Archive for the ‘documentary films’ Category

Coincidences No.s 433 & 434

small talk taiwan documentary 2016

No. 434 Small Talk

I have a conversation with my wife about someone close to us who was saying that they struggle with small talk.

I go into the kitchen and on the worktop is a leaflet from the NSPCC entitled Small Talk.

I head upstairs and flick through last year’s programme for Open City Docs festival (at which I spoke on short form documentaries) – in it is a Taiwanese film called Small Talk.

Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. [1938] by Sir William Rothenstein (1872-1945)

Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. [1938] by Sir William Rothenstein (1872-1945)

No. 435 Rothenstein

I go to an exhibition at the Wiener Library called London 1938: Defending German ‘Degenerate’ Art. On one of the display boards the these days not particularly well known English art world mover&shaker (longest-serving Director of the Tate) John Rothenstein gets a mention.

I am reading my book group book later in the afternoon, The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst, and John Rothenstein gets a mention as a couple of the characters are more or less in the London art world.

*** 434 meets 435

Just before writing this I was reading more of The Sparsholt Affair to try to get finished in time for the book group post-summer gathering tomorrow night. One of the first sentences I read:

She was aware of the light burden it put on any adult seated next to her, to keep one ear on the real conversation while they turned to make small talk with her.

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Violet Vixen

My latest Real Stories Original commission to go live is Violet Vixen. In the wake of the documentary‘s launch, its protagonist, Leo Noakes aka Violet Vixen, appeared this week on ‘Loose Women’ (ITV). I went to the live studio transmission at the BBC Studios at Television Centre, Shepherd’s Bush with the director, Leanne Rogers. Leo did a good job in a high pressure situation, wittily taking up Stacey Solomon’s  offer to have him become her make-up artist.

violet vixen poster real stories original documentary

Leo is an articulate, sassy, amazingly mature 11 year old boy who loves doing make-up, dressing up and playing with his identity. He doesn’t want to be a girl but he does want the liberty to do ‘girlish’ things and above all to be who he is.

“I love dressing up. I don’t particularly see the clothes and make-up I wear as belonging to girls, or even to boys. I hate the fact that society labels stuff.” says Leo.

His mother surprises him with a trip to Brighton to meet his hero, drag artist Courtney Act, who Leo first came across on US reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race. The contrast between conventional Corby where his home is and progressive Brighton blows his young mind.

Leo runs a very successful Instagram channel, overseen by his mother, Lauren. She has to protect him from trolls but by and large people are positive about his alter ego, Violet Vixen. He uses his social media channels to spread the age-old message: Be true to who you are!

Leo’s know-how about make-up is particularly striking. He taught himself as Lauren is not really into cosmetics or clothes. He has ambitions to move to the USA and become a TV drag artist. But above all he wants the freedom to be himself.

courtney act tweet about leo violet vixen

Courtney Act aka Shane Gilberto Jenek, winner of Celebrity Big Brother 2018, was delightful in his interactions with Leo and proved a huge inspiration.

Courtney Act drag queen

Courtney Act

One of my favourite aspects of the film is the way Leo cannot compute that a place like Brighton (where he meets Courtney) actually exists – a place where he wouldn’t stand out for being who he is.

courtney act leo noakes violet vixen

Courtney, Leo, mum & friend

courtney act leo noakes violet vixen

leo noakes violet vixen brighton

In Your Face hits 1 Million mark

in your face documentary real stories 1 million youtube views

In Your Face (a film I conceived and commissioned for Real Stories) hit 1 million views on YouTube this weekend, a month after going live. It received 2 million views on its opening weekend on Facebook and a cut-down received a whopping 10 million Facebook views in that same period but the million on the more deliberate viewing platform that is YouTube is nonetheless a significant landmark in the 21-minute film’s life.

In Your Face Real Stories Original documentary confronting tattoo prejudice

In Your Face: confronting tattoo prejudice

Are facial tattoos the final frontier?

To what extent do face and neck tattoos shape your opinion of someone? Three heavily tattooed people have their facial tattoos covered up by an expert make-up artist as part of a social experiment to compare how they are treated with and without ink, and to explore whether tattoos on the face are the final frontier of self-decoration. In this age of mainstream tattoo acceptance, what’s the social price you pay for inking your face? And what motivates people to do it?

Skat Dagger is named after the dagger tattoo that used to pierce his face from above the left eye to the cheek. He first inked his face at the age of 21. He now has “Winter” written on one cheek and the image of a rose on the other. He lost a daughter at 14 months – her name was Winter Rose. The stories of Skat, Becky and Jason (the three people featured in the film) give insights into why individuals step over the border into having tattoos on their face.

