Fear and Hope for Documentary in the Wake of Covid

Empty Shop CIC
13 min readAug 22, 2020

By Jeanie Finlay, Artist and Filmmaker

Note: Jeanie Finlay will be taking part in a follow up, online panel discussion and Q&A on Wednesday 16th September at 7pm - Register for free here

My name is Jeanie Finlay.

I am an artist from Teesside who by accident found the thing that brings me most joy — making films. I have made films about what happens behind the closed bedroom door of Teenagers (Teenland), about Goths in their 40s on a cruise ship to the Bahamas (Goth Cruise), and about the last surviving record shop in Teesside (SOUND IT OUT). Other subjects have included liars and pretenders (The Great Hip Hop Hoax), a stranger than fiction rollercoaster Nashville fable (Orion: The Man Who Would Be King), the lowest budget pantomime in Nottingham (Panto!) the storms in tea cups at the heart of biggest television show in the world — Game Of Thrones: The Last Watch — and, my 8th feature film released last year, Seahorse, which charts the journey of a trans man to become the dad who gave birth.

On the surface these subjects may seem very disparate, yet I believe they are all made with the same compassion and openness, with the same melancholic joy running through them — made with the same accent, if you like.

All I ever wanted to do was move people — make them laugh and cry, to make a point of human connection. I believe in shy people telling small stories quietly — and that my camera is a loudhailer. I believe that crying in the dark surrounded by strangers is one of the greatest things in life.

Jeanie Finlay on location in Caspe, Spain for Seahorse

I was asked by Tees Valley Screen to write about the future of documentary right now. And I’ll be honest with you I’ve struggled.

If I’d written this in February I would have told you about how I’d love to see more money allocated for documentary in the UK, outside of broadcast and London. That I wanted to see more theatrical slots and longer runs allocated to documentary in UK venues.

I’d have told you that I wanted to see more diverse representation at film festivals in a way that was truly intersectional, for the gala films to not just be the ones made by men and to never be invited again to talk about what it means to be a woman in film, when I just want be a woman talking about the work. I’d have proudly told you about the Northern Irish Filmmaker Sian Mcilwaine who I’m mentoring to make her first film.

I’d also have described how excited I’d been in December at The BIFAs, where my film Seahorse was nominated for best documentary and where I watched For Sama take 4 of the big awards, including Best film, beating all the dramas, a night when it felt like documentary was really taking its moment in the spotlight.

And that I started shooting on my new film in the US in February.

But this was all before Covid-19.

My shoot was cancelled and, almost overnight, I’ve had to change how I work and why I work, as well as to think deeply about the way I can tell the stories I want to tell right now. One immediate reaction — inspired by my friends Gary Hustwit and Jessica Edwards — was to look into making my back catalogue work harder, giving away my films SOUND IT OUT, Goth Cruise and Indietracks for free at various times and in the process finding a whole new audience for my work.

But I’ve also done nothing, and worried, and grown a garden full of vegetables. I’ve discovered Aldi’s mini Vienettas, painted a rubbish rainbow on our front door in support of the NHS, and spoken to Jarvis Cocker (for The Quietus) about how lockdown is like the aftermath of the momentous Brits all those years ago when he mooned Michael Jackson live on stage. In an ironic reversal of my teenage years, I’ve found myself arguing with my parents about going out (where I’m the one insisting they’re grounded) and had a Zoom call with my beloved Aunty Mary, the week before she died on a Covid ward in Edinburgh. I’ve mourned and I’ve grieved.

I’ve also cut footage remotely with my editor Alice Powell in London and filmed remotely with the woman I’m making a film about in America using the 4k camera I was going to bring home in March, to make sure that we are capturing *all of this* in the present tense, because the way I see it is, I can’t wait for things to get back to normal because that world doesn’t exist anymore. And I’m just figuring out what ‘the new normal’ might mean.

Still from Teenland

In the midst of a global pandemic, making films and continuing to tell stories is something that needs careful consideration and caution. This ‘new normal’ is less of a fixed state, and more of a set of shifting parameters, constantly altering in response to the restrictions and guidelines under which we’re being asked to operate. It’s a time, too, of great stress, anxiety, and in many cases, grief, all of which has an impact on not only on how we’re able to work, but on how we’re able to get through the day. With all these considerations — both professional and personal — taken into account, what I want to look at is not only what is happening on a macro level, but what the possibilities are for us as individual filmmakers, living in this time of great worry and disruption, to continue to make meaningful, personal and impactful work.

