Magazine article The Spectator

Gloom and Doom

Magazine article The Spectator

Gloom and Doom

Article excerpt

Most British documentaries are dark and depressing, says Cosmo Landesman.

But is this about to change?

A young American documentary filmmaker

recently said to me, 'Do you

want to know why no British documentary

film-maker would ever make a film

about something like the Diamond Jubilee

celebrations? There was no blood! No violence!

No crack babies! No tears! People

were happy, and one thing British documentary

film-makers hate is happy people

and happy endings. If you want to get a doc

made and shown in Britain, you gotta go for

gloom and doom.'

Of course my American friend was exaggerating

-- but by how much? Think British

documentary and what comes to mind? For

me it's Pete Postlethwaite wagging a finger

and making apocalyptic warnings of ecological

disaster in The Age of Stupid. Or it's something

terribly sad like Carol Morley's Dreams

of a Life, the story of a young black woman

whose body was found in her council flat --

three years after she had died. When it comes

to the feel-bad doc, Britain leads the way.

But now there's a growing number of dissenting

voices within the documentary community

who think it's time that Brit-docs

(and the documentary festivals that promote

them) stop being so dour and depressing.

Michael Stewart, festival organiser of

the Open City Documentary Festival, is one

of them. He told me, 'In retrospect I realised

how many gloomy documentaries we were

showing - films about mass murderers, war criminals, cocaine gangs, sado-masochistic relationships, the tragedy of life among the down and outs.'

Hussain Currimbhoy denies that it's all gloom and doom. He's the man responsible for the selection of films at the Sheffield Documentary Festival. (This annual event is regarded by many in the documentary community as the Cannes of documentary film-making. ) Currimbhoy concedes that Britain's gloom reputation may have been true years ago but 'anyone who says that now is just out of touch with reality'.

But just consider the topics of films shown a few weeks ago at the Sheffield festival in their 'Best of British' section. It presented a view of Britain as not only broken, but bloody and violent as well. There was a study of the violence within gypsy families (Gypsy Blood);

and more violence in the story of deadly gang wars in Birmingham (One Mile Away). And there was violence and death with 7/7 One Day in London - a documentary about the terrorist bomb attack of July 2005 that killed 52 people. It was billed by the festival as having 'intimate stories of agony, trauma and grief'.

Of course no British documentary festival would be complete without tales of global disaster, climate change and the horrors of deforestation. And for that Sheffield offered Aluna featuring the Kogi tribe of Sierra Nevada, Colombia, with their message that 'we are destroying the earth'.

Could it be that there's an ingrained bias against British documentaries that are too upbeat or soft? When it comes to getting your film funded there certainly is. Documentary film producer Simon Chinn (Man on Wire) told the audience at the Sheffield Documentary Festival, 'Unfortunately, there are many more sources for those people who want their documentaries to change the world than those who want to tell good stories.'

One person who knows this first hand is journalist turned documentary film-maker Kate Spicer. …

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