|At this year’s Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC), in Adelaide, Screen Australia`s CEO, Ruth Harley, described me as a “veteran documentary filmmaker”. If 30 years in the business and 30+ films under my belt makes me a veteran then so be it. I also have a few ‘war’ medals to wear in the way of various national and international film and television awards. Thanks Ruth for your nod to my years in the industry, much appreciated. But this veteran, like many of my esteemed colleagues, is on his last war-weary legs. After all these years in the business of film and TV it hasn`t become any easier – for veterans and new recruits alike. In fact the current climate for producing documentary in Australia, and abroad, is the worst I’ve seen it.
Let’s not have any illusions though. Australian documentary makers have always had it tough – I knew that when I co-produced and co-directed my first film, Red Matildas, in the early 1980s. But once upon a time there were some rewards. Our documentary work was lauded and considered amongst the best in the world. We were recognised at international festivals, won awards and we gained recognition, at home too, critical reviews, TV broadcasts and sometimes via the cinema. Once upon a time, we produced documentaries about compelling contemporary social issues and matters of import to our national life. We made films about the work of socially motivated eye surgeons, like Fred Hollows (For All the World to See 1993) or other international heroes, like the struggles of East Timor’s former President Jose Ramos Horta (The Diplomat 2000) and in my own instance a film about our home grown Native Title champion, Eddie Koiki Mabo (Mabo Life of an Island Man 1997).
“Australia used to be at the forefront”, proclaimed Bob Connolly at the annual AIDC talkfest this year. Connolly’s another veteran of the documentary trenches – one of the filmmakers behind publicly acclaimed and award winning works like, Rats in the Ranks (1996) and Mrs Carey’s Concert (2010). Connolly went on loudly and emotionally about the current state of documentary, now controlled almost exclusively by our public broadcasters. They are, he said, “transforming our industry, concerned with artistry and high endeavour, into a sausage factory, turning out, with some very honourable exceptions, what can only be described as fodder. In other words, we as an industry are busily engaged in eliminating the concept of art. That’s what I was brought up to believe was the end point of all this , concerned with creative excellence.”
So what’s happened? Who’s the assassin? Who killed the documentary ‘goose’ and our long tradition of socially engaged storytelling? Well the short answer is our two publicly owned broadcasters, the ABC and SBS, along with the current administration at Screen Australia, the Federal government’s screen funding agency.
Currently, the near universal funding mechanism for documentary requires a presale commitment from a national broadcaster, which is then backed up and enhanced with investment from Screen Australia, whose brief it is to support, underpin and advance Australian screen culture. Broadcasters purchase a license to broadcast a documentary they commission, for approximately 25% to 50% of its total cost and the remainder of the budget is often supported by a patchwork of funders, Screen Australia, state funding agencies like Screen NSW, and by what is known as the Producer Offset, a reimbursement of 20% of budget to television producers, paid by the Australian Tax Office, on completion of the project.
But despite the average contribution of either SBS or the ABC being only a quarter, to half the budget, they want and have all the power–the power to green light a project, along with increasingly high levels of editorial and creative control. If you need some proof of who is responsible for killing the golden goose, knock on the door of either of our public broadcasters and their documentary commissioning editor teams. Try presenting them with today’s equivalent, social issue stories, like those of Eddie Koiki Mabo, Jose Ramos Horta, or Fred Hollows. Try convincing them to buy a story on one of the most divisive social/environmental issues of our times–climate change. You’d be laughed at, shown the door.
But it’s not as simple as that either. Public broadcasters are now desperate for ratings; it’s a competitive market out there, gaining the attention of the national television audience in a multi platform environment. And now, our public broadcasters want to compete with commercial broadcasters as audiences fragment with the on-line offerings provided by the internet. And here’s the rub; to compete more successfully our public broadcasters want series, not stand alone documentaries.
