Saving Storyville

Over the last decade I have made half a dozen films for Storyville. That simple statement doesn’t begin to convey how crucial the BBC documentary strand has been for me – and, I know, for documentary-makers round the world.

Many of us who ply the documentary trade have, I fancy, some fellow feeling with those polar bears teetering on a shrinking patch of Arctic ice. But as the documentary environment continues to melt across television, almost alone Storyville has provided firm ground. The prospect of a threat now to that precious habitat is something many of us are determined to challenge.

My first contact with Storyville and series editor Nick Fraser was a film called 444 DAYS about the American hostage crisis in Iran. I can still recall an early conversation with Nick. “How long is the slot?” I asked. “How long does the film need?'” Nick replied. I knew I was in a special place.

That commitment to the film and the film-maker has always been the defining priority of Storyville.

There’s no format, no house style, no pre-determined way of doing things. A quick scan through the list of subjects suggests the extraordinary range of material: The Waco Siege; Hairdressers in Blackpool; Weathermen Radicals in 60s America; Russian Newspaper murders; The Joy of Cycling; Genocide in Rwanda; The Love of Chickens; Hugo Chavez; Communist Jokes; The Liberace of   Baghdad; Calcutta Street Kids; Photographer Robert Capa; Baseball in Cuba; Bush’s Christianity; The Art of Whistling; and my own Cry from the Grave about the Srebrenica massacre. Where else would I have been encouraged to return and make a second film about a subject as harrowing as Srebrenica?

Storyville tells stories about the way we live now, surprising, disturbing, funny, unpredictable, sometimes unforgettable. In an age of formulaic television, these films are unlike anything else. They are what public service television is all about.

Documentary Festivals are not my favourite occasions. The coming together of all that hustling and ego can be hard work. But finding myself at IDFA in Amsterdam with Nick Fraser was a revelation. As documentary-makers from across Europe and beyond pitched their films and their obsessions to Nick, I became aware of just how essential Storyville is for the global documentary community. People who have mortgaged their lives to make extraordinary films look to the strand for encouragement, support, advice, and a way to reach an audience. For them, Storyville is unique and essential.

It’s not all good news of course. Storyville has always lived on the edge of subsistence. My early films for the series were shown on BBC2. The move to the digital BBC4 shrunk Storyville’s audience, and its budget. The BBC4 budgets barely cover half, sometimes much less, of the funding needed for each commissioned film. For me, and the rest of us who make films for the strand, that has meant a second life pursuing additional funds. Making pitches to broadcasters, distributors and miscellaneous well-wishers from California to Copenhagen has become a vital ingredient in making documentaries for the strand. I had, I recall, nine co-funders for one of my Storyville films. Inevitably, that can bring with it the obligation to make new versions of the films to satisfy the overseas investors, involving editorial confusion and further expense.

But no one asked us to make documentaries, and anyway how did I get so lucky? Like my Storyville colleagues, I accept that making documentaries is more of a lifestyle choice than a business. We all have our tales of spending years raising funds for a favourite film, and we understand that goes with the territory.

But the prospect now of a further cut in Storyville’s budget of up to 60 percent is devastating. It would put an end to new commissions, and reduce the strand to a simple acquisition enterprise, buying in completed films as cheaply as possible. Twenty-five original films would be lost. The rich seam of shared documentary dialogues and exchanges would wither.

I am convinced that something irreplaceable will be lost if  Storyville  is allowed to decline.  At a time when the BBC is being assaulted on all sides for surrendering public trust through a failure to hold onto long established editorial standards, this is surely a moment when we must insist on preserving a BBC strand which is keeping alive the core values of public service broadcasting.

One of the key figures in fighting for those values put it best 50 years ago. Speaking about Television, the iconic American broadcaster Edward R. Murrow said: “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate, yes it can even inspire. But it can only do so to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it is merely lights and wires in a box”.

To help please contact campaign coordinator Moss Barclay at the DPRS at  [email protected]

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