Bertha DocHouse, the UK's first cinema dedicated to documentaries turns 20! Read how the journey began and discover how DocHouse became the home of documentary.
Written by Elizabeth Wood, Founder & Company Director of Bertha DocHouse
Twenty years ago today, on 6th October 2002, a dream came true for me – we began showing a documentary every week in the cinema.
This wasn’t easy to achieve. No one thought people would pay to see docs in the cinema. But brilliant international documentaries were disappearing off the traditional, terrestrial broadcast channels where they had thrived for half a century in mainstream slots. So, for documentary enthusiasts and students there was no longer a way to continue seeing creative feature docs in the UK.
A few keen NFTS Doc students and friends, notably Sarah Payton, pushed me to try to find a place in a London cinema to show these films on the big screen – films which could otherwise only now be seen at International Film Festivals, which they couldn’t afford to attend.
I agreed and tried hard at several cinemas across London, begging them to give me a dedicated weekly slot. The answer was – sorry, no way would they give a up a good weekly slot to docs – who would pay to see a Documentary in the cinema!
Eventually the prestigious, independent film company who owned The Other Cinema – formally The Metro (2 screens located just off Leicester square in a basement under the Trocadero) and programmed by City Screen’s (later Picturehouse) Jason Wood said “OK we’ll try it – you can have a Sunday afternoon at 3pm and we’ll see how it goes”. SUCCESS! A cinema and a great slot. So, the journey began.
Our first film screening was Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness and we sold out. We titled the slot ‘In the DocHouse’ and showed virtually every week for the next two years, until the cinema closed due to extortionate rental costs from the redevelopers of the Trocadero.
But I now had a bunch of wonderful volunteers and supporters, like Tom Roberts who let us have an office space at October Films so I could keep going. By now, docs like Spellbound had had success with releases in mainstream cinemas and there was a buzz happening. I was then offered an office at Riverside Studios for free, if we partnered with the amazing Shira Macleod and did some screenings and events as part of her schedule there.
We settled on calling it ‘DocHouse Thursdays’ and each Thursday we did a screening with a Q&A where possible, and also events like our ‘Doc History’ 4 part season – all clips with Professor Ian Christie and myself explaining, which sold out and we were invited to repeat it for the BBC docs Department!
I still had virtually no funding and it was a struggle to continue entirely from Box Office returns but thanks to wonderful volunteers like Gus Berger, Chloe Lambourne, Saskia Smith, Sam Packer and many more we not only survived but grew to show a different doc every week across London cinemas, including variously Riverside Studios, Rich Mix, The Prince Charles, The Ritzy, The ICA, and The Lexi.
Then, in 2010 I was introduced to an ‘Angel’ in the form of Tony Tabatznik, the founder of Bertha Foundation, who supported what we were doing and offered funding to expand our events for more filmmaker Q&As.
It was an amazing moment for DocHouse and for which I cannot say thank you enough. We expanded and a golden time followed, thanks to so many, including Jenny Horwell, Emily Copley, Emma Bailey, Jodie Taylor and Josh Hughes. It was a wonderful couple of years.
Then, with our growing success, Tony and Bertha eventually secured us a cinema screen of our very own at the Curzon Bloomsbury re-development, and despite, again, lots of “you’ll never make it work 4 times a day 7 days a week” we became Bertha DocHouse. We opened our doors on March 27th 2015 and the rest is history!
My huge thanks to everyone who helped this happen and may it long continue.
Some stand out film memories – there are so many – but here are a few in no particular order:
Lessons of Darkness screening at The Other Cinema – our first screening as DocHouse, and a visual blinder from Herzog.
Five Broken Cameras – ground-breaking citizen journalism and a Q&A with the heroic director Emad Burnat.
Darwin’s Nightmare – Hubert Sauper’s brilliant epic cine poem.
The Story of the Weeping Camel – a beautifully creative anthropology / docudrama.
The Gleaners and I – Agnes Varda at her glorious best.
The Act of Killing – with a boisterous Q&A with director Josh Oppenheimer.
Return to Homs – a first, shocking insight into Syria by Talal Derki, produced by Orwa Nyrabia (now Artistic Director of IDFA).
CitizenFour – Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning exposé, beautifully constructed in very limited circumstances.
Also, a mention to other form-shifting films: Man on Wire by James Marsh, Senna by Asif Kapadia, and many, many, more.
But perhaps most of all I value the events and mini Festivals we have managed to mount on a shoestring budget:
Four sold out Doc History sessions told entirely in clips with Professor Ian Christie and myself chairing and later repeated at the BBC for the documentary department
Crossing the Line – three days of panels and film sessions at Rich Mix, discussing the boundaries between documentary and fiction; Across Borders – our partnership screenings at Tate Modern on the interface between documentary and artists film and video
Rule Breakers – a season of films that changed the boundaries of documentary (with thanks to Jodie Taylor who made them happen).
And last, our very first screening as Bertha DocHouse in our own cinema screen on 27th March 2015.