Sunday, March 02, 2014

The history of learning new filmic journalism in days

Frame from the film 37 Days to War
"In our administrative department we call this a period preparatory to war", says the count to Prime minister Asquith.

"Are you impressed with all those apostrophes?", the Prime Minister of Britain, seated opposite asks his minister.

Meanwhile, 1,000, 000 Russian soldiers were amassing at the Austrian border. This happened some 100 years ago.

Today, somewhat presciently, Russia gathers its troops in and on the outskirts of Ukraine. More double dutch follows from politicians with, we are defending the Russian people of Ukraine.

History is the greatest teacher in many circumstances, and we could do with investing more of our time in her. 

This "prepatory to war" dialogue emerges from the BBC's 37 Days  a three part drama that charts how the first world war started.

It's also an affirmation of what the BBC does better with public money, coming of the back of Royal Cousins at War, which shows how the royals falling out with each other contributed to the war.

On the Andrew Marr show, a political chat show which sets the days news agenda, Marr interviewed Tim Piggot-Smith, one of Brit's finest actors. 
Tim Piggot-Smith plays Asquith in 37 Days

Piggot-Smith plays Asquith, a prime minister, who historians documented was also a drunk and liked writing love letters to women in high society. At one cabinet meeting he wrote five to socialite Venetia Stanley.

Firstly, cherish the thought of writing a love letter, and on the brink of war! Often, the events of every day life are far more interesting and real than fiction.

And that's what the BBC have capitalised on, by bringing what Piggot-Smith identifies as a documentary team together to produce  37 Days.  Whilst Hollywood  film makers, such as Oliver Stone, start of with cinema in mind, with films such as Nixon, before employing advisers for accuracy, this film takes the opposite approach.

Produced by Hardy Pictures, whose creative director Justin Hardy has an MA in history from Oxford and studied film at UCLA, what you get is a more conscientious film fronting the facts first, but not letting go the importance of narrative and visual film schemas.

In many ways that's what videojournalism, as it was first touted in the 1990s, tried to do with news by looking for the dramatisation that helped construct the background to an event. 37 Days, appears to be doing this admirably and Piggot-Smith says the information is educative and intelligent. 

A similar style was the BBC's 10 Days to War  (You can see a pattern here). "What happened in the run up to the Iraqi war?", asked BBC Newsnight. Under the editorship of Peter Barron, who has since become a towering figure in Google, the BBC filled in the gaps, with journalist, documentary maker and cineists producing a set of great programmes.

One of the most compelling was this talk by Colonel Tim Collins.

I used this an example at a presentation at SXSW to state what happens when you collapse these disciplines into constructing a form that becomes an alloy of all of them. 

Videojournalist, filmmaker and former BBC Producer David Dunkley Gyimah presents at SXSW. Pic Steve Garfield.

In 2009, I interviewed an amazing photojournalist, Danfung Dennis who, in the right place and time, captured this and with his team went on to create his Oscar-nominated To Hell and Back Again. 

When we talk about new forms of image making and knowledge, the key to these answers often lives in the archives. Unfortunately, we dismiss anything over a decade old as irrelevant, and that makes us us poorer for understanding  the contemporary and the that waiting to be birthed.

And whilst this mode of working mixing forms, is not new, there is a claim that it inhabits new sensibilities in the digital age. That is rather than doing because we could, talent are actively seeking to disrupt the very citadels and boundaries created by policy makers from the past.

And, it seems the BBCs not alone on thinking of this bridge, between filling in the gaps of our knowledge. If you want to know what it was like to be one of the UK's first regional newspaper videojournalists, then you might find some answers in my own film made in 2005 called 8 days.
Dunkley-Gyimah's videojournalism 8 Days

Clearly, there's something in this "Day" business and the implicit arguments in 8 Days about creating factual drama ( with a reporter) make me reflect even deeper on what the BBC is doing with the likes of 37 days..

David Dunkley Gyimah is a videojournalist, filmmaker and former BBC producer. He is theorizing a new approach to filmmaking in his Doctorate thesis. David is the chair of jurors at the RTS's Broadcast Innovative category. He writes and makes films at