Categories
Asia Cinema Documentary SBS

Images of Afghanistan

Helmand Province, photo by Ed Ledford

A welter of emotions and images led me to write this blog in the days before Christmas. Particularly the images of people crossing the English channel and the Mediterranean – and often dying in the attempt – desperately trying to reach a place of safety from Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria.

Many people, myself included, know little about Afghanistan and its people. I had no real idea of what the country looked like before writing this piece.

The label ‘migrant’ applied to Afghans and others seeking refuge is particularly wrong. Western governments sit on their hands but it is their arms sales to those countries and military involvement which in part leads to the flight of refugees, and our unwillingness or inability to organise safe routes for them (particularly from Afghanistan) leads them to risk their lives travelling thousands of miles to reach our shores.


As Kabul fell in mid-August, many nations evacuated their citizens and some of those Afghans who had worked for them. The British government evacuated many and also set up the ‘Afghan settlement scheme’ as Kabul fell – but it still isn’t operational. Those who worked for the British army were advised to ‘leave Afghanistan by land’ rather than via Kabul airport; and once they’d left Afghanistan, the only way to safety in the UK was via illegal routes. Now, the Taliban say they are going to start issuing passports again – but those who have worked for Western forces will surely not apply as it will identify them.

But one way to look inside Afghanistan and the experience of Afghani people has been through several of the insightful documentaries that have been released in the past couple of years.


On December 14th, Phil Grabsky’s documentary ‘My Childhood, My Country‘ was shown on the channel I work for, SBS Australia. It follows the life of a boy called Mir that Phil met as an eight year old in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, to the 29 year old working as a cameraman for Western news agencies in Kabul. Streaming now on SBS On Demand or ITV in the UK, in cinemas in Germany, and you can watch the trailer here. Now that the west has been expelled from Afghanistan, and the Taliban are anti all western media, what’s the future for Mir? The Eurovision team of the EBU recently produced this two-part podcast on the future of free media in Afghanistan.

The takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban in August, and the big changes to that society that resulted, was big news for a short while, but our attention quickly moved elsewhere.  It’s so good to see public service media and the world of documentaries keeping Afghanistan in the public eye. I’m not saying it’s a coordinated effort, but the release and support of several information/documentaries in a short period of time makes a lot more impact.

Certainly the highest profile film is the Danish production Flee by Jonas Poher Rasmussen and producer Monica Hellstrom, an animated retelling of the journey of an Afghan refugee, which is now on three longlists for the Oscars, and a near certainty to be nominated at least in the best doc category. It’s also won two European Film Awards, amongst many other prizes this year.

The all-animated style may not be to everyone’s taste, but it has been widely seen and written about, and certainly opens out his experience to a wider public. Knowing the makers, I know that they will be looking at all avenues to promote and support Afghan creatives through the success of the film and the platform this gives them to talk about the country and its struggles. The main character doesn’t reveal his identity – he’s called Amir in the film. I wonder if he’ll bring himself into the spotlight – people will be very curious to know the real person behind the animated portrayal.

At Malmo’s Nordisk Panorama festival in September, a Swedish documentary called Aboli’s Journey won the best Nordic doc prize, and that had much less of a happy end than Flee – showing how Nordic countries are returning refugees to war-torn countries where their lives are very much in danger. It was previously shown at the Tempo doc festival, and on Swedish broadcaster SVT.

Yasaman Sharifmanesh

The Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker Yasaman Sharifmanesh is Swedish-based, and notes in this in-depth interview for Business Doc Europe that Iran has more than 3 million Afghan refugees – putting many western countries’ extreme reluctance to take refugees into stark perspective.

The last winner of the Whickers Award was two Afghan filmmakers, Ilyas Yourish & Shahrokh Bikaran with their film Kamay – here on the bottom of this screengrab from the awards ceremony.

