Nick Fraser’s career has been a constant battle between “what I will and won’t do for television,” says the 57-year-old series editor of the BBC’s international documentary showcase “Storyville.” A kind of documentary filmmaking godfather, Fraser is able to fund dozens of films each year, but he’s waged a war on media bias—whether that’s what he sees as the politically-correct culture of the BBC or the far right wing media—to make it happen. “My views are out on a limb at the BBC because I’m prepared to tolerate freedom of expression,” he says. He’ll put any great documentary on the air, as long as it’s not dogma, from either the left or the right. He sums it up this way: “I find that agitprop art I don’t like.”
Once a print journalist for publications like The Sunday Times of London and The New York Times and now a contributing editor to Harper’s, Fraser’s career focus has become solely to navigate the ideals he maintains for the print journalism world—an almost naive and hopeful vision of an empirical and unbiased press—and the reality of the small screen. His ultimate goal is to blend the two worlds as much as he can, unleashing the power of documentaries on as wide an audience as possible.
Sitting across from me at the Hudson Hotel in New York recently, Fraser had breezed into town for less than 36 hours—just long enough to have a peek at a documentary playing at the Tribeca Film Festival, and to pick up a pair of dark Levis (“We can’t get this color in London”) and Banana Republic T-shirts for his daughter—before he jetted off to Toronto, San Francisco, Tokyo, and then back to Britain. And that was just one week. His job takes him around the globe, scouring for great films.
He seemed perfectly at home in the Philippe Starck-designed hotel with its tufted leather admiral armchairs and chartreuse sheaths of plexiglass—comfortable with incongruity. Wearing expensive-looking tortoiseshell eyeglasses, he has a ring of silver hair framing his handsome face, and the costume of the consummate film professional: a black blazer over lightly faded Levis, with shiny black dress shoes. He speaks with the accent of a British upper classman and has clearly never been a struggling artist himself. In fact, he’s not terribly keen on talking about his personal past—just as he’s not one to talk about his personal politics—or how he built the “Storyville” empire. “You want to know about that?” he asks doubtfully when I probe him for more personal details, although eventually he relents.
Born in London to a French mother and an English father, Fraser was educated at Eton and Oxford. After college, he came to America where he worked a series of what he calls “menial jobs in publishing” during the late 1960s. Eventually he became a freelance journalist, but when he returned to England in the early 1970s, print jobs were scarce. “I got into documentaries completely by accident,” he says. “I got into television by accident. And whenever I was trying to quit working in television, there were never any jobs in newspapers.”
He landed a position producing opinion pieces for the BBC—half-hour slots in which a single person sat staring at the camera, speaking his or her editorial straight into the lens. Crude, yes, even by standards in those earlier days of television, but Fraser says they were a hit, and they kept him tethered to the television world. “I was never really sure if I liked television at all, but it’s kind of like a train you get on that you can never get off.”
The author of four books, including a biography of Eva Peron and a book on the rise of neo-fascism in Europe, Fraser still writes, and he straddles his two worlds hoping that they’ll edge closer and closer toward one another. “All my life I’ve written books,” he says. “I think of myself more as a writer or as a print journalist, but in one of these moments when I was desperately trying to leave television, I got hired by Channel 4 as a commissioning editor.”
“Storyville” began as a program called “Fine Cut,” with only four broadcast slots a year. With 10 times as many slots now, and an audience of more than 250,000 for each broadcast—an astounding number for a documentary show that airs on a relatively recently created digital channel—“Storyville” has become a phenomenon and a national cultural treasure in Britain. A third of the films are bought after they’re finished, one third receive completion funds, and the other third get “Storyville” seed money to start things up.
“‘I don’t have enough money’ is my perpetual refrain,” Fraser says. Still, he has enough to make a difference in the lives of many filmmakers, and without the BBC keeping too close a watch on him. “In television, if you don’t cost too much, you have freedom,” he says. It’s because of this freedom that Fraser has transformed “Storyville,” and he believes the name change (which came in 1997, after Mark Thompson became comptroller of the BBC, and shook things up a bit) had something to do with it. “[“Fine Cut”] felt arty in the wrong way, and really nobody understood it. They thought it had to do with butchers. They thought it had to do with some slice of beef or something like that.”
With the name change came a new focus: story, not issue. Fraser wants the details laid out methodically. “What I liked about [the name] “Storyville” is that it seems a name that’s entirely neutral,” he says. Neutrality—where the filmmaker’s politics are put aside in favor of his or her desire to present a narrative—is what Fraser seeks in a film. He wants the filmmaker, in a way, to interfere as little as possible, and let the audience draw its own conclusions. He searches for documentaries that “teach you how to look at things as much as what to say about things.” “Storyville” is usually impartial to politics, showing films that range from Fashion Victim (2001), an exploration of the murder of Gianni Versace, to Final Solution (2003), about the politics of hate in India, to the AIDS documentary To Live Is Better Than to Die (2002), by Weijun Chen.
Frasier decries activist filmmaking, just as he excoriates right wing corporate American media. “I always get the feeling that the right don’t bother with documentaries because they own the channels,” he says. But he would prefer Al Franken no more so than Rush Limbaugh. And he can go on at length about this activist film trend he so vehemently condemns. His near polemic might astonish some makers who believe that the documentary both can and should attempt to make social change; Fraser couldn’t disagree more.
