Archive for January, 2011

Diary of a documentary-maker

Saturday, January 29th, 2011

It’s not all launches and screening. It’s not always fun (try editing for six weeks in a row). But given documentary-making is a big part of what we do I’ve decided to make this blog part of an on-going conversation about documentary-making in Ireland. We are a bit unusual at Athena Media is that we make documentaries for radio, television, online and hopefully cinema Belmayne: Gorgeous Living is a film feature documentary aimed at documentary festivals screenings).

People often ask where do the ideas come from, where does it all start? It many ways one of the first rules I learnt in print journalism was that anything and anyone can be a story. So ideas come from the people we met, the places we got and the chance encounters in life which inspire us.
We have a new documentary series starting on Setanta Ireland on February 6th ‘Pat Falvey: My Private Everest’, and that three part series represents over one year’s production work but two years planning and pitching to get it off the ground. It started with a chance encounter. I present the WMB (WomenMeanBusiness) Awards & Conference every year and in September 2008 Cork born explorer, Pat Falvey, was a key-note speaker. We sat beside each other over lunch and chatted about his life, adventures and his desire to make more documentary films. I told him I was interested in making a documentary of his life more than following any one expedition and that we should keep in touch. E-mail and skype chats led to a documentary outline which started as a radio documentary and pitched to BBC Radio 4. It was short-listed but didn’t get the green light. I developed it, kept chatting to Pat and worked it into a submission for the BAI Sound & Vision Round as a TV documentary series. First time round it was rejected - but feedback said they wanted to see it again with more details and a better budget breakdown. Second time round it succeeded and got funding as a broadcast series for Setanta Ireland, Setanta Sports. By October 2009 the project was finally off the ground and with our newly acquired Sony EX1 camera in hand we began filming with Pat at his base in Beaufort, Co Kerry.
The appeal for me in stories is always human psychology and motivation. What makes people do what they do? What shapes them? Drives them? In the beginning the key for me in Pat’s life story was to get through the corporate presentations and his often glib answers and find what liaw beneath so that what we eventually filmed and edited shone some light on character and motivation. Pat’s story is dramatic. The self-made millionaire who came from a modest, working-class background in North Cork, made his millions and lost it all by 29. A chance meeting brought him to the Kerry mountains and a journey which led him to Mt Everest and decades of goal-orientated adventure and achievement. Highly driven, extreme in character, Pat is someone who provokes a love/hate relationship with people. Many of the elite in the Irish mountaineering circles openly dislike him and declined to take part in the series. They see Falvey as a self-promoting egotist who does what he does to feed his own self-image rather than anything else. Yet the more time we spent with Pat the more we saw behind that loud, boostful exterior to see the good he does with charities, youth groups and communities. His friends swore life-long love but were often his first critics, and able to see him in a ‘warts and all’ perspective. Pat’s life journey, from the extremes of business to adventure, has brought some self-reflection. In recent years even his close family say he has softened and turned to mend some of the broken relationships in his life. Yet the goals of being first drive him. As our documentary series goes out he will be heading to the North Pole for the final leg of his Three Pole challenge with Clare O’Leary. The will to be first is part of Pat’s character. He does little quietly. All that is true but at the heart is someone personally generous and loyal whose story inspires those who often feel they can not fulfill their dreams or even have the courage to set dreams for themselves.
My niece who is turning fifteen recently said to me, when I asked about her dreams for the future or what she would love to do, ‘what’s the point having dreams? What if they don’t come true, you have to live with the disappointment’. While we are very different people for once I heard Pat Falvey ‘dream, and dream big’. Without dreams, without big ambitions, hopes and dreams in our life we can never grown and become the people we have the potential to be. Falvey journey is far from over.
The documentary ends with his determination to go back to the North Pole after failing last Spring. His has put himself into debt, quite extensive debt, to do that and in a sense it’s a personal goal which must run its course. What does he do when all the goals are over? He says he wants to tell his stories, to have a one-man show, to write more books, to make more films. A man who sleeps less than four hours a night will remain restless, not content with what exists, always seeking the next horizon.
In making the documentary we started with a simple idea, that grew and grew. It had enormous frustrations. The edit proved to be one of the most traumatic we’d ever gone experienced. Everything that could go wrong technically went wrong. Pat’s line, which gives the documentary its name, that ‘everyone has a private Everest’, something they are trying to conquer or achieve, for us came to mean finishing the documentary series itself! Nothing good comes easy.
Everything worth doing takes time, involves mistakes, failures and endurance. Why do we do it? Its never the most profitable business in the world. We’re usually lucky to cover our costs. But the reason for us, the motivation, is the power of story-telling and the impact of stories told well.
That’s what we believe in, that’s what we strive to achieve. It’s the universal stories of humanity, and how we can tell them, which makes all the frustrations and stresses of documentary-making worth the journey.
To help and support the documentary making community in Ireland I’ve created a Facebook Group, a private group, called Documentary Makers Ireland. Join us if you are making documentaries or interested in the art form.

