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“The Ladder of Creative Risk”: Luke Moody Discusses the BFI Doc Society Fund

By Soheil Rezayazdi

Photograph of a white man with curly brown hair and a neat mustache, standing in the middle of a glass-walled corridor.

Luke Moody, head of the BFI Doc Society Fund. Courtesy of Luke Moody.

Luke Moody is the rare bird who can speak credibly as a documentary programmer, producer, and funder. The current head of the BFI Doc Society Fund, Moody began his journey with Doc Society as an intern in 2010, when it was known as BRITDOC. He remained with the UK-based nonprofit for six years, advancing from intern to grants officer to head of film. He then began a three-year stint as the director of film programming at Sheffield DocFest, the UK’s premier documentary film festival. He left that role in 2019 to work as an independent producer. Moody founded the production company LONO Studio, participated in the Sundance Producers Summit and the CPH:LAB, and produced the acclaimed 2022 doc While We Watched. While LONO Studio remains active, Moody returned to Doc Society last year as a different kind of funder: one with lived experiences as both a programmer and a producer.

Founded in 2005, Doc Society became the British Film Institute’s documentary partner in 2018, administering money raised through the UK’s National Lottery. Moody oversees the three key programs that comprise the BFI Doc Society Fund, all of which are for UK-based filmmakers. Chief among them is the Features Fund, which provides grants of up to £150,000 for documentaries at any stage in production. The fund accepts applications on a rolling basis and has awarded grants to 63 features to date. It supports work at the lower budget level; as of 2023, only about one-quarter of the projects supported had budgets higher than £500,000. The funding support also includes the Made of Truth program, which offers up to £25,000 to roughly 15 short-form projects per year, and the newly created RAD (Research & Development) Fund, which seeks to support the perennially under-supported R&D stage of the filmmaking process. Together, these three funds are an essential component of the documentary ecosystem in the UK. For most awardees, Doc Society is their first source of funding and a major mark of legitimacy for their project.

Moody spoke with Documentary from his base in Sheffield shortly after the new year. The conversation, edited here for length and clarity, touched on Doc Society’s key funding programs, Moody’s commitment to transparency and feedback to applicants, and his goal to “undermine my own decision-making and unconscious bias within a system of review.”


DOCUMENTARY: You returned to Doc Society this past year. How has that transition been to working as a funder again?

LUKE MOODY: It’s given me a more holistic perspective of valuing producers and the work that is involved in approaching a funder. I started my career with BRITDOC, or Doc Society, as an intern, and that quickly turned into a job. You adopt systems of how things are done just as you do with any sort of institution, sometimes without having the lived impact of what that means for the person on the other side of that decision. Going back into this role after having produced really makes me question every detail of what we’re doing in terms of timelines, systems, and ways that we communicate with filmmakers. It’s about relationships—being able to communicate with filmmakers, and how you communicate with them really impacts their understanding of that system, too. If you don’t communicate the reasons around decisions or processes, it can ostracize communities of filmmakers who should be at the table and be supported. Otherwise, there’s no understanding of how they can overcome the barriers of not being supported. 

D: Across the industry right now, I hear from colleagues that this is a particularly difficult moment to fund creative, adventurous nonfiction projects. Would you agree with that assessment?

LM: I don’t think it is for the fund that I represent. Freedom of creative expression is one of our four core criteria. But what does “freedom of creative expression” mean when you have so many barriers prior to that moment of being free? There are structural barriers to freedom that we need to facilitate filmmakers to navigate before they can feel that sense of creative freedom. For us, we’re there to support those the commercial market cannot support. Going back to my recent experience, I was mostly producing what I’d consider more radical documentaries. I was intently going for those projects that nobody else would get behind, because if you as a producer don’t get behind them as the first step in the ladder of creative risk, then the system’s broken. The funder above you won’t recognize that project, and the talent won’t have the confidence to go forward with their own project. In the UK, there are really a handful of producers who work in independent feature docs sustainably and have long careers. If they’re the first filter of what’s coming to us as a fund, then we’re not going to see a great deal of risk-taking in this climate of SVODs not funding them sustainably. The big focus for me is finding ways of developing that ecosystem so producers can feel sustainable enough to take that risk. 

D: Are there key ways that you hope to shift the organization now that you’ve returned? 

LM: The practices of transparency are really important to me. It’s about resources and the amount of attention you can give, just as with a film festival with an open call. The great thing about Doc Society is they don’t charge for any of their open calls, so that means there’s no economic barrier to putting in a submission. 

D: But that also means a huge number of applications. 

LM: If you’re making a commitment to transparency and feedback on those applications, then you have to find a system of doing that that doesn’t take away from the qualitative work of working with filmmakers. That’s been some of the work that I’ve been doing over the last few months—to make filmmakers feel comfortable with the level of feedback that they’re receiving. Keeping the door open, having a conversation with them so they’re not dissuaded from coming back to us in the future. Perhaps historically organizations had this more generic response—“We don’t have time to give feedback”—that curtails communities of outreach. If you are a first-time filmmaker and all you get is a faceless message, then you’re not going to want to participate in that community. We now have weekly one-to-ones that people can sign up for to speak to myself or another member of our team before putting in an application. Then we’re committed to feedback for every application, which varies at each stage depending on what level they reach, whether it’s interview or peer review, etc.

