“Abandoning Britishness” & How Not To Pitch Your Academic Ideas. Sheffield Doc/Fest Roundup Day 5 & 6


Rehearsals - Promotional Still from Monty Python and the Meaning of Live (2014).
Rehearsals – Promotional Still from Monty Python and the Meaning of Live (2014).

Let’s start at the end: Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015 wrapped up it’s final night with the European premiere of Monty Python – the Meaning of Live, co-directed by acclaimed filmmakers Roger Graef and James Rogan. Monty Python – the Meaning of Live is an observational portrait of the Python gang reuniting for a final live gig at The O2 in London in 2014, and event which creates a nice space for the men to reflect on the origins and legacy of Monty Python – but not without plenty of slap stick gags, old-men jibes and a sprinkling of social commentary. The whole thing is a giant in-joke – so if you’re a fan of the Python boys you’ll have a romp, but if not there’s little here to engage with (and there are better ways to be introduced to Python).

I’m not quite sure how this is a premiere when the documentary – commissioned by cable comedy channel UKTV Gold – was actually broadcast in November 2014. But never mind that – the real attraction here was the Q & A with the co-director Rogan and comedy legend Michael Palin. If you watch UK TV today you’ll probably associate Palin with more light-weight fare, such as history travelogues retracing Hemmingway’s journeys, or trips across the Sahara, Brazil or the Himalayas – productions that probably come under the fact-ent (factual entertainment) wing of television. But here, in obs-doc mode (observational documentary), Palin is no longer presenter but presented, and two storytelling art forms (acting and documentary) go head to head. And even though Monty Python – the Meaning of Live is more fun and affectionate than critical, it was very clear during the Q & A that a real tension existed between the stars in the spotlight and the “cheeky chappies” of the documentary crew waiting in the wings.

Rogan described the shoot as a two-stage process, where Graef (master of British institutional filming in schools, prisons and hospitals) began by following the Python gang through their rehearsals and meetings with a Canon D5, shooting a few sit-down interviews as well as observational footage, albeit from a distance of 15ft. The documentary crew also provided the 5 Pythons with camcorders for recording video diaries – a complete fail when it was revealed the actors instead gifted the camcorders to their grandkids (score!). Consequently, come the 10-day shoot of the live show, Rogan felt a level of intimacy and perhaps even honesty was missing and decided he needed “to be audacious and unapologetically intrusive” by physically getting closer (a obs-doc mantra). Or perhaps a better way of putting it, he “had to abandon Britishness”. And so he shot right up in the personal space of his participants (backstage can be cramped after all), planted go-pros in the dressing rooms and followed the cast running through corridors back stage. Interestingly, one of the co-producers is Holly Gilliam – Terry Gilliam’s daughter, and I wonder if this intimacy would have been allowed and achievable without her there to (literally) open closed doors. Graef apparently was very concerned the whole thing would blow up – but the gamble payed off, Palin was very complementary and “glad you did it in the end”, and the documentary does make you feel like you’re there, so kudos must go to Rogan for persevering and achieving a real sense of actuality.

I mention all this because – especially when you compare Palin in this film to his performances as a presenter and again as an actor – it becomes a nice example of the different levels of access and depth of storytelling you can achieve if you apply a different mode or approach (eg. obs doc instead of presenter/factual). Something worth considering for archaeology documentaries perhaps? (*cough* thesis *cough*).


DS30 projected at Dunston Staiths - Promotional Still (2015).
DS30 projected at Dunston Staiths – Promotional Still (2015).

