August 8, 2008

Get Real for High Drama

By Simon Usborne

'Man on Wire', as thrilling as any blockbuster, is also a true story. It's just one of a new wave of great British-made documentaries, says Simon Usborne

It can be said with reasonable certainty that Philippe Petit is the only tightrope walker to have appeared on Desert Island Discs. In 2005, while recounting an extraordinary life spent with his head in the clouds, the French high-wire artist also became the first "islander" to cue up works by Morricone and Dvorak alongside obscure Jewish chants. His luxury: "An object found by my father that as yet no one can identify."

Listening to the quixotic circus performer on the radio that morning was the documentary film producer Simon Chinn, who had overslept. "I had been looking for a subject for a feature documentary and was immediately struck by Petit and this extraordinary story," he recalls. "I got hold of his book To Reach the Clouds and knew that it had the potential to be something special."

Three years on, and 34 years since Petit made "poetry in the sky" by walking a 200ft wire rigged between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, 1,368ft above rapt onlookers, Chinn is revelling in the glory that followed that chance encounter with Petit on Radio 4. A week after opening in UK cinemas, Man on Wire, Chinn's documentary-cum-heist thriller, has done vigorous trade at the box office, taking a cable's thread under 100,000 on its first weekend.

In the US, where audiences in New York broke into both applause and tears, the film was the biggest opening-weekend documentary for its American distributor, Magnolia Pictures, since last year's greatly hyped Michael Moore polemic Sicko. Meanwhile, fevered critics on both sides of the Atlantic have called Man on Wire "breathtaking" and "exhilarating", helping the documentary to steal some of the summer thunder surrounding that other daredevil film, The Dark Knight.

For the dedicated and growing band of producers, writers, directors and festival organisers who make up the British documentary industry, the success of Man on Wire, which swept the awards when it premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, is no surprise. While its subject is French and its setting American, the film was two-thirds funded by Storyville, the BBC's documentary strand, and the UK Film Council (the US studio Discovery Films paid for the remaining third). It was produced by Chinn (whose works include the 2005 docu-drama The Government Inspector) and directed by Cornish-born James Marsh.

"This is a really exciting time for British documentary," says Jess Search, head of the Channel 4 British Documentary Film Foundation and the Britdoc Festival, where Man on Wire won best film last month. "These days, we have no problem getting top US buyers like HBO coming to Britdoc because they know we've got the best documentary film-makers in the world right now."

Search says Man on Wire and the British film to which it is often compared, the similarly uplifting 2003 docu-thriller Touching the Void, represent a new wave in British documentary-making. "We've always had the talent, but in some ways our documentary makers have been the victims of the success of British television; until recently they have made British documentaries for British audiences on domestic TV," she says. "Now, finally, they are breaking out and making incredible feature documentaries that win awards all over the world. The Brits are taking over."

The Sheffield Doc/Fest, of which The Independent is the media partner, is the biggest event on the British documentary circuit. Its director, Heather Croall, believes a change in the way documentaries are funded has given rise to a golden age. "There was a time when the BBC or Channel 4 would invest wholly in British documentaries and ownership resided with the network," she says. "But usually the passion behind a film to get it out is with the producer rather than the broadcaster. A couple of years ago, that changed and now producers get ownership. It means they have to find most of the funding themselves, so there is a huge incentive for them to collaborate to get the investment and give their babies a good life."

Chinn's search for funding for Man on Wire led him to the door of Storyville editor Nick Fraser, who jumped at the chance to invest in the project. "I thought Simon's idea was great," Fraser says. "Nothing beats a good documentary, and once in a while you come up with something that is utterly terrific. It's not always the case when you commission films that you are happy with every element but I'm not surprised Man on Wire is doing so well. I just wish we would get more projects like it."

For the modern documentary-maker, an inspiring subject has become the crucial element. Mark Cousins, the film-maker and co-editor with Touching the Void director Kevin Macdonald of Imagining Reality: the Faber Book of Documentary, believes documentary makers from all over the world are realising that "dreamers and adventurers" are what pull people into cinemas.

"It started with films like Hoop Dreams, the basketball documentary; When We Were Kings, the story of the Rumble in the Jungle boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman; and the Cuban music and dance film Buena Vista Social Club," Cousins says. "These stories really woke people up. Then you had films like Spellbound, which followed a US spelling bee competition, that cost almost nothing yet worked so well because they are about the small people who are inspiring."