As their tattoos are carefully removed by world double body-painting champion Carolyn Roper using specialist make-up and they look into the mirror for the first time at their ‘clean’ faces, we get to see their emotional reactions. We also see them undertaking various everyday activities first with their tattoos, then with their tattoos ‘removed’. From asking for change of a five pound note for a parking meter to going for a low-skilled job, we get to see the contrast between how they are treated ‘before’ and ‘after’.

As a climax, they enter Harrods, the famous up-market department store, which has a no tattoo policy not only for staff but even for customers! They go in with make-up covering their tats, wash it off in the washrooms, then see what happens when they engage with staff from the cosmetics counter to the watch department.

‘In Your Face’ was produced by Showem Entertainment for Little Dot Studios. You can watch it here:

 

Vanished – press coverage

Some excellent press coverage in both the tabloids and qualities helped ‘Vanished’, the documentary I recently made with Martin Bright and Ryan Ralph for Real Stories, bring in a very respectable quarter of a million views on YouTube in its opening fortnight.

daily mirror vanished adam gee

The whole point of the coverage

daily mirror 10th May 2018 Could dark family secret hold the key? adam gee

Daily Mirror 10th May 2018 Could dark family secret hold the key?

The double-page spread from the newspaper appeared in the 3rd slot on the mighty Daily Mail website just below Trump welcoming home prisoners from North Korea and Barbara Windsor getting Altzheimer’s.

Daily Mail Vanished

The story was then picked up by The Sun…

sun vanished

…and The  Mirror

mirror vanished

As well as being covered in The Observer/The Guardian

Ruth Wilson, the schoolgirl who caught a cab to oblivion The Observer martin bright 2018-04-29

…and The Belfast Telegraph (home town of one of the two protagonists, ex-counter-terrorism cop, Liam McAuley).

ex-met officer from ni and his search for missing teen belfast telegraphy 8th may 2018

The Belfast Telegraph 8th May 2018

The coverage has helped progress the case bringing forward new witnesses and information which is being shared with Surrey Police, who brought on a new officer to take charge of the 23-year-old missing person investigation in March when the ‘Vanished’ team were firing a lot of questions their way. Martin Bright and I went in for an initial meeting with the investigating officers and their boss on Monday after struggling to get input from the police throughout the filming. They did show up at the screening and Q&A we ran for the community at Dorking Halls Cinema on the eve of the film going live but chose to remain incognito.

In Your Face – Week 1

A cool 9 million views for this cut-down from the documentary ‘In Your Face’ in its first week, with high engagement – 5,500 comments; 65,000 shares; 52,000 reactions. Part of this success we have concluded is down to the likeability and charm of the protagonist, Jason – (it has outperformed other similar videos and the casting seems to provide the explanation).

In Your Face real stories facebook 2018-05-18

The full film of ‘In Your Face’ is here. The full film on Facebook/Facebook Watch has netted 1.8M views this week which is also a very decent performance and underlined that this is very much a Facebook rather than a YouTube subject, benefitting from viewers engaged through sharing and commenting and happy to pick the videos up in their stream rather than deliberately seeking it out in some way.

in your face real stories facebook 2018-05-18

I have now made 40 documentaries on tattoos including these series for Channel 4:

tattoo twists channel 4 all4

Tattoo Twists – my first tattoo series, inspired Channel 4’s Tattoo Fixers

my secret tattoo channel 4 all4

My Secret Tattoo – this man works with the Minister of Defence (with this hidden under his shirt & tie)

tattoo fails channel 4 all4

A random still from Tattoo Fails

Lead Story at the scene of the mystery

This morning journalist Martin Bright and I were interviewed on the BBC Radio Surrey breakfast show about our documentary ‘Vanished’. The documentary was the lead story on the station’s news this morning, pipping MI5 and Putin to the top spot. It has now accumulated 0.25M views on the Real Stories YouTube channel in its opening days.

[11 minutes listen]

Vanished

VANISHED the surrey schoolgirl documentary real stories

My sixth commission for Real Stores is ‘Vanished’. You can see it here. With a bit of luck it will cross the 200,000 views on YouTube tomorrow.

Vanished: The Surrey Schoolgirl

When should a missing person case become a criminal investigation?

