Bafta’s new documentary award has been welcomed by film-makers — and 2011 is a banner year for the form. Allan Hunter reports

Bafta has chosen a good year to introduce a feature documentary category. In April, the Isle of Man road-racing epic TT3D: Closer To The Edge opened to a first-weekend gross of $492,000 (£312,998), the highest recorded for a feature documentary at the UK box office since Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. That record lasted all of two months until Asif Kapadia’s Senna broke UK box-office records by earning $589,500 (£375,000) in its first weekend in June.

The past year has been distinguished by the theatrical release of a steady stream of diverse, compelling documentaries which have won the hearts and minds of UK cinema-goers from Pina, Wim Wenders’ 3D homage to German dance legend Pina Bausch, to Steve James’ spellbinding exploration of inner-city violence in Chicago in The Interrupters, from the global phenomenon of Kevin Macdonald’s Life In A Day to Carol Morley’s haunting Dreams Of A Life, which became one of the most talked about titles at the London Film Festival in October.

“This is a golden age for documentary,” asserts Andy Whittaker, founder of UK distributor and documentary specialist Dogwoof. “There is an amazing variety of film this year in terms of subject matter and style. I could easily name a dozen titles that are worthy of a Bafta. They are all different and then you also have the likes of The Arbor and Dreams Of A Life that are challenging the very definition of what a documentary is.”

‘I found it hard to understand why Bafta said no to the idea of a documentary award’

John Battsek, Passion Pictures

The Bafta documentary award will recognise documentary feature films from around the world as long as they have received a theatrical release in the UK. The award will only be presented in a year when 15 or more films are entered. A specialist documentary chapter of Bafta will vote for a long list of five films during round one and will vote again in round two to determine the three nominations. Voting will then be open to all film voters in round three to choose the winner. The move has been widely welcomed though some film-makers question why Bafta had been so resistant to the demand for such an award for so long.

“It is an entirely positive thing,” claims John Battsek, the Oscar-winning producer of 1999’s One Day In September and head of film at Passion Pictures. “But One Day In September was over a decade ago, Touching The Void was eight years ago, Man On Wire was three years ago. I always found it hard to understand year in and year out why Bafta said no to the idea. The argument for it just seems to have been building and building.”

Changing perceptions

Part of the reason for the establishment of the documentary category is not just that Bafta attitudes have softened, but they are responding to changing perceptions of the documentary itself — both within the industry and by audiences. 

“There used to be a sense documentaries were somehow good for you but they could also be didactic and quite off-putting,” suggests UK director Kim Longinotto, whose documentary credits include 2005’s Sisters In Law and 2010’s Pink Saris. “I don’t think that is the case any more. Audiences are much more discerning. There are great characters in documentaries that fiction doesn’t come up with very often, especially when they just offer up a formula that feels overly familiar. Documentaries create a world you can invest in, and have become much more about participating in an experience. The shift in Bafta is a response to a hunger from audiences. The two are going together. It’s not one happening without the other.”

The growing number of documentaries released in the UK has certainly created the kind of critical mass that transformed the argument for a documentary award into an irresistible force. 

“One of our aims at Dogwoof was to increase the theatrical presence of documentaries in the UK,” explains Whittaker. “We wanted to create a market in which the documentary was just as staple a part of the cinema-going diet as animation or seeing a foreign-language film. That kind of profile has to have played a part in the award.”

It has been possible for documentary films to win Bafta awards in the past: Touching The Void and Man On Wire both picked up Alexander Korda awards for the best British film. But the new dedicated category means the whole art form has been properly included within the celebrations. Distributors are clearly working harder to promote documentaries this year, with more screenings and film-maker Q&A events for Bafta voters.

“In the past we might have been campaigning to secure a best picture nomination for Restrepo or a best foreign-film nomination for Burma V-J and realistically there was not much chance of that happening,” admits Whittaker. “Now there is a clear target and so of course we’re doing more.”

Senna and Pina are just two of the titles most frequently mentioned when canvassing opinion about the prime contenders for what will be the inaugural award. There are a whole range of other contenders with realistic prospects for Bafta success including Stevan Riley’s rousing celebration of the glory days of West Indies cricket in Fire In Babylon, Danfung Dennis’ insightful portrait of an Afghanistan veteran in Hell And Back Again, Werner Herzog’s magical 3D Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, James Marsh’s Project Nim, the remembrances of the Aids pandemic in San Francisco in We Were Here and Errol Morris’ revisiting of the ‘Manacled Mormon’ scandal in Tabloid.

The question of whether a Bafta win might translate into some kind of commercial benefit for any of these titles remains the most intriguing.

“Over the past five years, documentaries have been responsible for getting more and more people into cinemas,” declares Heather Croall, director of the Sheffield Doc/Fest. “The Bafta award can only be a good thing in terms of raising profile, keeping that interest alive and refreshed. It all helps in the whole scheme. I really hope Bafta ensures this is one of the awards that’s part of the televised ceremony because that will help to foster a greater interest. Perhaps the winner will go back into cinemas and will certainly get a boost on DVD or online.

“Audiences have demonstrated an appetite for documentaries and the award can only help to maintain momentum for a part of the industry that has a huge impact on jobs and investment in British film-making.”