I remember talking to Jane Ray from the Whickers during the capture of Kabul by the Taliban. She was working hard to get both of them out – which she did, and they all met in Amsterdam at IDFA where the project was being pitched at the Forum. A really heartening end to the story of the filmmakers flight from Kabul; though the process the film is documenting is more troubling.

“After a young girl from the mountains of central Afghanistan mysteriously commits suicide inside Kabul University, her family’s calm rural life enters into a painful and exhausting process. Her parents are now looking for justice in one of the most corrupt judicial systems in the world; while Freshta, their younger daughter, attempts to gain admission to the same university to complete what her sister had started.”

You can still apply for this amazing funding scheme for documentary makers on their first feature doc, by the way – closing date is January 31st.

This year Looks Film released two projects on Afghanistan, a series called ‘Wounded Land‘ shown on Arte and other European broadcasters, and a feature doc ‘I Want My Country Back‘ about the particular history of women in Afghanistan.

I can also recommend two other documentaries about Afghanistan, Kabul, City in the Wind by Netherlands based filmmaker Aboozar Amini and producer Xia Zhao. And The Land of the Enlightened, a hybrid film by Pieter-Jan de Pue whom I met when he showed the film at HotDocs in Toronto three years ago.

I haven’t included on this list any of the many films which focus on the conflict, often by embedding themselves with army units – although there are some fine films amongst them, I’m highlighting in this blog those that look beyond the conflict at the Afghan experience.


But most recently and topically, I heard about (but haven’t seen) this film by James Glancy, distributed by Cinephil, and simply titled Afghanistan, which chronicles a British solder’s return to Afghanistan just as U.S. troops pulled out of the country amid a Taliban takeover.

We need to continue portraying and telling the stories of individuals to get beyond the generic descriptions of the country. As we know, the progress made by women and girls is being suddenly stopped and reversed by the Taliban regime


This week filmmaker Ursula McFarlane (@ursulapics on Instagram) spoke about the film she made 10 years ago,The Life and Loss of Karen Woo, and calls for help for the organisations working out there:
“If you have any spare cash this Christmas (and I know it’s tough) please consider donating a little or a lot to one of the charities trying to help over there. @doctorswithoutborders@unicefafghanistan@womenforafghanwomen To be honest, it’s the women and girls who are most under threat.”


The BBC recently released its annual 100 Women report, portraying those who are hitting “reset” – women playing their part to reinvent our society, our culture and our world.This year, half of them are Afghan – a very powerful statement.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-59514598


I also saw that the woman who you may recognise from the Steve McCurry photo of ‘The Afghan Girl’ has in the past few weeks managed to move to Italy

Steve McCurry

Her story, and the impact of this photograph, is perhaps for another blog, but I wanted to end on this image. Not of a migrant, or a refugee, but an Afghan woman called Sharbat Gula.


Happy festive season and end of 2021 to you all. And good luck in whatever you’re doing in 2022. If there are other films you’d like to highlight, or any thoughts on this blog, I’d really welcome any comments here or on social media. And even better, a few shares!

Categories
Documentary Factual Television

Life, the universe, and everything

Back on this blog after an embarassingly enormous hiatus…

The 5-part documentary series ‘Universe’ with Professor Brian Cox, started its run last night on BBC2 in the UK, with an episode called The Sun: God Star. The whole series also landed on iPlayer. You can see a trailer of it here. I watched the film, and this review by Lucy Mangan in the Guardian caught my eye.

Here’s an extract:

“Stirring music accompanies every shot, swoops in to underline Cox’s latest evocation of the ancient past, relentlessly seeking to give voice to the ineffable. Why they are so scared of putting his actual knowledge on show, I do not know. You have what is surely the rarest of beasts – a personable physicist unfazed by the idea of making his subject accessible on camera – and keep trying to use him as a poet? Why?

This time round, we have reams of riffs on “the age of starlight”. “Everyone we love, everything we value, our supreme accomplishments as a civilisation were created and crafted by stars.” And Earth “is an arcadia where a star could breathe life into dust”. In an hour filled with drone footage of shorelines, endless CGI of cosmic webs and musical crescendos, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for the stuff that should actually be inspiring us with awe.”

