Roger Graef on how to make a positive documentary

The Media Column: Ahead of his Bafta tribute, filmmaker Roger Graef talks about his pursuit of social justice



Thirty years on, I still remember some of the characters from The Police, the Bafta-winning television documentary series that changed the public’s idea of what it meant to be a copper in Eighties Britain.

From the robotic deadpan of the duty inspector to the slurred apologies of the drunken driver as he struggled to produce a urine sample and the warped logic of a skinhead protesting his innocence after being arrested on the bus, these real characters left a lasting impression on me as filmmaker Roger Graef gave BBC audiences unprecedented insight into what happens inside police stations.

Graef will return to Thames Valley Police – where that seminal series was made – tomorrow to address officers on “police and the media”, in company with the force’s chief constable, Sara Thornton. The series helped her predecessor Peter Imbert become Commissioner at Scotland Yard. He remains a friend of Graef’s and The Police – which among other things changed the way that rape is investigated – became a police training film. PRs take note: being the subject of an observational documentary can be a positive experience.

As I write, communities around Britain are fighting to repel the attentions of television producers who want to make them the latest example in the so-called “poverty porn” genre. They fear the stigma suffered by Birmingham’s James Turner Street after its appearance in Channel 4’s Benefits Street.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

Graef takes an approach to documentary where – almost – everyone wins. Like a 19th-century explorer discovering virgin territories, he has been the first filmmaker across the threshold of so many institutions which previously never countenanced the idea of going on camera. The steel and petrol industries, the prison system, Scotland Yard and Great Ormond Street children’s hospital all threw their doors open to him.

Tonight, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta) will stage a tribute night to Graef. On Friday morning I had tea with him in his conservatory as he explained his approach to filmmaking over the past 50 years.

The essence of his pitch to organisations is “there’s more to your work than people know”. Whereas the news media seeks headlines, he offers “context” and a focus on “practice” rather than “scandal”. As a theme, he will avoid “a hot-button issue that will make them really jumpy”.

Having agreed the purpose of the film with the subject, he sticks to it. He has a code of practice. “We are not going into it to embarrass people,” he says. “We show the edited film to them in advance on the grounds of accuracy and safety and agree to change anything wrong and delete personal and confidential material if it happens to have ended up in the film.”

He also works hard to ensure that broadcasters do not distort the work in tabloid-style trailers. It’s a long battle of quality control.

Born in New York but now a British citizen, he wants the output of his company Films of Record to have a lasting impact on society. But that’s not easy, he says, when the vast output of television means the medium of documentary is treated with less respect than it deserves.

“There’s so much TV that it’s treated like newspapers – as tomorrow’s fish and chips. But serious programmes are oases in a desert of noise and they deserve the same respect as books.” Content on Wikipedia has a greater permanence than the ephemeral TV film, he complains.

This will be his theme tonight in a talk at Bafta. Although he believes British documentary-making is in a healthy state, he has concerns for its future.

Filming might be second nature to a generation that grew up with smartphones and cheap digital cameras but Graef – who works with many young filmmakers – is worried about a lack of media “literacy” among many who are publishing influential content online.

“People mock media studies as being irrelevant but it should be studied from primary school so that people understand things such as advertising, product placement and, most of all, bias,” he says. “When they pick up a phone or camera they will know there is a right and wrong way to film.”

Documentary-style films posted online can attract millions of views despite having bypassed the editorial controls employed by a broadcaster, he says. “Those messages that are coming at us thick and fast have religious bias, political bias, sponsorship bias, proprietary bias… Younger people need the tools to spot and decode that. It’s vital and they’re not getting it.”

Graef is not hostile to the internet. He made a series of short films for Google+ on the CERN research centre in Geneva and the hunt for the Higgs boson. He looks back on his body of work and is “pleased by how well [the films] stand up”.

At 78, he has sold Films of Record to Ten Alps (meaning it forms part of a portfolio of serious documentary companies under one roof in London’s Kentish Town). But he still works, opening up new subject areas for younger colleagues to film. “I can focus on the access,” he says, arguing that his approach is “not a sales patter” but driven by “genuine curiosity”.

He has recently secured the green light for “three big access projects”, including a “big internet company”.

A third series on Great Ormond Street will be shown on BBC1 in the winter and will feature older children participating in decisions on their treatment. The last series addressed the difficult subject of cases that baffle the hospital’s elite staff – it had the helpful effect of lowering expectations of parents whose children attend the hospital.

Graef is happy with the outcome. “That’s changing people’s lives with serious television,” he says. We need more of it.”

Cartoonists of  the world unite

Cartoons and Denmark can hardly be mentioned in the same sentence without thinking of the dreadful repercussions of the publication in Jyllands-Posten of drawings lampooning the Prophet Mohamed in 2005. Embassies burned, assassination plots were launched against the cartoonist and terror attacks planned against the paper. Publications in other European countries reprinted the drawings in defence of free speech.

Danish cartoonists are attempting to draw a positive from these events by establishing the “World Cup of Cartooning”. Artists from 75 countries will compete for the Niels Bugge Cartoon Award at the end of this month, with a first prize of €3,000 (£2,450) and the best entries published in a book. The event has no religious or political agenda but aims to show that cartooning can change the world for the better. The theme is water conservation: “Oceans are in our hands.”

Among those taking part is the Iranian-born and Manchester-based award-winning artist Houmayoun Mahmoudi, who says he does not target individuals in his drawings. His submission features a cartoon staple, the stage magician, in the guise of an oilman pulling a petrol-soaked pelican out of his top hat.

Rupert Murdoch’s News UK newspaper stable is moving apace into the world of retail. Last month it bought the Handpicked Collection, an upmarket online shopping site that offers goods endorsed by an “expert panel” of posh specialist writers, TV presenters and editors (from outside News UK). We are talking Alice Rose, editor of Tatler Schools Guide, and Eugenie  Evans Lombe, executive fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar.

Now the newspaper business has hired a “head of travel”, Victoria Sanders, to develop the popularity of The Sun’s £9.50 holiday offers and to find new “travel products” to be sold to readers of The Times and The Sunday Times.

One of the forces in the News UK executive team driving this commercial strategy is the business development director Neil Martin, who joined the company in September from Sky, having previously played rugby as a flanker for Moseley and Leicester.

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