Hard News by Russell Brown


Telling stories about us

Of all the screen forms, documentary is -- I think -- the one that weathers best. A story told about us now may be as compelling -- perhaps even more so -- 50 years on. Evidence: of the 10 most-watched titles since NZ On Screen launched, seven are factual programmes. Several -- notably the documentaries on Peter Snell and John Britten -- have been global hits. They're how others are seeing us.

So we should be concerned that the documentary is not a well form in modern New Zealand. Yes, When A City Falls did tolerably well in cinemas last year and then got a play on TV3. But in general, cinematic documentaries tend to fall in a funding gap -- and getting a genuine documentary (as opposed to a work that is merely funded as a documentary) on television is a hard job now.

It wasn't always thus. And in preparation for this week's Media7 show, timed for the launch of the annual Documentary Edge Festival, our researcher Sarah Daniell spoke to Geoff Steven, who, as a TV3 and TVNZ executive, presided over what looks a little like a golden era -- one in which documentaries were not only screened, but rated their socks off.

Steven had a reputation as being commercially-minded, even brutally so, but he commissioned stories about us and made them work in long-running strands such as Documentary New Zealand. He said to Sarah last week:

The strands gave the doco a chance to build up as a business. The next thing was to make sure the docos meet the schedulers' needs. We're talking about broadcasters not narrow-casters. That is what TV3 and TVNZ are.

They were accessible, populist and provocative. They were also huge raters. They were the top rating shows at the time. It was pushing and educating the production industry on how form should be used.  We did observational, educational, essayist - all different styles of forms.

What they weren't, he said, was "spinach televsion", where "you tell a story in an eat-your-spinach way - this is good for you. The viewer should watch this."

It caused some grief because we'd built up a strand [and] we had to say, go back and shoot that again or we had to say no to people. Keep this populist. Otherwise programmers would say, "no, it's not rating."

After his departure from television, he said:

People thought "now we can make them how we want to make them." But the bar was lowered. The genre became less relevant. You get the occasional Bryan Bruce thing that will pop up occasionally. The the genre dropped in relevance. On the other side, the chattering classes, said "we need to do more in-depth docos." But the problem with that is they were so deep they disappeared. No one saw them. It devalued the form. They were earnest, preachy, polemical.

They said, this is what the audience needs -- some spinach. But when you have  a bit of creme brûlée on another click of a button on another network, you will go for that.

And the solution?

They need to be relevant and interesting. If I were to make a doco on claustrophobia I wouldn't go and interview the Minister of claustrophobia. We'd stick someone up a telegraph pole and leave them there. When we did the Centrepoint thing we basically lived and crawled around on the floor there. It was a huge rater and controversial.

We've seen a similar shift at the venerated BBC, where Panorama was converted from an occasionally painfully worthy hour to a snappy, populist half hour. The problem, it seems to me, is that it is easy now to go so far down that road that you disconnect with the purpose of documentary.

When The GC, which has an interesting subject and some real talent on board, emerges as a reality show, or when an obs-doc at Queenstown Hospital is presented as a major documentary on the New Zealand health system, you're not telling stories any more -- you're concocting them.

Nonetheless said Steven, acknowledging the growing role of YouTube and other internet channels:

Culture will find its way. It's the same with the music industry. If you have some artificially created incentive like quota it will die. Out on the streets, if kids out there want to make music they will find a way. It's the same with documentary makers. Storytelling will come out. But if you have some super-charged, top-down policy it won't work. It will kill the genre.

We'll look at the ways storytelling is coming out on the show this week. James Muir, the creator of  the multiple award-winning River Dog, a documentary based in one farmer's battle to keep the streams clean, will be joining us on the Media7 panel. The film has been memorably described as "part Country Calendar and part Werner Herzog." It screens as part of the festival. Here's the trailer.

Joining James will be our leading auteur documentarian, Annie Goldson, who is currently shooting a documentary about the work of Jon Stephenson and plugging the remarkable Brother Number One:

The panel will be completed by Alex Lee, the co-director of the Documentary Edge Festival. It should be an interesting discussion -- and you're welcome to join us for tomorrow's recording. Just turn up at the Victoria Street entrance of TVNZ between 5.15 and 5.40pm. As ever, try and drop me an email to let me know you're coming.

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