Democracy online

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

So many people throw their eyes to heaven when I say this general election will be a watershed in online politics in Ireland. They point to the low level of participation (real participation) by politicians online (who often think opening a twitter account is enough). But that is not where the game is being defined. What has changed is that citizens, users, ‘the people formerly known as customers and audiences’ are online and using their online and mobile online life to engage, discuss and comment. With over 1.7 million people in Ireland using facebook and hundreds of thousands on twitter we’re seeing both local and national discussion which is pushing politicans to respond and react, rather than the other way around. Its also pushing traditional media groups to respond and shape their coverage to not just flow across the Internet and social platforms but to become part of that conversation. So what is changing? Elections used to be dominated by set pieces, driven by press releases and press events, and targetted at set schedules. Today, with the immediacy of the high speed, social networked web, its all about the’ here and now’ and being live, available on demand and open to interaction. The last two weekends have seen political news conferences in mid afternoon driven not by the news schedules of TV or newspapers but by the need to act in the moment. It forced Tv schedules to abandon the afternoon movies and attempt to become rolling news services. The only medium fit to practice was the Internet. At the Micheal Martin press conference, Sunday week ago, Newstalk pol corr Padraic Gallagher turned his iphone into a video streaming tool by using Justin.tv. Tweets were flying about RTÉ sticking with Fair City and in the moment a radio reporter became the conduit for video images of a live event. Already this week we’ve seen more and more politicians and political parties realising they they need to be thinking like that; getting their words and images out directly via the web. Many have opened www.audioboo.fm accounts to try audioblogging (a tool used widely in the UK General Election and the contest for the labour leadership). Other are using YouTube and and sending material via facebook and twitter. The online community can mock the slow beginning of some of the politicians but it will grow. Equally what is different in this election campaign is the role of non traditional news media sources; digital news agencies like Journal.ie or Politics.ie. There is already a dozen NGO citizen advocacy websites using online content and social media on a host of topics from the arts to social enpowerment. Why am I so sure this election is different and will be shaped by online? Because people’s attention is online and it is now a mainstream part of both news and entertainment. More fundamentally the ‘like it, love it’, aspect of social media which means the endgame of any message is to see it shared will see politicians, lobbyists and the media itself battle not just for our attention but our participation. An additional factor driving change is the wide spread availability of internet-enabled smart phones, whether iPhones or HTCs, which allow people to be always ‘online’ and connected - able to receive and to send, to shout back, literally, to what their politicians and media experts are saying. For once, February may seem like a very long month indeed.

2011 media promises

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

It is still time enough to say ‘happy new year’ and already news is circulating that Twitter is setting up shop in Dublin. Over the holidays I shared dinner with a Dutch couple who simply could not understand why recession-bound Dublin was so attractive to the digital media corporates. I did mention corporation tax and of course it is a huge factor but the growing cluster of international digital media businesses headquartered in Dublin is more than simply corporation tax. There is a domino effect which is pretty much the same as when you are hunting for a restaurant and even though your guidebook says this one if the best, if its empty you won’t go in. A busy places invites more traffic. Its the human form of crowd sourcing. We like to go where other people have already taken that decision so we feel less isolated in our decision-making. The fact that Google, Ebay, Facebook, Linked-In have already taken the Dublin plunge creates a strong incentive for other social media and digital media businesses to put Dublin top of the list when they are location hunting. If it works for Google etc. The significance of the growing body of international digital media companies based here can not be over emphasised. It is not just about jobs, its also about the changing perception of Ireland as a place which thinks digital and innovates (even if those of us living here still groan at the slow broadband speeds and the lack of public wifi spaces). The recession has coincided with a media transition and shift online so that as growth happens it will be the digital media sector which benefits. Traditional media players like RTÉ and the Irish Times can benefit given the scale of their brands and audiences but we are still seeing a low level of risk-taking by traditional media online and innovation is likely to come from the digital media businesses which are finally beginning to see return on their investment. At the Digital Hub where Athena Media is based many of the companies are recruiting and actively expanding. The e-learning scheme Digital Skills Academy is proving popular with those on the wrong side of the employment lines and its ensuring a growing pool of skilled people who can go back in business and help the shift of retail and revenue online. For us the biggest frustration is the often poor skills being taught to those following academic courses in digital media and broadcasting and many of the graduates we are seeing are, despite their own best efforts, extremely poorly equipped for a digital media production market. The colleges, some more than others, tend to allow people to leave with extremely basic digital editing and recording skills and in some cases we have seen masters graduates with skills which would be seen as poor in leaving certificate students. If we are to supply the demand being created by the new digital media sector, whether international players like Twitter or local companies like ourselves, the third level institutions who are claiming to be educating graduates and post graduates need to up their game and start truly competing. It is not surprising that so many of those employed in places like Google are from outside Ireland since our degrees are frequently not, in our experience, ensuring people who have defined and clear skills. We need to see graduates with outstanding digital skills rather than weak or average or else the jobs created by the digital media sector will go elsewhere. Google says its recruits from the top 10% in the world, which is absolutely right, its just a shame that so many of our graduates are nowhere near that standard and where the standard of qualifications associated with our degrees is not reliable.