Coventry Conversations – Paul Watson

Being in the middle of a production of my own documentary, I felt it a good idea to drop by on this Coventry Conversation. Paul Watson is documentary film-maker who has been making his own independent films since the 1970s. His talk was from the outset clearly going to be about his past experiences, and the stories of how he made his most popular works.

The talk starts off rather embarrassingly. ETG34 computers fail to show any signs of ability to play Watson’s video montage of his previous works. He states that even Germany had computers that could play his video. To make matters worse, he is forced to wear a radio mic despite his protests. He turns it into a joke, by commenting to his audience that if you have warm hands, you will go far in the ‘audio’ side of media production (because girls love warm hands, apparently!).

Paul starts off by talking about his early days, being taught about the industry by Alan Whicker (known for Whicker’s World). The most memorable thing Paul was taught was to just ‘get on with it’, plain and simple. He did just that, and his talk drifts smoothly into comments about his works. He calls film-making an ‘opera of the arts’. Paul Watson started off as a painter (and still paints and has works in London galleries to this day), but says that films are like paintings, but with ‘operatic vocals’. He talks about one of his first productions, The Family, and how he was one of the original film makers who decided to video the ‘real’. He comments upon how Channel 4 is to this day ripping off his idea. This provides the focus point for most of his talk.

His says his idea for The Family came about by a dislike for middle classes, who seemed to control politics and the media. He wanted to portray the working class, and in a real and honest light. He is asked by a member of the audience how he gained the trust of the family he recorded for the documentary. He says that everyone has their own space, which you cannot invade. But the best way to gain trust is to make a ‘space’ of your own, and then everyone knows where they stand when they do an interview. He also exchanged secrets with the people he was interviewing, in order to gain their trust faster. Using tactics like this professionally proved unpopular with friends and family, as they ultimately never knew whether he was being authentic or honest with them or not. This all related the ‘human’ factor within his documentaries, which he says is one of the keys to his success.

This leads him to make a point that not all documentaries have to be ‘doom and gloom’. If there is a happy event, then explaining why that event is joyous and what it meant to people is a story in itself. Just after this comment, he states that he clearly hates using Z1 cameras because they’re tough on the hands and wrists. He does, however, put emphasis on the cheap, and that cheap documentaries are always going to be be around, and prove the more popular with the official broadcasters, which is an issue that seems to be around on my course a lot at present.

“If your subject wants to be in your documentary, even if you accept, they will never truly be in it.”

People who have something to say have a persona that they will take on. Although these contrasts between what people like to keep private and what they want to make public is a classic hypocrisy that is at the heart of a lot of his documentaries, he states that it is always best to find people you want to make a documentary about, rather than having people tell you that they want you to make a documentary about them. All of these aspects create a sort of ‘synergy’ which he says is the crucial part to get right, bringing the whole documentary together.

He talks about an eleven-year documentary he made about a man with alzheimers, who eventually died. He refused the film the death, so as to stop the broadcaster using the man’s death as a cheap selling point. However, despite him commenting on several other of his works, he believes that all his work has been undone due to our fascination with celebrity culture. Now, we need Martin Clunes to take us on a tour of the UK. His language descends into vibrant colours of all shades as he tells us all what he thinks of TV nowadays, before urging us to effectively take up his mantle, and make televisions authentic and genuine once more.

To advise us, he gives us three main points. First, he highlights that we as media producers are now on the verge of something great – the internet will inevitably change things, and we are the pioneers who will oversee these changes. Despite being an ‘author’ of all his works, he warns us to always employ an editor if we can. If we edit things ourselves, we will get a perfect cut exactly the way we want it. We will fall in love with our own work, then with ourselves, and will eventually be professionally disadvantaged as media producers. In his own words: “Get an editor you can trust to have an argument with.”. Finally he says that all our works should relate to the future, and our own future careers. Pressed for time, and video still not working, the conversation ends, and a rather well-informed audience leave with much to ponder upon.

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