The other film I squeezed in before the festival ended was DS30, part of Doc/Fest’s ArteFact strand. Commissioned by the AV Festival, DS30 was originally an art installation projected at the monumental coal wharf of Dunston Staiths near Durham, in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Miners’ Strike. It’s a collage of raw sound, experimental music and film footage of mining communities and their work, gathered from the archives of the underground political group Test Dept, as well as the BBC, BFI and local collections. My knowledge of the miners’ strikes extends about as far as Billy Elliot, so I probably wasn’t the target audience for this film, although it did spur me to go google the events afterward, so snaps to the filmmakers for achieving that impact. It’s more experimental art than documentary: it’s very in your face, obnoxiously loud and angry – which is probably a fair representation of the actual events – but there’s little context or information provided nor characters to connect to. DS30 will either alienate or intrigue you, or impassion you – as it did an audience member in the Q&A who thanked the filmmakers and the academic behind the production for keeping the memory of these events alive – clearly this past is not past. DS30 is currently touring ex-coalfield venues in the north of England and Scotland.


How I felt at Sheffield Doc/Fest. Sigh.
How I felt at Sheffield Doc/Fest. Sigh.

The rest of my last days at Doc/Fest were spent squeezing in as many panels as possible. It was a pain but I had to skip the pitching sessions and the more indie-like discussions, but I’ll summarise them here to give you a taste of the the subject matter Doc/Fest covers. Topics included: where journalism ends and documentary begins; censorship vs freedom of expression; the future of the television license fee; US/UK compliance; comedy in docos; selfies and the future of reflexivity; filming in war zones; filming with drones; the future of the fixed rig; women in industry; proposal writing; composing; lots on aesthetics and DOPs; the influence of digital and interactive on traditional distribution; social justice and impact filmmaking; filming in/with China, Brazil and Ukraine; and masterclasses with Joshua Oppenheimer and Jeanie Finlay among others. My favourite title for a session by far was “Indiegogo: It’s a Brave New World for Filmmakers, and Time for Payback,” which certainly captures the current mood among indie documentary filmmakers, at least from my perspective. If only I had a time-turner! Instead, I skipped all of these sessions (in the hope that they’ll get posted on the Doc/Fest Youtube Channel eventually) and attended most of the television commissioning panels (which don’t get recorded) and the interactive/multi-platform gigs. My goal you see, was to try and locate where archaeology is currently positioned in the industry and where it might be going.

I won’t go too in-depth here, but it’s worth noting that archaeology’s place seems undefined. At the commissioning panels the same archaeology programmes and topics were being rolled out across the streams of specialist factual, documentary, alternative platforms, history and science (I skipped arts and factual entertainment). Archaeology is a hybrid discipline after all, so it can’t be easy to lock it in to one category. Mind you, what the hell is “specialist factual”? Why and how is that distinct from “documentary”? Interestingly, the outlook for archaeology on television in the UK seems to be monopolized by BBC, Channel 4 and France Télévisions – presumably they’ve cornered that market and the other channels present (including Sky, ARTE, Discovery, Guardian, VICE, PBS, National Geographic) therefore have chosen not to compete in such a niche genre. In short, they each ruthlessly curate their content according to their target audience, their scale of production and for some, whether or not they have a public broadcasting remit. I wonder what the influence of these categories, the branding of the channels, and the personal preferences of the commissioning editors are on the content, storytelling and impact of the archaeology documentaries?

What isn’t new, of course, are the stories. The commissioning editors and some producers were very open and pragmatic about the fact that a lot of their programmes are basically recycled content ( “a surfeit of Pharoahs and Führers” according to the BBC commissioner), with their real efforts as television programmers focused on finding a new approach to storytelling and more diverse voices that reflect their target audience (ie. UK domestic). In particular they asked that pitches from interest parties include more female and ethnically diverse presenters: ‘Bring us the next Mary Beard!’ they cried. Which is good news for archaeology – we have plenty of potential new Mary Beards (a blog entry for another day). But what about the storytelling? Can’t we ramp that up too?


The University of Sheffield Presents: How to Pitch Your Academic Idea
The University of Sheffield Presents: How to Pitch Your Academic Idea at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015. Photo: Kate Rogers.

