Nicholas Fraser

Since 1997, Nick Fraser has been series editor of Storyville, which each year presents up to 50 documentaries from all over the world on BBC Two and BBC Four. Roughly a third of the films are bought as completed films, while the rest are "prebought" or commissioned jointly with other broadcasters. (For example, Storyville coproduced So Much So Fast. The film's credits read: "A production of West City Films in association with WGBH, ZDF/ARTE, BBC, with support from TV2/Danmark." In the United States, the film will air on PBS's Frontline; in the United Kingdom, it will air on BBC's Storyville.)

Prior to joining the BBC, Nick was a commissioning editor at Channel Four and operated his own production company, Panop-tic Productions. A former print journalist, he continues to be a contributing editor at Harper's magazine and is the author of books including Evita, The Voice of Modern Hatred, and the forthcoming The Importance of Being Eton. We spoke by phone in 2006.

There is quite a range of film subjects and styles on Storyville— Trembling before G-d, The War Room, Why We Fight, My Terrorist, Me & My 51 Brothers & Sisters, Murderball. You've said that the requirement for the series is that films "should all be strongly narrative." Do you explain to filmmakers what you mean by that?

I don't. There's a backlog of Storyville they can go to, to figure out what we've shown. But I think it's bad for me to say, "Well, this is what I want." It's rather irritating, because it means I spend a lot of time saying what I don't want. We don't want films that are flat and look like current affairs. We don't want illustrated scripts.

We want films where the narrative is important, and what you discover comes from what you see.

I like the dictum of D. H. Lawrence, when he said that you should always trust the tale, not the teller. I think that when documentary films have a very strong ideological point of view, they're not very satisfactory. I have no objections, necessarily, to strong ideological points of view, but it seems to me when a film is put to the service of a point of view—and it can be ideological, or it can be a point of view that comes over the script that's pre-written—you feel pushed into conclusions, and you feel the filmmaker decided what they wanted to say before they set out to make the film. So I would say I'm interested, firstly, in people who have a desire to tell a story because they wish to find out about something themselves. That just accords with my temperament: I tend to write articles or books because I want to find out about things, because I really don't know what I think about them. I may feel ambivalent; nothing wrong with feeling ambivalent.

You've compared today's documentaries with the New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s, the nonfiction narrative prose of writers such as Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Tom Wolfe.

That's right. Documentaries are probably the most interesting form of nonfiction at the moment. It seems to me that with the exception of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker in North America, there's been some sort of decline—and Harper's, obviously I love Harper's, I'm a contributing editor—there's been some decline in the value given to long pieces of reportage. About thirty years ago there were far more pieces. They've been replaced by blogs. Blogs constitute instant controversy and opinion. And although I used to be in the business of instant controversy and opinion, I now find it sort of tiresome, because there are too many opinions. I think one should try to shed opinions in life, rather than acquiring them.

What appeals to me about documentaries made at the moment is that they do, consciously or not, seem to hark back to this moment in the late 1960s when everything seemed possible in the long-form story. That you could send a good writer out, whether it was Joan Didion or Norman Mailer or whomever, you could send them out to cover a story and they would come back with something remarkable. Well, you can do the same now with digital video cameras. It's a niche market, documentaries, but probably a broader niche market than journalism was in the 1960s. More people can be lured into seeing good documentaries than could be lured into reading Esquire in 1967. I want to get this right: It is a sort of democratic medium, but alas, at the moment these films are not reaching wide enough audiences. They should be, but they're not. But more and more good films are being made each year. And obviously the funding of these films has changed, a lot of private money goes into them, they're made with an eye on cinemas, they're not destined solely for television. And if they do go to television, they don't go to the usual outlets like PBS or the networks as they might have done 20 years ago. They go to cable channels, satellite channels, and they will go over the Internet on demand. That will be the way these films will be distributed in a very short time, I imagine.

Wendy, Alex and Stephen Heywood, from So Much So Fast. Photo courtesy of the filmmakers.

Steve Ascher and Jeannie Jordan (So Much So Fast) describe their films as nonfiction novels, because they're shaping a narrative that's layered and textured.

That's exactly what they are doing, and it's exactly what Norman Mailer prescribed. Hoop Dreams is a good nonfiction novel; Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst is just excellent. Numerous films that come out each year are great nonfiction novels. And they exist, if you like, at the boundary between the long piece in a magazine that you love to read on a plane, and the nonfiction novel. And that's a very good place for documentaries to be, in my view.