For 30 years I have made my name, reputation and livelihood from producing and directing ‘one off’ documentaries. The ‘one off doco’ is akin to the authored novel. A single story, hard hitting, that tells a complete narrative unto itself. There’s NO next week, NO next episode, NO weekly instalment like, Downtown Abbey. It’s a single hit–one crack at an audience. And it used to be regular, weekly TV fare, on both SBS and the ABC. It’s how I, and most of my colleagues, made our reputations and living. From 2005 to 2007, SBS TV prided itself with Australian seasons of locally made stories in a strand it specially created called, Storyline Australia. The ABC too would regularly run ‘one off’ documentaries about us Australians–stories from all over the continent and made by many producers.
These ‘one offs’ are what made our doco makers famous around the world–the works of David Bradbury, Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson, Dennis O’Rourke and even the documentary oeuvre of acclaimed drama director Gillian Armstrong.
But the ‘factual television series’ is now all the vogue and the figures speak for themselves. In 2009, 50% of documentaries commissioned by the ABC were single documentaries and the other half series. By 2012, series accounted for 70% of the ABC’s commissioning, with less than 14 hours of one offs. And it’s even more diabolical at SBS. In 2007, SBS’s Storyline Australia, broadcast a staggering 26 hours of one off documentaries, just in that one strand. And then there were other single programs and series in other weekly strands. For up to 26 weeks of the year SBS audiences could tune into locally made stories, reflecting the great cultural diversity of Australia.
Among them gems like, Esben Storm’s, The Bridge at Midnight Trembles (nominated for a Logie), 2 Mums and a Dad and Vote Yes for Aborigines. Some rated well. Some didn’t. But that wasn’t the point. Storyline Australia was there on the TV schedule, week in week out, for audiences that appreciated the locally made, ‘one off’ documentary. This staggering output, that must now be considered ‘a golden age’, has now been reduced in 2012 to a shameful five hours of ‘one off’ documentary programs.
One has to ask, where is the ‘public’ in public broadcasting when it comes to the last four to five years of SBS programming? What did, James May’s Toy Storie or Top Gear Australia have to do the with the SBS charter to provide services that, “inform, educate and entertain all Australians and, in doing so, reflect Australia`s multicultural society”? From SBS recently, outside of a couple of worthwhile series like, Go Back to Where You Came From, there has been scant commitment to local Australian documentary stories.
So what are Australian audiences missing out on? Why is it important and why should we care? Why am I whingeing and what do ‘one off’ stories provide that series don’t? Am I just bitching about change I don’t like? It is summed up with one all important word, DIVERSITY.
A top notch Australian ‘one off’ documentary will engage, entertain, inform and educate audiences, and even trigger water cooler discussions next day. They are an important arm of our ‘civic culture’. They bring Australian life, hopes, dreams, losses, heroes, and ordinary folk to our screens–and are part of our national ‘family album’. And they help put the ‘public’ into ‘public broadcasting’, by holding up a mirror to our life as a nation. But the move to factual series radically cuts across these values of diversity. Not only do we now have fewer stories from fewer producers, but the breadth and depth of stories and storytelling is vastly reduced. The one series’ scenario plays out over many episodes, where-as previously there may have been many different stories.
This undermines the democratic nature, of many voices, many styles, and sadly also leaves one questioning the current values of public broadcasting in Australia. By way of example try proposing to the ABC stories about the many problems facing rural Australia, like declining farm incomes, the steady population drift to the big cities. Or, who will take over the family farm? The answer will be, “We’ve done that mate! Country Town Rescue”. Yes they have done it and it was a fine series of eight half hour programs. But what it also did was, replace the resources of a potential four one hour programs, four different stories from four different rural or regional communities across Australia.
Instead, the township of Trundle, in Country Town Rescue, is meant to be emblematic of all regional and rural Australian communities, and so the ABC puts all its eggs into the one ‘series’ basket. But does Trundle really represent the length and breadth of regional and rural Australia and all the significant issues they face? Surely not. But it has to if all the financial resources for regional stories have been used in that one series. And, it’s easy to see who the loser is – the very people the broadcaster is trying to entice, the audience.
