Media: My life as a fly on the wall

The open access slot Video Nation is five years old this week. Producers Chris Mohr and Mandy Rose choose their favourite films
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The Independent Culture
Imagine a retired army colonel, silver moustache, clipped accent, ramrod-straight back. Where would you expect to see him on television? And what could you assume about his political views and opinions?

When Gordon Hencher was given the opportunity to record something he felt strongly about, it was the way his body had aged while his heart remained young. "Mirror" was the first Video Nation short ever broadcast on BBC2 and it's an archetype. Over the past five years, hundreds more unheard voices and unseen faces have popped up in the schedules - all indisputably part of British society but not generally part of our TV viewing, unless as subjects of issue-led programmes.

Video Nation has created a space where people can represent themselves in their own words as the rounded, complex beings they are, in the context of their own worlds. The slot also seems to answer a real hunger for inclusion. A tattooed biker summed it up when she said she wanted to show that people like her were "just like everyone else". And, as a Scottish fisherman put it: "I need to see myself on television to know that I really exist." There's a climate of disdain towards people's desire to be on TV - a rather English suspicion about parading the private in public - but it seems to us that this repeated desire for inclusion expresses a valid need to see one's life reflected in the public arena. The popularity of docusoaps and chat shows attests to that desire in the audience, but do those programmes deliver everything that's being asked for?

And if Video Nation is different, what makes it so? Well, it's not the technology or the production process - it's the principle. There are two in fact, without which it simply wouldn't work. In the first place, people film to their own agenda; even when we suggest or encourage it's up to them how, when, where and even whether they film.

Crucially, though, they have editorial control over their own material, a policy unique to the BBC's Community Programme Unit. Most documentary makers are horrified by the prospect of sharing power with a non-professional.

But it frees our contributors to tell us stories which wouldn't otherwise reach the screen, either because we wouldn't know to ask, or because they would worry about how that material might be used on TV outside of their control.

The resulting insights they grant us into their everyday lives constantly challenge media stereotypes. A young black man is burgled; he complains bitterly of the decline in family values. An ex-miner living in Wigan who lost his job "under Maggie" admits he's done well ever since, and now wonders whether to vote Conservative. A gay man is overwhelmed with emotion when his heterosexual friends choose him as sole godfather to their first child. These people are so real you couldn't make them up.

The other discovery is that once the camera has become part of their lives people use it with enormous visual eloquence, developing their own individual style as if it were handwriting.

There's the Belfast GP who filmed a family outing in such a fluid sequence of hand-held shots that it was broadcast virtually uncut; and the disenchanted telephone engineer who, pre-May 1997, turned the camera away from himself to a dreary, rainy view out of his window, saying "that's how a lot of people in this country feel about life today".

In a mass society that's quite fragmented, we need to be confronted with one another's similarities as well as our differences; and we desperately need the differences to be humanised. These recordings have a dignity arising from the fact that the contributor has chosen to turn the camera on in order to volunteer an image or an opinion. In the observational style which has come to be virtually synonymous with documentary on British television, the subjects become objects captured by the camera. Video Nation contributors are subjects of their own recordings.

You know a genre has succeeded when other programmes and TV ads start to copy it. It took a long time for Video Nation to seep into the public's consciousness but, five years on, a surprisingly broad spectrum of the viewing audience has been moved, amused and challenged by them.

It seems we've stumbled on a TV format which has brought access- programming into the mainstream and created a precious, ongoing connection with the audience the BBC serves.

Chris Mohr and Mandy Rose are the producers of `Video Nation'.

THIRTY-NINE WEEKS

"I can't stop touching it, wiggling it, cuddling it, moving it around, ... I can't help it - I've never loved any part of my anatomy so much." A full-frontal pregnancy is all you see for most of this short, while Jean Lee strokes her naked tummy and talks about her feelings for the unborn baby. Both bold and mesmerising, the shot allows us to invest the bulge with her emotions more powerfully than if we were just watching her talking.

LOO

A Scottish clan chief on holiday in Finland takes the camera from the cottage he's staying in to the outside loo. He's intrigued that the owners have decorated the loo with flowers, magazines, artefacts. "In this over-antiseptic world it's beautiful to find a place where nature is so completely respected, in all her aspects." It's a hymn to a side of human existence only ever mentioned on TV with disgust or as a joke.

SCARED

In a terraced house in Gwent a steel worker talks to camera about his fears. Tom Waits's gravelly voice provides an almost operatic accompaniment. "From 1979 until last year the only thing I've ever been afraid of was losing my Social Security. Since I've been working I've worried about losing my job." He talks of death, his love for his grandson, his belief in nuclear disaster, his indifference to the violence around him. It's a life laid bare in two minutes.

MOUSE

A delightful tale of a Belfast GP, his children, and a mouse. It's told in one brilliant developing shot that Orson Welles couldn't have bettered. With the humane mouse trap in one hand and his camera in the other, Mark McClean keeps up a witty commentary while filming himself, the children's reactions, the fields, the house - then hands the camera to his son to hold over the bucket. We wait, with bated breath, to see the mouse emerge.

ONE WEEK

"So we actually met at the service station. I was in a bit of shock because there were so many of her relations there." "I didn't even know his name, just had this photograph and that was it." "I just started babbling on; I said sometimes I had these weird dreams, and she thought I'd said wet dreams!" Sarbjit and Jatinder, describing their happily arranged marriage, challenge media preconceptions about traditional matchmaking.

SMOKING

It's late at night. A Seventies hit is playing. A couple are arguing about her smoking. They're drunk. He: "I've given up arguing." She: "No, you can't. If you give up arguing you give up life!" Anyone who has debated important issues after a few too many will smile, but it's also very moving. "If you smoke for however many years, that's going to reduce your life by however many years. And that's however many years I'm gonna lose you."

FULL MONTY

The act of filming is always a construct, but that doesn't make it a lie. A West Highlands fisherman, Ian Mackinnon, puts on a show for us with an amused/embarrassed attempt at a striptease. He also alerts us to a trend and explores male vanity: "Somebody suggested some guys strip to raise money for the village hall... and it's struck fear into every male under 70: fear that he will be asked [pause] and fear that he won't."

BUNGEE

This young property developer strapped a camera to his chest to film his first jump. It's about as close as you could hope for without jumping yourself. But shorts are most effective when they work on more than one level, and it's what Toby says as he hurtles through space that makes us connect with his exhilaration and sense of release: "If you're bored with your job and your woman has dumped you, do this - it's better than sex!"

MIRROR

A retired colonel spells out a word: "M-I-R-R-O-R, mirror. It's a ghastly thing to look, and see your face, what it is now, and what you feel it should be. One doesn't feel old, you know. But every time you look in that confounded mirror and see what age has done to your face, your body, your hands, that's what I dislike more than anything." It's all the more poignant for being delivered in the clipped tones of a man of his generation and class.

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