How important do you think journalism training is for documentary filmmakers?

In terms of actually getting stories right and knowing who to trust and all that, it seems to me that's largely—I hate to say instinctive, but if you're well educated and ambitious you can figure that out. You can read a book about ethics, or you can go out with an executive producer who'll tell you what you can and can't do. If you invent everything, people are going to figure it out quickly.

A film like Hoop Dreams, its journalistic standards are impeccable. And yet it's not just a piece of journalism, it's something bigger, it's got bigger ambitions. Journalism makes use of characters for journalistic purposes. People exist in a story because they've been shoved into the story to back up the point of the journalist, or as source material for the story. In documentaries, it seems to be the other way around. You go with the characters and then the story builds itself around them.

The other similarity between New Journalism and the kinds of documentaries seen on Storyville seems to be one of authorship. But not all documentaries are authored to the same extent; much of the documentary programming that dominates commercial television, for example, can feel sort of mass produced.

Right. However, I think that authorship can be defined in a lot of ways. I think Robert Greenwald's films (Outfoxed, Wal-Mart) are authored; they're very journalistic. It's said to be a question of recognizable voice, but whose voice, and is it in the film? You can't be dogmatic about it. Sometimes it's very explicit. Sometimes the author has to be on camera, like Michael Moore. Other times, the films are very authored, such as the Ascher/Jordan films, but you rarely see them. You have the commentary [e.g., Steve narrated So Much So Fast], but even if someone else read the commentary they'd still seem like very personal, authored films.

In a way, it's very confusing, this discussion about authorship. A reason for this confusion comes from film theory, which is obsessed with auteurs and fiction. That's probably a very bad mold for a documentary, which is a hybrid of film and journalism. And just as you can be an author in a number of different ways, writing a nonfiction piece, so you can in a documentary.

Do you see differences in storytelling across nationalities?

Yes, absolutely. Documentaries are more ambitious in America at the moment, because they can't go on television always. I mean if you're guaranteed a place on a mainstream channel in Germany or Britain or France, and it's a place in the middle of the schedule, well, what you're going to be asked to do is something for quite a big audience. So you tend to make something that's quite explicit, quite comprehensible—a bit like what you were talking about earlier, a bit like Discovery output or PBS output—some of PBS output, not all of it. But if you're an American, you don't know where it ends up, so you tend to make a different calculation, like, "What am I saying, and will people want to watch the film?" And that brings you to start every film from scratch, in a way. To say, "What is the point of what I'm doing?"

If you look at the totality of output from the United States, it's extraordinarily rich. And—I'll probably be shot for saying this—one of the reasons it's so rich is that it's actually reasonably hard to get commissioned to make a documentary in America. So that, coupled with the fact that they can get interest and they can get private money, means that people have to struggle and they have to be very ambitious. Or they have to be very rich. And that means that you get a certain winnowing out of people who are just doing hack work. I mean, there's a huge amount of hack work on American TV, there's enough hack work to keep one going until infinity, but it's not on the whole in the field of documentaries.

I also think that the American tradition that we were talking about, of 1960s New Journalism and direct cinema, is very rich. And in addition to that, I think Americans are disposed toward empiricism. You really do have this preparedness among very intelligent American filmmakers to spend forever on a subject until it's absolutely right, and that's why their films are very good. Very enduring. And why I love them so much.

I think that there are many good documentaries made in Europe. The subsidy system works both ways. Sometimes it's very good for films to get funded easily, and you don't have to suffer to make them. And other times it means there's a certain orthodoxy, you have a machine set up for commissioning documentaries and all documentaries conform to what the machine is used to getting. So the machine tells you, we believe in innovation, but actually they're churning out the same form of innovation every year.

I think there are good French documentaries, there are good German ones—I thought Darwin's Nightmare was very good. There's less pressure to make documentaries in Europe, because to be absolutely blunt about it, the European media are less crass than the American ones. I discovered a website [complaining about] my complacence and elitist views when I said I thought the BBC did a good job being impartial. But the fact is that it does. There is a crisis in news and reporting in Europe, but it's not as acute as the crisis in America. I think the crisis in America is why these very talented young people are being impelled to make documentaries, as a sort of compensation for the failure of what they call mainstream media.

