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Seeing a Kingdom: A Decade of British Non-Fiction Cinema

By luke Moody

From Steve Loveridge's 'Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.' Photo: Sara Kiener

The image of a nation is never fixed. Scenes of a shared land are regularly in conflict, reductive of the multiple heritages and cultures contained within the borders of a country. The international perception of Britain during the grand finale Brexit is of a country in a state of confused direction and identity, where beams of creative vibrance are dullened by the cloak of a political dark age. While fiction can project and escape this farce, what of nonfiction, a space embedded in the real, tethered to truth and the evolving shape of actuality? What is British nonfiction cinema in this decade of identity crisis?

The turbulent teenage years of this century witnessed major cultural and political shifts in Britain: multiple extremist attacks in London and Manchester, the rise of nationalist political parties, London Olympics, Grenfell, a Scottish independence referendum, mass environmental protests, the aftermath of recession, riots in London, withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Windrush scandal, Cambridge Analytica Files and a Brexit referendum. Yet their surface phenomena have generated only a handful of long-form nonfiction films, dominated by romantic scenes of the natural and polished narratives of societal friction.

Thinking of projections of Britain in the 2010s, what images of place and people linger in the collective memory? John Akomfrah's lyrical odysseys of migration and injustice? Clio Barnard's layered biography set in a Bradford estate? Ben Rivers' grayscale foray into Scottish highlands? Penny Woolcock’s peace-brokering on the streets of Birmingham? Andrew Kötting and Iain Sinclair swanning around rivers and canals of southern England?

This last decade of nonfiction British cinema has not been illuminated by a singular manifesto, movement or aesthetic tendency, much more by archetypes of subject matter. The most commercially dominant subject of national introspection has focused upon the nation’s cultural output through musical biopics: Asif Kapadia's Amy, Steve Loveridge's Matangi/Maya/M.I.A, Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth's 20,000 Days on Earth, Sophie Fiennes' Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami. The afterimage of ten years of British documentary is a psychogeographical tour of archival hinterlands to the sound of a cult musical icon whose candle burned too brightly. What factors determined the principal themes or formal approaches within long-form documentary over the last decade? Who told those stories? Where they were shown? How did these factors determine how we are seen, how we see ourselves and future possibilities to do so?

Few British filmmakers are concerned with encapsulating the national psyche in their work or foregrounding "Britishness" as a signature of their oeuvre; fewer still would wish to portray an entire nation in 90 minutes. Maybe Kevin Macdonald? The current filmmaking sensibility is far removed from the propagandist efforts of the 1930s British Documentary Movement, portraying Britain as a singular "we," but there are institutions mostly bearing the prefix of "British" within the industry sector of nonfiction cinema who hold a challenging responsibility to support British stories by British filmmakers. Their position of power in shaping the ecology of images of a nation prompts questions: What stories are valued? What forms of moving image are recognized and supported? Which voices are included in this infrastructure and why? What is the legacy of their commitments?

In recent years the whispered echo of any convening of progressive British documentary producers is that funders do not take enough risk to allow the industry to develop new directions, explore formal approaches and meaningfully support new and diverse voices. A majority of the more radical and honest recent depictions of fractures appearing in British society are emerging from filmmakers and financiers operating parallel to the prominence of the mainstream industry.

Long-form nonfiction film funding in Britain has been low compared to investment shown by numerous European neighbors, while the number of documentaries on cinema screens has boomed. A sprouting of festivals exploring and taking risks exhibiting more avant-garde cinema of the real were founded in the last decade. Open City Documentary Festival was established in 2010, Frames of Representation in 2016 and the emergence of Berwick Film and Media Arts' New Cinema Award have expanded the creative spectrum and depth of engagement with nonfiction cinema for British audiences. Seminal international creative nonfiction film of the last decade have found theatrical distribution on UK screens: This Is Not a Film, The Act of Killing, Leviathan, Behemoth, Cameraperson, Hale County This Morning, This Evening. This was something less imaginable in the early 21st-century landslide of impact documentaries.

Despite this extended tidal shift of confidence in exhibiting progressive film, why are there not more abundant and daring financing opportunities? Why is there not a flourishing generation of producers of creative nonfiction film in Britain? Possibilities of representation, subject matter and aesthetic vision cannot be removed from the commercial and political conditions of funding. For feature-length documentary filmmakers in Britain, dependence on national film funds and broadcasters as the primary sources of budget has become normalized, to an extent that making cinema outside of this prescribed spectrum is very difficult for independent producers. Recent survey reports in the UK and US highlight the lack of sustainability as a great obstacle to working in the industry.

The barriers to confidence and fruition in creative documentary are not solely due to a lack of resources, but how and when resources are directed. A lack of risk from financiers ripples down to a producer's ability to work with a more diverse slate of filmmakers. Elhum Shakerifar, producer of some of the most memorable British documentaries of the decade including Island (2017) by Steven Eastwood, A Northern Soul (2018) by Sean McAllister and Almost Heaven (2017) by Carol Salter, outlined the need for sustainable funding to support risk-taking by filmmakers. Instead, bureaucratic glaciation manifests in the administration of temporary labs and prizes largely focused on industry “skills” of production, as opposed to incubating works conceptually and formally, and financing the art of nonfiction. "How can we possibly expect people with no fall-back to take on the level of risk and uncertainty that a documentary requires?" Shakerifar queried in an interview in Docs on Screens. "How can I ensure that people don't feel more disempowered by the status quo? I don't need any more training, accolades or schemes—I need cash funding to pay highly competent people properly."

From 'Islands,' by Steven Eastwood.