Prof Brian Cox

I agree with a lot of what she writes. The graphic sequences are amazing, (from Lola Post), and it’s liberating to see wild and empty landscapes with Brian Cox in them after the pandemic lockdown. But is it really enough for such a vast theme?

In BBC terms, this series counts as a ‘landmark’. In the UK, we’ve long got used to such landmarks being shaped around the presenter, and in previous series Brian Cox has even been part of the title. This focus on a presenter as the only voice allowed to be heard is what gets me, making the film into a lecture with a slideshow – though a wildly expensive one.

All those other aspects of science documentary – debate, investigation, revelation, exploration, research, even education – and the people that bring those themes to life, have been sacrificed to the need for a steady flow of ‘wonder’. (It’s not confined to this series of course – most BBC ‘landmarks’ follow the same style)

Brian Cox is probably the best-known academic on science television, and has doubtless inspired a lot of people to be interested in science and the natural world through his documentaries. He even has research papers written about him as a presenter and science communicator. As Lucy Mangan notes in her review, he certainly knows his stuff, much more than he reveals in the doc.


But I realised that I might be judging his new series in the wrong way just as a science documentary for television. Seems to me that it’s precisely the beautiful images and soothing sounds that make it work for the wider market: beyond broadcast TV, maybe it’s made with the audience which shares videos of that wonder firmly front of mind.

Seeing Brian Cox filmed against the sun, perched on rocky ledges and amongst glaciers made me think of all those instagram pictures of travellers standing on the edges of lakes and canyons, the ubiquity of drone landscapes on YouTube, even those ASMR videos. So I took a closer look into the partners on the series.


It’s a coproduction by BBC Studios with the US public broadcaster PBS, where it goes out as NOVA – Universe Revealed on October 29th. But also a coproduction with Xigua Video in China, owned by Bytedance (which also owns TikTok)


Wiki tells me that the name “Xigua”, means “watermelon” and refers to the Chinese concept of “watermelon-eating crowd” (吃瓜群众), meaning “onlookers who just casually enjoy their melons and watch events unfold without wanting to get involved”.

The beautiful graphic sequences and stunning landscapes, the modern and identifiable music (the band Foals remixed their song Neptune as the title track), and the bite-sized poetic narration makes for some very ‘clippable’ sequences. Perfect for short-form viewing maybe? I’m not saying that Xigua drove the shape and style of the series. I’m sure the BBC Studios Science Unit and PBS feel that it’s a way to get science to appeal to broad audiences; and were merely aware of other markets that this style would appeal to.

Just as I was getting used to Brian Cox being Alone in the Universe, as it were, the last 5 minutes of the film goes to a caption ‘Exploring the Universe’, and features scientists explaining the NASA Parker mission referenced at the start of the film. It’s very odd, and rather different from the rest of the film – a throwback to those ‘Planet Earth (etc) Diaries’ 10 minute ‘making of’ segments that bumped up a 50 min BBC doc made for international sales, to a 59 min BBC broadcast slot. For me, it brought back a feeling of real science and technology – and the people behind it – which I’d been searching for in the rest of the film.

If you’ve seen Universe, feel free to share your thoughts!

Categories
BBC Documentary History Television

Voting for Little Britain or the wider world

The UK General Election is tomorrow, May 7th.

One of the issues in the Conservative manifesto is the pledge to hold a referendum about whether the UK stays in the European Union.

But it’s barely featured in this election campaign. The London correspondent of German paper Die Welt has noticed this, but I haven’t seen much else.

I went to the BBC yesterday and they were finishing a giant map of the UK in the courtyard. You can’t really see the rest of the world as you’re hemmed in by the walls of the courtyard…I guess we’re too attached to little Britain

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There are lots of domestic issues in this election – much the same as every election – but it’s a globalised world and Britain needs to recognise the opportunities of that. Australia has the same challenges of course.

