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Storyville: Tales of the unexpected

BBC4's Storyville is everything good documentary should be – fascinating, unpredictable, and truly eye-opening. As the new series gets under way, Sophie Morris looks at the highlights of the winter schedule

After a whirl of pre-publicity for the documentary on Roman Polanski Wanted and Desired, on Monday night BBC4 screened the wrong tape.

The film itself, thankfully, went out intact, but the new title sequence did not. A small point, and probably not one noticed by many viewers, but nonetheless annoying for the Storyville team (the documentary strand to which the Polanski film belongs), who had spent time and money crafting a new on-air identity for the 10-year-old brand – which has won a regular 10pm Monday night slot on BBC4.

Fans of Storyville might ask why any money was being thrown at a title sequence when the strand's output has been hit by budget cuts. Twenty-five films rather than the usual 40 will air, but editorial executive Greg Sanderson says this means they can concentrate on quality in their quest to bring the most exciting, unexpected and deftly executed films to BBC audiences.

Storyville screens such an idiosyncratic clutch of films it is a slippery beast to brand at all. Sanderson says it was time for a change after 10 years – it began on BBC2 under the current director general, Mark Thompson, and editor Nick Fraser. But it is the promise of a fresh take on mysterious stories such as that of disgraced film director Polanski that draw in the crowds, not a flashy title sequence. More than 200,000 viewers watched on Monday night, a strong audience for a digital channel, and the show epitomises what Storyville documentaries are all about: "Fascinating stories," explains Sanderson, "which take you into a much bigger picture and a far broader world. Polanski did that with the Seventies. The structure took you straight into this world you had either forgotten or never knew existed."

Other Storyville films include examinations of Muhammad Ali, Bobby Kennedy and Conrad Black, but the team – Fraser, Sanderson and commissioning editor Jo Lapping – are not exclusively concerned with dredging up old stories and presenting them in a new light. Far from it. Most of the stories portray worlds and lives most viewers, even the sort of transnational bourgeoisie drawn to BBC4, would never imagine existed before they saw them on Storyville.

Take just the upcoming season of six films. This coming Monday, When Borat Came to Town looks at the progress of the Romanian village of Glod in suing Sacha Baron Cohen for his portrayal of it as the home of his Kazakh character Borat. "This film has a catchy premise," admits Sanderson, "but what it really shows you is what life is like in a Romanian village. It's quite an affectionate picture of everyday life with an extraordinary narrative twist."

Another incredible story is Prodigal Sons, such an astounding tale that the title "You Couldn't Make It Up" was even considered. It looks at the life of two brothers who have lost touch since high school and meet 20 years later at a school reunion. The younger brother, the super jock who got all the girls, turns up in his new incarnation as a woman, Kimberly. The older, adoptive brother – less successful and with learning difficulties – has sustained a major brain injury before the reunion which means he cannot control his emotions. "What you get is a really focused look at sibling dynamics, which we can all empathise with," explains Sanderson. On top of this, though, the elder brother's search for his birth family is filmed. It turns out that his grandparents were Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth.

Storyville makes bold choices. Shot in Bombay takes on the precious world of Bollywood superstars by examining the trial of actor Sanjay Dutt for firearms offences. In Blast! a group of astrophysicists traverse an ice cap in their quest for the meaning of the universe, and Operation Iraqi Film-maker recounts the bungles of an up and coming Iraqi film student trying to make the best of a big Hollywood break. This season shows on six consecutive Mondays, but standalone films will link the Storyville seasons to one another throughout the year.

Sanderson points out that the BBC is supposed to bring the UK to the world and the world to the UK, but sums up his job much more simply: "We're basically here to find the best international documentaries and get them on to the BBC." They certainly have a name in the industry as the go-to people if you have an idea or a work in progress which needs to be made. "Everybody in the documentary world has heard of us," says Sanderson. Storyville has certainly earned phenomenal respect for the more than 340 films it has screened from 70 countries. It has won five Oscars, 15 Griersons, three Peabody awards and two Emmys. Most recently an Irish film won the Prix Italia, and earlier this year Fraser was presented with the prestigious Doc Mogul Award at the Canadian festival Hot Docs. "He was feted as the man who makes half the documentaries in the world happen," says Sanderson.

Fraser was also one of the cogs which got Man On Wire into cinemas this summer. The film is the story of Philippe Petit's 1974 tightrope walk between the twin towers, and Fraser loved the ideas from the outset, but it was beyond Storyville's budget. Instead, they worked together to help find funding and ensure the film got the exposure it deserved, with Fraser as executive producer. Thanks to such dedication to the documentary genre, Man On Wire will be broadcast on BBC2 soon.

Often films get their first airing on Storyville. They are usually collaborations with an indigenous broadcaster and the team spend a lot of time on the road. An Indonesian film is coming up and an Armenian film is under way. Others find their way to Storyville once they have already achieved greatness, such as Errol Morris's The Fog of War and Spike Lee's When The Levees Broke, about Hurricane Katrina, which won more than 450,000 viewers.

Series producers usually get annoyed when their programmes jump about in the schedule and a regular slot, such as Storyville now has, is prized. Sanderson, though, doubts Storyville needs much of a helping hand. "People who love Storyville love Storyville," he says. "They'll find it wherever it is on BBC4."

'Storyville: When Borat Came to Town' screens on Monday on BBC4 at 10pm

Storyville's greatest hits

By Harry Byford

Hoop Dreams

The first 'Storyville' documentary (right) tells the story of two Chicago students trying to become pro basketball players. The 1994 film won an Academy Award for Best Film Editing – and is the tenth highest grossing documentary in the US. The two students never made it to the NBA, but a Hoop Dreams Scholarship Fund has since been set up.

A Cry From the Grave

This tells the harrowing story of the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 using the testimony of survivors and relatives of the victims to document the Bosnian War atrocity, in which the Bosnian-Serb army killed an estimated 7,000 Bosnian Muslims. The film was used during a war crimes trial at The Hague.

The Fog of War

One of the most successful productions, winning the Best Documentary Academy Award in 2004. The film consists of a composite interview with former US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, and examines his role during the Vietnam War. The timing of the film's release in 2003 lent it relevance, given the outbreak of the second Iraq war.

When the Levees Broke

Spike Lee's two-part film documents the devastation New Orleans suffered as a result of Hurricane Katrina. The 2006 documentary is more than four hours long, and gives a detailed portrayal of how society reacted to the disaster. President Bush's response comes under fire, but the biggest issues the film addresses are the attitudes of rich toward poor, white toward black.