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Can SBS seriously still screen documentaries?

scene during the making of Hope
I went along to the world premiere of the Steve Thomas documentary “Hope” on Friday as part of Melbourne International Film Festival. The documentary, which screened to a full house, tells largely in her own words the courageous and tragic story of the subject, Amal Basry an Iraqi survivor of the SIEV X sinking in 2001. Filled with emotion and sensitively edited, the documentary is a feature length 117 minutes.

According to the filmmakers at a Q&A session after the screening, the film struggled to gain the funding necessary, and that ultimately it was only through generous responses to appeals that the production was able to continue. At this stage the documentary has not been picked up for screening to an Australian television audience. This is a pity, because it deserves a much wider audience.

It was this latter point that I reflected on afterwards. In the past, SBS would have been a possible, or indeed, probable outlet for the screening of such a documentary. But I wonder how this could happen now. Under the advertising policy this already long film would get extended by about 15 minutes or so. However, the thought of this carefully crafted piece of work being emacerated by advertising breaks makes me gag. I can’t think of any place in the film where an interruption of any kind would show any respect to the work, the subject, or the audience. And I think the same applies to most programs, but especially documentaries.

SBS Independent (SBSi) has for many years been an important part of the documentary making field in Australia, and have leant their support to the making of many excellent documentaries when they might not otherwise have happened. Often these are premiered on the film festival circuit, but ultimately screened on SBS TV. I wonder how the relationship between SBSi and filmmaker is faring now. Does SBSi specify that a film must be constructed in such a way as to be suitable for advertising breaks? Has the criteria for assessing a documentary for production support or pre-sale changed, or involved commercial departments?

SBS claims that the objective of running in-program advertisements to to generate more income than is possible with inter-program breaks, and that this additional revenue is to be ploughed back into the making of more and better programs. One has to be sceptical about how programs can be made better by interrupting them with ads. I can’t imagine that Australian documentary makers would any longer be knocking on the door of SBS looking to form a partnership in their projects.

Sadly therefore, it is looking like that Australia has lost a previously repected documentary screener and producer, leaving the ABC the only effective (free to air) vehicle. That this has been allowed to happen by government is a travesty.

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