The following day, Friday May 8th is Victory in Europe  Day – the day to commemorate the coming together of Europe after the war. So the election result will be announced on that morning. I’m not talking about commemorating war, but recognising the peace, and the Europe that was constructed out of the ruins of that war.

On the evening of May 7th, BBC is showing its commemorative season about the end of the war, starting with a series by Steve Humphries of Testimony Films, called  The Greatest Generation. About the people who built the welfare state and the society we now benefit from in Britain. Some very stirring stories here, and a trailer below.

Steve’s also co-written a book he gave me when I saw him a couple of weeks ago in Bristol.

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It’s a good reminder of what we might just have said farewell to if we vote in the current government again, like  Ken Loach’s  The Spirit of 45 documentary from 2013

Just in case you were wondering which way I’m going to vote, here’s Cassettboy‘s party political broadcast not on behalf of the Conservative Party

Elections are where public broadcasters really have a role to play. The BBC’s  audience barely remembers this Greatest Generation – BBC2 channel head Kim Shillinglaw pointed out that as the average age of BBC2 audience  is in their 50’s, they grew up on punk rock. Bit of a stretch to say that all of that audience wants programmes with attitude, but I know what she’s getting at.

Speaking of attitude, ‘young person’s channel’ E4 is cleverly switching off for the day tomorrow to encourage people to go out to vote. Darren’s the man in control of the switch.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pahIcUi0kns

So if you’re in the UK tomorrow and registered, don’t spend your day trying to watch E4 – please go out and vote.

See you on the other side.

 

Categories
Documentary Event History ideas Television

From Hamlet to Richard III – history brought to life

I took part in a live-action role play a couple of weeks ago, called Inside Hamlet at Kronborg castle in Denmark. It was set in the 1930s, giving a whole new spin to Shakespeare’s tale. I learnt a massive amount about what history means by acting it out (as a Lutheran exorcist priest).

 

And this evening I’m watching #RichardReburied on Channel 4, a live programme following the return of the bones of Richard III to his reburial next week in Leicester Cathedral. History made live. What I really like about this coverage is that it’s run as a news event – presented by Jon Snow, with expert scientists, academics,  novelists and descendants of Richard III (including an Australian called Wendy Duldig who came over for the event and is Richard’s 14th cousin)

Channel 4 got a very good audience for the original film – The King in the Car Park – three years ago.

But it’s been a great programming idea to make his reburial  into a new TV event. Well done to John Hay, the commissioner of the live event, & Darlow Smithson Productions, who also produced the original doc. For making us realise that the identity of a 500 year old king matters. 

History has significance – both for  our understanding of what happened then, and for what might happen. And in an election year in the UK, that’s very important.

Channel 4 (them again) did a terrific season of programmes on immigration, including Love Productions’ Immigration Street – reduced to a single documentary after certain parts of the community decided they didn’t want it made – and other programmes. One of them was a doc made by Malcolm Brinkworth of Touch Films about an election in 1964 – which took place on the immigration faultline. Immigration will be one of the key issues of the UK General Election.

History is a big part of SBS programming, but making it relevant and watchable is what matters to the audience. I must say that I haven’t been watching many of the films about the First World War. And in Australia, the Gallipoli drama series on Channel 9 hasn’t been getting the audiences the programme merited. This extended trailer shows that it’s a really sensitive and moving piece of work – well worth 3 minutes of your time.

 

History, and the lessons of the past, are so crucial to understand today. I for one am really proud of the television that brings it to life for us.

Any comments, questions, responses, ideas – all really welcome

Categories
Documentary Factual Games ideas Multimedia Television

Are games the way to reach TV audiences?

Still on my Transfer Deadline theme, yesterday the BBC had a couple of outside experts giving their views on the players who might be on the market.Fifa Interactive World Cup 2014 Grand Final competitor David Blytheway and Football Manager expert Alex Stewart provided insight and analysis of players involved in deals from a gamer’s perspective.Got me thinking about games and TV.

