Doc filmmaker Roger Graef

One of the pleasures of a documentary conference is the chance to see the heroes of the medium in a professional context. Veteran Roger Graef pioneered the ‘institution laid bare’ strategy, and still retains the radical idea that telling the truth to the people in the film all the time is essential.

A room overflowing with delegates waited eagerly for an Icepick in the Brain in this session on Day Two of AIDC 2006. The pick was to be wielded by veteran UK filmmaker Roger Graef, in conversation with BBC’s Richard Klein. A treat indeed.

AIDC’s ‘meet the filmmaker’ sessions are perhaps the pinnacle of the conference, at least for this filmmaker, whose eyes sometimes begin to glaze at the incessant producer-speak that dominates these proceedings.

One feature of the session was Roger’s attempt to pitch his next project to Richard Klein, who responded with immediate and obvious caution, wary of giving the nod to a longform documentary project before he knew what had hit him.

Introducing Graef, Klein told the roomful of delegates that they first met when Roger knocked on his door at the BBC, and he had no idea who he was. Since then they have worked together on a number of projects. Klein particularly values Roger’s judgement in the editing room, even though they have had their share of disagreements in post.

RK: How did you get into filmmaking?

RG: I began wanting to be a lawyer, until I asked a relative for a suitable reference book on the subject of justice. He replied that justice has nothing to do with the law, they are two different things. So I decided not to study law, and instead I got a job as an actor, in New York. I became a director, thinking I could explore social justice through the theatrea and via the direct relationship I felt to the audience there.

The Actors’ Studio saw my work and hated it, so they took me under their wing, and I met many top-notch actors and learnt a lot about acting. Returning to London, I directed a play that was a huge flop. I’d never experienced failure on that scale before in my life, and I took time off to recover. I offered to raise money for victims of thalidomide, and they told me they needed a documentary film, to show how these people really were. I made the film and it was well received. I discovered from this experience that what I had to do was stay out of the way and let the audience see for themselves.

Since then, Roger has tried to make films where he stays out of the way, so that people can see behind the headlines to what is really happening. He made a series called Police, in which the Thames Valley police force gave him tremendous access.

We were shown a clip from this series where a rape victim was interviewed by police, who bluntly suggested to the victim that she was lying about the assault. Apparently the finished episode was one hour long, and they had one and a half hours in the can.

Later in the session, Graef explained that he offers his subjects an agreement where they can tell him to stop filming, they can tell him what he has just shot is too personal and to take it out, and they can see the finished program and tell him if he has misinterpreted something. When filming the woman who had been raped, halfway through she told Graef she didn’t want him to film. He left the room, but when the detectives took a break, he returned and suggested to her that if she wanted justice at the hands of the police, she might benefit from a film record of the proceedings. She agreed, and he came back and finished recording.

By this time, Graef had spent nine months filming with the Thames Valley Police, and covered five rape stories, all of which had fallen by the wayside for one reason or another. This was the sixth case, and the ninth month. Then, within one and a half hours, he had shot the material he needed to make an hour of riveting documentary.

Graef told us how he gains access, by talking to the people at the top, convincing them that he is a serious filmmaker, he’s in for the long haul, not just chasing a deadline. Once he’s persuaded the Number One person, he also makes sure he convinces the number two or three, because he is aware that sooner or later, the shit will hit the fan, and the Number One person will get nervous. Then, he will need the number two or three to reassure the boss that everything will work out.

When approaching an institution to gain access, Graef doesn’t ask to cover the big story of the moment, because he knows the powers that be will want to control his access over that story. He asks for an open-ended story, something small, anything to get filming. Once he commences, the truth will unravel…

Graef is currently working on a project about teachers of difficult children. He was surprised that the teachers accepted the uncertainty associated with their work – never knowing how they would turn out. The trick for these teachers is to stay with the uncertainty, with not knowing. Graef realised that it’s the same with filmmaking – you never know how the film will work out in the end, and your task is to stick with not knowing and avoid grasping for certainty and leaping to conclusions.

At the end of the session there was a fascinating interchange between Roger and Richard about the subject of withdrawing a completed film if the participants changed their minds. While Richard was loathe, from a broadcaster’s point of view, to give the participants this power, he agreed that in some circumstances, you have to remember that what is television for them, is real life for the participants, and sometimes you have to protect the participant and withdraw the film. Graef told how this had happened to him once, when the program was not only complete, it was in the TV Guide – but the BBC still pulled it from the schedule.

All in all, a generous insight into the mind of an experienced and capable documentary filmmaker, Roger Graef – and more than a few nuggets from Richard Klein.

AIDC: Roger Graef and that Icepick in the Brain
by: Mark Poole

Screen Hub
Wednesday 15 February, 2006

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