With all this in mind, here are my bullet point notes on this ‘new normal’.

There was already need for structural change
The recent report about Feature Documentaries — “Keeping it real” (download here): Documentary Film Policy for the UK reveals a sector that was in urgent need of intervention even before the advent of Covid-19. It makes many recommendations at a structural level to sustain future documentary production, recommendations which, in the light of the pandemic, need to be even more urgently carried out.

In light of Covid-19, should we be filming at all?
It’s worth consulting these guidelines put together by Field of Vision, IDA and Doc Society to assist you in making practical choices around filming right now.

They ask:

  • Should I be filming?
  • What are the consequences of going ahead?
  • What is the safest way to proceed?

Click here to access the guide

If it isn’t safe then perhaps now is the time to think deeply and develop your project on paper, rather than out in the field.

Don’t think you have to move to get ahead. There is a world outside of London.

3% of feature doc production takes place in the midlands where I am based and just 6% in the whole of the north of England, compared to 54% in London.

I have never lived in London and it has never, ever prevented me from making work for an international audience. I take meetings and talk to funders in London but I have always returned to my home in Nottingham to make work.

The lower housing and living costs outside of the capital mean that I’m able to devote my time to filmmaking full time, rather than it being a side job. My commute in Nottingham is only 15 minutes so I don’t waste my day on travelling. Having access to green space, a garden and a house that is comfortable to work from home in are all things that I have appreciated even more since the lockdown started. Things that would be much less in reach if I lived somewhere more expensive.

Never underestimate the value of understanding a local area

When I made SOUND IT OUT in 2010, I filmed in Teesside’s very last surviving record shop. I made a portrait of the customers, the value of music and the place I grew up, my home. I learnt about the meaning behind people’s record collections and I accompanied people home to find out more about what music means to them. Two of the people I filmed — Frankie and John-Boy, the Makina DJs who performed super-fast MCing

over tinny dance music lived on the Tilery estate in Stockton. I listened to these lads and gave them space to tell their story in their own words, responding to what they told me, forming the narrative of my film from what I found. When Channel Four made Benefits Street in the area a few years later, they filmed on exactly the same estate but made a tabloidesque story that fulfilled a narrative that had been written in a production office in London. Bolstering and perpetuating clichés of life in the north east for a southern audience.

When The Mighty Redcar filmmakers came to town, they took time to understand the area and told the stories with care and respect.

Look around, you know your local area and can tell a nuanced, informed story that reflects your home all its complexity and brilliance. There are thousands of diverse stories to tell.

As travel restrictions continue to be part of our every day, we need to think about the stories that are local to us. Just because they are close by, doesn’t make them any less valuable and our culture is hungry to hear them.

Still from SOUND IT OUT

Cut Your Cloth

You may not own the best camera in the world but you will likely be able to beg, borrow (from a resource centre) or own a phone that can shoot 4k. If I had limited budget the thing I would spend my money on would be a portable light — because it will improve the way everything looks — and a microphone. Audiences will forgive poor camerawork but if they can’t hear what is happening they will switch off immediately. Every single time I get paid for a film job I buy more kit, so that I’m ready to go and film and practice what I love doing. If you can, it’s well worth it. Find a friend and buy kit together to share.

Build your cohort and network

Over the years I have found people that I love working with, who understand the films I want to make and the stories I’m aiming to tell. We’ve worked together time and again, on films with no budget up to my much bigger projects.

There are literally hundreds of online networks where you find your brethren, find like-minded people and expand your network. Our interconnectedness is something which has only become more valuable during the pandemic.

*Tees Valley Film and Jeanie Finlay have put together a fantastic list of links and resources - click here

Finding the people you can communicate with, who can help you realise your story, collaborating with a generosity of spirit and commitment to the project is invaluable.

Other freelancers are not your competition, they are your colleagues. Treat them with respect and foster community. It will reward and enrich you in so many ways.

Look around. Do your crew all look like you?

We should want our work to represent the whole of society, and for that to happen, the industry needs to be as diverse as the country we live in. Part of putting a team together is making sure that your team reflects this. If all the people you work with are the same gender, sexuality, race, class, are able bodied and the same age as you then you need to look at this and make changes.

If you’re looking for a composer (only 4% of composers are female), or if you’re looking for someone to shoot your film (again only 4% of cinematographers are women) but you aren’t considering women (51% of society) for the job, then ask yourself why and make changes. We need structural change in the industry but we also need to take responsibility at a personal level and build a better industry.

