Posts Tagged ‘channel 4’

As this is the first post after a four month interruption, allow us to pin an event on the calendar which is four months away but worth clearing your schedule for this far in advance.

The Centre for Investigative Journalism has just announced the dates of Investigative Film Week 2013, taking place 15-19 January 2013 at both City University London and the Foreign Press Association Commonwealth Club in Trafalgar Square.

This yearly event, launched in 2010, showcases landmark documentaries and hosts Q&A sessions with prestigious directors and journalists from around the globe. Hot topics and controversy are always a matter of discussion, and as a member of the audience it is endlessly ingratiating to leave in possession of privileged insights into global headlines.

This year’s schedule is not yet available (check here on Film Watch or on the CIJ website for updates), so here’s a quick selection of the films they’ve screened in the past:

Toxic Somalia (Paul Moreira, 2010) – The best of investigative filmmaking, this documentary asks who is responsible for dumping barrels of nuclear waste off the coast of Somalia – a question which cost two Italian journalists their lives. The investigation into their death was reopened following this film’s release.

Iraq’s Secret War Files (Marc Sigsworth, 2010) – First shown on Channel 4’s Dispatches, this documentary follows the journey of the Iraq War Logs from the moment Julian Assange approached a variety of news outlets until their release to the public. Iain Overton of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism was there to explain the process of data mining a resource of nearly 400,000 military logs.

Weekly passes (£15 concessions or £25) as well as tickets to individual screenings (£4 concessions or £5) will be available to book here.


Continuing from last week’s interview with Olly Lambert, will be delivering weekly Top Tips from a variety of people in the film industry, either speaking directly to or as a summary of notes gathered from events and masterclasses.

One World Media ran the above event at London College of Communication on 3rd February as part of the International Student Film Festival.

Here are some top tips from the two speakers on that day.

Dominique Young (Al Jazeera English) – Dominique is a Senior Producer at Al Jazeera English, commissioning documentaries from Africa and the Middle East, for broadcast in the channel’s flagship documentary strand “Witness”, which showcases the work of established and emerging talent from around the world. (Bio from

  • Watch the channel and especially the slot in which you propose to show your doc: is the subject appropriate? Witness is about characters and individual stories, not issues; ie a doc about drought wouldn’t be appropriate, whereas a doc about a family’s life during drought would be. Also consider that a pitch announcing “my 19 minute doc” will be rejected if there is no 19 minute slot (Witness has a 30 minute slot).
  • Can the viewer recognise themselves in the persons depicted? The audience must be able to relate. It also takes years of experience to recognise a good, strong character and this is, for best or worst, a matter of trial and error.
  • Has the story been told before? If it has, you must be presenting it under a new angle.
  • When pitching by email: a commissioner doesn’t have the time to read 20 pages. When composing your pitch, think of a TV listing which draws in its audience in no more than two sentences. Include an attachment of your detailed proposal (one A4 page max).
  • When contacting a commissioner, you must know and be able to explain how you’re going to film.
  • If you’re a first time director, you’re unlikely to get a budget from a commissioner. It’s judicious to approach a production company that produce the same type of film and are more likely to take you on board; this also ensures that you’re not personally legally responsible for the budget.
  • A commissioner must trust your experience and background, and that you can deliver on time. Young herself worked as a researcher for years before commissioning.
  • When choosing whom to approach, consider that TV docs and festival docs are very different material: a festival audience wants to be there watching your doc; a TV audience might just be channel surfing. Global warming as a subject, for example, is appropriate for both, but will be treated in a different manner: for a festival doc, you might use a nice 5 minute opening shot (we don’t have to know what the subject is straight away); as a TV doc, if the intro lasts 5 minutes the audience will be likely to have switched channels.