The constrictions of funding in part stem from recent habits of value measurement in nonfiction film, scrutinized on the scales of commercial return and competitive audience metrics, placed in comparison to fiction film or factual entertainment, prioritizing formatting as opposed to formation, recognition of cultural worth, radical originality, and plurality of voice and representation.

Funding sources and hierarchies do evolve, and the last decade has seen a major growth of new commissioning and distribution platforms such as Netflix, Amazon, and more recently, Apple TV. How will the rapid emergence of international SVOD platforms in the documentary market impact the way Britain is represented? The current establishment of British broadcasters seem to be fearful of losing ownership of the narrative and audience. A recent wave of keynote lectures vocalized this disapproval of changes catalyzed by new content platforms. Alex Mahon, the chief executive of Channel 4, speaking at the Royal Television Society London Conference, uttered concern with "growing concentration of power in the hands of just a few tech behemoths"; and former BBC Director General Mark Thompson, in his Steve Hewlett memorial lecture, warned of "a total loss of culture sovereignty."

While these comments sound like one form of media imperialism bemoaning the end of empire and subsidy of the status quo, they are not a proposition of emergent and future support of British talent. Dorothy Byrne, Head of News and Current Affairs at Channel 4, offered more practical survival strategy for British TV commissioners in her recent McTaggart lecture: “If we are worried about becoming irrelevant, one of the best things we can do is to start making big controversial programs about the UK which put us back at the heart of public debate, as we used to be.” This brief rally of broadcaster keynote riffs is economically articulated in another keynote speech: to quote Chi-hui Yang’s 2018 Getting Real talk, "Power shapes content."

Whoever wins the battle of broadcasting and viewership, their dominance will undoubtedly maintain or reshape the form of films being produced in Britain over the next decade. How will a new wave of nonfiction filmmakers help to shape this direction? How can these financiers create space for a more inclusive industry over the next decade?

Mandy Chang, who helms Storyville, Britain’s sole broadcast slot for feature-length international documentaries, addressed in a recent interview in Docs on Screens the imperative for British producers to think and collaborate more internationally: "I think that broadcasters will need to start growing and changing. They are going to need to move a lot quicker in the future. It's very siloed at the BBC; I mean, this is very political, but I do think we need to be more joined up. We need to be talking to each other more. I think the model of co-pro is a really useful model for a cash-strapped BBC. And they could learn a lot from the model that Storyville has, where we make a very small amount of money go a long, long way."

An openness to co-producing would not only benefit the financial sustainability and exposure of British filmmakers; it could also offer cultural shift away from the mentality of sovereign protectionism, allowing fresh perspectives on the country’s political quagmire. This is evident in a recent tide of bold depictions of social inequality in Britain that have emerged from non-British directors, including Europa, Based on a True Story, directed by Kivu Ruhorahoza; Scheme Birds, directed by Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin; Brexitannia, directed by Timothy George Kelly; and My English Cousin, directed by Karim Sayad.

From Karim Sayad's 'My English Cousin.'

In addition to the growth of subscription platforms, free-to-view online publishers have proliferated in the last decade, with a majority of print magazines and newspapers now commissioning and hosting documentary content on their websites. The murky arena of brand financing of documentary, sponcon, has been a somewhat fruitful source in production of new plural visions of Britain by emerging and established talents. As the Shell-funded Film Unit impacted the first UK documentary movement of the 1930s, so recent brand collaborations have been effective in exposing a new wave of radical nonfiction talent. Dazed’s involvement in the national Stop Play Record scheme for 16-24 year olds; Frieze and Gucci’s funding of Jenn Nkiru; Jeremy Deller and Josh Blaaberg’s recent Second Summer of Love films; Boiler Room 4:3's curation of emerging voices; and Gal Dem's collaboration with Levis to portray British LGBTQI+ histories are a few prominent examples.

The vitality of voices in evolving spheres of cultural publishing and gallery spaces may take time to influence or infiltrate monolithic institutions. There is clearly a thriving abundance of contemporary British nonfiction film in other more widely viewed forms and formats, including short online work embedded within burgeoning cultural scenes. A new generation of filmmakers including Rhea Dillon, Ayo Akingbade, Jenn Nkiru, Onyeka Igwe, Akinola Davies jr (AKA Crack Stevens), Stephen Isaac Wilson, Nadeem Din-Gabisi, Rabz Lansiquot, Stroma Cairns and Rehana Zaman, to name a few, are probing and articulating questions of contemporary Britain with new images, heading towards a divergent cinema of voices who independently define their own space of production.

The turn of a new decade sets new horizons: leading organizations such as Doc Society and Scottish Documentary Institute continue to adapt to offer more holistic support to emerging filmmakers, and the culmination of a three-year study of the UK feature documentary industry by the University of West England promises to offer deeper insight into the ecosystem of funding and distribution in the sector. How Britain is represented, seen and questioned through cinema in a climate of recession, of selfish retreat, and fading memories of Europe all washed over by a blond mop, is a vital struggle for a new generation of filmmakers. What is the manifesto of the now? What images can rupture the enduring lethargies of established media institutions?

Although long-form nonfiction films are a thin strata of our mediated landscape, they can possibly provide the deepest effect on international perception of contemporary Britain and legacy in becoming a future memory.

Luke W Moody is a creative producer and curator developing new work with LONO studio. From 2016-2019 he was Director of Film Programming at Sheffield Doc/Fest. Previously he was Head of Film at Doc Society. He also co-founded and curated the film festival FRAMES of REPRESENTATION at ICA, London and digital service Something Real.