In creating a documentary, our job is to make the ordinary, extraordinary. To be able to ‘taste’ life, exploring culture is essential. Documentaries have the potential to transform lives, transcend borders and are strategic tools to validate and empower, those who are rarely seen or heard. As documentarians we strive for intimacy, immediacy and revelation of individual human psyche yet we need to be more capacious with great characters, stories that open boxes and fight for truth, for cultural identity. The death of George Floyd in May 2020 set off major social changes, through Documentary, are we finally able to chip away at the edifices confronting the colonial gaze on and off screen?
Documentaries can create campaigns, forge solidarity, give a sense of belonging and identify tribes. How do we expose the truth that explores the world and not exploits the subjects? We must ask difficult questions, traversing issues relevant to cultural enthusiasts globally, while also addressing the stereotypes. A more inclusive doc world will feature and employ more gender equality, people with disabilities and diverse backgrounds both in front of and behind the camera.
So how do we get to tell these stories? There is no prescriptive journey into filmmaking, it is an art-form based on curiosity. My father, a Chartered Accountant relished the day I would take over his practice. Instead, as a child, I had a natural propensity to immerse myself in his clients’ deeply personal stories when I was taken to meetings: Families from first wave economic migrant ice-cream van owners, celebrities, through to owners of stately homes, hearing their struggles, achievements. With my Indian heritage, growing up in the UK, holidaying in Europe, when Britain had just joined the EU, there was a rich tapestry of cultural diversity on my doorstep, it seemed natural for me to somehow fall deeply into factual storytelling.
Gaining access to pioneers of medicine advancements, from leading Heart Surgeons in the UK to hospitals in Ethiopia, Celebrity Psychics, victims of injustice, forensic patient offenders, all of whom entrusted me with their stories, leading the way to recently overseeing a number of Maltese series, as part of Kultura TV funding. Language is no barrier: a good story with fascinating and passionate contributors can be understood globally and this is what I ask of my teams: think into International Markets and how their films can reach out across the world.
As an alive, diverse, constantly evolving genre: one that cannot blossom without an audience. In an age of cancel culture, fast-moving digital platforms, screen size devices, there needs to be the ability to hold the concentration of the viewer. Forming a genuine connection with contributors, will lead to deeper, more reflective storytelling for a global market.
In Lockdown, we found solace in films that touched our souls, made us feel connected in a disconnected world and brought us into the present with loving kindness. Ironically, in the UK, the struggle to keep the Arts sector sustainable is a constant battle leaving us with job losses resulting in Content deficit. Strange to think my last “Normal” shoot was in March 2020, a pilot for Discovery US that required empathy, close contact between Contributors and Crew in confined spaces, now we need new approaches.
However, in the midst of all the tragedy, heartaches and hardships faced as a consequence of events, we have had glimpses of something new: shared solidarity in the Arts; learning new techniques through online training, funding avenues and coming up with strong ideas providing windows to thriving cultural scenes wherever we are. We might be social distancing; yet we can touch our audience through the power of pixels.
Ten years ago, Netflix just sent you DVDs through the post. Today they are one of the largest commissioners of long form documentary with Apple, Amazon and Disney snapping at their heels. Quibi and Snapchat are commissioning short form for 2021. Film Festivals are hungry for International content; Broadcasters need engaging, innovative, compelling approaches with social and cultural implications. By cross-fertilisation across the Creative Arts Sector, we have the power to make a difference and since we have always had to work with limitations of budgets and time. Now is our chance to strive.
Ri Chakraborty is an award-winning Executive Producer and Commissioning Editor working globally across Documentary and Film.