Roger Graef is an award winning writer, filmmaker, broadcaster and criminologist. A pioneer of ‘fly on the wall’ filming, he has filmed extensively inside boardrooms, ministries, the British Communist Party, the UN and the EU. He is best known for his seminal BAFTA winning series, Police, and recent sequel Police 2001. He always achieves an intense and unique inside view, whatever the subject matter.
Roger, can you name a couple of your own personal favourite documentaries of all time?
Yuri Podneik’s 'Hello, Do You Hear Me?' Not only an incredible achievement, but shown on both ITV and C4 within four weeks. Robert Flaherty’s 'Nanook of the North'. Marcel Ophuls’ 'Le Chagrin et la Pitié' ('The Sorrow and the Pity')
Who, if anyone, has been influential in your career?
I became a documentary filmmaker because of the power of Leni Reifenstahl’s 'Triumph of the Will' which, when seen in German at 19, made me a Nazi briefly, along with all my Harvard classmates. After the cigarette break the French documentary 'Camps of the Dead' recovered my sanity - demonstrating the power of film to influence people’s thinking. Rather than become a lawyer, I decided to make films and plays instead.
While directing a play at the Royal Court in London, I saw Douglas and Richard Leiterman’s 'One More River' - made for CBC - a long observational film shot in the south about civil rights. That faced me with rednecks as human beings as well as the horror of the civil rights struggle. It again showed me the power film has to generate empathy for things we think we know about but don’t.
Given a clean sheet of paper and the right conditions, which piece of work or project would you most like to direct?
I’d like to be a fly on the wall of No10, the Treasury, the White House and the Pentagon during the next few months.
If you were not a director, what would you have done for a living?
I wanted to be a campaigning lawyer like Clarence Darrow, and then be a judge. But I quickly learned from my great uncle who taught law that justice and law have nothing to do with each other. I fell into directing by chance because I was rejected by the Harvard choir and accepted by the Dramatic Society. At my first production as a director I watched the audience pay the kind of attention that I thought could generate empathy for the context of justice - i.e. social justice. Recently I woke up one morning and realised I have ended up influencing the legal system after all. Quite gratifying actually.
What was the most difficult situation that you had to face and how did you deal with it?
We documentary makers rely on mutual trust. When it is broken we are left dangling. At the end of several months of shooting inside Occidental Petroleum we needed permission to film the key final meeting from three others. One was Paul Getty, notoriously camera shy - but he agreed, reassured by Occidental and our binding guarantees about accuracy and confidentiality. Allied Chemical did the same for the same reasons. The smallest partner was the Thomson Organisation, represented by two ex-hacks who refused to accept we would keep to our agreement because they couldn’t imagine any journos doing this. The only thing I could do was to tell the truth at the end of the film about why this key scene was missing. It was small comfort - and we were criticised in print by Nancy Banks Smith for admitting it.
Which piece of work do you consider has been your best achievement to date?
The police series had the most impact and still stands up well, thanks to my collaborators - Charles Stewart and Thomas Schwalm. The rape film helped to change police treatment of rape victims. But my favourite is 'Diplomacy' - in the first verité series 'The Space Between Words' for BBC in the seventies. It is all about one word. It is funny, truthful, revealing and gripping about a subject that sounds dull and is anything but. I wish they would repeat it.
Which actor or actress would you most like to work with?
Miranda Richardson. In drama at the Actors’ Studio in New York I worked briefly with Kim Stanley, an underrated but brilliant actress. Her first reading was so brilliant I was lost for words. Miranda reminds me of her enormous talent.
Name your favourite piece of music and why?
Bach’s 'St. Matthew Passion'. I have heard this so often and it never pales. It goes deeper and deeper, and higher and higher. The drama is always compelling, with the chorus reflecting both sides of human nature. I think Spengler said it was the climax of Western civilisation. On this at least he was right.
What type of genre would you like most to direct?
I have worked in opera, comedy, drama on stage and television and different styles of documentary. I loved studio drama and miss its disappearance.
Name three directors that you most admire?
Dead: Yilmaz Güney (who directed 'Yol', my favourite fiction film). Alive: Peter Brook, Robert Le Page, Simon McBurney on stage, Angus McQueen and Adam Curtis in television - all break the boundaries of what we assume is possible.
Can you tell us what your next project is?
The most ambitious is a two-hour obdoc tracking the search for the malaria vaccine over 3 years for BBC and PBS. I directed the first year, and now Kevin Hull is directing in Africa. It relies on the trust of scientists, Gambian villagers, drug companies and the US military - a major juggling act. Luckily we are busier than ever - still doing things I believe in. So -- ONWARDS AND UPWARDS.