The predominance of the factual series on the ABC also affects the diversity of storytelling styles, as much as it does the content. Take for instance the recent history series, Australia on Trial, presented by Michael Cathcart, which recreated three historic trials that were meant to throw light on Australia’s colonial development. An enormous amount of public money from both the ABC and Screen Australia were devoted to this three hour series, with its lavish courtroom recreations.
But this series format, narrowed down the three historic trials, to the perspective of one, single viewpoint, that of historian Michael Cathcart. Whether you agree with Cathcart’s view of the trials and our history or not, isn’t my point. Rather, that his is the only viewpoint, on offer in the 3 hour series–as though our national story can be filtered for us, the national audience, through the viewpoint of Cathcart alone, one single, male, white historian. There was no-one else across the three hours of television. No other viewpoint; as though our history is uncontested. Cathcart’s history is official. It’s on the ABC. It’s co-funded by Screen Australia. It’s almost Stalinism.
It’s insidious in other ways too. This concentration of the ‘national story’ the ‘national photo album’ into too few producer hands has long term editorial and business implications. Both the ABC and SBS continue to commission programs from independent companies, but they are increasingly the ‘big’ companies, those capable of producing longer series and format television. Not “The individual”. The freelancer, or the maverick as some would no doubt describe them. The “bedroom filmmakers” is how Connolly described doco makers at AIDC. The danger is that the bigger production companies, usually Melbourne or Sydney centric, with their larger overheads, need to play it safe with their relationship to public broadcasters. They will only present ideas they know the broadcasters will like and see as relevant to their quest for ratings, and in the case of SBS, its commercial advertising agenda. It’s like shrinking the national creative gene pool–for genetically modified factual television.
And commissioning editors from both broadcasters increasingly micro manage the creative processes. It can include writing and supplying their preferred narration, and as Bob Connolly commented, “It has become normal, in some large production houses, to actually exclude the director from the editing room, once the film is shot.”
Less diversity of production companies affects editors and directors of photography too, because the pool of work is simply more concentrated in series production. Six ‘one off’ producers might use six different post production businesses to complete their single program. The producer of a six hour series does a great deal with ONE post house. So the gene pool of industry business shrinks too.
There is strong anecdotal evidence that the drive to factual series production above the ‘one off’ documentary is being driven not so much by programmers at our national broadcasters, but by their marketing departments. They get more bang for their marketing buck with a series that lasts four to six weeks, than what the resources or time they would need promoting the equivalent hours for individual programs. If this is true, then it’s another example of ‘spin doctoring’ our national narrative. Or, a case of the tail wagging the dog.
The Federal Government’s screen funding agency, Screen Australia, has a lot to answer for in my view. It has allowed this scenario to grow and grow and handed over all power to the broadcasters about what projects they invest in. As holders of the public’s ‘film investment purse’ they need a stronger voice in promoting the ‘art of documentary’ to advance and nurture our screen industries and the talents that underpin it. There also needs to be some checks and balances on the rating aspirations within our public broadcasters. Being relevant to a national audience isn’t just about numbers. It’s about debate, it’s about engagement, it’s about ideas, and seeking out a multitude of stories, from every nook and cranny, the unusual, the unknown, the exotic, the madcap. This requires editorial imagination, vision, courage, confidence and leadership.
It’s time Screen Australia and our public broadcasters stepped up to the plate and reclaimed their responsibility to promote a diversity of views through factual stories, and to nurture those who do it for them, the Australian documentary makers of our time.
by: Trevor Graham
Monday 10 September, 2012
Trevor Graham is the writer and director of, Make Hummus Not War, which had its World Premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August. It was produced without television presales and funded via Screen Australia’s Signature Program, the Premier Fund of MIFF, Screen NSW, the Telematics Trust and Fine Cut Films. The film has a theatrical release in Melbourne commencing 15th of September. Graham is the former Co-Chair of the Australian International Documentary Conference and a former commissioning editor at SBS TV.