U.K. gets real at debut Britdoc fest

Event zeroed in on ways documakers can get projects off the ground

LONDON — Despite lots of attention and solid B.O. for high-profile docs lately, speakers at the inaugural edition of Britdoc — the U.K.’s first fest dedicated to feature-length documentaries — encouraged documakers to get back to the basics before going for gold at the box office.

Jess Search, Britdoc chief exec, warned, “Going for a theatrical release is like going to the casino: You may hit the jackpot, but you take a huge risk and often leave with no money in your pocket.”

Search spent five years as a commissioning editor in Channel 4’s documentaries department before leaving to establish the Channel 4 British Documentary Film Foundation, the driving force behind the launch of Britdoc.

The debut fest at Oxford’s picturesque Keble College zeroed in on innovative ways documakers can get their projects off the ground in an increasingly competitive marketplace where British broadcasters are more reluctant to fully fund docs.

Unlike in the U.S., funding from foundations is underutilized in the U.K. Indefatigable American producer-director Sandi Simcha DuBowski was on hand to stress that British filmmakers need to start perceiving themselves as “change-makers” rather than the “the beggars at the door.”

DuBowski secured grants from a myriad of 44 foundations to make his doc “Trembling Before G-d,” about the hidden lives of homosexual Orthodox and Hasidic Jews. He recently raised $70,000 toward the budget of new project, “In the Name of Allah,” from a single New York benefit party — another funding device little used by Brits.

Other Britdoc seminars examined how Web sites such as Google Video (which recently launched in seven Euro territories,) YouTube and MySpace can be used as distribution platforms for docs or employed to build early grassroots buzz to assist docmakers in attracting funding.

According to Britdoc fest director Beadie Finzi, the fledgling confab aims to become a “noisy, exuberant and permanent fixture in the festival circuit.” It helped its cause significantly by luring Mike Figgis, Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”), Penny Woolcock (“The Death of Klinghoffer”) and Pawel Pawlikowski (“My Summer of Love”) to mull how their documentary backgrounds have influenced their fiction work. While Figgis revealed he has grown increasingly interested in docmaking because “there is less element of surprise in fictional films,” Pawlikowski suggested he is going the other way, joking, “Real people are a disappointment. … They are more and more like people on TV.”

Also attending was effervescent Bostonian Albert Maysles, the godfather of modern docs, who talked about his life’s work, from his groundbreaking “Psychiatry in Russia” (1955) to the four projects he has in production as he approaches his 80th birthday.

Clips from the opening scenes of “Salesman” (1968), which Maysles stressed still “tells anyone more about the U.S. than any other movie,” and surreal scenes of a blissed-out Rolling Stones bugging out to their own music in “Gimme Shelter” (1970) drew rapturous applause from a Britdoc aud comprised mainly of youthful documakers in search of inspiration.

Ben Hopkins’ “37 Uses for a Dead Sheep,” about the plight of the exiled Pamir Kirghiz tribe, won the Britdoc prize for British feature doc. Deborah Scranton’s “The War Tapes,” shot by three U.S. soldiers on the frontlines in Iraq, nabbed the international feature doc kudos.

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