Football Manager is a video game which involves assessing and transferring players from the perspective of the gamer as manager. Very entertaining to read in the deadline day text these gamers’ perspectives on the ‘real’ footballers, using the stats that are part of the video game to back up their observations.

Then I watched on the Guardian site an extract from the documentary “Drone“, by Flimmer Film, which includes a storyline about about the training of gamers to become drone pilots in the US military.

drone-pilots

I have to say that I’m not a gamer; maybe I just haven’t found the right one. But it’s clear that that’s how many peoples’ brains are wired and the way they want to interact with content. So I know I need to find out more.

Doc filmmakers in particular are being introduced to this theme in many industry conferences.

The long-established Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC) changed its format this year to Net-Work-Play with plenty of game- and online-related content and speakers in the sessions. Brave call by Joost den Hartog to turbo-charge the conference this year to appeal a very different crowd.

Games for Change is an annual get together in April as part of the Tribeca Film Festival;  in Malmo, Sweden  the Nordic Game Conference tries to make links between the gaming and filmmaking communities.  The aim is I think to apply principles of ‘gamification’ (rather than always actual games) to factual or fiction ideas – using the ‘mechanics’ of a game to change the way stories are told. On a simple level this could be making a factual story more of a process of first person discovery. But I’m sure there’s more to it than that.

Here’s Morgan Spurlock and Joseph Gordon-Levitt talking about Gamification on the collaborative art/tech show HitRecord on TV. Searching for the answer to what actually is a game, and how competition is compatible with art.

As the market for TV becomes ever more competitive, the audience fragments and public funding dwindles,  you need ways to get the audience to find, love and share your content – games are surely part of the answer. I’d love to be able to find a game-TV hybrid that could work for mainstream audiences on SBS – let me know if you’ve got any ideas!

 

 

 

 

Categories
Distribution Documentary Factual ideas Independent Production Television

A transfer window for TV production companies?

For me today is going to be a challenge to focus on work while keeping an eye on the info-fest that is Transfer Deadline Day. For those that aren’t into football, it’s one of the two days in the year (the other is the end of August) when the transfer window closes, and clubs are no longer allowed to sign players. The day is covered by the BBC and Sky on TV, text, radio, and probably carrier pigeon too. It’s known as the only business where people still use faxes to send contracts at the end of the window approaches, and no TDD is complete without a story of a last-minute paper jam which prevents a deal being done. Leaving shopping till the last day of the sales is something I can really relate to. I’m never through the doors first, unlike this lot…

The Football Transfer Window has been in place since 2002-3, which coincidentally is just before the acquisitions spree that started with new Terms of Trade being introduced for the UK production sector in 2004. This gave companies control of the righs in the ideas they created, and, therefore, made them valuable. Money poured in from VC and other investors in the UK, and from a cottage industry the production sector suddenly became a business worth billions. (Big thanks to Nick Ware who gave me the idea to connect these two themes for this blog even though he’s not into football!)

nick ware
This man likes documentaries far more than football

Britain’s status as the capital of production  company mergers and acquisitions hasn’t changed. It seems that the main reason now to start an independent company in the UK is to be able to grow it fast and then sell it – it’s business, after all.

For Brits, most global revenues still come from America. At last week’s Realscreen summit, 70 UK producers were in attendance. PACT set up a British Pub in the lobby of the Washington hotel where it all happens. The UK trade association PACT also announced the setting up of a US organisation for UK companies and their US offshoots, – with offices in LA and New York to be set up this year.

British Pub Realscreen

PACT’s figures seem to show that the only full commissions for UK companies over the past two years were from the US – though this doesn’t include coproductions, as there have been plenty of those from elsewhere in the world.