And at the same time, it seems, the market for documentaries crosses national borders, so filmmakers need to work to create stories that will appeal to different cultures, lifestyles, viewpoints.

But I think it isn't so much down to national cultures, it's down to the receptiveness of documentary producers in each country as to whether they want to do this, whether they get it—the notion that you're not just making these films for a group of lefties in a smoke-filled cinema at a festival. That these films have to cross frontiers, and they have to deal with what is limited, what is special, what is often minute, what is local, but at the same time they have to go around the world. They really have to do that.

What I like about documentaries is they're very pluralistic. I'm not asking for a whole lot of documentaries to be made from the neo-con political position. But it seems to me that somehow, sometimes documentaries suffer from the fact that most of the people that make documentaries agree politically with each other. And I think the strength of filmmaking, like journalism, is that people should be unpredictable in their views, or they shouldn't have perceived views. They should actually rather look at things than have views about them. I mean, do we care that Cartier-Bresson was a lefty? No, we don't at all. Or Robert Capra. Well, ultimately

I know what the filmmaker's views are, but that doesn't always translate into their documentaries, and they're much more subtle and richer because they're about narrative.

Al Maysles is great on this subject, he expresses it far more beautifully than I ever can, because he has an interest in human nature that's very rich. All his films, their lasting appeal comes from the fact that he loves his characters. I think it would be fine if he hated some of them as well as loving some of them, but he only loves them. And I think that's more important than ideology. Ideology, political positions—they go out of date in a week. No one can remember, what did Michael Moore really want to say about George Bush [in Fahrenheit 9/11]? All people can remember is the little goat book. All they can remember about Wolfowitz is licking his comb. The rest of the ideological stuff, you probably go back to it now and say you agree with only half of it.

Among the films you've commissioned are A Cry from the Grave (1999) and a sequel, Srebrenica: Never Again? (2005), both written, produced, and directed by Leslie Whitehead. The films concern the 1995 Bosnian massacre at Srebrenica. I've read that you originated the project, sending articles about the massacre to the filmmaker and helping to shape the film through the questions you asked.

I spent a lot of time with Leslie, because I was interested in the massacre at Srebrenica, and I thought the story was going to be very difficult to do. It was very politically sensitive, a huge subject.

What sorts of questions do you ask when you're working with filmmakers?

Quite basic journalistic questions: who, why, what, when, and where, really. I think that the most useful thing I can do is to ask people simple basic questions about what they're doing. "Why would you want to make a film about this subject? What's the point of the narrative? Why did you choose this situation and the subject? How does the situation and the subject you chose translate itself into this narrative?" If you chose to examine the film from this point of view, you have to tell me why. A lot of filmmakers, including Leslie, are very savvy at figuring this out. I mean, Jehane Noujaim—both Startup.com and Control Room are very well thought out. She tells me that she has no idea what she'll end up with when she starts filming, but this is hard to believe.

When you get a pitch from her, it usually lasts about five minutes, but she knows exactly what she wants to do. The characters seem created in a very solid way, very early in the process.

This might surprise many new filmmakers, who still seem to have the misconception that documentaries are spontaneous and unplanned, not "discovered" until late in the editing process.

You should know much earlier what you're doing. You should know why and how you're telling the story. I mean, there are many, many films about Chinese factories. But if you're going to a Chinese factory, why are you filming the Chinese factory, what are you trying to tell people? There was one film we showed, Made in China [distributed as A Decent Factory], which is about a Nokia supplier in China. And what they filmed was a visit to a factory by a Nokia ethical consultant and a Nokia executive.

[According to material on Storyville's website, French filmmaker Thomas Balmes was approached by YLE in Finland to take an "anthropological" look at the Finnish corporation, Nokia. He says he spent 18 months "filming boring Nokia meetings all over the world" before he met Hanna Kaskinen, Nokia's environmental expert. "She was just starting to push the Nokia management to take a new position with ethical issues," Balmes told the BBC Four interviewer. "I found it very interesting because it touched on the issue—can you be a capitalist and be ethical at the same time?" He also notes that he was in the right place at the right time: "Hanna was about to do Nokia's first ever ethical assessment." And so the film took shape and gained international coproduction support. The story—the film's train—is deceptively simple: Balmes follows Nokia executive Kaskinen and English consultant Louise Jamison to China, to visit the factory of Nokia's major charger supplier.]

