As a panellist at the Between the Lines festival, Christopher Hird has much to say about the part documentaries play in contemporary media. He is the founder and managing director of Dartmouth Films, a production company that specialises in making issue-based documentaries and has pioneered new models of funding and distribution. Hird was also recently appointed the new managing editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London.
Talking to DocGeeks’ Joëlle Pouliot this week, Hird explains that, given his two jobs, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he does not believe in a divide between journalism and documentary making.
JP: What was your intention when you founded Dartmouth Films?
CH: For about 20 years, I ran an independent television company and I was a reporter, producer and executive producer on many of the programmes that we made. Increasingly over that period of time I thought that British television was becoming more and more limiting in terms of the range of subject matter and programmes that it was willing to commission.
My intention with Dartmouth Films was that we would produce documentaries dealing with social and political change, that we should find new ways of funding and distributing these films and that we should promote new and emerging talent in the industry.
Is it more difficult than in the past to get funding for documentary films?
I think everybody who makes documentaries that are not simply entertainment has found that it’s harder and harder to get funding for their films, particularly from traditional broadcasting sources. Even say Searching for Sugar Man, which has been very successful in a number of ways, was very hard to get funded until very late in the day.
There are four main sources of funding. Obviously there is grant funding from documentary organisations such as Tribeca Film or Sundance in America. The second source is direct funding from private foundations that find documentaries help them achieve their purposes. The third type we have used has been crowd funding. The fourth source, private-equity funding, is when people invest expecting some return. But generally the return they will get is much lower than the return they would get if they were investing in a pizza parlour for example.
What changes have you noticed in documentary production and distribution, within the converging digital world?
I think that distribution is going to change dramatically. Not many people have found a way to use the Internet to generate substantial revenue for their films; there are a couple of exceptions to that, and they are very important exceptions that are well worth studying. In terms of the way in which films are made, I think that we all know that one of the results of the digital revolution has been that it dramatically increased the supply of badly-made films. I don’t think that’s a bad thing in itself but I think films need to be filmed and edited in a way that engages the audience. And the storytelling part of it has been completely altered by convergence.
What do you think makes a groundbreaking documentary today?
I think there are three things that make a documentary successful. The first thing is that they are engaging pieces of work and an enjoyable experience to watch. Sometimes they can make you uncomfortable but they hold people’s attention. To be a well-made film it has all to do with how you tell the story, the pace, etc. The second thing for these films to be groundbreaking – in the sense that the world is a different place after the film was made – it has to be something that becomes a public event, that absolutely makes an impact on public consciousness. The third thing is that these films need to be aligned with existing social movements in the world that share the film’s values and aspirations. Those are the three necessary ingredients in order to create a groundbreaking film.
Is that the advice you give to emergent talent?
That is indeed the advice I give! And the other thing I say to new and emerging filmmakers is how important it is to have really, really experienced editor. I think that this dimension in filmmaking is too often overlooked and enormously undervalued. It’s very tempting if you’re an independent filmmaker to shoot everything yourself and cut everything yourself. But that’s one thing that you should avoid doing, and you should raise money for an experienced editor to cut your film for you.
And as the new managing editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, what do you think the role of investigative journalism is in today’s media?
Well I think that the central problem—and there are many reasons for this—is that at the moment, mainstream media suffers from an unwillingness to spend money on major investigative journalistic pieces. It’s partly a question of not being able to afford it but it’s also partly a question of not wanting to do it. And there is therefore a very important role for an organisation that is unconstrained by the demand of 24/hour news, which has the resources and the space in which to approach important subjects of public interest in the depth that they need to be approached. That’s the gap in the market now, which the Bureau can fill.
Do you wish for the Bureau to get more involved in documentary filmmaking?
Our job is to undertake first-class major investigative projects in matters of great public importance, that will provide a stream of public-interest journalism to improve the public discourse about matters of public policy. With [topics such as] the defence of human rights, the exposing of injustices, the definitive stories about what’s going on in the public sphere, the holding into account the people who are positions of power…all of these are aspects are what we should be covering.
The expression of that, how it is then published, whether that be in a newspaper, a book, online, a television programme or an independent cinema documentary, these are not secondary issues, but they are secondary decisions. So I do hope that some of our work will have an expression in documentaries but that doesn’t mean that we will be turning ourselves into a documentary production company.
What will you be discussing at the Between the Lines festival?
I think there is a proposition that will be set [during the panel] about the body of thinking that journalism and documentary are not compatible. Unsurprisingly, given my two jobs I take a completely different view of that (laughs).
I do think that the phrase “documentary filmmaking and investigative journalism” is not the most helpful phrase in terms of having a conversation about the role of journalism in documentary. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding about what investigative journalism is, what its purpose is and the methodology that it uses. I therefore don’t see this “obvious” dichotomy.
If pushed, I’d say that if those people engaged in these two activities could find a way to try talking to each other more, we might be able to produce some exceptionally good journalistic-based documentary films.
Christopher Hird will be speaking at the ‘Trading Places – Merging Boundaries in Documentary’ session taking place from 2-4pm at the Between the Lines festival at the Rich Mix cinema, Bethnal Green, London on Saturday 2 March.