Can 'instamentaries' such as Tulisa: The Price of Fame ever truly satisfy demand?


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The Independent Culture

On Monday it was announced that the trial of Tulisa Contostavlos, pop singer and former X Factor judge, had been thrown out of court. Within 24 hours, BBC Three had scheduled a documentary,Tulisa: The Price of Fame to air this coming Monday at 10pm.

Fast-turnaround documentaries - the kind which seem to materialise before the first reporter on the scene has had time to catch a breath - are increasingly common and increasingly swift. By industry standards the idea-to-air time of Tulisa: The Price of Fame would be considered fairly luxurious. A camera crew has reportedly been following Contostavlos since shortly after the initial Sun on Sunday sting in June 2013.

Tulisa Contostavlos found guilty of assault

Such lengthy shoots are out of the question for most ‘instamentaries’, because most major news stories happen without warning. In a 2009 interview, Simon Dickson, the former deputy head of documentary at Channel 4 described his reaction to watching a TV news report of US Airways flight 1549 crashing into the Hudson River: “I literally stood up, went to my telephone and called [film producer] John Smithson before the news bulletin had even reached its conclusion.” The resulting film Miracle of the Hudson Plane Crash, was on television just over a month later. Even the most tuned-in commissioner would have been unable to predict the disappearance of MH370, the Oscar Pistorius murder trial or the Cleveland Kidnappings, yet all were the subject of at least one documentary within weeks.

Fast-turnarounds are supposed to occupy a middle-ground between the instant information of a news report and the in-depth analysis of a documentary, but as the pressure for new angles becomes incessant, 24-hours news is encroaching on this territory. And, as Sky News reporter Colin Brazier demonstrated last week at the MH17 crash site, it can be hard to get the balance right between instantaneous and insightful. This is especially true when the subject is a large-scale tragedy or horrific crime which defies any glib attempt to “learn lessons”.

Ratings successes leave no doubt that an audience demand for instamentaries exists, but can something put together in a matter of days ever truly satisfy that demand? This week, as films are hastily commissioned on Gaza, MH17 and the inquest into Peaches Geldof’s death, there is a not-so-timely documentary going largely unnoticed on BBC iPlayer. Clothes to Die For only reached the air this Monday, some 15 months after the Rana Plaza factory collapse. That’s presumably just how long it takes to secure powerful interviews with eye-witnesses of a disaster, unravel the knot of political corruption which led to it and piece everything together into a sensitive and challenging film. If answers are what’s required, there really is no shortcut.

Homer homage is a bit of a duff idea

For a few glorious days, Lee Weir of Auckland, New Zealand was indisputably the world’s biggest Simpsons fan. He earned this title by getting inked with 41 different versions of Homer Simpson’s iconic yellow mug. 

If only Weir had chosen to pay tattoo tribute to a less universally acclaimed TV show, his fame might have lasted longer. Alas when, US network FXX announced the launch of Simpsons World, they revealed the obsessive Simpsons fan in all of us.

The new website/app will make all 522 episodes available on-demand as well as allowing quotes and clips to be retrieved and shared on social media. It will now it will be easier than ever to compare your boss to Mr Burns with a hilarious GIF. They very fact that this is a viable business move proves that liking The Simpsons - even really, really liking The Simpsons - is hardly unusual. Matt Groening’s animated sitcom is just that good.


This World: Clothes To Die For, BBC iPlayer

On 24 April, 2013, the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed killing 1,129 and injuring a further 2,515. You may remember the footage from that day, but hearing the story told by people who actually worked there is a new and freshly horrific experience. Without being heavy-handed, this BBC documentary gives us reason to think again about the real fashion victims in Western consumer culture.

The Honourable Woman, BBC iPlayer

If you were close to losing patience with Hugo Blick’s hard-to-follow drama, this week’s episode should hook you afresh. Not only do we finally get to discover what happened to Nessa (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Atika (Lubna Azabal) in Gaza all those years ago, but this flashback casts almost every character in a brand new light.

Our Planet from the Air: Home, BBC iPlayer

The kind of people who always wants the window seat on a plane journey will find this documentary by Luc Besson completely entrancing. Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s aerial photography swoops over countries as diverse as Dubai and Mali, giving a whole new perspective on how interconnected Earth’s habitats are. If the environmental message isn’t clear enough already, there’s also a voiceover from actress Glenn Close.

Tulisa: My Mum and Me, YouTube

Almost as soon as the trial of Tulisa Contostavlos collapsed earlier this week it was announced that she would be appearing in a BBC Three documentary, Tulisa: The Price of Fame. This won’t be her first foray into documentary film, however. In 2010 she drew on personal experience to make this film about young carers dealing with mental illness in the family.