Aldeburgh Documentary Festival brings directors to the audience

Suffolk actress Diana Quick in Aldeburgh

FEATURES Suffolk actress Diana Quick in Aldeburgh

Documentary film-maker Vanessa Engle is delighted to be given the Outstanding Contribution to Documentary Award at this year’s Aldeburgh Documentary Festival. She’s also relieved that she is not being presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Documentary film-maker Vanessa Engle who is receiving a special award for services to documentary fi

Documentary film-maker Vanessa Engle who is receiving a special award for services to documentary film-making from the Aldeburgh Documentary Festival - Credit: Archant

“Lifetime Achievement Awards are the sort of presentations you get when you retire or reach the end of your career. I have got plenty of ideas still waiting to be turned into films,” she laughs.

Over the past 30 years Vanessa has moved from creating arts documentaries for the BBC to tackling subjects as diverse as dog walking, a look at the world of slimming and a perceptive examination of our continued fascination with money.

Vanessa says that her subjects suggest themselves to her. One day she’ll spot something or someone that requires her to find out more or she’ll read something in a newspaper that inspires her to go digging behind the headlines.

“Things just bubble up. I have ideas all the time but it’s a case of finding out if they go anywhere. For example, just going to the shops can conjure up a programme idea.

Speed Sisters part of the AldeburghDocumentary Festival

Speed Sisters part of the AldeburghDocumentary Festival - Credit: Archant

“These artisan bakers are popping up all over the place now. You can go in and say: ‘That’s an expensive loaf of bread’ but if you then expand that thought to take in that artisan bread is this crazy new phenomenon and people are paying extraordinary amounts of money for loaves of bread made in special ways then you’ve got an interesting programme.

“Walking With Dogs came about because my kids had just read The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman and I was struck by all the characters in the story having animal familiars walking alongside them and it represented part of their being. I thought that was a very powerful image and when I went for walk I saw all these people with creatures by their side and it really captured my imagination.

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“It wasn’t a film about dogs, it was a film about what dogs meant to people and what they represented.”

She said that within television there was great pressure to discover the next factual franchise – be it the next Great British Bake Off or There’s One Born Every Minute. “I am not interested in that. I am working at the other end of the spectrum. I want to make interesting programmes where I am genuinely curious to find something out. I am interested in returning to the same subject again and again.

Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Vanessa Engle part of the AldeburghDocumentary Festival

Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Vanessa Engle part of the AldeburghDocumentary Festival - Credit: Archant

“The more varied and different my films are, the more varied and different my life is.”

She said that she rarely revisits her work and selecting clips for the festival had given her a rare opportunity to look back at her work. She made some surprising discoveries like the fact that she has always used popular music to thematically link images and ideas together. “I thought it was a recent trick that I had dreamed up and was rather pleased with myself but I have now discovered that I have been doing it for years.”

She added that one of the unexpected outcomes of her trip down memory lane was that there was an over-arching theme to her work. “I hadn’t realised that my films are a series of encounters with people – but it’s more than that because you can’t tell if the films are about people or about ideas, the narrative of the film is interchangeable because my films are about both.”

She said that when she was young she didn’t know what to do with her life – or that is what she thought. “I didn’t think I had any burning desire to be a film-maker but I went back to a school reunion some while ago and we started talking about what we did and I said: ‘Well, I make film documentaries,’ everyone went ‘Wow! That’s what you said you wanted to do,’ and I honestly had no memory of ever saying that but I must have done.

Landfill Harmonic part of the AldeburghDocumentary Festival

Landfill Harmonic part of the AldeburghDocumentary Festival - Credit: Archant

“I do remember always being interested in film though. I think I was a strange teenager. I didn’t tend to watch TV in my teens but I used to go and watch art house films. I would go and sit in a freezing cold community centre and ice water would drip down the back of my neck and I would soak up these Chinese films and Russian films – all sorts. That was my rebellion. I was always interested in film and also interested in art and I wanted to see how the two came together.”

In recent years the documentary film has made the leap from the small screen back into the cinema. For decades documentaries were only ever screened on television but with the rise of film festivals and small independent cinema chains, more documentaries are returning to the big screen.

Vanessa said on the surface this would appear to be a good thing because screening a film with an audience triggers discussion on the way home but for film-makers, it’s a precarious way to make a living.

“It’s still very difficult to get documentary features funded and those who do them, a lot are living much more like artists now. They don’t really have an income and maybe living on someone’s couch while making the film. They really are living on a shoe string to make their dream come true.

