You may have come across one or two of the reviews or previews that we've run in the past that have been on across London by the wonderful folks at DocHouse. This year they're celebrating documentaries in style with their Best Of DocHouse series, in collaboration with Open City Docs, as they bring ten of the finest documentaries to have previously graced their screens back to London between 19th February and 30th April. To celebrate this special 'best of' selection, we spoke to DocHouse producer Jenny Horwell;
How did DocHouse first get started? What was the initial idea behind the company?
The company got started 12 years ago when Elizabeth Wood realised that it was getting increasingly difficult to see good international documentaries on mainstream telly or exhibited in London cinemas. There was this whole world of incredible films that you could only catch at Film Festivals and then they disappeared, so very few people could find a way to see them. So she started showing them at The Other Cinema in central London on a Sunday afternoon. We’ve grown a lot since then, as has the audience for docs in the cinema, and got to the point in the last few years where we have been showing a different documentary once a week at some of our favourite cinemas in London.
How have things changed since then? Has it followed the path you expected or has it taking a few surprising turns?
The huge support from all the cinemas we’ve worked with has been surprising and encouraging. But the most unexpected turn was probably getting involved with the Bertha Foundation, who we joined forces with a few years ago, and it’s thanks to them that we’ve been able to expand our screening programme and events. There’s more opportunity to see documentaries in cinemas these days, but not nearly as much range as we’d like! We’ve found this amazing appetite for the kind of films we’ve been showing, varied as they are, so the natural next step – the big dream actually – is to run a cinema that just shows documentaries every day. And it’s coming, this Spring.
Which documentaries have you been most excited to be involved with? Are there any that have particularly impressed you in a way that you weren't quite expecting?
I’m impressed in unexpected ways by documentaries all the time. Describing a documentary rarely does justice to the experience of watching it. I’m often surprised by audiences for different docs we show too. Sometimes I think I know who to expect, and then I’m completely surprised by a totally different group of people showing up. MY NAME IS SALT was unexpected in lots of ways. It’s a very slow and beautiful film about people spending 8 months making salt in the desert in Gujurat, India. It’s understated, but so bold. It holds off on explaining what you’re seeing, as you patiently watch the whole process unfold from start to finish. So it’s full of moments of discovery and realisation. It’s a really visual film you could only really appreciate on the big screen. We were able to bring the filmmakers to London for the screening and the response from the audience was amazing. They loved that the director trusted them to stick with the film and get this gradual understanding, rather than being spoonfed the facts and figures from the start. The connection between the audience and the director during the Q&A was lovely. That was really special.
What made you decide to focus exclusively on documentaries? Is there something special about the format that appeals to you?
Big Question. Well, the thing about ‘documentary’ is that it’s not really a format or genre in itself. It’s an umbrella term, and within that there are so many different styles and modes and techniques. Just like ‘fiction’ encompasses comedy, westerns, mumblecore, blockbusters etc etc. The more chance there is to show documentaries, the more chance there is to appreciate all the different ways of telling stories about the world. The best documentaries – whether they are purely observational (surprisingly rare and more difficult to pull off than you would think these days), self-reflexive, made from archive material, based on interviews or really abstract art pieces – give you new perspectives and ways to understand the world.
How do you go about selecting which films you'll be showing and how you'll host the events?
We look for brilliantly made, original, fascinating films. But we also try to curate programmes of films that are contrasting and complementary, in terms of style, subject and location. There are hundreds of docs made every year, it’s staggering. We find a lot through international film festivals, as well as through filmmakers themselves, distributors and sales agents.
What's your favourite non-documentary film?
What, ever? Too hard. THE 400 BLOWS for the final shot, APOCALYPSE NOW for the opening, DIRTY DANCING for the bits in the middle?
For the upcoming series you've picked 10 of the best documentaries from the past 12 years of DocHouse screenings, how hard was getting the list down to 10? Are there any others that you would have been keen to include if you had more slots?
Yes, there definitely wouldn’t be a problem putting together a few more ‘Best of DocHouse’ series in the future. The selection was made jointly with Open City Docs (our partners on the series) and there were so many gems we all wanted to pick. But the idea was to choose a selection of films that showcased really different, outstanding styles of documentary filmmaking – so if you see all 10 films in the series you’ll have something like an overview of the landscape of documentary in the last decade. Or at least 10 pinpricks of light beaming through. You’d see the way that Sean McAllister connects with his subjects from behind the camera in THE LIBERACE OF BAGHDAD (2005), you’d see the way that SENNA somehow brings all the charisma, adrenalin and tragedy of Ayrton Senna to the big screen using only archive footage, you’d see how the virtuoso Dutch filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich has created his own piece of camera equipment in order to shoot SHAPE OF THE MOON. We also only selected films where we could get the filmmakers into the room for a post-screening Q&A, and the timing didn’t work out this time round for a couple. All the films we’ve screened in the last 12 years are listed on our website by year actually, we’d definitely take suggestions for which ones to bring back in the future!
How important do you think documentaries are when it comes to explaining a situation to a larger audience?
Can I mention a specific film to answer that? We just showed a film called DEMOCRATS that follows two Zimbabwean politicians going through a 3 year process to try to draft a constitution for Zimbabwe. It’s gripping, touching and makes what should be a complicated political process into a human story that lays bare something much more fundamental about Zimbabwean society, and also about power, democracy and people universally. Documentary films can do that. They can convey and explain the details but also something much broader about certain situations to people that would never otherwise understand them. What’s interesting is that although documentaries can be the most amazing tool for spreading awareness and understanding, it only works if the films are somehow intrinsically well made. Bashing people over the head with a message doesn’t tend to get that message across as effectively as you might hope.
Given the name, any chance of you putting out any house music documentaries in the future? (I apologise for this question, I really do)
The DocHouseDoc strand? Sure, why not. If we found a brilliant house music documentary we wouldn’t be able to stop ourselves. I’m sure there are some out there. Maybe also a series of documentaries about living conditions (there are quite a few) called DocHousing?
If you could make your own documentary about any topic whatsoever, what would you choose? How would you present it?
I’d be a terrible documentary maker, but if I could, I’d want it to start with the people rather than the subject. I love seeing a documentary that follows its subjects over an insanely long time. Years and years. Like the Seven Up series by Michael Apted. I’d making something like that if I could. A kind of documentary equivalent of BOYHOOD.
What can we expect to see DocHouse bringing our way in the future?
The ‘Best of DocHouse’ series leads us right into the opening of our new documentary cinema! We’ll show documentaries every day, year round, in the Bertha DocHouse screen at the Curzon Bloomsbury. There’s nothing like it in the UK. We’ll announce our opening date and programme details in the next few weeks, and it’s going to be a full on feast of documentaries. We can’t wait.
Anything you'd like to add?
Noooooo… This was immense. Lovely questions!
The Best Of DocHouse series kicks off on 19th February with a screening of Shape Of The Moon, for more information on the series click here.