In Philippe Petit, Simon Chinn struck documentary gold. With his wired personality and anarchist-Zen pursuit of adventure, art and rebellion, the Frenchman could not be a more engaging subject. "He is extremely charismatic and unusual and that is absolutely central to the success of the film," Chinn says. But committing to celluloid a story Petit has told with such zeal for more than three decades was a tall order. "He was determined not to do a V

C sit-down interview because he didn't want just to be a talking head," Chinn recalls. "He wanted to get up and perform. We agreed to do both, so you see him springing to life and hiding behind curtains. It turned out to be one of the best things about the film."

Petit's co-conspirators, the men and women who helped him to plan and execute his audacious "coup", as he calls it, play valuable supporting roles in Man on Wire, but there are three leads in this drama - Petit, and the north and south towers of the World Trade Centre. Instead of the images of the steel giants burning and crumbling that have been burned on to the retinas of a generation, we see rare archive footage of the towers being built between 1966 and 1973. Much of the towers' history burned with them - the buildings served as the headquarters of their developers, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey - but Chinn was able to secure documentary footage that had been kept outside the city.

"I'm not sure the film would offer the same experience without the poignancy the footage and the towers themselves bring to the story," Chinn says. By not referring to the fate of the twin towers, Chinn and Marsh sought to make an "alternative narrative to reclaim their memory". Chinn adds: "From the outset we felt there was no need to talk about what happened to them."

Mark Cousins believes the story of the towers is one reason not only for the success of Man on Wire but other documentaries like it. "September 11 made Hollywood look behind the times," he says. "The power of documentaries to tell more important stories and the new thirst for realism have created a very fertile bed for documentary to grow."

With its extraordinary subject and poignant backdrop in place, the third reason for the success of Man on Wire is the dramatic reconstructions and the soundtrack that turn it from a documentary into a rollicking thriller. "It's fantastic," Cousins says. "It's got the density of a film noir - one of those great Hollywood movies."

It's a comparison that Chinn welcomes, and one that has seen a blurring of the lines between documentary and drama in other works - most notably, again, Touching the Void. "We deliberately constructed the film as a heist thriller," Chinn says of Man on Wire. "Stylistically it has more in keeping with Reservoir Dogs or Ocean's Eleven than traditional documentaries. I think there is still a perception that documentaries should be good for you but we wanted to make something that would thrill and entertain."

Some in the industry have questioned whether "docu-thrillers" or "thrillumentaries", as they might one day be called, are creating a niche sub-genre and that, in the new wave of British documentary- making, the smaller boats - the documentaries without soundtracks and recreations - might not float with the tide. Heather Croall disagrees: "I think the British documentary industry has so many layers - there's no other country with as many slots for documentaries on TV and in film - and emerging talents have an opportunity to get a foot in the door in a way they don't elsewhere. The industry needs to be seen as a whole and we need these successes to make it work."

Chinn says Petit "loves" the film the highwire artist has waited so long to make. But, as incorrigible a showman as he was when, aged 24, he enraged the New York Police Department, Petit is not content to take his Man on Wire DVD and retire. Now living in a barn near Woodstock, New York, with his partner, the production director Kathy O'Donnell, he still spends three hours a day wire-walking, and he performs circus acts for local children. He says he has pulled off more than 40 wire "coups" since he bridged the twin towers, including a walk across Amsterdam Avenue in New York to the spires of the Cathedral of St John the Divine, where he is artist in residence. Next he wants to walk across Easter Island and, ultimately, the Grand Canyon. In the meantime, he's developing a blockbuster account of his World Trade Centre walk with the Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis.

The Hollywood treatment of Petit's story will do well to replicate the success of Man on Wire, but, despite its success, Fraser offers a word of caution about the state of British documentary-making. "I think we've reached a perilous time," he says. "I've been doing Storyville for 10 years, and when cuts were made last year we were only able to go on after a public campaign. The margin between documentaries flourishing and failing is still very small, and most do very badly at the box office. But every time there's a documentary like Man on Wire, it fills me with hope."

'Man on Wire' is out now



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