Which brings me to the final session at Doc/Fest: “How to Pitch Your Academic Ideas”, hosted by the University of Sheffield. Or perhaps a better name for it would be: “101 in How Not to Pitch Your Academic Ideas.” This session was more straight pitching than training, and it had some gems, but overall what I learned from it was that we academics desperately need to learn how to communicate better – SweetJesus – it was painful.

Here’s a few take aways, should you be thinking about translating your research to screen:

1. Do your research. Not just on your topic of study, but on your pitch and your immediate audience (in this case, the commissioners of Channel 4, Sky, BBC, Nat Geo, ITV etc). One of the pitchers managed to insult the entire panel of commissioning editors by complaining about how they hadn’t covered his area of interest (evolution) to his satisfaction, then launched in to a 15 minute lecture about the evolution of insect penises. The response was kind of entertaining itself: the Channel 4 editor began by asking, “do you actually watch TV?” then proceeded to list about 6 broadcasted series on evolution she had been involved in during the past couple of years. It does make you wonder exactly who’s misunderstanding whom. Needless to say the pitch fell fairly flat.
2. Know your story. In the above case it was clear that it’s not enough for an idea to be interesting or freakishly weird to get picked up for broadcast, there needs to be an actual story. And, yes sex sells, but don’t try to con a conman. Thinly veiled or patronising appeals to the lowest common denominator will fail if your audience knows better than you how to do what you’re doing.
3. Own your story. Even if the research has its own story – for example there was nice historical pitch about revolutionary families of the Irish War of Independence that came with it’s own beginning, middle and end – it’s not enough by itself. When one commissioner gave feedback to that proposal, she complemented the research but said “you pitched your subject matter, not yourself.” The researcher’s response was just slightly defensive, saying she was not trained (or prepared?) to be subjective. As academics if we want to use storytelling we have to respect storytelling conventions. And storytelling is subjective. Again, it’s not a lecture with moving pictures, it’s storytelling, it’s authored.
4. Have a plan. The best pitch of the session was from a couple of robotics engineers, who pitched for a series on the future of robotics in our daily lives. They had a great positive vibe, episode outlines, participant case studies, tie-ins with existing drama TV shows and popular events and a very distinct authorial voice. In short, they pitched a vision and a plan to achieve it (but were still open to adapting it). Their enthusiasm was infectious. They saw the pitch as an opportunity to collaborate – not to lecture – and they took full advantage of it. Win.
5. Evoke emotion. Your pitch should evoke the feelings you want your story’s audience to have (interestingly I’ve read the same about academic presenting at the Thesis Whisperer). The robotics guys again aced this: they had a toy seal that purred and bobbed its head when you stroke it, which they passed around to great effect. The entire panel and audience was smitten, giggling and grinning – I’m smiling now remembering and writing about it! Sadly, one of the commissioners said that she loved their idea but had broadcast something very similar several of years ago, and it had unexpectedly flopped – the audience apparently found it boring (she put it down to its lack of extreme-ness, toasters rather than terminators). Which brings me to:
6: Persevere. Commissioners also mentioned that even of those few programmes that are green-lit, only 1 in 10 make it through writing, pre-production, production, post-production, pilot, and finally to series. So try, try, try again.

Cue googoo sounds to seal the deal.
Cue googoo sounds.

All of that said – and keeping in mind that pitching/storytelling tips listed above will stay more-or-less the same across platforms – is TV our only path to getting our stories to our audiences? Back in 2007 Peter Fowler remarked “if you want to play the TV game you have to play by TV’s rules,” but is that still the case? With the rise of digital production and distribution can we do what so many independent documentarians are doing and bypass the broadcasters and get our stories out via alternative platforms? Interactive documentaries? Virtual Reality storytelling? Or, if we want to stick with the broadcasters, is there more leeway now for different approaches and values in storytelling? Will shifting from factual television to other modes and formats take our stories deeper? Show ourselves and our audience something new?

Check back for the next entry on the future of archaeology documentaries according to Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015!

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