“All the best stories tend to come from the truth, even fiction. Documentaries have suddenly really kicked in, and take on this position by raising global awareness” Sir Ridley Scott, BAFTA fellowship acceptance speech, 2018
There has been a lot of hand-wringing and chatter in the last few years about the state of television in the age of Netflix, and in particular, the area I work in – documentaries.
I hear the same popular refrains. That heavy investment is now going to Netflix. That there are increasingly less or late slots for documentaries. That, in true Armageddon -style, whole channels will fall to the mighty streaming services as audiences bounce from boxset to boxset of the latest murderous Scandi-drama.
It is true that Netflix has taken documentary to another level and brought it to new global audiences. This is a healthy trend – but, far from taking away from our homegrown documentaries, it fuels and feeds an appetite for strong story-telling about the most compelling things of all – real people and real events.
In fact, just over the last month is a prime example of how documentaries on the main channels have flourished. There are many more than this that are worth seeing and some I’ve missed but here are the top 10 documentaries on the main UK channels in the last month (in date order).
1. Trophy: The Big Game Hunting Controversy
BBC 4 – 29th January 2018- 9pm
Directors: Christina Clusiau and Saul Schwarz
This is one of those stunningly well-shot feature films which also gets you intimate access to people you would (probably) never associate with as you wonder – why kill these beautiful animals? Amazing production values, thought-provoking and the kind of film you normally only get to see in a film festival – or on Netflix. It’s an international film so I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up there.
2. Generation Gifted
BBC2 – 14/15th February 2018 -9pm
Directors: Luke Sewell and Marcus Plowright (Blast! Films)
These two films are the start of a big three year journey for these teenagers as they tackle their GCSEs in a bid to follow their dreams. They are gifted but also have obstacles in their way as they are from under-privileged backgrounds. An urgent set of films as social mobility stagnates – films that those in government should watch. Also one that we should truly evaluate in our own professions. It is well known that class-diversity in the media, as well as law, finance and politics, is an embarrassment.
3. 24 Hours in Police Custody : Sex and Corruption
Channel 4 – 19th February 2018 – 9pm
Director: Tom Barrow (The Garden Productions)
This has to be one of the best episodes I have seen of this. Why? It’s a story of blackmail and police corruption – captured on camera for the first time. Let’s just say it’s no surprise that the police trap doesn’t work. Very Line of Duty but in real life and also the rig allows you to see the genuine reaction of his shocked colleagues. I will be surprised if I don’t see this nominated for the next batch of awards.
4.Working with Weinstein
Channel 4 – 20th February 2018 – 10pm
Director: Alice Perman (Tigerlily Films)
Men and women who have worked for Weinstein have spoken out in this sensitive documentary. It rightly focusses on the actions of the man himself rather than just on the brave people who spoke out. There is still a strong public discourse to blame and judge the people who have been allegedly bullied and victimised in this story than put responsibility and questions where it belongs – with the man that features in this film. The film does well to keep that focus.
5.Murdered for Love? Samir Shahid
BBC2 – 21st February 2018 – 9pm
Director: Sasha Achilli
This was an original take on how to approach honour killings, which often happens to British citizens abroad. It creatively worked with the fact that while there was access to photos, voice notes and an interview with the second husband, there was no access to friends or family on screen. It took me a few minutes to get used to the friends being actors (but speaking the words of the real friends) but after that, it was a really engaging way to handle such a secretive and sensitive topic in a way to make a wider audience really emotionally invest and care for Samia.
6.Inside Britain’s Moped Crime Gangs
BBC3 – 21st February 2018
Director: Nick Norman-Butler
Reporter Livvy Haydock has found herself in some pretty sticky scenarios in the last year. I still have an image of her casually hanging out with a gang in an underpass while they played with machetes, thinking about the risk assessment form for that! This time she is with the scourge that are the moped gangs. She tries (and I tried) to find anything to sympathise with the people behind the helmets. One implies that he has no choice and it is the way to feed his family. Another admits he enjoys the thrill of nicking phones off people. I came away as disillusioned as before – but it is worth noting that it is BBC3 who is getting access to these people and making gritty films that are cutting-edge.
7.John Worboys: The Taxi Cab Rapist
ITV – 22nd February 2018 – 9pm
Directors: Dan Aldridge-Neil/ Hedieh Mehdyzadeh/ Elen Moore (Shiver)
Yet another urgent film to be made – in this case in the wake of the decision to release the rapist John Worboys and recognition from the courts that some victims’ cases were not properly investigated. The women have given their account of what it was like to be at the hands of this man, as they fear his release and argue that women will not be safe. The parole board are convinced he is no longer a threat. A film that explores our idea of justice in a case that has caught the public’s interest.
8.Girls on the Edge
BBC2 – 22nd February 2018 – 9pm
Director: Holly Challinor (Dragonfly)
There are quite a few films on mental health but with support so scarce and perceptions so narrow, each film helps bring down those barriers. This documentary follows young women and teenagers who are at such danger to themselves, they have to be hospitalised. It is both a film of pain but of ultimate hope as they aim for enough recovery to go home to their families. The real pain was seen in the close family and parents struggling to find support for themselves as they grapple with the mental health of a loved one. They are often forgotten and expected to have the strength of a superhuman. This film captures that, as the reality of management but no cure to their illnesses becomes the concluding theme.
9.Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble
BBC 4 – 25th February 2018- 8pm
Director: Morgan Neville
This is a film about music and yet so much more. This is because anyone deeply involved in music knows it is more than just what you hear. Its a common language over borders, it brings you back to a place or a person. So while on the face of it this is a film about the legendary cellist and his merry band, actually it is about the people who have all had to either leave their homeland or fight to keep their culture and identity alive. There is a painful scene where Chinese puppeteers who in that moment are alive with passion for their music explain that they will be the last generation of many to enjoy this moment. It will possibly be gone forever, but the light they had at that moment can’t be taken away. It is a creative call to arms – through music – to keep creatively pushing the boundaries, to engage with cultures different to your own and, for the Syrian clarinetist, to confront barbarism with beauty.
10.The FGM Detectives
Channel 4 – 27th February 2018 – 10pm
Director: Joanna Potts
This incredibly sensitive subject is highlighted by the fact that no witness, or the family accused of FGM appeared on camera. This was the police perspective on their efforts to secure a conviction despite FGM being illegal. It highlighted how hard it was when it is family doing this to their children and when it occurs mainly in cultures that the police have little representation in – in this case, the Bristol Somali community. The detective in charge has been accused of racism on both sides – by focusing on a minority group who feels under threat and conversely not doing enough to tackle a procedure so traumatic for girls that if it happened in the white community, arguably more would be done to protect the children. It’s a hard watch and one to think about where we draw the lines between culture, children’s rights and policing it.