 “Every journalist has that story that just sticks with you” – the words of journalist Martin Bright who covered the unexplained disappearance of Surrey schoolgirl, Ruth Wilson, for ‘The Observer’. Now, 23 years on, the mystery has been reignited by an ex-counter-terrorist cop who felt that something just didn’t quite add up…

On Monday 27th November 1995, 16-year-old Ruth Wilson left for school as usual. She said goodbye to her parents in the chocolate-box Surrey village of Betchworth – but she never made it to school that day. Instead she went in to Dorking and then late in the afternoon, with the winter daylight fading, she took a taxi to the local beauty spot of Box Hill. And then she vanished off the face of the earth…

In the two decades after Ruth’s disappearance not a word had been heard from her. Despite several appeals for information over the years, what happened to her remained a mystery. It was a mystery that bothered Liam, the retired police officer living locally, to such a degree that he contacted Martin Bright out of the blue after all those years and shared the conclusions of the investigations he had undertaken off his own bat as a private citizen and concerned resident.

The story of Ruth’s disappearance would not let go of the journalist or the policeman. As they joined forces and investigated, new facts and new witnesses appeared, throwing new light on an old but not forgotten case…

‘Vanished: The Surrey Schoolgirl’ was directed by Ryan Ralph of Below The Radar in Belfast and produced by journalist Martin Bright.

An intriguing Facebook group has grown around it which has yielded yet more witnesses and clues.

Martin Bright & I have been called in to meet the Police on Monday.

He do the Police in different voices

The ripples from ‘Vanished’ documentary

New witnesses and facts have continued to emerge in the wake of the release of ‘Vanished: The Surrey Schoolgirl’ last week on Real Stories, my latest commission for the channel made with journalist Martin Bright and director Ryan Ralph.

Today it appeared as the subject of a double-page spread in The Belfast Telegraph focused on Martin’s partner in crime investigation, ex-counter-terrorism cop Liam McAuley.

ex-met officer from ni and his search for missing teen belfast telegraphy 8th may 2018

The Belfast Telegraph 8th May 2018

Ex-Met officer from Belfast and his search for missing teen Ruth Wilson

Belfast man Liam McAuley is part of a new film which looks at the cold case of Surrey girl Ruth Wilson who disappeared 23 years ago

By Leona O’Neill

A former police officer from Northern Ireland is part of a new documentary examining the quest to solve the cold case disappearance of a teenager.

Ruth Wilson vanished in 1995 after travelling to a beauty spot in Surrey, England. Fifteen years later Liam McAuley, a former north Belfast man who had just retired from the Metropolitan Police, picked up a newspaper, read her story and became enthralled.

Mr McAuley (58) began investigating the disappearance, and has joined forces with an English journalist called Martin Bright, and produced the documentary Vanished: The Surrey Schoolgirl, in the hope of shining a new light on the seemingly forgotten case.

Liam retired from the police nine years ago. A year later, while perusing a Surrey newspaper, he came across the Ruth Wilson case. The 16-year-old girl had gone missing in Surrey in 1995, and he was immediately intrigued.

“I happened to be reading a local paper and came across the article about Ruth,” he said.

“It just didn’t seem to add up to me instinct ively. This was a 16-year-old schoolgirl, who has just disappeared and nothing has been heard of her ever since. We are now approaching 23 years.

“When I read the article for the first time, I just had that feeling that something was just not quite right. A 16-year-old just can’t disappear.

“She comes from a rural village. She wouldn’t have been street smart like her city cousins.

“She’s left home in the clothes that she’s standing up in. She had a bank card that was not activated. She was dropped in a rural part of the country and that was the last that was seen of her.

“You have to think there was something not quite right there.”

The 30-minute film, which is on YouTube, works from the standpoint that Ruth is no longer alive. Surrey Police and the Wilson family opted not to contribute, but many of Ruth’s school friends, along with her ex-boyfriend, did come forward.

“The police in the area remained tight-lipped and were no help. It was all very odd,” he added.

The film claims Ruth had been unaware that her mother, who had died when she was young, had taken her own life until shortly before she disappeared.

It also features interviews with Ruth’s friends who claim she had discussed running away.

Later, the film suggests there is potentially more information available which has not yet been explored.

Liam left Northern Ireland as a teenager and spent 30 years in the Metropolitan Police and Counter Terrorism Unit, focusing solely on Islamic Terrorism.

“I grew up in north Belfast,” he explained. “I lived in what was classed as the ‘murder triangle’. I lived all through the Seventies, going to school hearing all the tragic stories from friends and some of the pupils at school, what happened to them.

“Where I lived I had friends on both sides of the community. When you grow up somewhere like that you think this is your world, this is it. But it was a case of do you get stuck with it or try and carve on with your own life?

ARTICLE CONTINUES in The Belfast Telegraph

The Schoolgirl who caught a Cab to Oblivion

This article about my latest documentary commission for Real Stories channel appeared in yesterday’s The Observer newspaper. It was written by journalist Martin Bright who features in the film.

