Renowned documentary filmmaker Brian Hill speaks to Kylie Boltin about his extraordinary career.
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7 Mar 2010 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 2:30 PM

English documentary filmmaker, Brian Hill is an innovator extraordinaire. The BAFTA Award winning pioneer of the documentary musical and docu-soaps has just been in Australia for the inaugural F4 First Factual Film Festival in Adelaide. As part of the program, Hill's Saturday Night (1996) screened alongside the national premiere of his recent documentary, Bigamist Bride (2009).

Hill's 1996 documentary, Saturday Night (1996) is a portrait of a city, or as Hill says from his home in London, a documentary about the “changing face of Britain.” As one of the filmmakers hand-picked by the BBC for its documentary strand, 'Modern Times', Hill spent three months “casting” characters who “reflected what was happening in Britain at the time”. Says Hill, “I saw hundreds of people. Going out to clubs and meeting all sorts of people – homeless people, mad people, bad people, old people, young people, rich people, poor people. I think that one of the things I'm very particular about with films is the casting of them. If you put the effort into finding the right characters it makes your life a lot easier when it comes to shooting the film.”

At the end of the casting process, Hill selected four characters. “A wealthy, self-made businessman, a middle-class woman hosting a dinner party, a junkie who was a violent criminal and a transvestite.” While the documentary started off “being about what people do on Saturday night” in the edit, Hill found what the film was really about. Drugs. “Literally in one of the characters and at the middle-class dinner party there was alcohol and there were metaphorical drugs in terms of transvestite dressing up – that was his drug.”

Shot in black and white, Saturday Night marks the first collaboration between Hill and multi-award winning poet and writer Simon Armitage who wrote the distinctive narration of the documentary. While Hill knew the film required narration, he didn't want to venture down the well-worn path of “factual narration about Leeds and about the people in the film”. Rather, he found that the film needed poetry! “It was quite a step to take. I think, quite by chance I was reading a newspaper and it had an article about Simon Armitage. It mentioned that before he became a full-time poet he'd been a Probation Officer working on the Estate that I grew up on in another Northern town called Rochdale. Also that he lived in West Yorkshire near Leeds. There seemed to be this connection. I got in touch with him. I went to meet with him to talk about the film. He said he'd like to do it. He had this idea that he wanted to write something that would offer an alternative to what you were literally seeing on the screen. A Leeds of the mind. When he talked about it I wasn't too sure but when he started to write it I thought it was brilliant. I thought the whole idea of an alternative view of reality was incredibly inventive.”

Saturday Night is the first film in the evolution of the documentary musical. Says Hill, “We did Saturday Night and then we made our next film which was Drinking for England (1998). In that film we asked how we could use poetry differently in a new film? We came up with the idea of getting people to speak verses about our own lives and Simon would write based on interviews with those people. In the course of making the film I discovered that two of our characters could sing!”

The “complete revelation” that two characters could sing led the pair to their next film, Feltham Sings (2002) in which every character sings. The film won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Flaherty Award for Documentary and the 49th Ivor Novello Award for Best Original Music for Television, 2003. Hill and Armitage have since collaborated on Pornography: The Musical (2003), Songbirds (2005) – a documentary musical filmed in Downview Prison, in Sutton, England, The Not Dead (2007) and the yet-to-be released feature documentary, Climate of Change (2010) with music by Nitin Sawhney and narration by Tilda Swinton.

While the F4 is billed as a “documentary showcase of first films from emerging Australian filmmakers and critically acclaimed masters” Saturday Night was not in fact Hill's first film. Hill's first documentary was the landmark series, Sylvania Waters. Shot in the Sydney suburb, Sylvania Waters is often billed as the world's first foray into reality television. Hill however refers to the series as “the first docu-soap”. Says Hill, “when Noelene and her family were cast we knew that it was a large extended family with three different households. There were lots of different characters so we could do inter-cutting between the different households and characters to get different story lines. It was just like a soap opera.”

Hill compares his affection towards the central character of that series, Noelene to the central protagonist of his recent feature documentary, Emily Horne. “For all her ways, I admired lots of things about Noelene. I liked her spirit and her gustiness and I could see there was an attraction to Noelene. But with Emily it was very difficult to find anything like that. She can barely open her mouth and tell the truth. That's why it was difficult.”

The Bigamist Bride: My Five Husbands (pictured) follows five times bigamist bride, 30 year-old Emily as she approaches the court date for her crime.