Battle in Print: In defence of campaigning documentaries

Jess Search, 11 November 2009

For a piece championing impartial documentaries, David Cox’s article, Is this the end of the line for the impartial documentary?, is hilariously partial. Cox rather ungraciously describes the Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation’s work as ‘mating up indigent film-makers with institutional grubstakers,’ and yes, we have a growing expertise in matching ambitious filmmaking with foundations and NGOs to build new ways to create, distribute and use documentaries. We have done so with many major award winning films. including the BAFTA-winning Chosen, The End of the Line, which played at Sundance, The Yes Men Fix the World, which won the audience award at Berlin, and Erasing David, which premiered at Sheffield last week. The BBC’s Nick Fraser is quoted to give the impression that he disagrees with our approach when in fact he clearly stated that he agreed with it completely. I hope Sheffield Doc/Fest can put up a recording of the event so that people can hear that for themselves.

David says, ‘The campaigners are winning and the journalists are losing,’ but these two aren’t in opposition to each other. The End of the Line is a campaigning documentary based on the book by ex-Telegraph journalist Charles Clover. Once you have established the facts about the state of the world’s oceans, it’s surely natural you’d want to do something about it. All documentaries should employ good journalism (factual accuracy, fairness and respect for the truth), but documentaries cannot simply be reduced to news programmes. David says the journalists wants documentary to remain ‘impartial’ and ‘detached’ but I think he’s confusing them with the news. Documentaries tell stories, they are the filmmaker’s point of view on the world. They seek to move and engage. They are as philosophical as journalistic since they raise questions, either head-on or obliquely, about how we should understand the world around us and live our lives. They have heart as well as head and that’s what makes them so wonderful.

David seems to regret the passing of some bygone golden age when these ‘impartial’ documentaries were funded by commissioners solely concerned with letting independent filmmakers arrive at the truth. But money always had a colour, and filmmakers have always been very aware of it. TV commissioning editors need press attention and ratings and are very interventionist to protect their investment. NGOs need different things; tools to help them drive campaigns or to help lobby politicians, to raise public awareness, fundraise etc. So they get involved in films for different reasons, although in all the films we have been involved with, NGOs have had no editorial control. So in fact they have given the filmmaker a greater editorial independence that TV would offer.

Plus their involvement is far richer and more interesting that simply financial. In most partnerships the NGOs do not even put money into the budget but work with and around the film once it’s finished. Chosen, about abuse in public schools, will be used as an education and training tool for a generation thanks to the non-profit partners on board. It’s a brilliant moving film, independently made, that passed a high bar of good journalism, played on More4, won a BAFTA and is now part of an important campaign to tighten child protection in private schools. David is very cynical and dismissive about these partnerships and ‘the benefits they supposedly confer’. We’re not.

In the end it seems like David’s problem is just that he doesn’t like campaigning films. Fair enough. I don’t like horror films. Luckily for both us, there is a great diversity of filmmaking in Britain and a place for everything in the mix. Most documentaries will not be campaigns and not funded by NGOs but every year a few great ones will be.


Jess Search is the chief executive of The Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation. The Foundation has given grants to enable feature documentaries such as The End of the Line, The Yes Men Fix the World, Sundance winner Afghan Star, BAFTA winner Chosen and now Moving to Mars.

Jess is also co-founder of the independent film-makers’ network Shooting People, through which she published Get Your Documentary Funded and Distributed (2005). In recent years Jess was the editor of Independent Film and Video for Channel 4 TV, responsible for a department commissioning documentaries and drama with an emphasis on new talent and innovation.

Jess took part in the Battle of Ideas Satellite event, Campaigning documentaries: the thin line between passion and propaganda at Sheffield Doc/Fest on Friday 6 November 2009

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