Give us the facts please

Documentary film-making is booming at the box office but dying where it counts: on television
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The Independent Culture

"What we're witnessing at the moment is an explo-sion of documentary talent," says Nick Fraser, the series editor of the BBC's documentary strand, Storyville.

"It's comparable to the growth of the New Journalism in the 1960s. Filmmakers are finding new idioms and new vocabularies. There are wonderful films being made."

In theory, these are boom times for documentary. Michael Moore's Oscar-winning Bowling For Columbine made over $20m (£12m) at the US box office. Nicolas Philibert's Etre et Avoir, a profile of an unconventional primary school in rural France, has grossed $1m (£600,000) in the UK alone. And the bird-watching bonanza Winged Migration has earned $30m (£18m) worldwide.

At the cinema this autumn/winter, you can choose from a documentary about Hitler's secretary (André Heller and Othmar Scmiderer's Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary), a documentary about a disastrous climbing trip (Kevin Macdonald's action-adventure, Touching The Void), a documentary about child abuse (Andrew Jarecki's superb Capturing The Friedmans), a wry documentary about a spelling competition (Spellbound), Nick Broomfield's Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, and the Neo-Realist, Kabul-set Joy Of Madness, made by 14-year-old Hana Makhmalbaf. Among the most warmly received titles in this year's Venice Festival was Jonathan Demme's forthcoming The Agronomist, about the struggle for democracy in Haiti, and in the pipeline are Oliver Stone's documentaries about Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat.

So where's the problem?

The problem is that just as cinemagoers have belatedly discovered the joys of documentaries, British terrestrial television has ousted documentaries from their schedules in favour of a glut of reality TV shows, travel programmes and docu-soaps as the scramble for ratings grows ever more desperate.

Michael Apted, the originator of the Seven Up series, is vocal about the reality TV shows and docu-soaps that have pushed out more serious factual programming. "It's hideous... I think it's absolutely fucking grotesque... It cheapens the word 'documentary', and makes our lives more difficult. It offends every film-making bone in my body."

Without the support of television broadcasters, the documentaries currently playing to such enthusiastic responses in cinemas would most most likely never have been made. Well-established directors, such as Michael Moore, Nick Broomfield, and Kevin Macdonald (who won an Oscar for One Day In September), have all been backed at one time or another by the BBC or Channel 4.

Research carried out by the Third World and Environment Broadcasting Project confirms that there has been a huge drop in recent years in the number of documentaries being aired on British terrestrial TV.

"What we understand as a documentary - a hard, objective and in-depth look at a particular subject or issue on mainstream television - is virtually dead," laments the Project's spokesman Don Redding. "Certainly, in peak hours, you would not find it."

Storyville has over 50 slots a year to fill on BBC4 - a channel which large swathes of people are not yet able to watch - and only a small proportion of these actually make it onto BBC2.

"In places like Channel 4... they've thrown documentary out," says Nick Broomfield. "That's incredibly short-sighted... people at the moment have an enormous appetite for real information. There's a real hunger for it, particularly given what's happening in the rest of the world."

Nick Fraser points to a paradox. "The more inventive, charming and imaginative documentaries get, the more mainstream television switches toward formats. Formats guarantee audiences. Documentaries don't."

Documentaries used to be regarded as the cinematic equivalent of cod-liver oil: edifying but far from pleasurable. This, Fraser believes, has changed for good. "They (filmmakers) feel they have to make documentaries... to sit through and enjoy. Even if they are painful films, about difficult subjects, [they] understand that documentaries are things that should give you pleasure."

Award-winning director Leslie Woodhead (Milosevic: How To Be A Dictator), however, is uneasy about the move toward 'cinema-friendly' documentaries. "It feels like just another way to move them out of TV and into a ghetto," she says. "The obsession with pushing documentaries into the cinema - gratifying though it is for filmmakers - risks allowing TV schedulers off the hook of placing documentaries on TV where they're really needed."

It is also very hard to guess which documentaries will work on the big screen. Être et Avoir had no evident cinematic qualities and yet was still successful. The Kid Stays In The Picture - an entertaining account of the life of movie mogul Robert Evans - flopped in the UK, grossing a measly $110,000 (£66,000) despite an expensive marketing campaign.

Still, as Broomfield points out, even the most successful documentary at the box office is likely to reach a far bigger audience on television than it ever will in cinemas. That's why terrestrial television matters so much to documentary filmakers.