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TLC’s ‘Sarah Palin’s Alaska’ / More Takeaways from Sheffield

TLC’s Sarah Palin’s Alaska
The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley reviews Sarah Palin’s Alaska. She says ‘it’s like The Sound of Music but without the romance, the Nazis or the music.’ 

Created by super-producer Mark Burnett Productions, it was reported that Palin asked for $1.2 million / episode for the 8-episode series.


Sheffield Impressions

Ross Biddiscombe is a freelance journalist and former TV exec at channels including Nat Geo UK who previewed the Sheffield DocFest for The Guardian newspaper.  Here he gives some behind-the-scenes information and personal impressions of the Fest.

As the Sheffield DocFest continues to grow each year, there is increasingly too much going on for any one film-maker, delegate, journalist or doc fan of any kind to witness for themselves. 

My work on the Fest started a month prior to its opening by writing three preview features in The Guardian’s official six-page supplement (still available here online) and here are some gems that are still in my notebook and not in my features:

Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work
The New York production company BreakThrough Films funded the entire shoot, but they did agree to Joan receiving an undisclosed percentage of any profits.  And Joan’s first comment on seeing an early edit?  “Why is it so sad?”

Arena: Rolf Harris Paints His Dream
Vikram Jayanti’s film only came about after a chance meeting with Rolf at a party; the iconic Aussie then pitched the idea of the film maker using him as a subject.

Pink Saris
Director Kim Longinotto said that at times she felt like the taxi driver for the film’s subject Sampat Pal.  The Indian campaigner for women’s rights is a kind of Asian Michael Moore and took full advantage of Kim’s motorized transport to journey to distant parts of her country.

Here are some of my best-of/worst-of thoughts from the DocFest:

Most Controversial DocFest Q&A
When Jonathan Schell – co-director of Sex Magic, Manifesting Maya – stood in front of a dazed audience and said the main subject of his film – the sex guru Baba Dez – had actually funded the doc, the crowd went wild.

The film was an in-depth look at how a sexual shaman’s works with women with authentic sex problems (eg a lack of sex drive due to early abuse or an inability to orgasm) and Dez is up close and naked with his clients in near-pornographic detail.  Meanwhile, Dez is also trying to win back fellow sex guru Maya, his so-called “Beloved”. 

Now, this would be a wonderfully believable study of a little-talked-of subject, said the audience, until they found out Dez was not only the star, but also the commissioner and funder of the project.  How could the film makers remain true to the facts or have integrity with their story?  Where was this funding information at the start of the film? 

Although Schell shrugged off the criticism and said his integrity was intact, it has to be asked if this is good practice.  Could a film about the BP oil disaster, for example, could be funded by BP and still remain clean?

Most Fascinating Workshop
When DocFest star and long-time director of films with a sharp women’s theme Kim Longinotto sat down with regular editing partner Ollie Huddleston they were like a pair of old slippers together.  When a director finds an editor to trust and complement their camerawork, it is a thing of joy.

This love-fest at the DocFest had many serious points.  Kim and Ollie agreed that the editing process at its best is a collaboration between them.  Kim has Ollie in mind when she is shooting (“How much footage will Ollie need of this incident?” or “Is Ollie going to think that interview will need too many cuts?”).  Meanwhile, Ollie sees all the rushes in the company of Kim and makes furious hand-written notes, grading the footage with one, two or three stars as to its likelihood of making the final cut.

Remarkably, the director and editor will largely agree on what should be in and what should not.  And, crucially, Ollie is employed by Kim to do his job, that is make the final product better with his editing skills rather than please the director who sits next to him.

Best DocFest Film
Only finished during the Festival itself, Scenes Of A Teenage Killing by Morgan Matthews was two hours of totally harrowing brilliance about the deaths of young British teenagers and the horrific consequences to families, friends and communities.

With so many storylines woven through – at least eight by my count – of different teens, from different towns and in different circumstances, the editing was phenomenal and turned statistics into startling and shameful reality.

Most Revealing Q&A
Anthony Butts first went to Khazikstan to make a film about the human deformities and drawn-out deaths caused by rampant nuclear bomb testing by the old Soviet government.  But when one of his main characters fell pregnant during a later visit, After The Apocalypse became a much different story, one of a woman’s fight to give birth to her child even though she herself was a victim of deformity from the nuclear fallout. 

A film that might have been rather ordinary and unfocused, therefore turned into one with a deep sense of the current, everyday human cost of latter day Soviets.

Most Disappointing Film
Marathon Boy – a truly remarkable story of a three-year-old from India who begins running half marathons – turns into a murder mystery when the boy’s coach is unexpectedly killed by a gunman.  The disappointment is not the story itself, but the overbearing  and unwelcome role of an Indian journalist as a narrator for the last section of the film.

Contact: Ross Biddiscombe at

Co founder: Artists in Motion. Mark recently served as Director of International Development for Nat Geo Television (UK), and prior to this as Head of Production & Development for Animal Planet International

Two Pitches I Would Greenlight
Dance of the Outlaws
A Time of the Gypsies meets Paris, Texas. With angelic, chain-smoking slave dancers in Morocco

5 Broken Cameras
La Haine meets Hurt Locker in Occupied Palestine. Each time his camera gets broken, he buys another to keep telling his story

Best Doc
Marathon Boy because running is my religion

My Biggest Takeaway
There is a world of vibrant stories out there, but not enough windows to watch them through

HBO Next!
Lisa Heller, Vice President, HBO Documentary Films

  • How does HBO develop and greenlight documentaries?
  • How many?
  • What are the filters?
  • And more!


World Congress of Science and Factual Producers
Tuesday, 30 November, 3:30PM, Dresden, Germany
Panel: Profiles of U.S. Science & History Commissioners
Susan Werbe, History (U.S.)
Michael Hoff, Hoff Productions
Dawn Porter, Trilogy Films
Peter Hamilton, Moderator