NICK FRASER – WHY DOCUMENTARY MATTERS
As Sandy George commented in her introduction, Nick Fraser has been commissioning editor of the BBC’s flagship documentary strand Storyville, which showcases the best of international documentary fare ‘since the beginning of time.’ And after fighting off the recent BBC budget cuts and enabling Storyville to remain, Nick seemed in a mood at AIDC 2012 to name names and talk turkey.
One of the fascinating, if slightly inscrutable, elements of the session was the way he kept referring to Australians, obviously having a particular view of the way we are and operate. For example, he said that the title for this session, ‘Why Documentary Matters’ was chosen after discarding scores of more esoteric and creative ones because Australians are very literal, and he had found that the best way of dealing with Australians is to be as literal as possible.
This reminded me that despite my UK birth (and passport), whenever I return to Britain my relatives always manage to include references to convicts into their opening remarks, followed by a reminder that I never attended Oxford. It would be fascinating to pin Nick down on this point – what exactly does he think of Australians, and Australian filmmakers? Someone actually asked him in question time about what he thought of our films, and after seeming surprised at the question, he suggested that we are advocates of gentility. He said that Brits of his generation formed their view of Australians in the 60s via people like Clive James, who were full of subversion and tilted and mocked that gentility, but now it seems we have become the epitome of it.
Nick wished he could tell a story about how as a child he saw a documentary and was entranced, but in fact the documentaries he watched in childhood were ‘fucking boring.’ However, he believes that since that time we have lived through an era of great documentaries, an era which is presently under threat.
He spoke of the panic that engulfs the broadcasters of the world, threatened by shrinking audiences and the rise of the internet, and suggested that filmmakers need to recognize that the worries of the broadcasters were real, and we need to help them find solutions. But he strongly believes that part of this solution is for broadcasters and filmmakers to be bold and lead audiences, instead of moving towards formats and reality TV in order in increase ratings.
The BBC’s greatest achievement by far has been the iplayer, he said, which enables you to watch programs on a computer or an ipad. It provides an easy way to see the programs you want to watch. Nick doesn’t agree with the view that you must tailor programming for the internet, such as by reducing their length.
For Nick Fraser, auteurism is the most pretentious bullshit around, evolved to justify tedious films that nobody wants to watch. Documentary is simply telling the truth. But the way you tell the truth is all important.
For Fraser, it’s too boring to set up a documentary in the first few minutes so you know exactly how it will unfold. Far better to be intrigued in the first five minutes but have no idea where it is heading. And he said at a session the previous day that his criterion for selecting a film for Storyville was knowing in the first five minutes that he had to have it.
However in this session Nick said that part of his work is working with a filmmaker to improve a film, suggesting ways of telling its story in the most effective way possible. “If I couldn’t do that,” he said, “it would be a pretty boring job.”
During the session Nick played clips from a number of films screened or destined for Storyville. They illustrated his point that today’s camera is light and mobile enough to work like a pen, writing a story, and the availability of editing equipment assists filmmakers to construct their story following their instincts. He showed a clip by filmmaker Sean McAllister on the Yemen Arab Spring, ‘The Reluctant Revolutionary’. Nick said that Sean is the type of filmmaker who turns left where anyone else would have turned right, thus finding a unique take on a story. More on this film at http://www.seanmcallister.com/php/reluctantrevolutionary.php.
Other clips screened included Tabloid by Errol Morris, The Interrupters by Steve James, and Fire in Babylon, directed by Stevan Riley.
For Fraser, the key issue today for documentary is the relationship between documentary and television. Originally, TV brought documentary filmmakers a way to earn a living, but there was a price to pay. It brought a conservatism, and a certain amount of crap. But Nick doesn’t believe that documentary can be detached from television and find a live exclusively online, as they get lost if they are only available on the internet.
He said it was incredible that there is no way of watching the best 100 documentaries from around the world. If you want to view the Mayles Brothers’ Grey Gardens this afternoon, you can’t. Why is that? These documentaries should be available for everyone. School children in Australia should have access to the best 100 Australian docs, if they wanted to see them. Why can’t they?
I must say I was a bit bemused by these comments, as it is possible to search for docs on the internet, and the site The Documentary Blog, for example, has a list of the top 50 docs, with links to trailers that can be viewed.
“Yes there has been this amazing explosion of documentary talent,” he said. “And we love them. But there is a problem. The root of the problem is the relationship between TV and documentary. It can’t be made better until docs on TV improve.”
He said that the way we make programs is artificially demarcated between networks, but increasingly people live in an international world unfettered by borders. “We should be doing big projects like ‘Why Democracy?’ he said. We need a bold new way of getting into docs. Broadcasters should be urged, or forced, to be bolder, but the other side of that coin is that editors shouldn’t be forced out of their jobs for making one mistake.
Towards the end of the presentation, he said that documentary is at the core of public broadcasting, one of the reasons why it exists and is funded. It’s in the DNA of public broadcasting, and you may have to remind people of that. “Docs may be a niche form but there are people who love them, and you have to find ways of cherishing them.”
Screen Hub – AIDC 2012