Documentary Foundations: the new quangocracy? The battle for editorial independence

Saturday 6 November, 3.15pm until 4.45pm, The Chapel, Norfolk Street, Sheffield S1 2JD

Venue: Sheffield Doc/Fest, The Chapel, Norfolk Street, Sheffield S1 2JD.

Tickets: Entry to this session and all other festival sessions requires a delegate pass. For further information go to:

The maelstrom of economic austerity has shaken up every sector, from the arts to scientific research. While the coalition government ignites a ‘bonfire of quangos’ – with high-profile victims such as the UK Film Council – broadcasters tighten their belts, and commissioning of serious TV looks ever more precarious. In this desperate climate, what’s a documentary film-maker to do to secure funding? Taking the place of quangos are independent foundations and corporate marketing bodies, keen to trumpet new models of funding and distributing documentaries. From the UK’s BRITDOC to the Gucci Tribeca Fund and the Sundance Institute, the media landscape is changing dramatically. Filmmakers are advised that the best way to ensure ‘ambitious, issue-driven films get made’ is by turning to ‘charities, foundations, brands and companies with CSR agendas’. But is there a danger of losing sight of the purpose of documentary filmmaking in pursuit of funds?

Some worry filmmakers will end up dancing to the tune of organisations with agendas of their own. NGOs and charities may well be delighted if offered films that reflect their core, partisan concerns. But does this put pressure on filmmakers to talk up their social purpose in order to attract funding and attention? It is argued that ‘third sector and documentary filmmakers have much in common’ because ‘they both want to create change around an issue they care passionately about’. But might this not mean using social purpose films to usurp politics and democracy? BRITDOC champions the newly fashionable idea that ‘Films are the best medium for changing hearts and minds and lives’ and that ‘Films inspire people to engage and act’. But is such hyperbolic politicking too much to ask of films? Should they not be free to document and observe and let audiences make their own minds up? Is complexity and nuance threatened by the propaganda needs of changing the world?

Meanwhile corporates – defensive about their poor reputations and a popular hostility to big business in the wake of the financial crisis – may well be delighted to fund films to demonstrate their corporate social responsibility. But as capitalism seeks to justify its worthiness through finding a new social mission, and everyone from Puma Vision to McKinsey have become interested in worthy documentaries, should filmmakers be wary? Who protects editorial independence when documentaries are ‘sold’ to the myriad of new funding partners? Is it possible to build a clear wall between the donor/sponsor and creative vision? While it’s naïve to imagine a golden age when TV commissioning editors never interfered in programme content to improve ratings, arguably that commissioning process was more direct and transparent. To whom are the new foundations, content-commissioners by default, answerable? Might they be a new quangocracy, accountable to no-one? Can film-makers tap this new source of funds without compromising their integrity. What do the emerging funding models say about the role of documentary today?

Ryan Harrington
director of documentary programmes, Tribeca Film Institute; producer, Hungry in America

Angus Kennedy
convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination

Greg Sanderson
executive producer, BBC Arts; former commissioning executive and executive producer, Storyville

Jess Search
chief executive, Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation; co-founder, Shooting People

Debra Zimmerman
executive director, Women Make Movies; recent releases include Rough Aunties, winner, Best World Cinema Documentary, Sundance Film Festival

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive

Produced by
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
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