

A packed Oxford-style debate tried to find out and sought to overturn the motion that "This House Believes Documentaries Are Too Serious" and saw Channel 4 British Documentary Film Foundation Chair Christo Hird, journalist Claire Fox and Engfehr take on Peter Dale, former head of documentaries at Channel 4; maverick filmmaker Jon Ronson; and Current TV's Emily Renshaw-Smith. But even they couldn't settle it. Delegates too were divided on the matter: Forty-three percent agreed that documentaries are indeed too serious, and that maybe if filmmakers loosened up a little, they might have more luck getting their message across.

  Caption: The band Heavy Load, from Jerry Rothwell's documentary of the same name. Courtesy of BRITDOC.

Comedy legend Larry Charles is hoping to get his message across about international religion with Religulous, his first documentary, and in the perfect finale to BRITDOC, he shared his thoughts and expertise with an enraptured crowd. Described in a press release as "Borat meets Fahrenheit 9/11," the feature-length doc is due for release in October, and follows comedian/pundit Bill Maher around the world in a satirical investigation of major global religions. Charles treated BRITDOC attendees to a sneak preview of Religulous and explained why, after years in film and TV comedy, he wanted to try his multi-talented hand at making documentaries. The acclaimed director of Seinfeld, Curb your Enthusiasm and Borat wanted to find a "deeper truth." "I think doing Seinfeld, as great as it was and as much fun as it was, the artifice of a sitcom started feeling too contrived," he told the audience. "I got very tired of that."

Will Religulous bring down organized global religion? I doubt it. However, if the film lives up to its preview, including a great clip of the Holy Land Experience, a Christianity amusement park in Florida entertaining its flocks with daily, tourist-friendly crucifixions, Religious should be a very funny film indeed.

In a year bursting with great docs about music, BRITDOC 2008 also set out to celebrate the craft of a creating a great soundtrack. Composers Michael Nyman, Nitin Sawhney and Jonathan Dove explored the role of sound in the Soundtrack Masterclass; the highly successful session Would Like to Meet returned to match-make filmmakers with musicians; and a Bollywood Brass Band entertained delegates sipping gin and tonics on the lawn.

Three very different films about music received their UK premieres at this year's BRITDOC: Jerry Rothwell's Heavy Load; Heavy Metal in Baghdad, directed by Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi; and Stephen Walker's Young@Heart. All three touched and entertained audiences in equal measure. Heavy Load was first pitched at the inaugural BRITDOC in 2006. The film is about an unlikely band of the same name and the story is perhaps a familiar one. It's about a band that gets together, goes through some difficult times, falls out, chases women and ultimately triumphs. Except Heavy Load is not your usual band. All three members have learning difficulties and Rothwell's revealing portrait of the band's journey is as entertaining as it is inspirational. "Brighton's answer to the Ramones" was even in attendance, and played to a buoyant festival crowd.

While BRITDOC this year was perhaps more about networking opportunities, panel discussions and social gatherings, there were a few other filmmaking treats on offer. In particular, Thriller in Manila, directed by John Dower, told boxer Joe Frazier's side of his infamous third and final contest in the Philippines with the legendary Muhammad Ali. Ali's version of events is well known, but Dower's film looks rather brilliantly at the events from the perspective of "the other man in the ring." There was also a range of other useful master classes on offer unrelated to the main themes-all now available to download from the Britdoc website, covered subjects from distribution and marketing to interview technique.

Placing comedy and music at the forefront of a documentary festival was a bold move, and quite simply, a resounding success. It is a credit to the organizers just how far BRITDOC has come in past three years. Let's hope that its remarkable rise continues. Watch out, Sheffield!

Christiaan Harden is a documentary filmmaker and writer currently developing broadcast documentaries for Spectrecom Films in London, England.