Speed Sisters part of the AldeburghDocumentary Festival

Speed Sisters part of the AldeburghDocumentary Festival - Credit: Archant

“So, it’s great to see documentary films in cinemas but, for the film-maker, it’s not a straight forward revenue stream and if you want to get paid then you still have to work for television.”

Vanessa has been fortunate to work for the BBC for the last 30 years starting off making films for The Culture Show and arts segments for Newsnight before tackling other subject areas in the early 2000s.

She said that even television was not what it was. The rise of the fly-on-the-wall docu-soap had made it more difficult to hear the voice of the film-maker or storyteller but it was still possible for a good film-maker to get commissioned.

“Television has been in an almost constant state of flux since I entered the industry and has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. It is much more of a commercial landscape now and there are many more channels and a vast array of different ways of accessing content either online or by satellite and sadly, with the focus on ratings, there is less place for experimental films or documentaries on esoteric subjects. When I first joined the BBC there was plenty of opportunity to produce films which were experimental in form, particularly in the arts sector where I was working, and now you just don’t see that type of film any more. “That sense of adventure has gone.”

India's Daughter part of the Aldeburgh Documentary Festival

India's Daughter part of the Aldeburgh Documentary Festival - Credit: Archant

She said that the way television works has become much more bureaucratised. “Everything has to be pinned down before you can go off and spend the money. Everything has to be pre-planned and set up. There’s less opportunity to respond to a happy accident and we are supposed to be documentary film-makers.

“I understand that film-making involves spending large sums of money, so you have to be responsible, but everything seems rather too cautious these days. There should be a happy middle ground.”

As part of the festival Vanessa is presenting an illustrated look back at the highlights of her career during an on-stage interview with Roly Keating, chief executive of the British Library, and will later be hosting a film-making masterclass before screening the UK premiere of her latest film Love You To Death: A Year of Domestic Violence which will form part of a wider strand which looks at the plight of Women in the 21st century.

Vanessa Engle in Conversation with Roly Keating takes place at Aldeburgh Cinema on Sunday November 15 at 3pm.

Taking a look at the 21st Aldeburgh Documentary Festival

For festival team Diana Quick, Thomas Gerstenmeyer, Leona Chaliha and Chris Harris the 21st Aldeburgh Documentary Festival is not an opportunity to rest on their laurels or to present a back-slapping celebration of past successes. This year’s festival is about looking forward, winning new audiences and presenting a selection of films and guests that will get people talking.

Diana Quick said this year’s festival presented some challenging ideas, particularly on the plight of women around the world. A themed day on Saturday November 14 looks at attitudes towards and the treatment of women, something Diana said she had wanted to address in the past but had fallen into sharp focus this year because of recent events in India, the release of new film India’s Daughter and their ability to screen the UK premiere of Vanessa Engle’s new film Love You To Death.

The screenings will be followed by a discussion featuring Leslee Udwin, director of India’s Daughter, Vanessa Engle, Malcolm Phillips, mental health therapist and Simon Chambers, a film-maker and scholar at Jamia University in New Dehli.

Diana added that women are not just presented as targets of violence because one of the highlights of the Festival is a preview screening of Speed Sisters, an uplifting look at the first all-female car-racing team from Palestine. It is hoped the director and some of the racers featured will fly in.

Broadcaster Robert Peston will host a discussion about Ethics, Responsibility, Guilt and Denial following a screening of My Nazi Legacy, a film about the sons of two Nazi officials. Hans Frank and Otto van Wachter were tried and executed for war crimes after World War II. The film by David Evans looks at the sons’ different attitudes to their fathers and asks whether the sins of one generation should be visited on the next?

Director Hubert Sauper unveils his film about the independence of South Sudan, We Come As Friends, and will be interviewed by James Copnall and Dick Fontaine from the National Film School.

Diana said: “There’s a lot for people to enjoy and a lot to think about this year. It’s a very good mix. The opening and closing films are very upbeat movies that will send people home with a bounce in their step and a smile on their face.”

Thomas Gerstenmeyer added: “The strength of the festival is not only a mix of excellent films but having the film-makers meeting and talking with their audience. This is what makes the festival special. It’s the bringing together of both sides of the cinematic equation.”

n The 21st Aldeburgh Documentary Festivals runs at Aldeburgh Cinema from November 13-15. For full programme details check online at www.aldeburgh

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