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Religious Docs: Who Needs Them?

25/06/2015 12:49 BST | Updated 23/06/2016 10:59 BST

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If you happened to be in the city of Sheffield between 5 and 10 June, one thing is certain: you were aware that DocFest, the UK's largest festivity of documentary filmmaking, was in full swing.

As a student journalist, I was privileged to attend the Sandford St. Martins Trust's sponsored session, 'Religious Docs: Who Needs Them?' For me, I'm not a particularly religious person, so I was keen to understand: why do we need religious documentaries? What do religious documentaries achieve? Probably not unusually for my generation of upcoming journalists and programme-makers, I had presumed that religious documentaries were dying out; to me, the genre evokes memories of my Grandmother perched on her sofa in her slippers singing along to Songs of Praise on a Sunday afternoon.

The panel consisted of the BBC's Commissioning Editor for Specialist Factual TV Martin Davidson, Chief Executive for CTVC Peter Weil, the Insight Film Festival Director Abdul - Rehman Malik, and, trustee of The Sandford St. Martin Trust Roger Bolton. Kicking things off, Roger Bolton said, "By doing sessions like this, we hope to enthuse you." I couldn't help but to ask myself how difficult that would be.

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Earlier during the week I had undertaken recording vox pop interviews with people at the festival for the Trust and discovered I wasn't the only person struggling to answer the question of 'What are your opinions of religious documentaries?' Until recently, if you'd asked me I'd have said I don't think I've watched any documentaries of the religious genre. I have seen classical blockbusters like "Sister Act" and "The Passion of Christ," but I guess they don't really count.

So where is the opportunity to experiment and develop outside what most people expect to see periodically which is histories of the faith? The panelists agreed there is plenty of scope. "Out of all the specialist genres I am looking at, religion and ethics are by far the broadest and by far the stickiest," said Martin Davidson, "You can step outside of faith community entirely and look at aspects of the world where religion can bare people on a personal level, a spiritual level but also culturally and politically."

One of the films showing as part of the festival was Parvez Sharma's 'A Sinner in Mecca.' The film shows Parvez, a homosexual filmmaker making the pilgrimage to Mecca as part of an attempt to reconnect with his Muslim faith. In Saudi Arabia, homosexuality is punishable by death and, as a viewer, the film was striking and had me on the edge of my seat. At any time, Parvez could have be caught and executed. This film gave me an insight into religion that I had never seen before. Afterwards a female Muslim member of the audience couldn't hold back her tears. She said: "The world needs to see this."

If more people are going to see films like 'A Sinner in Mecca' then we need the world of religious documentaries to evolve. So is there a potential for religious documentaries to go online? Yes! Nothing is off limits in the broadcasting world. There's no getting away from the fact that more and more people are accessing programming through the net.

From an international perspective, Director of Insight Film Festival Abdul-Rehman said: "Over an 8 month period we receive 180 submissions, out of which 90 are pretty good and 60 we're looking at programming. In a non-dogmatic way the stuff coming from Iran is amazingly good." Abdul-Rehman is sure that on an international scale, there is space and a demand for these faith documentaries.

We were told that Channel 4's religious programming practically disappeared in 2013 - with a dedicated spend on religion of £40 million in 2008 being drastically reduced to £2 million in 2013. In 2004 the network committed to 104 hours of religion; in 2005 it decreased to 52 hours and in 2014 only 2 hours of self-identified religious programming was broadcast on the channel. It is clear to see that there is a statistical problem when it comes to religious programming. The optimism of the panel was inspiring, but can religious broadcasting raise its audience figures?

"I think that religious and ethical programming is there for everybody," said Peter. For instance, Muslims form 4.44% of the population. If half of this population watched religious documentaries, this would create a substantial audience.

After the panel had the discussion, they took questions from the floor. The first question was for the BBC's Martin Davidson: "What are you actually doing to engage with my religion (Sikh) and other minority religions?"

Davidson answered that the programme-maker had to ask whether or not a documentary about the Sikh religion could do enough to reach a mass audience. The audience member was clearly not impressed with the answer to his question calling it a "cheap response," and I have to say, I agree with him. For me, religious documentaries should be representing all religious groups.

Perhaps that's what is going wrong with religious programming? It is pessimistic to assume, for example, that a Sikh documentary would only attract Sikhs who make up just 1% of the UK population. For me, religious documentaries, like all documentaries need to represent society in its widest sense - representing diverse religious groups. Perhaps this is what's needed - a variety of religious documentaries in order to reach a mass audience. The world needs to be more knowledgeable and exposed to a wider range of faiths. In this way, it could remove the taboo of the subject and make people less ignorant towards minority groups.

A full audio recording of the Trust's Sheffield Doc/Fest session can be heard here.

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