Ania Ostrowska speaks to Jane Ray and Jane Mote about diversity in documentary filmmaking and why the Whicker’s World Foundation chose to widen the criteria for television documentary awards.
The diminishing role of public service broadcasters in commissioning and funding thoughtful documentaries from the authors’ lens makes foundations like the Whicker’s World Foundation (WWF) crucial to the survival of documentary-making community. As third edition of Whicker’s World Awards application process is underway (closing on 31 January 2018). I’m meeting Jane Ray and Jane Mote, consultants on the WWF Awards team, to find out more about the “Whicker spirit” behind the foundation and the awards themselves.
The foundation was created by late journalist and broadcaster Alan Whicker (1921-2013) – most famous for presenting TV documentary series Whicker’s World between 1988-1994 – to support the making of “quality documentaries.” Since 2015 the foundation, chaired by Whicker’s partner and collaborator of over 40 years, Valerie Kleeman, has been awarding substantial documentary production grants: £80,000 for original film & TV documentaries by first-time directors and up to £7,000 for audio documentary projects.
It’s a chilly November morning, but both my interviewees exude warmth and enthusiasm. Jane Ray, the Foundation’s Consultant Artistic Director with almost 30 years of experience in both radio and broadcast documentary, had met Alan Whicker when working on radio documentaries in the 1990s. Since then, they worked together with “growing affection and respect”, but it still came to Jane as a surprise that she was named in Whicker’s will as the person to organise the documentary awards scheme for the Foundation.
Jane Ray brought Jane Mote on board, an international TV executive with an illustrious career, including working for the UK edition of pioneering documentary channel Current TV, which featured both user-generated short films and progressive news pieces. “Together we make a good team of Janes,” chuckles Jane Mote. Indeed, the two Janes cover key aspects of both radio and TV documentary commissioning and production, as well as of developing documentary talent internationally.
Jane Mote sees their mission as nurturing “the next generation of talent”. I’m curious to know about the underlying values of the WWF, but also about what makes them different from other funders. The “Whicker spirit”, the passion for telling exciting stories wherever they are found, translates into the foundation’s international range. Applications are open to filmmakers from around the world and Jane Ray mentions documentary makers hailing from diverse locations, including a woman the Polynesian island of Tonga last year. The project pitched must be the documentarian’s first feature, and they should approach the WWF in the early stages of their project.
The pitched documentary must be “authored”, which for the WWF means it “can only be done by a person who brings the proposal to us,” says Jane Ray. The emphasis on the author, their passion as well as access, makes the WWF awards different from organisations like Bertha Foundation, which funds projects championing “social justice without compromise”. Jane Ray explains that not explicitly calling “social justice” campaign films is in keeping with Alan Whicker’s belief: that if you make your audience like the characters on screen, often with the use of humour, “then you’re half way towards seeing things from their point of view”. It also needs to be a television documentary, as Jane Mote insists, “we don’t want documentaries that aren’t going to get seen” like those on the festival circuit. I appreciate their practical approach – far from snubbing TV audiences, they emphasise the medium’s significant outreach as the factor that can make a real difference.
Starting this year, one of the most interesting changes to the Film & TV Funding Award is the lifted age restriction – although it is for the “emerging” filmmaker who can be of any age. They tell me that it was partly the career trajectories of two previous winners, Alex Bescoby and Pailin Wedel, that made them understand not only that “talent for documentary can emerge at any age” but also that “it’s life itself that makes best documentarians” rather than a linear progression from college to film school to filmmaking.
The 2016 winner Alex Bescoby is a non-shooting historian, whose passion for the subject won him the award. Researching a different project in Burma in 2014, Alex felt that all the changes happening in the country led to a very future-oriented approach in the media, neglecting Burma’s past. He pitched a documentary telling the story of the members of Burma’s royal family who went into hiding after King Thibaw’s death in 1916. Jane Mote stresses it is the applicant’s ability to tell the story, and stay with it, that matters. She does admit that although Alex was joined by his friend Max Jones as a cameraman and co-director, awarding a non-filmmaker was “a bit risk for the first one”.
Both Ray and Mote were thrilled by the diversity of stories they will get as a result of opening the door “wider than before”, yet still insist that the award will go to the best story. Jane Mote shares how after having received a low volume of applications from women docu-makers in the first year, they partnered with Chicken & Egg Accelerator Lab to “get the message out there that we are open for women applicants.” Although it didn’t guarantee “preferential treatment”, it was indeed Thai director Pailin Wedel who pocketed the 2017 award. Her project, Hope Frozen, will tell a story of two-year-old Thai girl, Einz, the youngest person and first ever in Asia to be cryogenically frozen. In the film, currently in production, Pailin probes whether the girl’s father’s decision will bring relief to the grieving family.
I can’t help but tell my interviewees about some of the insights I gleaned from my doctoral research on British women documentarians, namely, that some women start their documentary careers later in life after their children are independent. I suggest this makes age the not-immediately-obvious “diversity” category. This, in addition to people of any gender from less privileged backgrounds, who often can only afford to have creative careers after their material needs are secured. Jane Mote confirms that outreach and marketing remains one of the most challenging tasks they face.
“We’re looking for people with extraordinary talent who are there for the long term,” asserts Jane Mote, and they are willing to support winners with networks including legal contacts. Saying goodbye, I am taken by this ethos and the visible passion of both women.
You can apply for Whicker’s World Foundation award here: https://whickersworldfoundation.com/.
Photo Credit: Film still from Hope Frozen (Pailin Wedel), the winner of the 2017 Film & TV Funding Award
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.