Full article in The Observer

Ruth Wilson, the schoolgirl who caught a cab to oblivion The Observer martin bright 2018-04-29

Ruth Wilson, the schoolgirl who caught a cab to oblivion

In 1995 a teenager travelled to a local beauty spot and disappeared. A new documentary finds many unanswered and troubling questions remain

 

Two years ago I was contacted out of the blue by a retired police officer who asked if I remembered the case of Ruth Wilson, a 16-year-old girl who had gone missing from Dorking, Surrey, in November 1995. I told him that of course I remembered – it was one of the most peculiar stories I had covered as a journalist.

Ruth had left home as usual on a miserable winter morning, but instead of going to school, had taken a cab in the pouring rain to the top of bleak but beautiful Box Hill, where she vanished off the face of the earth. A good girl from a good family, Ruth has never been heard of since and no body has been found.

I first wrote about the case in the Observer more than 15 years ago and it has haunted me ever since.

In 2002 I concluded that the circumstances of the Ruth Wilson case were perhaps just too odd to become the focus of a media campaign. There had been some attempts to use her family to draw attention to the case, but they were not keen on publicity. Over the years there was a series of further appeals, but even in Surrey the Ruth Wilson story just faded away.

And it would have remained in obscurity were it not for Liam McAuley, a 58-year-old retired police officer from Northern Ireland, who came across the story in a local paper when he moved to Dorking in the mid-1990s. “Nobody can actually just vanish,” he told me. “I think something terrible has happened to her. Somebody knows where she is.”

McAuley made a freedom of information request to the police to ask for details of the interviews carried out after the disappearance. He was told the case was still ongoing and he could not have the documents he had requested.

He wrote to Ruth’s parents, Ian and Karen, who still lived in the village of Betchworth, near Dorking, but received no reply. In his frustration he contacted me as the last journalist to write extensively about her. His tenacity has led to the making of a documentary, The Vanished, released this weekend.

The circumstances of Ruth Wilson’s disappearance had always left me uneasy. Why had this studious, church-going, bell-ringing, choir-singing, organ-playing young woman suddenly decided to make a new life for herself?

In the intervening years, I had discovered something about the Wilson family they had chosen to hide from me at the time. Karen Wilson, introduced to me as Ruth and her sister Jenny’s mother, was in fact their stepmother. Their birth mother, Nesta, had died in tragic circumstances when Ruth was a toddler and Jenny still a baby. Why hadn’t they told me this? Was this really such a happy family? And did the death of her mother have anything to do with Ruth running away?

When we started making the documentary Ian Wilson got back to me saying he and the family didn’t want to participate, although he trusted us to do “a professional job”.

With the family refusing to speak, we decided to contact Ruth’s friends. We knew she had recently split up with her boyfriend, Will, and I managed to track him down to the south coast. Will, who does not want to be identified, explained that Ruth was a troubled teenager. She was unhappy at home. Will confirmed that her mother had died. The story he had heard was that she had fallen downstairs and broken her neck.

Following an appeal in the local newspaper, other friends came forward. Roxy Birch, a schoolfriend who played Ruth in an early reconstruction of the disappearance, told me: “She couldn’t drive, as far as I am aware, she didn’t have a passport… So, you have to ask yourself the question, where could she have disappeared to for 22 years?” Kay Blenard, another schoolfriend, said: “My belief is that she had planned to do something. I don’t know whether that would be permanent or temporary. I’d also like to believe that someone knows what happened.”

Nesta Wilson’s death certificate showed that the story of the accident on the stairs was not correct. The awful truth is that Ruth’s mother committed suicide: she hanged herself just before Christmas in 1982, when Ruth was four and her sister a few months old.

Just after receiving this grim information, I was contacted by another of Ruth’s friends. Catherine Mair grew up close to her in the sixth form of The Ashcombe School. Crucially, Catherine revealed that Ruth had found out about her mother’s suicide just before she disappeared. She was devastated. “Ruth was really troubled,” she said. “She had so much going on in her head that she was desperately trying to find out who she was. ”

We put this to the Wilsons and they issued a response. “Her family are extremely hurt by this statement and do not recognise this view of Ruth’s childhood,” they said. “Ruth always knew about her biological mother’s death, but not the exact cause. Sadly, we now know that before her disappearance, Ruth had discovered the tragic circumstances of her mother’s death, but equally sadly, she chose not to discuss or question this with any family members.”

