7 Jun 2014

Sheffield Doc/Fest: theme tune of the decade is anger

Apart from sitting in a multiscreen studio for a week, with a clean feed of Twitter, Instagram and Whatsapp, going to a documentary festival is one of the best ways of understanding the zeitgeist.

This weekend the Sheffield Doc/Fest is in full swing, and from the look of the programme, the zeitgeist is summed up in one word: discontent.

I remember going to a fine art postgrad show in the mid-2000s and the course director’s sickly smile when I asked: where’s the anger?

Then, in the lost world of the pre-Lehman bubble, young people were creating intensely personal stories disengaged from social conflict.

The new film-makers

Let me just list some highlights at Sheffield to illustrate what’s changed: Utopia, a film by John Pilger (pictured) about aboriginal struggles in Australia; Miners Shot Down – about the Marikana massacre; Still the Enemy Within, about the British miners’ strike; The Internet’s Own Boy – about Aaron Schwarz, the hacker who committed suicide rather than face a jail term for putting academic journal content free online; The Case Against 8 – about the struggle for same-sex marriage in the US; and We Are Many, the story of the global demos against the Iraq War in 2003.

In case you’re wondering, there’s no equivalent “balanced” content from the establishment — like Jacob Rees-Mogg Goes Antiquing or A Day in the Life of Jean-Claude Juncker.

07_iraq2_g_wThough there’s a fair smattering of oldsters cranking out this excellent, angry, work it’s obvious that, for the young generation who’ve never worked with videotape and 35mm film, the Canon 5D camera has become a weapon of unhappiness.

Just as every demonstration now sees not raised fists, but raised hands pointing smartphone cameras at the action, the aftermath is video; and this video can be collected and stored very easily – and becomes the primary source material not just for instant news, but for Security Council meetings, war crimes tribunals, and of course documentaries.

But the Doc/Fest – one of several globally important events for film-makers – also illustrates the mismatch between this world of angry brilliance and the official media.

Chasing the numbers?

Most documentaries take months or years to shoot, weeks to edit and then – on the evidence of the documentary festival trail – live out their lives at festivals and non-profit cinema screenings and end up online, generating revenue for Google or Apple.

At the Oscars, where deep down the list close to the make-up artists they award documentaries, you’ll often see films shortlisted whose actual public audience has been tiny.

At Sheffield, in among the throngs of wannabes and has-been moviemakers, there is an elite sociological group called “decisionmakers”. These are the people from TV networks who have the power and money to buy the documentaries.

07_miners_strike_g_wBut for modern TV the definition of the word documentary is quite loose. You can technically put two blond supermodels in hotpants in the Nevada desert and set two redneck trackers on horseback to hunt them, testing their survival skills while providing 30 minutes of soft porn and call it a documentary.

While there’s none of that here, you can feel the pull of the phrase “audience figures” even on the TV people who are from public service broadcasters, and supposed to be thinking of content first and ratings second.

From an economics perspective, it’s the classic modern problem of content: anybody can make it, it can be shared for free, but if you want to be paid for it you have to tailor it to some kind of audience criteria to get through the gatekeeper system that TV networks still represent.

Merging media

But from a political perspective, there’s a bigger problem. If the signature tune of the 2010s is anger – and not just raw anger but finely crafted and expertly evidenced anger as with many of the films here – TV stations are going to look frankly unhinged from reality if all they show is a mixture of superb academic history programmes and the odd grueling conflict documentary. (Don’t get me wrong – there’s some great documentaries on TV, just not the mix selected here.)

There’s a lot of money riding on the prospect, in the next 10 to 15 years, of complete disaggregation of television into digital video. I’ve just started using the movie rental button on my Sky box – other boxes are available – while the US has seen massive uptake for Netflix,  and YouTube has begun to create serious channels for factual content.

It takes you deep into a world of choice, and at some point it will tip into a situation where the programme guide is irrelevant except for news, live sport and shopping channels.


This – as long as the internet gatekeepers can stop themselves from censoring stuff – creates the possibility of a much more free, globalised and horizontal market for documentary videos.

A craft in flux

The purists from the 1960s and 70s, who defined our understanding of what a doc can do, might say that a lot of what’s produced is substandard. And by their standards that might be true.

But I think the internet and social media are rapidly changing where documentaries sit and what they do. It used to be the height of the film-maker’s craft to make one – like writing a symphony for a classical composer – and in general, in the age of politically guarded public service TV, the documentary had erred towards a neutral and objective tone of voice.