Brian Woods (True Vision Productions) – Brian is a filmmaker who co-founded the highly regarded production company True Vision. He has directed and worked on a string of award winning films, covering human rights stories from around the world. His films have won numerous Baftas, RTS Awards, Emmies and One World Media Awards. (Bio from

  • Know where to look for stories. When Robb Leech’s brother converted to Islam, it was “a nightmare for him, a dream come true as a filmmaker” (My Brother the Islamist – BBC3, 2011). Another example is of a filmmaker who had kept in contact with a hospital’s press officer and heard that the first stalker clinic was being opened in the UK: she mentioned the idea and was commissioned straight away to develop it into a film.
  • Know who to pitch your stories to. There are several platforms for emerging talent, such as the 2008 BBC3 documentary scheme Fresh or Channel 4’s First Cut (Channel 4 Commissioning Editor Aysha Rafael has recently commissioned 12 new films under the scheme).
  • Keep up with current budgeting. Dispatches‘ 60 minute slot has been reduced by 30 minutes due to budget cuts. The average budget for Al Jazeera’s Wtness is between £23,000 and £30,000 for a 30 minute slot (this affords about 10 days of editing max). Commissioners don’t generally ask for a cost report, though some do! Bear in mind here is little money or no money when it comes to international development: rather approach NGOs.
  • Experience is key. Commissions are often based on the track-record of filmmakers. Commissioners will also more often select ideas from people they’ve worked with.
  • If you have little or no experience, there are three things you must have: a great idea, a great character, and actual access to that character (evidence of access is generally necessary, such as video footage of that person). A 3 minute taster should be all it takes to convince a commissioner: if a character requires a 45 minute taster introduction, they’re probably not such a great documentary character.
  • Persistence is key: even as a filmmaker of renown, it sometimes takes years for a good story to make the screen. Zimbabwe’s Forgotten Children (BBC4, 2010) was first pitched in 2004 and eventually commissioned in 2009. It went on to win an AIB Award and a Peabody Award.
  • Once you do have the attention of several commissioners, a good way to urge competition between them is to present a “letter of interest” from a different broadcaster. Make them fight for the rights to broadcast your film.


Next week: Notes from Sorious Somura’s masterclass

This week’s highlights:

  • 3rd – 12th April @ Curzon Mayfair: Bill Cunningham New York (Richard Press, 2010)

Fans of fashion, The Great Gatsby, and quirky documentaries will enjoy this curious outlook on New York life spanning four decades. Showing all week at Curzon Mayfair.

  • 3rd – 12th April @ Curzon Cinemas: Trishna

Michael Minterbottom’s latest film characteristically delivers beautifully haunting images of a classic story of love and betrayal. If you’re no great fan of Tess of the d’Ubervilles, maybe the superb Rajasthan scenery will change your mind. Trailer and tickets available here.

  • 5th April @ ICA: The Cabin In The Woods

The Ultra Culture Cinema series at the Institute of Contemporary Arts presents a special preview of Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s 2011 horror comedy that will appeal to both fans and critics of horror and its latest cinematic manifestations. Click for trailer and tickets.

  • 8th April on Channel 4: 21 Grams (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2003)

For anyone who hasn’t yet seen this masterpiece, this is the perfect opportunity to watch Benicio Del Toro deliver a performance only nearly (but not quite) equalled by the superb Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. Tune in at 1AM on Sunday 8th. Warning: this film will stay with you for a long time.

Coming up:

  • 20th April – 19th May: “Pull up a ‘Hitchcock’ Pew” with Film Fugitive

“Personally, I’m not as interested about filmmaking as I am about being nosey.”

Olly Lambert is a London-based, Grierson Award-nominated documentary filmmaker, also Journalist of the Year as awarded by the Foreign Press Association in 2007. His latest film, My Child The Rioter, aired on BBC2 on 31st January 2012.

The following interview took place in January 2011. His insight and advice are just as pertinent and useful now as then.

His top tip? Setting yourself a 10 minute window each morning browsing through broadsheets spotting stories that make great documentary material. (I’ve dutifully practised every day and the fun hasn’t worn off, though I have learned to become more selective: a student arrested during a bulldozer getaway after hurling a puppy at a bunch of Hell’s Angels might be the best headline of the decade, but it stops there.)


Walking down the corridors at Uncle studios in Soho’s Livonia Street, I feel nearly as nervous as when I first approached documentary filmmaker Olly Lambert to ask him for an interview. But as I finally locate his editing suite, I’m greeted by a multitude of screens and a director who smiles as warmly as after the Q&A where he noticed my “loitering with intent”. Any remaining apprehensions are dispelled as he leads the way towards a comfortable set of sofas slightly removed from the hustle and bustle of the desks, and offers me a cup of tea and a very affable “How can I help?”

