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Q & A with Elizabeth Wood - Founder and Director of Bertha Dochouse

Thursday 26 March 2015, by Abla Kandalaft

To celebrate the opening of Bertha Dochouse at the Curzon Bloomsbury we sat down with Elizabeth Wood to hear her thoughts on the history of Dochouse and the future of documentary.

How was DocHouse started?

I started the company 12 years ago. It was getting increasingly difficult to see good international documentaries on mainstream telly and no one was showing them in London cinemas at that time. Yet 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. I started by persuading The Other Cinema in central London to give DocHouse a slot on a Sunday afternoon. We’ve grown a lot since then, as has the audience for docs in the cinema and in the past few years we’ve been showing a different documentary once a week at some of our favourite cinemas across London.

What hurdles did you face at the beginning?

In 2002 no one would offer me a slot for documentaries in the cinema, except maybe on a Saturday morning! We wanted to find a platform for cinematic docs and so it was great when The Other Cinema, just off Leicester Square, offered us 4pm on a Sunday afternoon – actually a good slot after a Sunday lunch! We were very happy there for a couple of years, building a strong audience, until unfortunately it had to close due to increased rents and development. But by then docs were more popular and we were given a small office at the Riverside Studios on the understanding we would programme some documentaries in their lovely cinema – it was soon clear that we had an audience there too. However, that was in Hammersmith and people living in East London found it difficult to get there, but luckily we were invited to show at the Rich Mix in Shoreditch too and from there we have grown to exhibit at the ICA, the Ritzy, the Lexi and others. It was quite hard though because although we were building the brand we had very little money and had to rely on volunteers – but just to say we had some brilliant people join us and it was like a battle for the cause, which was fun even though financially fragile.

Could you tell us a little bit about what your job entails?

As Director, I curate the overall programme, which means watching a huge number of documentaries for selection and then planning the schedule of films we’ll show, including seasons, masterclasses, and mini-festivals. I also do a lot of Q&As, some teaching and inevitably have lots of meetings. The worst job for me is writing copy, it’s just not my favourite thing and takes me ages to do. All the team watch docs and offer ideas because we love them. But it’s our producer Jenny Horwell who actually makes the whole thing happen, she does some programming and Q&A’s too, but she’s the one who connects with distributors, producers and the cinemas to make the schedule work. She is brilliant.

Could you tell us a little bit more about your partnership with the Bertha Foundation?

A few years ago it was getting difficult to keep going due to lack of funds. I ran a doc-making course in partnership with NFTS (the Summerdocs course) to make enough money to pay DocHouse’s rent and expenses. Then I was introduced to the Bertha Foundation who fortuitously were looking to develop their documentary interests, and like a dream come true they supported us to expand our activities properly. It was like a miracle!

How will having your own premises impact on your usual programme of screenings and masterclasses?

Hugely, because although we have been building audiences at different cinemas across London, it’s so important to have one place where people know where to find us, no matter what day it is. Now we can be what we’ve always wanted – a central London venue for screenings and also a meeting place for doc enthusiasts and a hub for other organisations involved in documentary.
Having said all that, the ethos of DocHouse won’t change, we’ll just be able to do more which is very exciting.

The Bertha Dochouse screen is the UK’s first cinema screen dedicated to documentaries, do you think there is a growing interest in documentaries and if so, what do you think has caused this increase?

Two reasons.
First; digital technology has suited documentary exhibition really well. Not only is production cheaper and more democratic, but so is exhibition. 15 years ago showing docs in multiple cinemas was impossible because of the print costs. Now you can distribute digitally for relatively little.

Second; we believe there is a hunger in audiences to discover the wider world, it’s hard to find a good international documentary on mainstream TV –The excellent Storyville and True Stories are now on cable channels, which not everyone has access to. Current affairs programmes have been squeezed and so much factual TV is led by commentary, telling you what to think with talking heads making the point.
So we find audiences are amazed to see real stories, beautifully shot and edited addressing important issues from across the world.

How is the selection of documentaries made?

By watching a great number of documentaries! Going to film festivals and also increasingly producers and filmmakers send us their films. Having said that, it’s not too difficult – when you watch a great doc you just know you have to show it and then it’s a matter of planning a schedule that’s enticing and also thinking ahead to themes, seasons and maybe a festival or a retrospective with a filmmaker.

Have you ever faced censorship issues or protests for any of the screenings?

Sometimes Q&As get quite lively and even heated but that’s the idea and great. We did organise a day of screenings about nuclear energy – pro and con - last year, and we knew it was a hot button topic. On the day, a group of people came down to hand out anti-nuclear flyers outside the cinema, but once they understood that we were showing docs from all sides of the debate and trying to open up discussion, they were all for it.

In your experience, would you say having substantial experience in journalism or filmmaking is essential for emerging documentary filmmakers?

Filmmaking – yes. Journalism – not really. Unless you want to make investigative, current affairs programmes, which is major important but just one small part of the story. Most documentary makers have something they want to say about the world, usually to represent the under-represented. That doesn’t mean it has to be heavily socio/political, it can be an arts doc or a visual essay or a personal story. I would say to have a strong idea and a creative approach is the key – and then, most important, understanding the language of documentary making; the story and structure – visually as well as with words!

What is the best piece of advice you could give to budding documentary filmmakers?

Most of all, believe passionately in your idea! Think hard about the best way to express it – is it an observational doc or would it be best with your presence? Does it need archive and how do you make that work? If you’re independent and looking for funding it’s going to be a long journey and you really need to believe in what you want to make. Try to get like-minded collaborators to work with you. If it needs a big budget, then a producer partner is invaluable.

Do you target certain documentaries to specific audiences?

Sort of the reverse. When we select a doc for screening we publicise it to people who might be specifically interested in the content. We’ve found so often that people come to see a film because of the subject but then love seeing it on a big screen and discussing it afterwards and will come back to see more films.

In what ways could we get young people and school pupils more interested in watching documentaries? Do you think television output has a role to play in this?

TV certainly could if commissioners had the will to programme them at peak times. Otherwise there is quite a lot going on in the independent sector in partnership with schools and colleges that have been most successful in engaging young people. We are doing one at the moment ’Best of Dochouse’, in partnership with Open City and LCC for their students to attend. We would like to do more – it’s a priority

Now you have your own premises within the Curzon Bloomsbury are there any particular ambitions you have for DocHouse for the new future?

Always! We would like to expand our activity to have a major centre with a videotheque , interactive ability for all to use, and production/editing rooms. A vibrant hub of activity for the future ... but that’s a way away. Let’s make our lovely cinema work first.

Bertha Dochouse at the Curzone Bloomsbury opens March 27th - visit their new website for more information http://www.dochouse.org/

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