But for many of the young film-makers they are prepared to have a go and throw stuff together, in the opinion that, as Heinrich Heine once put it, they are “soldiers in the great war for the liberation of humanity”.

Frame by frame, clumsily edited sequence by sequence, and with a lot of cadged archive and shaky camerawork, this generation is learning to shoot first and worry about who’ll pay for it later – and to express anger, and commitment, and the general opinion of the tech savvy that the old world is a) over and b) irrelevant.

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4 reader comments

  1. davemusker says:

    I take it you meant blonde in the above Paul. Unless I am mistaken, blond refers to men and rednecks don’t like men in hotpants. They would definately hunt them down. Seriosly though, excellent piece

  2. David Kirkham says:

    Firstly, thanks for stopping to talk to me outside the Doc/Fest delegate centre to relive your schooldays… You’ve repeated something I’ve said often in the past in this paragraph: “If the signature tune of the 2010s is anger – and not just raw anger but finely crafted and expertly evidenced anger as with many of the films here – TV stations are going to look frankly unhinged from reality if all they show is a mixture of superb academic history programmes and the odd gruelling conflict documentary.” There is massive disconnect between entertainment, both documentary and drama, and what most people are experiencing and feeling in their objective reality; where do the effects of greatest robbery in history, i.e. austerity, feature in our soap operas, sitcoms and TV dramas? Hardly anywhere. (Contrast that with the sitcoms of the 1960s and 70s; Alf Garnett and Mr Rigsby never missed a change to have a rant against the 3 day week or ‘the socialists’…) It would be great to talk to you about this at doc/fest if you’re around for the next few weeks.

  3. H Statton says:

    My televisual diet is comprised mostly of documentaries and news programmes. But the tight cyclical nature of offerings via standard channels is irritating. Content is broadly concentrated and displayed in a predictable format. There’s a lack of bite. The ones I watch don’t really contain new information, but I watch them anyway hoping that some will eventually surprise me.

    You can almost guarantee that a lot of documentaries are shown again a couple of months after first airing, sometimes twice in one evening (which isn’t a bad thing if it’s worth seeing). But now that we have the ability to set timers, watch on catch-up, and so easily access the things we’ve missed just goes to show the lack of concern or daring on the part of the usual suspects to offer up new and adventurous programmes.

    My discontent is triggered in the main by listening to the poverty-pleading organisations trying to justify their lack of imagination with the excuse that they have been forced to make cuts. They haven’t got the money to invest (!). And yet, the charges go up, and nothing changes. And if there is a channel that shows some interesting stuff, you can almost guarantee rumours arise that this channel is under threat from the axe man.

    The number of challenging, genuinely informative, and valuable programmes and films that go ignored is staggering. Such things tend to crop up if ever, in the early hours of the morning, and therefore are considered by some to be either tiresome, or just a ‘filler’. It’s in between repeats of a reality tv show and worse still, it’s got subtitles….ugh.

    I cannot believe that there is actually an entire hour dedicated solely to ironing!

    I imagine serious social commentary and news-casting is the stuff of nightmares for soap addicts and only occasionally watched (some friends of mine) when the ‘story’ is centred round a popular account of murder, abduction or some such horror. We do love the macabre after all. The telling of a psychopathic tale seldom passes unnoticed. Show it at eight o’clock and you just might get an audience.

    When documentaries are presented by a doyen/doyenne you have to give them their dues, they know their stuff and they are easy on the ear. The passion they have for their subjects is virtually tangible and this can make even the driest of topics entertaining. But this seems to be as far as it goes.

    Scientists, Historians, Sports enthusiasts etc., have done a great service to their employers. They have provided the masses with some cute and cuddly things and star-gazing moments, not to mention some fantastic photography. David Attenborough is a good example. People sit up and listen. He is a staple, and I find it hard to imagine a documentary on the Kalahari without his soothing, composed narration accompanying it.

    I haven’t quite abandoned all hope…but watch this space.

  4. Jeff Bannis says:

    Naturally, things will change as online grows and more and more becomes available through new channels. Microsoft, Hulu and Amazon will be followed by General Motors, Unilever and McDonalds in buying and displaying an amorphous mass of online “content”.

    But then, being as we’re social chimp-like beings, someone will hit on the idea that shared mass viewing is actually pretty valuable in itself.

    I predict, yea verily I predict hear ye, that before long people will pay a premium for exclusive channels distributed along the lines of rare repeats and scheduled programming. Nothing is sacred, but Paul, nothing is irrelevant.

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