Aldeburgh Documentary Festival welcomes Joanna Lumley, Louis Theroux and BBC’s Nick Robinson
- Credit: Archant
It may not be a major anniversary year for the Aldeburgh Documentary Festival – it’s clocking up 22 years in 2016 – but it certainly is a vintage year in terms of guests and subject matter.
This year high-profile guests Joanna Lumley, Nick Robinson and Louis Theroux will be presenting their latest work and talking about their careers in front of and behind the camera.
The festival will also include an extensive look at American politics and the election process on the weekend before the United States goes to the polls to elect a new president.
The three-day festival has been put together by the festival’s artistic director and Suffolk resident Diana Quick, along with Aldeburgh Cinema executive director Thomas Gerstenmeyer, festival chair Marc Vlessing and programme advisor Chris Harris.
Diana says that although they are thrilled with the quality of the work, programming this year’s festival was a real challenge. “For us, quality is everything. You have got to have the quality, otherwise people won’t come; and this year, it has to be said, it required more digging out than usual.
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“Each year we go to the Sheffield Documentary Festival and they usually supply much of our programme, but this year there wasn’t an awful lot that really grabbed us. There wasn’t such a rich choice. You get that occasionally. Some years there is a lull and then the following year you’ll be spoiled for choice. So, because we have built up many strong relationships with film-makers over the years, we phoned around to see if any of our film-makers had anything, and we have ended up with a very strong festival.”
This year, pioneering film-maker Louis Theroux will be receiving the Festival’s Award for Outstanding Contribution To Documentary. As part of the presentation he will be interviewed on stage by former ITV political editor John Sergeant and discussion will be illustrated by highlights and clips from his extraordinary career. Over more than 15 years Louis Theroux has carved out a distinguished career that has tackled both unsettling subjects and the bizarre. His two films on Jimmy Savile, one in 2000 and a second earlier this month, both garnered huge critical praise, as has his newly-released cinema film My Scientology Movie.
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Diana stresses that although she is artistic director of the festival and has a strong vision about the way the festival should look and feel, it is very much a team effort. “We work very well together as a team and have done for many years now. We all have our strengths and we each bring something different to the table.”
Thomas Gerstenmeyer adds: “A marvellous example of the team effort that goes into programming the festival can be found in the In and Outside the White House sessions. I kept banging on about Trump and the elections and we had this rather naive little documentary which looked into the backgrounds of the Trump and Heinz families, who both come from a small village in Germany. I checked the dates and discovered that we were happening two days before the election and I phoned Diana and said ‘We have to do something better on the election.’ Diana said ‘I have this friend, Norma Percy, who has just finished shooting a documentary on Obama and the White House; let me see if it is ready.’ Then we made contact with Nick Robinson to host it and the whole thing came together in two or three days.”
The event will be a discussion panel, hosted by the BBC’s former political editor, and will feature American-born documentary producer Percy, documentary film-maker Paul Mitchell and the New York Times’ London bureau chief, Steven Erlanger.
The discussion will be illustrated with clips from the recent four-part BBC series Inside Obama’s White House.
“This high-profile, very topical discussion represents everything the Aldeburgh Documentary Festival is about. We have the highly respected Nick Robinson chairing – who is local; he has a house in the county — and we have Norma Percy, who appeared at the festival three years ago, so she has a relationship with us and our audience. So it will be very special.”
He mentions other documentaries, with a programme of complementary screenings of three classic political documentaries: Primary, dealing with John F Kennedy’s 1960 primary; The War Room, focusing on Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign; and Oscar 2003 winner The Fog Of War – Eleven Lessons From The Life Of Robert S. McNamara, which looks at five decades of US political history. These will all be screened on Saturday, November 5, in the Studio pop-up screen. “There’s a lot of interest in the American election. It has an awful fascination about it,” Diana adds. “If you wrote what is happening at the moment as a novel or a film, with Donald Trump as the villain, you would say it’s all just too far-fetched. He’s too unbelievable and yet here we are. So we are hoping that our special focus on the American election process will bring a lot of people in.”
She says it’s important the documentary festival maintains a friendly, informal atmosphere. “I was talking to Norma Percy about bringing her new films here and she was delighted. She told me that Aldeburgh was the nicest, friendliest festival she had been to and I think that’s something to treasure and to build upon.”
Thomas chips in that Louis Theroux will be bringing his family for a weekend by the Suffolk coast as part of the festival experience. “He’s been filming in Minnesota and been away from his family, so he’s bringing his boys to Aldeburgh for the weekend while he’s at the festival.”
It’s clear that Thomas and Diana work hard at creating a welcoming atmosphere. She adds: “And we have another returnee who’s not on the programme, film-maker Vanessa Engel, who agreed to be released from the editing room of her new film to come and interview Joanna Lumley. Again, she did it because she had such a good time here last year.
“I was going to do the interview because I’ve known Jo for 40 years,” says Diana, “but, then, I thought ‘let’s get another perspective; let’s get someone with a fresh, perceptive eye to interview her’, and I asked Vanessa and she jumped at the chance.” It is no surprise that the on-stage interview with Joanna Lumley was the first event to be sold out and has a long waiting list for returns.
“Jo is so popular that the people will be coming to hear her talk. She won’t be showing the Japan series but, rather, extracts from all her travel programmes and other documentaries. It’s an overview of her life as a documentary maker. It’s another strand to her rather marvellous and eclectic career.”
She adds that Joanna will be interrupting extensive ballroom dance training to attend the festival. “She is learning ballroom dancing for a forthcoming project and is dancing all day, every day. She is extraordinary. She is interested in people and the world, which is what makes her a brilliant travel film-maker and what made her recent series on Japan so fascinating.”
Another element they are particularly pleased to be unveiling is the world premiere of I Am Ali Wallace, the first film by researcher and film-maker Jamie Curtis Hayward, about his efforts to tell the story of Ali Wallace, the Indonesian field assistant to 19th Century British scientist Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of the theory of evolution.
The film is being introduced by Lord Cranbrook, who will also host a question and answer session afterwards. Diana says that Lord Cranbrook, who lives in Glemham, near Saxmundham, is one of the world’s experts on the flora and fauna of Indonesia.
“We are really fortunate to have Lord Cranbrook along because he brings real authority to the event. The film itself is a delight because it’s almost like a caper, because it charts all the things that can and do go wrong on a venture like this.”
So, what makes the Aldeburgh Documentary Festival so successful? Diana is quick to answer: “The programme is quite broad-based. That’s important. Also, the audience get to meet the film-makers, not just on stage but usually they hang around and chat afterwards. But, equally importantly, the film-makers get a chance to meet one another, which very rarely happens. At the big festivals they are whisked away and delivered here, there and everywhere. Here they get a chance to actually speak to one another and that’s important.”
The Aldeburgh Documentary Festival runs from Friday, November 4 to Sunday, November 6. Tickets and details are available online at