Once more with feeling

9th December 2005 at 00:00
Young eyes have a unique perspective, but can Year 6 capture the spirit of the fly-on-the-wall documentary? Steven Hastings finds out as film-makers at a London primary get to work on a project for Channel 4

Five-year-old Alice Monaghan is the cutest, apparently. So, life being what it is, she gets to be the star. "Cuteness matters," explains 10-year-old Daisy Prout. "That's why we chose to film the reception class. They're all lovely, aren't they?"

Daisy is one of a team of Year 6 pupils at Kentish Town C of E primary school (KTS) in the London borough of Camden who are making a film for FourDocs, a new website run by Channel 4 which aims to inspire people to have a crack at making short documentaries and share expertise. Each month the best films will get feedback from a commissioning editor at Channel 4.

"Anyone can make a FourDoc," says the website. "It just has to be fact-based and four minutes long."

As well as Alice, the film features "Oak and Ash" - a combined receptionYear 1 class - giving an assembly about electricity. But while the song about shiny light bulbs might be catchy, the young film-makers are as interested in the spectators as the spectacle.

From the choreographed classes filing into the hall, to the touching way the children on stage scan the back rows in search of their parents, the focus is on everyday moments which make school life special. Such as five-year-old Charlie, up on stage, singing his heart out and wiggling his hips with enthusiasm. And the baby at the back of the hall, standing on her mother's knee and dancing along. The team gets good footage of both. They also show no mercy when it comes to setting up a camera two feet from the face of Anna Cooper, the Oak and Ash class teacher, for that revealing post-assembly interview.

"We want to show that if a bunch of primary school kids can make a documentary, anyone can," says Sheila Hayman, who is working with the children on their film. This may be true, but the team at KTS are lucky. Ms Hayman, whose two children are at the school, is a Bafta-winning director, and FourDocs is the brainchild of her partner, Patrick Uden, so KTS is borrowing equipment from Channel 4 and using professional post-production facilities. This is not your average shaky end-of-term video. Sheila Hayman, however, is adamant that any school could have a go. "A decent camcorder will be more than adequate, and editing software doesn't cost a fortune," she says. "All the advice you need is on the FourDocs website, so making a good film is possible, even for a complete beginner."

The KTS team are proof of this. After an hour's camera training, the children seem remarkably skilled. Like real cameramen, they moan about the light. There's also a sound monitor in fluffy headphones and an "eyes and ears" person, whose job it is to spot cuteness that can be captured on film. The role of cameraman is much sought after, but any arguments about turn-taking are avoided by the fact that the children are small and the camera large, so arms soon start to ache.

The last part of the day's filming proves to be the hardest. The plan is for the eight documentary makers to get their moment in the limelight, introducing their film to the camera. But the simple line, "This is our film about an assembly at Kentish Town primary school" needs more than a dozen takes, and considerable deliberation about whether Ellie looks better with or without her glasses. In the end, the glasses stay and take 13 proves lucky. After that, all that's left is the traditional "wrap" party, this time with biscuits and buns.

Then there's some serious editing to be done. The team has gathered around 300 minutes of footage. Now they have to lose 296 of them (although the FourDocs rules do allow 30 seconds leeway either side of the four-minute mark). Is four minutes really long enough to convey a sense of what assemblies at KTS are all about? "Think of a good TV commercial," says Sheila Hayman. "It might only be 30 seconds, but it can communicate a huge amount of information. Four minutes is plenty."

The big advantage of an observational documentary is that it simply points the camera at what is already happening, so there's little disruption to routine. But the films on the FourDocs website, though all one size, come in many different shapes. Schools could try a polemical documentary, highlighting a contentious issue, such as the need for better meals or facilities; or the increasingly popular drama-documentary.

"Just ask yourself what is special about your school," says Sheila Hayman.

"A lot of people don't know what goes on: things that teachers and children take for granted can be fascinating to an outsider." She points out that, with the television industry tightening its purse strings, even professional documentaries are made on low budgets by small crews with minimal equipment. "It's become possible for a child to do as good a job as a professional."

You can judge for yourself how true this is in a few weeks' time when the KTS documentary is uploaded to the FourDocs website (www.channel4.comfourdocs) to join the 22 films already there.

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