Companies in the US have a struggle to hold onto the IP in the formats they create – the channels try and take as many rights as they can – but in the UK that IP is the foundation of their business. That doesn’t stop UK companies pitching, or investing in US companies – the size of the business there means that companies are still profitable even though the rights position isn’t nearly as good. Arrow Media’s John Smithson has a pithy column in Realscreen magazine and he returns to the theme a lot.

It does of course mean that the development focus for companies is on returnable formats, as this is what those investors want to see to get a revenue stream from the company.  Like transferring a football player for an eye-watering sum, there’s no guarantee of success though; while ideas are still dependent on those capricious commissioners, there’ll always be a big element of uncertainty.

Now, how about a Transfer Window for production companies?

 

Categories
Distribution Documentary Event Factual Fipa Independent Production SBS Television

My week at FIPA, a TV festival by the sea

I’ve just spent a few days at FIPA in Biarritz,  France. That’s the Festival International de Programmes Audiovisuels. A few thoughts from my time there.

There’s something about waves, beaches and lighthouses that is very inspiring. Even though I didn’t actually get to the beach.
Being in a beautiful venue with big windows, the Bellevue, made it a relaxing atmosphere – and easy to meet people (because you could spot them from a distance)

The audiences for the screenings are well dressed and – dare I say it – quite bourgeois
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Fipa Industry was the conference/pitching side of the event. Good crowds for the France TV and Arte commissioning presentations, inevitably, but we had to work quite hard at the others. I gave one on SBS. It’s hard to get and keep peoples’ attention in a panel discussion or a presentation. My tips: stand up, walk around, smile,  project, use pictures.

Ludovica Fonda from Mediaset Italy gave a really good presentation of Mediaset drama, which did all of the above. Inspired me to head to Milan to check what they might have that would work for SBS
Oh, and @FipaIndustry is a much better name than the previous name FipaTel, which sounds like a mobile phone company.
When you’re invited to ‘un cocktail’,  don’t expect  mixed drinks with little umbrellas and bits of fruit. It just means a drink. A couple of the ones at FIPA featured cider, which seems be a speciality of the Aquitaine region. Try the rosé one.
cidre
@smartfipa, the interactive section, was a real kaleidoscope of views, products, ideas. Paul Tyler of Handling Ideas did an excellent presentation. He said @smartfipa could have done with a bit more moderating to link and question the different elements – you have to treat these days like you would any sort of programming.
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I was also intrigued to see the interactive ‘Planet Corps’ project which accompanies the doc ‘Life on Us’, which Simon Nasht is bringing to SBS through commissioning editor Joseph Maxwell @josmaxwell. Looked fun, with great ideas – like a travel website as the front page.
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I was one of the seven commissioners/buyers being pitched to in the two pitch sessions. When we came to choose the best pitch, none of the three projects I’d picked was shared by any of the other judges, from France, Canada, Japan, Czech Republic & Poland. Maybe anglo-Australian tastes really are different…

It’s really tough to make films in and about Eastern Europe – buyers like me just don’t know enough about the countries there. HBO Europe is a very necessary commissioner of documentaries, and I hope it can continue the work its doing with filmmakers there. An HBO Europe project The Wellness Process was one of my favourite pitches (though I hope they think of a better title). Here’s the HBO Europe trailer from 2012

Debate is vital in events like these. Young journalists organised a ‘round table’ discussion of what the recent attacks in France meant for free speech, secularism, islamophobia, and whether there really was ‘national unity’ in France. Good initiative – the media obviously have a huge part to play in how France thinks about these issues.
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Lauren, one of the organisers of Fipa Industry, travelled around Australia aged 20 in a VW combi on her own, not speaking any English – intrepid! (then she did Central America by bicycle…). Saw these Combis in a shop window. It made me realise how in TV as well as in life, you sometimes just need to take a chance and get out there
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 If you were at FIPA, I’d be very glad to hear  your impressions, thoughts, gossip in the comments below
Categories
Documentary Factual ideas Independent Production Multimedia Television

The factual shows in 2015 that I haven’t seen yet

I know It might be a bit late to do some predictions for 2015, but here they are anyway. Some thoughts on what I’m looking forward to in 2015. If they exist already, please send me a link!

