Manifesto for Documentary by Roger Graef

Manifesto for Documentary by Roger GraefEarlier this year I was mentored by Roger Graef to develop a documentary project (still progressing) which was a pretty condensed and rigorous experience. His 50-year career includes a number of ground-breaking achievements, directly influenced policing, criminal justice and social policy, and which earned him a BAFTA fellowship in 2004 and a lifetime achievement award at Sheffield DocFest in 2014.

We now also have a manifesto for documentary by Roger Graef, an excellent outline of 10 key changes needed to invogorate worthwhile documentary productions with meaning and depth, available to read at https://sheffdocfest.com/articles/186-roger-graef-s-manifesto .

I was pleased to see two critical items in it, items 2 and 3 in his list:

2 we need more foreign stories.

Not just about countries in extremis. In the past, there were many programme strands that specialised in foreign coverage, like europa, Under the Sun, Granada’s Disappearing World and Correspondent. Its successor The BBC’s This World was a foavirte for me to make films for and to watch, but it had many more slots.  Channel 4’s excellent Unreported World is only a commercial half hour.  BBC4 used to have lots of foreign docs but no longer has the money for them.

Today’s resistance to stories even from Northern Ireland and Europe as well as further afield leaves huge holes in our knowledge of the world.  It feeds the ignorance of diplomats and politicians about countries like Iraq, Ukraine and Afghanistan – with disastrous consequences.

Currently the radically different versions of news on US, Russian and Ukrainian television and websites reflect the bias i referred to above.  Closer to home is the so-called debate about Europe in the runup to the elections. If you don’t have alternative reliable sources like documentaries, you believe the fragments of what you see from politicians with an agenda. And you fill in the gaps with your own prejudices.

3 commissioners and filmmakers need the freedom to take more risks.

Panorama does take risks, contrary to the recent BBC trust report. It invests the necessary time to get the evidence – as seen in both its recent special hospital and care home specials.  So does Channel Four’s Dispatches, which the trust praises.

But doc makers and commissioners are constricted by the ed spec, the editorial specification that obliges us to predict our film’s content in detail before we even start shooting. This is especially pointless for unstaged access observational films where nobody knows what is going to happen while we film. It’s fiction really, a best guess made far too early.

For example, in our recent series on Iceland, the supermarket chain, we had no idea the horsemeat scandal would break in the middle of filming. It became an important theme which we could not have predicted.   Every obdoc maker will have similar stories. That’s the point of not staging things. Unexpected events can happen right up to the end of filming. That happened with our itv series inside the British Communist Party, when we made an entire film in the last 24 hours of two years of filming. It won the RTS Award.

Good stuff.  Will it be heard and be actioned?  I hope it has some influence, though it is mostly against the grain of the way things seem to be going (and thats why its needed).  Lets wait and see.  No – lets push to move things forward.  And pass them on.