As soon as he said, "That's what I want to film," I could see the film. I could see why you would go around a Chinese factory in the company of these people looking into whether the Chinese factory conforms to European safety and health requirements, and whether that would be a comedy or not. And in fact the film was very funny, though a lot of people didn't get the humor. Somehow filmmakers manage to tell you, through an image or a description of the situation, that that's why they want to approach the story. And that tells me what the story's going to tell the audience.

Because you see a point of view?

Not so much a filmmaking point of view, but you see what they want to look at. You get a phone call from Cartier-Bresson, and let's say he is in the middle of Russia and he says, "I'm doing a sequence in a worker canteen, and there are people dancing there." You'd say, "That's great," and then he'd come back with 20 frames, and one of them will be that immortal picture of two peasants dancing in the middle of the canteen. And you'd know enough [when he called] to know, well, that's going to work very well.

This is the difference from print journalism: You'll be told by reporters what the story is about; documentary filmmakers are telling you what they see. My background is writing, but I write differently now because I've learned a lot from documentary filmmaking. My writing's become much more visual, and pieces are constructed more like documentaries, with scenes in them. I think it makes them easier to read.

What do you see when you walk into Big Edie and Little Edie's house in Southampton [in Maysles Films' Grey Gardens]? You see these crazy people at the top of a staircase in their funny clothes. But what you really see is this extraordinary performance put on by the daughter and the mother, not only for themselves but for the camera. And if you get a phone call from Al Maysles saying, "They were singing today, it was a wonderful day," you know it's fine. What you're getting is the situation and the way the filmmaker is filming it, not the paraphrase of what it's all about.

In considering projects for support, you've said that while filmmakers can come to you just with ideas, it helps, especially when it comes to filmmakers whose work you don't know, if they've shot at least a few minutes of material.

You should always have tapes, because if you don't send tapes, if it's all bits of paper, it's very hard to know what you want to film. Again, the analogy is, if you're commissioning a Magnum photographer to go somewhere, you want a piece of paper saying this is where I want to shoot, but you'd also like some work from the Magnum photographer that tells you how they're going to look at what they want to film.

What do you look for in a reel?

Often the problem with reels is that they're edited to look like TV shows. So you think, well, that's the subject, and it could be turned into a TV show, but you don't know how good the film is going to be. In other words, they shouldn't be too slick—or, they should be slick, but [you want] to edit them so that they look like the final film. Tapes can be much rawer, but something attractive on them tells you what the impact of the final film would be.

Among the topics covered in submissions you receive, do you get a lot of misery?

Much too much misery. You just can't supply a diet of unrelieved misery. "Miserabilism" is the handmaid of "reportorialism"— you've got to find other ways. And when you do cover things like the Iraq war, you've got to find interesting ways into the subject. For us to do a film about the horrors of Baghdad—a film we showed, called The Liberace of Baghdad, is very funny. And very telling. [Filmmaker Sean McAllister spent eight months filming Iraq's most famous pianist, Samir Peter, playing for journalists and others in a hotel bar.] But it's also seductive because you can watch it for a whole hour and ten minutes without being too depressed. Absolutely unadulterated dollops of misery are no good, and audiences stay away from them.

How do you see documentary changing, in terms of both filmmakers and audiences?

I think that you can reach sizable audiences through the documentary form, because if the story is very attractive, people are prepared to sit down and watch it. I'm encouraged by that. It seems people don't have problems watching them, they don't find them difficult. You don't necessarily want to read a book about something; you should be forgiven for not wanting to read a book about the Iraq war because it's so depressing. But you're prepared to go to your local movie house and watch a film about it. Or better still, you'll watch a miraculously good film like My Architect, which does so many things: It tells you about architecture, about growing up, about being abandoned by your father. And I think these films have easily found a niche audience. It's not a big enough audience—for commercial purposes in America it's just about big enough, but it should be larger. The only thing that stops the sector being precarious, making documentaries, is that the cost is falling. That's not necessarily a wonderful thing for documentary makers. They can make cheaper films, but they may not get rewarded for doing them. I worry about people devoting their lives to documentaries, they don't make a lot of money at it. But I think you can survive if you're clever; there's money from lots of different sources around.

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