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DocGeeks » Interviews » Documentary in crisis? “Bollocks” says BAFTA winner Brian Woods

Documentary in crisis? “Bollocks” says BAFTA winner Brian Woods

Despite budgets getting tighter and tighter in the documentary making world, more factual films are being watched now than ever before. As cheap camera phones and other technology have turned us all into potential filmmakers, there is really no excuse anymore not to start making documentaries. Multiple BAFTA winner and True Vision productions founder Brian Woods talks to DG about his experiences and gives us advice on how to get your work commissioned.

DG: What are the differences between being an independent filmmaker and joining a production company?

Brian Woods: “It is a really tough to do it on your own. In my experience the best way to make a film is to shoot and edit them yourself, even if later in your career you are using cameramen and editors. But it is incredibly hard on your own to get something commissioned by a broadcaster, virtually impossible.

“They will say: ‘Great idea, I am very interested, now go an find an established independent production company you can work with.’ At the end of the day they have to know that your film is going to get delivered. The only way that they can be certain is for them to enter into a contract with an existing production company who they know and trust. If it all goes pear-shaped and they have spent three quarters of the budget, then the production company will still make sure a film is delivered because they have an on-going relationship to worry about and a reputation to maintain. Broadcasters won’t take that gamble with an individual filmmaker.”

DG: Do you ever start making a film before it has been commissioned?

BW: “Very rarely, we have only occasionally done it. I think on the couple of occasions we started making it anyway it hasn’t then ended up ever seeing the light of day. For that reason we tend not to do it anymore.

“There are lots of people who do just make them. If an individual wants to make a film, I’d say get on with it, get out there; there is no excuse not to, there is not barrier to not do it, though you may need a bit of money to cover your expenses. But from a production company’s point of view it doesn’t make any sense to start making a film speculatively. If you can’t interest the broadcaster then ultimately if you make it you are still probably not going to interest them because they just don’t like the idea.”

DG: Winning a BAFTA, would you say this has really made a difference to your career?

BW: “Yes, absolutely! It transforms your grip. Suddenly all the commissioners know who you are and all want to work with you.

“Even being nominated for a BAFTA; I made a film called the Dying Rooms about 15 years ago and that was nominated for a BAFTA but didn’t win. At the dinner afterwards the head of documentaries of Channel 4 came over to me and said: ‘So, who are you, why don’t I know about you? Have I been sending you rude rejections in the last couple of years?’ and I said yes, you have actually. And he said ‘Oh you better come and see me then’. So I went to see him and he basically commissioned our next film immediately in the meeting on the bases on a five minute conversation, because we were just nominated for a BAFTA, we hadn’t even won it.”

DG: With budgets getting tighter, what can you say about the future of documentary filmmaking?

BW: “In the 25 years or so in which I have been involved in documentaries, I have endlessly heard about documentary being in crisis and that it’s all terrible and so on. And it has been bollocks for all that time. In fact, even more so now than ever.

“More channels have gone online and there are more and more outlets for documentaries. There are lots of places you can make documentaries, and cinema documentaries have resurged in the last few years. You open the listing pages now and count up the number of original documentaries on every day, I guarantee you that there are more being broadcasted tonight than there were on the equivalent Friday night 10 years ago and far more than the equivalent Friday 20 years ago. And in terms of the internet as well, you can even broadcast or distribute your documentary yourself now.”

Brian Woods has made various documentaries focussing on human rights issues. His films include Chosen ( for which he received a BAFTA) Up in Smoke, Eyes of a Child, The Dying Rooms and Oprhans of Nkandla. Journalist Myriam Gwynned Dijck spoke to Woods after a lecture he presented together with Dominique Young on getting documentary ideas commissioned. The event was organised by One World Media as part of the Student Film Festival London this weekend (3-5 Feb). Find out more on oneworldmedia.org.uk and sfflondon.org.

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Recently appointed as editor of the award winning student newspaper The River, Myriam is now in her final year of her journalism course at Kingston University. She is a real night-owl who can only get things done when there are minimal distractions. Her ambition is to settle for nothing but the best and she is aiming at a career in either documentary filmmaking or television production.

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