“I have a block about what are called ‘social action documentaries,’” he says. “On the whole I don’t share the politics, but more deeply than that, I don’t think that making documentaries to inform people about social conditions is a very good idea. It’s a kind of fantasy of filmmakers that it actually has an impact. I find there’s a certain self-righteousness about the left-wing identity of documentary filmmakers. I feel they expect you to watch these things even if you don’t like them: It’s good for you to know about the Comandante, or it’s good for you to know about grape pickers and all that.”
In addition to eschewing social activist documentaries and Fox TV, Fraser is not particularly enamored with what he sees as a long documentary dry spell in the 1980s. “It was a blank spot, as far as I can see,” he says. There were, of course, plenty of documentaries being produced in the 1980s and early 1990s, but the trend of the first-person documentary—Sherman’s March (1986), say, or Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied (1990)—is perhaps particularly distasteful to Fraser, who says he thinks of himself as the cinematic equivalent of a New Yorker editor. He wants desperately to believe that empirical journalism still exists, and the personal journey film or the polemical documentary-as-social-tool or advocacy filmmaking, are antithetical to his ideas and ideals. As is “all the [Ken] Burns output, which never interested me too much, though I can see its qualities,” he says.
“I’m generalizing rather, but I don’t think [1980s documentaries] matched the journalism of the New Yorker. I don’t think people were thinking about films in that ambitious way.”
Listening to him, I can’t help but think of the limitations of publications he’s listed as beacons of empiricism—Harper’s and the New Yorker and The New York Times—despite the fact that I subscribe to all three. After all, the New Yorker endorsed John Kerry for president last year, dedicating space to several polemics against George Bush. The editors took sides. They took a stance, I told him. They temporarily forewent their objectivity.
Fraser, though, waved this away, explaining that there are times when a humanitarian cause outweighs personal politics. For instance, Fraser helped produce a video series called “Steps to the Future,” about AIDS in Southern Africa, co-created by a number of NGOs and humanitarian groups to raise awareness about the subject. How, I asked him, was that different from a social activist documentary? “It was a form of agitprop,” he admitted. “It was a form of social enlightenment, and I didn’t mind that at all. I saw it as a terrifying global crisis, and I thought that was an emergency.”
For all of the other non-emergency issues, the key to catching Fraser’s eye is to have a great story more than an important political agenda. For instance, he finds the documentary My Architect (Nathaniel Kahn, 2003) to be exemplary documentary filmmaking. One might say that this film, about a boy’s search to know his dead father through his architectural legacy, is the descendant of those 1980s personal documentaries he finds distasteful, but he doesn’t see it that way. “It’s a triumph,” he says. “It’s a brilliant piece of narrative, it tells you a lot that’s interesting, and it’s intensely personal at the same time.”
The dawn of “Storyville” coincided with an explosion of amazing documentary films like My Architect coming out of America, along with a technological revolution that birthed the newly digital Channel 4, and, of course, the name change that encouraged a new audience to find documentaries accessible, entertaining, and relevant. The films Fraser chooses for “Storyville” are often progeny of 1960s vérité greats, descendants of Wisemans and Pennebakers and Kopples. “When I took this gamble [of working for “Storyville”], it was actually that moment in America when people started to do really astonishing documentaries,” he says. “I think you can mark it very easily; I think it’s when Hoop Dreams arrived.”
Hoop Dreams (1994), which allowed us to observe the lives of two young, black men who dreamed of escaping the ghetto through basketball, did not, of course, have a legislative or social agenda attached to it. It allowed a mass audience to enter a world previously sealed off to them. But one might argue that it was very much a social issue documentary, an exposé of poverty in America, and the power and lure of professional sports.
Fraser sees Hoop Dreams as merely a success that paved the way for other such films. “You have this real explosion of talent coming from America,” Fraser says. “It’s a period in American life where documentaries have taken over from a lot of other forms of expression. They’re really the only original form of cultural innovation of our time, and the impact is comparable to what happened in American journalism in the 1960s,” Fraser says, referring to the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Louis Lapham. And if it seems he romanticizes the movement, it’s because he was a bit too young to experience it himself, and he longs for such a revolution to recur.
“The triumph of the American documentary coincides with the collapse of any pretense of seriousness of the American media,” he says. “People have to find ways of expressing themselves, and they can’t in most of the American media; the mainstream is shut to them.”
Most interesting, he says, is that the current documentary revolution has come from a country where the arts are minimally supported by government. Although, he does concede that it may not be a coincidence. “Americans do have a special affinity for the process of making documentaries, some deep, compulsive empiricism that lends itself to making marvelous documentaries, some kind of literalism that makes them not want to let go of a subject until it’s perfectly described.”
While more than half of “Storyville” documentaries come from America, Fraser aims to include the whole world in its scope. He’s in the midst of putting together a 10-part series on democracy, which will be shown around the globe. One film documents elections in China—that is, school elections for the best student, since there are no political elections. Another traces the political collapse of Papua New Guinea, from colonialism to democracy to chaos and back to colonialism in 20 years. The films will be shown in 22 countries—all over Europe and Asia, in America, select African countries, and, hopefully, on Arab television as well.
Fraser maintains his appreciation for documentary films as well as their makers. He has strong opinions, yes, but in the end he has a reverence for both the process and the product. “Another reason I like documentaries is that I couldn’t make them. I do not have the patience. I get bored after two days…one day,” he says. “[Filmmakers] are able to sort of wall off the world while they recreate they’re own world, and I just couldn’t do that. I don’t have the talent.”
His talent, then, lies in spotting films that can draw large audiences and open minds…but not necessarily change them. “I wouldn’t presume to effect change,” he says. “If you supply people with the means to understand their world, that’s a task in itself.”