Is there still a future for expensive, sensitive and slow-burning observational documentaries about real life?

This year issues of authenticity, access and ethics are at the forefront of the Sheffield documentary festival. Although the festival programme has always touched on these questions in previous years, in the past few months Queengate, the dispute over noddy shots and the furore over Paul Watson’s documentary about a man dying of Alzheimer’s have made responsibility, exclusivity and factual accuracy pressing points of debate.

“It’s one of the biggest attacks the documentary industry has been under,” says festival director Heather Croall. “What has been going on with RDF’s documentary about the Queen and the fakery debate is a huge subject for Sheffield. Documentary is having to pay the price for this debate and it’s going to have a massive representation through the festival.”

This debate is at the core of one par-ticular session, titled Access All Areas, on Friday 9 November at 2pm. Croall hopes this will give film-makers and commissioners the chance to consider why documentary has been in the harsh glare of the media spotlight this year. “It’s my responsibility to provide the forum that allows the industry to get the serious discussion on the table,” she says. “We need to think about how we got to this point.”

Croall has her own theories about documentary’s fall from grace this year, starting with the pressure to win commissions. “Film-makers are being pushed into areas they may not be comfortable with,” she says. “They feel they have to get the attention of the commissioners by coming up with things that make the commissioners say: ‘Are you really going to do that?’ Then the programme-makers wonders how they are going to do that.”

This promise to gain unprecedented access and produce exceptional footage backs film-makers into a corner. “It creates an ethical dilemma about how far film-makers are willing to go,” says Croall.

Benita Matofska, creative director at independent producer Electric Sky Productions, and one of the participants in Access All Areas, agrees that in an increasingly cut-throat TV industry, everyone is under pressure to perform.

“It’s a really competitive market,” she says. “Channels are competing for audiences and independent production companies are competing for commissions. Commissioners have to order programmes that will stop people flicking through the channels. Producers have to have something unique, bigger, better and bolder than everyone else.”

The ratings bane
Also taking part in Access All Areas is veteran film-maker Roger Graef, the man behind pioneering access films such as Thames Valley Police and In Search of Law and Order. He sees ratings, along with the general public’s mistrust of the media, as a negative influence on documentary.

“Traditional access series simply showed what we filmed,” he says. Now the pressure from ratings means you have to come up with a device like Bruce Parry [sharing the lives of tribespeople] in Tribe that justifies the -programme.”

Other forms of factual programming have also had an impact on documen-taries’ attractiveness to broadcasters. “It’s been hard to get a commission because of docu-soaps,” says Simon Ford, executive producer, BBC documentaries and a director on the Sheffield festival board. “Commissioners think access documentaries are low-grade filming which they want to air in the docu-soap slot at 7pm. A proper access film is more deeply thought about.”

Ford, whose credits include The Secret Policeman, The Hunt for Britain’s Paedophiles,Fighting the War, The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon and The Secret Agent, believes shrinking budgets have also pushed documentary-makers to lose sight of their principles. “These days budgets have been cut so far that people are hoping to get a proper access film from a couple of days’ filming,” he says. “Commissioners think they can commission these programmes on the cheap. People get out there and it’s not happening in front of them and they start to cheat or construct false narratives. Access is about filming people for an enormous amount of time for them to lower their guard and for stories to bloom.”

Separately, Ford believes former RDF chief creative officer Stephen Lambert, who last month resigned over Queengate, has unwittingly played a role in commissioners’ increasing demands for drama in documentary.

“After programmes like Wife Swap, where the conflicts are engineered, commissioners are asking: ‘Where is my conflict?’” says Ford. “Stephen Lambert made his name in observational documentaries and took those skills with him to RDF but it has inadvertently created a culture where a film-maker is much more interventionist. There has to be a moment of conflict and reconciliation.”

However, RDF director of programmes Grant Mansfield defends Wife Swap. “Wife Swap succeeded in re-engaging a significant audience with documentary. It did that by producing shows with a real narrative, a journey and a resolution. Wife Swap is formatted but less than people think.”

Unrealistic expectations can push film-makers to place an unnecessary - even misleading - spin on a programme even if it easily stands on its own merit. “RDF had good access and it’s astounding that it felt the need to hype it up,” says Graef of the company’s misedited trailer for A Year with the Queen.