Jon Savell, the chief superintendent, public protection, at Surrey police, carried out the latest review. “There are five explanations for Ruth Wilson’s disappearance,” he said. “A tragic accident, abduction, suicide, murder, or that she had absented herself to start a new life.” I asked him whether the police had known about Ruth’s unsettled home life and her birth mother’s suicide. He confirmed that they had indeed known about the family background, but chose not to make it public in case it coloured the testimony of any witnesses who came forward. So it was that the narrative developed of the perfect middle-class home and an inexplicable disappearance.

There are so many unanswered questions. Why did Ruth send her stepmother flowers to arrive two days after her disappearance? Where is her mother’s family and why did they not come forward? And why, if she ran away, has she never made contact with her family and friends?

Someone knows what happened to Ruth. And secrets have a tendency to come out in the end.

Vanished: The Surrey Schoolgirl can be seen on the Real Stories YouTube channel

 

Not the Usual Suspects

Social Media Addicts Anonymous still poster documentary film

Social Media Addicts Anonymous

Carol Nahra interviewed me last week for her documentary film-making blog Docs on Screens

Carol is an American journalist and documentary producer, who since moving to London in 1996 has worked as a producer, and as a consultant & writer for Sheffield Doc/Fest. She also teaches documentary film and digital media for Syracuse University’s London program and the Foundation for International Education. She regularly moderates Q&As and special events at London documentary screenings.

Taster of the interview

Little Dot’s Adam Gee: “I have made a real effort not to commission the usual suspects.”

 

In more than a decade at Channel 4 heading up factual multiplatform content, Adam Gee commissioned many multi-award winning productions, including Embarrassing Bodies and the Big Fish Fight. After a stint launching All 4’s short form video service, he is now commissioning for Little Dot Studios, who have earned astonishing viewing numbers with their flagship Real Stories documentary channel. A regular guest speaker for my digital engagement class, Adam excels at spotting trends and keeping ahead of the game in a dizzying, fast-changing media landscape. I chatted with him about his work finding new pathways for documentary filmmakers.

Carol Nahra: Can you tell me about your role at Little Dot?

Adam Gee: I was brought in last summer to commission the first original content for Little Dot’s Real Stories, their documentary channel, which is the biggest of their portfolio of channels. It’s a very pure form of commissioning in that I was given a blank sheet, a pot of money and instructions to fill up the blank sheet with stuff that would fit properly onto the channel. So I set about basing the brief on the data underlying the channel. The data makes it really clear both who your audience is and what they actually like. This does not constrict your commissioning, it just shows where the most fertile territory lies.

CN: What kind of films do you commission?

AG: One of the things that characterises Real Stories is by and large they are uplifting and inspirational and have a feel-good vibe about them. And that is probably to some degree a product of the time – I think people are quite up for hearing things which are uplifting about humanity. So I commissioned eleven documentaries in the second half of 2017. I’ve just started on the next five. They are very varied subjects which range from restorative justice to proxy marriage to social media addiction and all things in between. They also range from traditional observational documentary to things that are much closer to the border of factual entertainment. And to some degree they have been done in the spirit of experimentation, to see what fits happily onto the channel which has been built up on acquisitions, what people find an easy transition to if they’re watching the 60 minute, relatively high budget documentaries which are the foundations of the channel.

CN: What don’t you commission?

AG: YouTube is the core online presence of Real Stories and there are certain subject areas which are vulnerable on YouTube to being demonetised or slapped with an 18 certificate – in other words, are vulnerable to being made invisible. So I was careful to stay a long way inland from those borders so the investment wasn’t at risk in that way. There are plenty of places you can go to make documentaries about ISIS or fetishes and this doesn’t need to be one of them. My favourite part of the brief is the slide that says what we don’t want at the moment. And that reads pretty much like my Channel 4 job description – sex, drugs and rock and roll. I’ve been there, done that, got the t-shirt and am happy to move on.

CN: Who have made the films?

AG: By and large these commissions have been done with small indies and individual filmmakers. I have made a real effort that they not be the usual suspects. So when I read down a list of the commissions to date, the first ones were directed by the founder of a new BAME-owned company (Andy Mundy Castle, Brittle Bone Rapper); a woman returner who’s coming back from a career break (Debbie Howard, Absent From Our Own Wedding); a woman who has been in Holloway prison twice for gang-related offences but is now on the straight and narrow (Nicole Stanbury, Sorry I Shot You).

A number are first-time commissions. Taken as a whole, they are quite a weird and wonderful bunch that are really talented and have delivered without exception. At a tight tariff like the UK online video one, if you’re not going to take a risk on emerging talent then, when will you ever?

Sorry I Shot You documentary film thumbnail poster Real Stories Little Dot Studios

Sorry I Shot You

FULL INTERVIEW can be read on Carol’s blog here

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