Parenthood is no barrier. Carers and Parents can be supported to be creatively fulfilled

I was commissioned to make my first film Teenland off the back of my artwork. Six months pregnant, wide-eyed, in a new world, the realisation that I had a 60 minute commission for BBC4 as my first film, at the same time as carrying my first child, was daunting but exhilarating, and I never considered parenthood as any barrier to my filmmaking. I have always shared childcare equally with my husband Steven Sheil and being a parent has informed both my work and my practice.

Affordable access to care for parents and carers is one of the biggest obstacles for continuing a creative career. Raising Films aims to help bridge this gap. www.raisingfilms.com

If you have funding, pay people fairly and promptly

This should be basic common sense and decency but you’d be surprised how many people pay freelancers late and don’t provide a schedule for payment. Please don’t engage in this practice, cashflow is more vital than ever.

Say no to projects

I am very careful about who I make films about and I’m careful about what I say yes to. Each film is like an emotional horcrux, they take years to make and they take a little piece of my soul each time.

I have also turned projects down if I am not the best person to tell the story. There are some stories that would have been better served by a black woman. So I stepped aside. Saying no can be as important as the projects you say yes to.

Still from Game Of Thrones: The Last Watch

Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity

It’s more powerful to be 100% finished and 90% happy with a project than the other way around.

Finish your work, get it out in the world, make mistakes and learn from the experience. Get started with the new project. There are a lot of people in film who talk a big talk but don’t actually make anything. Try hard to not be that person. Concentrate on the making part. It’s how you learn who you are as a filmmaker and the stories that excite you.

Making time for meaningful care

One of the most challenging parts of our job as documentary makers is to remain soft in this tough old industry, to protect the stories of the people we work with so that they recognise their life, for good and for bad on screen.

Your mind and emotional well-being is as important to look after as your physical health. Treat yourself kindly and if you can afford to, seek regular support from a therapist or a friend who will listen unconditionally.

Find a way to release

Making long form observational documentary is often like long distance running. There’s the brief moment when you are flying over the finish-line and it’s glorious, but often you’re at mile 9 wishing it would be over and all you can do is ignore the pain, rely on your stamina and put one foot in front of the other. I run regularly and it helps me so much to visualise the stamina I need to finish projects. Truly.

Listen to the quiet stories

Never disregard the quiet people and always listen intently to the people you are filming. Listen to what they are saying and the way they are saying it. The most meaningful and moving contributions to films I have made have been by quieter souls.

Still from Game Of Thrones: The Last Watch

I hope that these points for reflection have been useful.

Two weeks ago I filmed in the woods with a crew and it was incredible. It left me filled with hope. A hope to continue to make films with steel and heart, small films whispered loudly onto the big screen. A space to laugh, to weep and to allow the emotion in.

Note: Jeanie Finlay will be taking part in a follow up, online panel discussion and Q&A on Wednesday 16th September at 7pm — Register for free here

Jeanie Finlay is one of Britain’s most distinctive documentary makers. She creates award-winning work for cinema and television, telling intimate stories to international audiences. She has made films for HBO, IFC, BBC as well as four commissions for the acclaimed BBC Storyville strand.

Jeanie’s films include BIFA nominated Seahorse and Emmy nominated Game of Thrones: The Last Watch, BIFA nominated The Great Hip Hop Hoax and BIFA Award-winning Orion:The Man Who Would Be King, as well as Sound It Out, the award-winning portrait of Teesside’s last surviving record store.

Her films were showcased in a retrospective at Museum of Moving Image, NYC in June 2020.

Website: www.jeaniefinlay.com
Follow Jeanie on social media: Twitter | Instagram

About Tees Valley Screen
Supported by the European Regional Development Fund, Northern Film + Media and the Tees Valley Combined Authority have joined forces to create Tees Valley Screen: an exciting new Tees Valley wide development programme for SMEs and companies across the film, television, artist moving image and broader screen industries.

Website: northernmedia.org/project/tees-valley-screen/
Find them on social media: Twitter | Instagram

Commissioned by Empty Shop on behalf of Hartlepool Borough Council as part of the Tees Valley Great Place project.

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Empty Shop CIC

Art // Regeneration // Collaboration. Empty Shop CIC is a not-for-profit arts organisation and practice-based consultancy from the North East of England.