Something that uses the visceral thrill of stunt bike descents and builds a proper story around it. Clips like this one

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZV7DcUvIfc

 

Something that explains modern France, Now more than ever. A version of this article would be good.

A character as good as market trader Roger Barton in the Indus series ‘The World’s Greatest Food Markets‘, my fave doc series of recent months.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDHn-vaz7lE

A new title for ‘The World’s Greatest Food Markets’ – I’m a bit of a title fanatic, and this one didn’t draw me in.

An Asian presenter fronting a regular international show. Australia could do with more Asian faces

For lots more programmes from Channel 4 to live up to their great Born Risky tagline

After all the war docs from 2014, and the new swathe of them in 2015, how about something equally compelling about more peaceful achievements?

A series from the Tumblr generation – like TruTV are trying to do.  Kudos to them for doing a full reboot of the channel

A way to get people who watch live sport to watch docs about sporting stories. They never seem to!

An Anime- K-Pop-factual mashup. I went to Seoul for the first time in the autumn, for Docs Port Incheon, and also met Korean producers at the ATF in December. But outside arthouse movies and kids cartoons Korean content is not well known in the West. So how about combining the two biggest genres in Korean pop culture?

And can we all think of a new word instead of ‘arts programmes’ so that programmers don’t keep saying they’re niche and cutting the slots? We all need creativity in our lives. Something to do with Going Out, or Dazzle – anything but Arts!

See you soon, so much media, so little time…

Categories
Asia Distribution Documentary Event Independent Production Television

I went to the ATF in Singapore to see what half the world is watching

Last week’s Asia TV Forum was my first visit, and my first visit to Singapore.

Plenty of channels, distributors, funding organisations and producers in an airy exhibition floor in the huge Singapore Convention centre. The event was organised by Reed Midem, with support from the impressive Media Development Authority of Singapore.

It was good to be representing SBS at an Asian market – Australia’s nearest neighbours after all. I had to keep reminding myself that these companies represented a population of 4.4 billion people – in countries where media and television were developing fast.

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So should more people have been there? The French were by far the biggest European presence, with 20 companies on two stands – thanks to the support of  TVFI, very well run by Mathieu Béjot. Other than that, there were a few representatives from Europe and the US, but not as many as I would have thought. Beyond and Flame joined me in the Australian contingent, though there were also distributors selling to the Aussie market. Maybe the cost is simply beyond an independent producer, and it’s best left to the distributors.

The emphasis was on entertainment, lifestyle and drama – though melodrama or telenovela might be a better description for a lot of the fiction on offer. Acquisition rates may be relatively low in some countries, but there are a lot of territories and they’re hungry for content. 

I had good conversations with a few channels, and with the MDA, about working together with SBS. I know it isn’t going to be easy, and the SBS audience isn’t particularly used to Asian programming. We show the Chinese dating show If You Are the One on SBS2, and it’s one of the top-rating shows on the channel. Well, the actual title is Fei Cheng Wu Rao), 非誠勿擾, literal translation: ‘If not sincere, then do not disturb.’

If you are the one

The show was based on Take Me Out, remade as Taken Out on Australian Network Ten in 2008 and axed after just a month, only to have its format re-imagined and successfully exported to 19 countries including China. Just goes to show that ideas can have new lives.

Although Aussies are frequent visitors as holiday makers to Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, India, Myanmar and all the rest, it’s hard to find the right way to interest them in content from Asia when they return. I’m pretty convinced that we’ll need young Asian presenting talent to act as a guide to the myriad stories that are clearly waiting to be told. Once I’ve found that it’ll be a question of finding a mainstream audience for them. Anybody know if there’s a blockbuster Indian dating show we could buy?

