Lighten Up! BRITDOC Debates the Serious Side of Documentaries

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
, 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.

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.