(01/08/08) – Britdoc festival, still only in its third year, has already established itself as a hugely enjoyable, extremely well organised and creatively inspiring event for documentary makers and audiences. Set in Oxford’s Keble College, the location is hard to beat and it’s a chance not only to catch-up with the work of today’s best British talent but also keep abreast of documentary goings-on through from current trends to new filmmaking funds.

The two themes of the festival were comedy and music, and both loomed large in masterclasses and panel debates. Comedy king Larry Charles, director of Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasmand Borat, took part in a one-on-one discussion about his work and influences, and a round table with conference-crashing Yes Men, Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum, Supersize Me co-writer and producer Jeremy Chilnik, and editor of Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine and Farenheit 9/11, Kurt Enghfer.

What is it, the question was posed, that makes documentaries funny? And why is it such an appealing way to tell a serious message? Charles professed enormous admiration for directors such as Michael Moore who reach significant audiences through their humorous brand of storytelling. For him, no topic was too serious to receive the comic treatment, and the others by and large agreed. It’s all in the approach… and the effect. Yet, interestingly, the motion ‘This House Believes Documentaries Are Too Serious’, argued by panellists including Jon Ronson at a later debate, was overturned, with 57% of the audience voting no. A hint then that while the appetite for funny documentaries may have increased in recent years, it’s not the only way we want to watch real-life stories.

On the music front, Michael Nyman, Nitin Sahwney and Jonathan Dove gave masterclasses, and a series of speed-dating one-on-ones were organised to team composers with documentary makers for possible collaborations.

12 films featured in the British competition. Required viewing, Brian Woods’ Chosen, a simply executed, extremely dignified and moving film about three men who suffered abuse at the hands of schoolteachers over 30 years ago will see its premiere on television in the Autumn. Richard Parry’s Bloodtrailcharts the compelling story of war photographer Robert King on his journey of ambition, disillusion and self-discovery from his rookie moments covering Sarajevo right up to present-day Iraq. Thriller in Manilla goes back over familiar Ali/ Joe Frazier ground to spotlight the Heavyweight fight from the loser’s point of view, detailing Ali’s deliberate smear campaign of Frazier as a ‘gorilla’ and ‘Uncle Tom’ and his subsequent ostracisation. Formally fairly conservative, it’s still interesting to see the other side of such a well-known story. Jerry Rothwell’s Heavy Load, about a disabled punk band, won the audience award, and the competition win went to Man on Wire (pictured), the breathtaking account of Frenchman Philippe Petit’s dream to walk across a wire strung between the World Trade Center towers come true. Marred only by its slightly overbearing soundtrack (Nyman), it’s a dizzying story of human reach and achievement, effectively weaving photographs, footage, recreation and interview to show the nailbiting lead-up to, and execution of, his impetuous act. It will be a surefire documentary success with audiences.

International films made an appearance courtesy of the Best of Fests strand in which programmers from festivals round the world picked their stand-out doc of the year. A diverse range included Heavy Metal in Baghdad (from Berlinale’s Dominique Green), Up the Yangtze (from IDFA), a beautiful, measured portrait of local Chinese whose lives are devastated by the Three Gorges Dam project (the choice of David Courier from Sundance Film Festival), Fionnuala Jamison of Toronto International Film Festival’s pick, Obscene, and At the Death House Door (from Janet Pierson at SXSW). Of the shorts in competition Eva Weber’s poetic The Solitary Life of Cranes was the clear winner.

Pitching forums also made up a significant part of the Britdoc proceedings. In a country where most documentary funding (aside from the recently formed Channel 4 British Documentary Fund), comes from TV, it’s a golden opportunity for British filmmakers to be able to present their projects to a panel of invited commissioners from round the world in the hope of gaining crucial co-production funding. In the Big Pitch subjects ranged a backpacker’s kidnapping by Marxist guerrillas in Colombia, the hostile treatment of one of the last white farmers at the hands of Mugabe, the story of AIDS today (told as a documentary musical) and the extraordinary popularity of Mills and Boons romances.

New to the festival this year were the Short Film Pitch, in which projects competed for £10,000 and the Good Pitch, which brought together an audience of NGOs, brands and funders (Amnesty, Christian Aid, Greenpeace, Sundance Institute, Gucci Tribeca Film Fund, amongst others) to watch filmmakers present their issue-driven documentaries and see how they could become involved with funding, advice or outreach. Projects included The Day After Peace, Jeremy Gilley’s follow up to Peace One Day, about his efforts to create one day where war ceases everywhere around the world and Marc Silver’s Resist in which Gael Garcia Bernal will journey through five countries to spend time with five people who are resisting abusive ‘systems’ in their own unique ways.

If you’re remotely interested in watching or making documentaries, next year, go.

Britdoc 08 took place between 23 and 25 July. For further information see links. Of the films mentioned in the article, Man On Wire opens in the UK today.