I’ve now visited Malaysia, China, Singapore, Japan and Korea in the past few months, and know that there are talented and entrepreneurial people to work with. But I also know I’ve only scratched the surface. I think that a lot more ideas need to be generated, and working relationships formed.  I’d like to give it a go though.

Categories
Documentary Event Independent Production Television

on indie production and public service media

Back to Copenhagen after a week in London. I spent it catching up with production companies, distributors, and going to a day at the Televisual Factual Festival. Well moderated panels on Specialist Factual, Popular Factual, and how to make docs in danger zones,  an interview with Ralph Lee of Channel 4, and a room full of remote cameras to demonstrate using a ‘rig’ set up. Quite a few people that I knew, but even more that I didn’t. Great to be reminded by everybody’s clip reels of what had been on, and working, in the past months. Peter Hamilton’s recently done a good overview of the UK non-fiction market, well worth a read (and I’d recommend subscribing, too).

While there was plenty of discussion of the difficulties of operating in the UK – particularly as a smaller company – the view from the stage was still that there was a big market for a range of UK produced content, particularly factual, that new ideas were sought and would get through, and that producers were well placed to take advantage. The BBC, Channel 4, ITV and Five all seemed to be in the same space for factual. Internationally, British content is doing well too – there were some big winners at the International Emmys last night. I know this is a rosy view and it’s really hard to get commissions – there are so many good ideas out there.

I met some new indies who’d set up in the great indie start-up craze as Televisual called it – amongst them Andrea Miller & Jerry Foulkes of Sunnyside productions, Fenia Vardanis of Melina Media. And companies from Bristol like Testimony, the ever-expanding Icon films, and Tigress who have all carved out a healthy part of the market without having to join the London shark-pool.

And they’re competing in a market with some big players. Discovery & Viacom have bought All3Media and Channel5, Endemol, Shine & Core Media have merged, and Warner has completed a rebrand of the production companies it bought through Shed. On the horizon is the move of BBC in-house production to be a standalone independent company, able to work for other broadcasters as well as the BBC. But if it has to carry BBC overheads and staffing arrangements, I can’t see how it’s going to compete.

All public broadcasters are having to change – mostly by downsizing – and my new colleagues at SBS are facing cuts announced last week – those for the ABC are much larger. But in truth the changes now imposed on the ABC have been happening for many years in the UK sector. It’s not just about saving money, it’s driven by changes in how the creative industry wants to work, and the ways audiences want to watch. The best result would be a more balanced ecosystem of independents and inhouse, and content that people want to watch and use.

Some of that public service ecosystem is on show this week at the IDFA Forum, Festival and DocLab – public service content in all directions, and all of it coming from independent producers working with or without broadcasters. I’m not saying it’s all made for the small screen, a lot of doc films see themselves in opposition to television and see their natural home as the cinema (and good luck to them).

The challenge for Australian broadcasters is to keep a focus on this public service content, rather than chasing ratings or focussing on the now not so new platforms. SBS itself has a real challenge to keep history, arts, social documentary, international themes on the channel. The opposition in Australia has so many battles to fight – about climate change, the environment, immigration policy, cuts to Science R&D funding, that broadcasting and the creative sector maybe don’t get enough attention. But as an outsider to Australia, it needs work.

My London week was rounded off by a Saturday night party  for Anne Morrison, who’s left the BBC and is now Chair of BAFTA. She’s managed so much in her 33 years at the BBC, from 18 years running various factual departments, to driving the Nations and Regions strategy (how to move production and commissioning out of London and into the English regions and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which I worked for Anne on). And most recently the BBC Academy, the BBC’s training organisation. (You should check out the material that’s available for free on their website, particularly the Journalism section).

It was great to see old colleagues, both from the BBC and the independent sector. The quality television programmes produced in that room really captured a lot of my past, and I felt pretty proud to be a part of it. But I couldn’t help feeling we were the lucky ones to have been able to work in such a well-supported organisation. 

Thanks for reading till the end, feel free to share, comments welcome below.