The explosion of the U.K. feature documentary scene since “One Day in September” won the Oscar in 2000 has finally persuaded BAFTA to launch its own documentary award.
It’s shaping up to be a fiercely competitive debut year, with an exceptional range of films from home and abroad vying for only three nominations. Sports docs have led the charge at the U.K. box office, with boffo results for pics such as “Senna,” “TT3D: Closer to the Edge” and “Fire in Babylon.”
But there has also been groundbreaking work in the arts (“Pina” and “George Harrison: Living in the Material World”), crowd-sourced filmmaking (“Life in a Day”), dramatized docs (“Dreams of a Life” and “Self-Made”), social action (“The Interrupters”) and classic journalistic storytelling (“Project Nim,” “Waste Land” and “Hell and Back Again”).
Not all of these films are British, but all had some U.K. involvement, either creatively or financially. In the past decade, the U.K. has reclaimed its historic status as a vibrant global hub for feature docs, with a generation of filmmakers including Kevin Macdonald, Lucy Walker, Alex Gibney and James Marsh proving themselves the worthy heirs of such British pioneers of the artform as John Grierson, Humphrey Jennings and Peter Watkins.
One of the key players in this renaissance is the Britdoc Foundation, a nonprofit set up in 2005 with funding from Channel 4 to nurture the new wave, not just in the U.K. but around the world. Britdoc has backed over 60 projects itself, such as “Hell and Back Again,” and helped to facilitate many more, such as “The Interrupters,” through its Good Pitch sessions in London, New York and San Francisco.
“It’s not that the U.K. has a lot of funding,” says Britdoc CEO Jess Search. “But there’s a lot of entrepreneurship.”
For several decades, that rich U.K. documentary tradition was channeled exclusively into TV, with public-service broadcasters providing lavish funding and shaping the material to fit their slots. But when the broadcast landscape was reshaped by commercial and technological change, this highly evolved community of factual filmmakers was forced to explore new models, which led them back to the big screen.
“One Day” was ignored by BAFTA, which rectified the omission four years later by naming “Touching the Void” top British film. Brit docmakers long argued the academy should create a doc prize to recognize the boom that followed their success.
” ‘One Day in September’ was the line in the sand; after that it seemed really to change,” Search says. “When I first went to Sundance a decade ago, there was often only one British documentary there, but now there are often multiple British films in competition. We’re hitting the ball out of the park — there’s a real sense globally that Britain has come charging back.”
“Britain always had a reputation as a place where great TV documentaries were produced, and when directors realized there was an appetite for such work in the cinema, they were interested enough to have a go,” says John Battsek of Passion Pictures, the U.K.’s most prolific producer of theatrical docs, with credits from “One Day in September” to “Restrepo,” “Fire in Babylon” and “Project Nim.”
Passion is typical in getting most of its finance from the U.S., illustrating how it’s talent, rather than money, that is energizing the U.K.’s doc scene. The subjects explored by filmmakers are typically international ones, such as the world-famous Brazilian motor racing legend Ayrton Senna.
Some stories are more commercial than others, but financial return is rarely the sole motivating factor for investors in docs.
“The big film companies more or less stay out of feature documentaries, because it’s so hard to be commercially successful,” Search says. “They might make one or two — we’re delighted that Working Title made ‘Senna’ — but no one is going to follow a commercial imperative into this arena.”
“Senna,” the first documentary backed by Working Title’s parent Universal, has turned into a nice earner for the studio. After grossing $5 million in the U.K., it’s in pole position for BAFTA’s first-ever doc race. With the new documentary chapter picking the nominees and the whole membership choosing the winner, popular appeal is likely to be an important factor in deciding the final outcome
Documentaries | Foreign Films | The Orange Rising Star Award