Nick Ahlmark makes documentaries for channels as diverse as Vice’s VBS, Al Jazeera and Al Gore’s Current TV. His subject matter is equally varied, taking in art and photography, incest, technology and Vietnamese midwifery. Three years ago Arena magazine declared him one of a new wave of guerilla filmmakers and he hasn’t stopped since.
When you make something for VBS do you make it differently to when you’re working for Al Jeezera?
Yeah. Vice have their own way to tell stories. They’re not crazy about too much voiceover. If you look at the original 2007 films they’re quite gonzo, a bit rough and ready. But some of it is quite slick now. With Al Jazeera you have to appeal to a global audience, because these films are going out to hundreds of different countries and 230 million households as well as online. You have to think, why would some someone in Kuala Lumpur watching Al Jazeera News be interested? They’re two completely different organisations but they’ve come up around the same kind of time and they’re breaking the mould from traditional terrestrial broadcasting.
Have terrestrial documentaries changed recently? They seem a bit dumbed down or sensationalist.
I think they’re always changing. People like Channel 4 and BBC have remits to address the issues of the day but also need to get ratings as well. I think there’s some good stuff out there. I really liked My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding because it takes you into another world, another community that’s under-represented and has a negative stigma, but does it in quite an irreverent and accessible way. But you do hear from other filmmakers about having to give their film a silly title, or make it celebrity-led. It would be hard for me to get the films I make for Al Jazeera – observational documentaries about characters or stories in some far-flung corner – on British television.
How do you come up with the subjects of your films?
Some of them are stories that I have found off my own bat and some of them have been led by the broadcaster. When I made the film about the midwives of Vietnam, that came about from Al Jazeera doing a series on global maternal health and asking me to use my contacts to find a story in Asia. Even if you find something, you have to think about where the outlet is for it, who’s going to fund it, where is it going to slot in. I don’t really want to take the risk of making stuff off my own bat. A lot of people spend years ploughing loads of their own money into making one thing and it might do well on the festival circuit, but who else sees it after that?
How long do you spend making your films?
It depends on a lot of factors. I’ve just been making these films for Vice that are brand-sponsored. They’re little three-minute portraits of different characters around the world. I’ve been to Japan, Australia, France and I can shoot them in two days. Obviously there’s research beforehand. With the midwives film it probably took me three months to get access, then we spent a week out there prepping, then 10 days in the mountains and then another week doing translations before coming home. And then the edit was about three weeks. So the whole process was about four months, but I was doing other stuff in the lead-up. I generally turn things round quite quickly.
What drew you to making documentary films over, say, fiction films?
I went to film school at the University of Westminster and I think all film students should be made to make documentaries because there’s less pressure. I mean, how many good student films do you see? With a documentary you can find characters and people who are much crazier than you could conjure up usually, or much more engaging and interesting. It’s much more visceral. Making even short documentaries really focuses your mind on storytelling. I was thinking about making a narrative film but there are so many elements you have bring. With documentary I could just grab a camera and go off and shoot. But why documentaries? I think I have a natural curiosity about people and the world.
ROB HORNSTRA FILM: tinyurl.com/PicPerf
WORDS AND PHOTO BY JAMES KENDALL