The edits he has overseen as series director are the final cuts for Series 3 of The Family, which aired on Channel 4 throughout November and December [2010]. The seven-part documentary follows the story of the Adesinas, a Nigerian family living in Hackney, through a system of fixed cameras – the rig – installed in their home for a period of eight weeks. I marvel at the logistics involved:  28 cameras, 40 microphones, resulting in 4000 hours of raw footage. And The Family is not the only documentary to be currently produced following that format: “Virtually every editing suite in this building is a rig show.” Cameras are being installed in hotels, modelling agencies, A&E departments – and curiously, in a house full of dwarves doing a pantomime. Still, despite the creative nature of the projects being commissioned, he doesn’t think the rig is the “silver bullet”.

He explains that while this system affords an omnipotent, multiple-angle view over a scene that may capture moments a cameraman couldn’t, he’s wary of the paradox between director and subject:

“I find it allows people to perform in a slightly unnatural way, that wouldn’t happen if there were a cameraman present. It’s definitely double-edged. I think what will happen in a year or two is the rig will become just one more weapon in an armoury of how to film documentaries. In a strange way it’s been one of the most unrewarding experiences ever as a director.”

If he has any misgivings about his latest project, it’s because he’s got his own armoury of accredited films to run it against. Since his 2001 directorial debut Four Weeks to Find A Girlfriend which saw him nominated for a Grierson Award, he’s been commissioned to direct documentary after documentary, scooping up another nomination in the process for Sky1’s Ross Kemp: Middle East. A surprising path, it may seem, for someone who originally studied English with the intention of becoming a theatre director. “There were no plans for it. I got a job as a runner at a company called Middlemarch and thought, I absolutely loved it, I’ll go for this.” He worked his way up from being a runner, researcher, and assistant producer, and has been working as a freelance director ever since. Is he surprised at the turn his career has taken? “Personally I’m not as interested about filmmaking as I am about being nosey,” he candidly asserts. “Filmmaking is a tremendous passport into people’s lives, it gives you access to the world in a way you wouldn’t normally have.”

True to his professed curiosity, his films focus exclusively on human subjects, from traffic wardens in London to tea-selling boys in Gaza. He doesn’t feel, he muses, that he’s found his voice as a documentary-maker, and instead defines himself only as interested in ordinary people in extraordinary situations. His passion for the mundane colliding with the terrifyingly unfamiliar is such that in 2003, while filming in Kuwait for Channel 4’s science department, he abandoned the commissioned project to focus instead on the humanitarian disaster taking place, resulting in the critically-acclaimed Festival favourite Battle Hospital – a “much, much more interesting story” than the restrictive subject of medicinal practice in war zones. “Luckily, being in the desert, I didn’t have an executive producer breathing down my neck,” he confides. “But the story is kind of, you know, the king. Without a story, you haven’t got a documentary.” He quotes playwright Tom Stoppard’s son, who told him over a drink one day: “If a story’s good, you can shoot it on toilet paper.”

And what does he make of aspiring filmmakers’ current trend of using online platforms such as YouTube to publish their work? “It’s kind of a huge positive, that anyone can make a film for under a thousand pounds. The sooner you make your mistakes the better. But that’s a red herring because films are not made with gadgets and buttons, they’re made with ideas and relationships.” He ponders ways of standing out when so many hopefuls are walking around with cameras and competition is fiercer than ever. The way he did it, he offers, with a hint of unapologetic brazenness, was to pester directors on a daily basis for an opportunity to work alongside them. “And also,” he stresses, “you’ve got to start fine-tuning your antennae for what is a good story. There’s a handful of people I keep an eye on, thinking, ‘They’re gonna make it,’ and the way they mark themselves out is they’re the people who are thinking all the time, ‘Where’s the story, where’s the story?’”

So what’s the next story for him?

“What I’m dying to do next is go completely the other way and do something that has far less managerial roles, far less expectation. We’re all a bit knocked today because we found out the third episode only got 700 000 viewers, which is tiny for a 9 o’clock Channel 4 slot.” He gloomily surmises the reason behind poor ratings might be the show is up against I’m A Celebrity: Get Me Out Of Here.

But if he seems disheartened by audiences’ attitude, he certainly won’t be losing interest in the people who compose them anytime soon. “You’re only a good director if you are extremely human and sensitive to people’s stories, to what the difference is between what they might present and the reality underneath. It’s the most important part of the job, I think, to be human.”

For more information about Olly’s films or to contact him visit