Graef makes the same point about Paul Watson’s film Malcolm and Barbara: Love’s Farewell for ITV. Watson found himself defending accusations of deception when it emerged that Alzheimer’s sufferer Malcolm Pointon had not died on camera as originally claimed. “When you do as good a job as Paul did, there was no need to say anything more,” says Graef.

Watson, meanwhile, feels he has been made the scapegoat for wider dissatisfaction with the state of television. “I was trying to make sure that people understood Malcolm’s death but it seems to have given people the opportunity to have a go at TV,” he says, adding that he withdrew from filming three days before Pointon died. “Why would I film the last moments of the death rattle? Malcolm got his death sentence when he got his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.”

Despite the furore surrounding the documentary, Watson stands by his approach to film-making. “Access is about building a reciprocal relationship,” he says. “I tell them things about me, they tell me things about them. With Malcolm and Barbara it was almost a marriage, a ménage à trois. People in my films know what I am doing and trust me to use the footage properly.”

To achieve this trust, Watson also encourages his contributors to think -carefully before signing up with him. “I have long discussions with them and tell them that their neighbours are going to know the colour of the wallpaper in their bedrooms,” he says. “Malcolm and Barbara agreed to the film the first time we met and I said: ‘No, no, you have to think about it.’”

Judgement calls
For Daisy Asquith, the director behind C4 documentaries My New Home, 15 and The House Clearers, and another participant in Access all Areas, it is crucial to spend time with contributors before the camera even starts to roll. “I hang around with my camera in my bag and allow people to get to know me and understand my motivation,” she says. “If you give a bit of yourself you get better trust and access.”

While Asquith is eager to earn her contributors’ trust, she is also happy to step in when their honesty is overwhelming. “If it looks as if they are giving too much away then I would take responsibility for holding back a little on their behalf,” says Asquith. During the filming of 15, a three-part series about south London teenagers, Asquith found herself in this position. “One girl was so happy and keen to tell me everything she felt,” she says. “She was 15 and I felt I had to protect her because she was so candid about sex.”

In My New Home, C4’s long-term documentary series about immigrant children settling in Britain, the stakes were slightly different. Asquith was required to cut a scene filmed at the home of Imran, an 11-year-old from Pakistan, due to cultural sensitivities rather than any concerns about age. “I made a mistake in the first film by showing them eating a family meal,” says Asquith. “They didn’t mind me filming Imran being bullied or getting a bad report from school. They were concerned about the bit with them chewing some chicken. It’s not good to be seen eating. Unless I took that out I couldn’t have their trust any more.”

Electric Sky’s Matofska also faced a dilemma during the film of C4 programme Castration Cure, an exploration of extreme medical treatment for paedophiles in the US. The production team was offered access to a surgical castration procedure for a price it was unwilling to pay.

“We were offered access we didn’t want,” says Matofska. “We found one sex offender in California who was going for chemical castration as well as surgery. He didn’t have the money to pay for it and wanted to know if we or C4 would pay for it. We didn’t want to pay for a sex offender’s operation. C4 was very clear it was not going to pay for it either.”

This case highlights a point regularly made by factual film-makers. Often it is not necessary to deploy the grotesque or manufactured drama to engage the audience in access-driven documentaries.

“Everyone has amazing conflicts in their lives and it’s for you to find them,” says Watson. Asquith agrees: “There is no shortage of drama in real life. You just need patience to get it naturally.”

Sheffield Doc/Fest 2007 takes place from 7 to 11 November; Access All Areas is at 2pm on Friday 9 November. See for more information.

Keeping everyone happy

Access throws up all kinds of moral and practical issues but none is more common than contributors having a change of heart. Prash Naik, deputy head of legal and compliance at C4, has to advise commissioners on the ethics of proceeding with a programme when problems like these arise.

“It is not uncommon for some contributors to withdraw from a programme after they have consented to being filmed,” says Naik, who will be highlighting dilemmas for documentary-makers and commissioners in a panel titled How Far Can You Go? at Sheffield. “Where individuals simply change their mind for no particular reason, we are less inclined to accept their withdrawal, plans to repeat the film several months later when their lives may well have changed. For example, a drug addict might have been filmed trying to deal with his addiction. A year later his life has now moved on for the better. Many film-makers I know would be sensitive and understanding of the change in circumstances. Both film-makers and broadcasters have a duty to treat contributors fairly at all times.”

The team also has to weigh up comments from viewers. “Particular care is needed when filming with children, because viewers are much more sensitive about any perceived ‘harm’ whether real or imagined,” says Naik.