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BritDocs Fest looks to Shake up British Documentary World

kebble college

One of the most exciting things I spotted in the bursting inaugaural programme for the Brit Doc film festival - which runs next weekend - is a networking event where 20 filmmakers are introduced to charities and campaigners who have issues which need highlighting. Supported by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, the event will use speed dating to link doc shooters with stories in the UK and around the world which need highlighting. A similar event from the Wellcome Trust introduces filmmakers to scientists, and the two sessions illustrate how Brit Docs is starting to look like a refreshing blast of air to the world of documentary and the UK film events calendar. 

brit doc festivalThe three day event, running from 26th - 28th July 06 in Kebble College Oxford, is the brainchild of Jess Search, best known as former head of Independent Film & Video at Channel 4, and co-founder of Shooting People. As head of C4's new Doc Film Foundation, distributor of Sundance winning doc Unknown White Male, and co-author of the exhaustive Get Your Documentary Funded and Distributed, Jess has been tireless in pushing documentary in this country.

While Sheffield has long been the gathering ground for documentary in the UK, this event - the first of what is hoped to be an annual programme - is focussed much more on the documentary feature, a format which in the age of Farrenheit 9-11, Super Size Me, Dark Days and The Yes Men has grown ever more popular - and financially viable.

And strategically the shift in focus makes sense. With cheap cameras, desktop editing and web distribution, everyone these days could be a documentary filmmaker. YouTube is host to millions of people just beginning the journey of exploring the relationship between what they film, how they select and present that footage, and how that effects the user feedback, ratings and hit counts, a relationship with the viewer that is - for better or worse - so much closer than BARB viewing figures could ever be.

It is, as Chris Yap of Microsoft told the B*Tween conference in Doncaster last February, the dawn of an incredible cultutral rennaisance. One, where the power of representation is increasingly in the hands of the represented. Even Murdoch, in a recent interview with Wired Magazine, acknowledged that top-down media is on the way out - "technology is shifting power away from the editors, the publishers, the establishment, the media elite. Now it’s the people who are taking control."  In a world where consumers and creaters are one and the same, this is perhaps unavoidable, and a very liberating thing. Having explored the vlogosphere this past year, I can only agree that beneath the Numa Numa fans and the narcisistic look-at-me-do-this videos, there is some extraordinarily beautiful filmmaking and story telling, while - for example - shaky handheld footage of someone filming a monsoon sweep past their front door makes international news reporting look artificial and out of touch. And these are early days - how long before news events are covered by dozens of 'citizen filmmakers' filming and commenting with mobile phones, hours before the TV vans have arrived, while documentary projects edited with online web editing, can pool collective resrources and footage to create work of range and depth that would not be possible in conventional production offices.

But, in the midst of this, what becomes of the great documentary makers (and indeed filmmakers)? Master storytellers, whose techniques and tricks have been long refined into something that far surpasses the serendipitous verite which can also make such great viewing  - Spike Jonze's Al Gore film - which floated onto the web this week - being a good example.

With TV chasing with ever increasing frequency the lowest common denominator, and the web being so filled with content that the best work may well fail to find its potential audience, where other than feature length should the most committed documentary filmmakers and producers be looking? I remember Jess once saying that Etre and Avoir would never have been commissioned for TV. It won an Oscar, made a good deal of money at the box office, and subsequently got a nice sized TV sale and presumably a good audience. The other way around, starting with TV - just doesn't seem to be viable right now, and with the soon to arrive Digital Screen Network offering a compeltely restrucutred and fluid means of distribution, then cinema has to be where it's at, especially for topics which just can't be summed in nice TV and web sized chunks.

But this leads to all sorts of questions. Is there the audience demand? Is the funding in place? Will people trained in TV simply create 90 minute TV programmes, with no understanding of the opportunities, and needs of a cinema screen?

Which is why an event such as Brit Docs is really needed, as it allows these ideas to be discussed, new partnerships to be formed, and  - no-doubt -  a lot of people to come away inspired and energised in a time of quite massive change and uncertainty in the media world. And with that uncertainty and change being echoed in the world as a whole, there has arguably never been a more important time for independent documentary. 

For more information on the BritDoc festival, including the pitching sessions, screenings, panels, and details on how to get the £100 a day tickets - see

Confirmed attendees so far include:

International commissioning editors and funders
Nancy Abraham, HBO
Orlando Bagwell, Ford Foundation
Mark Atkin, SBS Australia
Evan Shapiro, IFC US
Mark Fichandler, Court TV US
Outi Saarikoski, YLE Finland
Shannon Kelley, Sundance Institute Fund US
Claire Aguilar, ITVS US
Christoph Jorg, ARTE France
Georgie Weedon - Al Jazeera
Wolfgang Landgraeber - WDR Germany

UK commissioning editors and funders
Peter Dale, More4
Charlotte Moore, BBC
Katie Speight, More4
Hannah Beckerman, More4
Simon Dickson, Channel 4
Angus MacQueen, Channel 4
Kate Vogel, Channel 4
Jan Younghusband, Channel 4
Jo Lapping, BBC Storyville
Paul Trijbits, UK film Council
Dan Brooke, Discovery
Fiona Scott Johnson, Discovery
Ed Crick, The Learning Channel
Marissa Ronca, The Learning Channel

Nick Broomfield, Morgan Spurlock, Albert Maysles, Mike Figgis, Penny Woolcock, Kevin MacDonald, Ben Hopkins, Rex Bloomstein, Alex Gibney.

Sales Agents / Distributors
Debra Zimmerman, Women Make Movies (NY)
Barbara Truyen, Films Transit International (Amsterdam)
Michael Thornton, Forward Entertainment (NY)
Sue Temple, Temple International (UK)
Matthew Frank, RDF Rights (UK)
Emily Cripps, RDF Rights (UK)
Julie Goldman, Cactus 3 (NY)
Niki Page, C4I
Richard Life, C4I
Tom Grievson - Metrodome (UK)
Catriona MacLean - Electric Sky (UK)
Leisl Copeland - Cinetic Media (NY)
Natalie Humphreys - Parthenon Entertainment (UK)

Film Festivals
John Cooper, Sundance
Matt Dentler, SXSW
Sandra Hebron, The Times London Film Festival
Heather Croall, Sheffield International Documentary Festival
Fleur Knopperts, IDFA forum

Production Companies
APT Films
Brown Eyed Boy
Darlow Smithson
Diverse Productions
Fremantle Media
Granada Media
Oxford Film and Television
Raw TV
Renegade Films
Tiger Aspect
Touch Productions
True Vision
Twenty Twenty
Wall to Wall