D: How do you build in the time for that? It’s a difficult task, especially when you have a small staff and hundreds of applicants for every program.

LM: It’s just about systems, right? After a period of time, you can know about how many applications you’ll have in a certain period and figure out what you can commit to, and then communicate that. We built a new section on our website, which really talks through the process of why it takes so long to review an application. So it’s not like you’re submitting your entry into a black hole; you understand the process that it has to go through. Part of my time commitment is talking to filmmakers, as it should be. You could get sucked into other things, but ultimately we’re serving filmmakers, right? So if you’re not speaking to them, then you’re speaking to yourself and making decisions not based on that community’s best interest.

D: How would you say this review process has changed since you started doing this work? 

LM: There’s been a grander shift in the industry of better understanding equity, diversity, and inclusion; barriers to access; and even that the time to complete an application form is a barrier. We’ve actually just launched this new RAD Fund, which is partly to acknowledge that. You’re probably very aware of the Nonfiction Core application. There are key questions now around positionality—“Why are you the person to make this film?”—that five or six years ago were not on any application. There was a much more imperialist mode of filmmaking, where it was North American or European filmmakers telling the story of elsewhere. Quite often, it was a much more extractive model. Assessors and fund heads were very much supporting that system by not asking the questions that are asked now. 

D: And what about on the reviewer side? 

LM: There’s far more consciousness there. Look, I’m a white man, I’m 40 now, so I’m from a majority-represented community historically, and that is something I really acknowledge being in a position of power. How do I undermine my own decision-making and unconscious bias within a system of review? Treated through collaboration, you should not at any point be the sole decision maker and sole voice in the room when looking at an application. At the first stage, [an application] is reviewed by two people—one external, one internal—so the external can challenge the internal view. In the second stage, we progress to peer review, and there again an external committee offers different perspectives. When it comes to film funding, you can bias your decision-making through curating a community of like-minded folks in taste. If they’re all curators from a certain kind of festival, of course they’ll agree upon certain things. So we commit to having somebody from production, somebody from distribution, and somebody who’s either in exhibition or a sales agent in the mix. Historically, it may have been somebody applied, they’re internally shortlisted, and then the head of the fund says “yeah.” There’s no questioning on that journey. Now, at every stage there’s another opinion that’s taken on board and challenged, and that’s really valuable.

D: What are the funds and programs that currently excite you the most? 

LM: There’s a short-form fund called Made of Truth, which I find really amazing. That fund can be life-changing in a career for a filmmaker who’s a very fresh talent, both on the directing and producing side. Similar to the RAD Fund, you could be a filmmaker coming from a different form of production, maybe as an artist, or making music videos. You do not need that resumé of having worked in documentaries. I think that’s the only way we’re going to shift and challenge who the voices are in the documentary community. I think the difficulty of documentary historically has been that folks are coming from very privileged backgrounds, particularly on the producer side. How do we challenge that? We look beyond those who want to be documentary makers. 

D: What are some of the common shortcomings you see in the applications to your funds?

LM: With the Features Fund, a lack of development of the project. You might have a subject, a character, a place or a theme, but that is not a film. What’s often missing is how and why this should be cinema. What artistic approach will that filmmaker take that makes it unique from other means of addressing that narrative? The other is confidence of direction. Hopefully the RAD Fund will alleviate a bit of that and filmmakers will have time before coming to the fund to further develop the project. It is a difficulty of the industry generally; you have to have a teaser to then pitch for funding to make a teaser. I’m encouraging filmmakers to be bold in those applications and communicate “I want to do this one thing,” rather than trying to guess what the funder wants. We’re in the most free space as a national film fund in terms of form, so I want films to be what they want to be. We’re not filling slots of a commercial sort or trying to bludgeon the project into something that we think it should be.

D: When you left Sheffield DocFest in 2019, you gave this quote to Sight and Sound about the festival: “Their anchor is the festival as it was 10, 20 years ago, putting forward colonial forms of filmmaking annually, offering and pressuring to include content only relevant to a domestic market and directed by white men over 40.” To what extent do you think other festivals are guilty of this mindset?

LM: COVID has had a big impact on the way that film festivals work. A lot of them adapted in that period of not having the income generated from sales of tickets. Across Europe, the support just didn’t come back. More governments are assessing, “Does it have cultural value? Which audience is it speaking to?” So the support of festivals has gone down, and that results in pressure on programming. I think we’re seeing shifts in some festivals, like IFFR and Berlinale having new directors who are coming from festivals that are much more broad-audience focused. That’s going to impact what we see, right? 

Festivals are the start of the distribution cycle of a lot of films. If you begin the cycle with a very conservative outlook, then it’s only going to perpetuate further through the market. There’s always been a balance between appeasing certain sponsors with your content to be able to do the other thing. But if you don’t do the other thing—if you don’t support those independent voices and it all becomes a homogeneous mass of SVOD content—then what’s the point in a festival? A festival is about championing, curating projects that need that elevation to then secure the confidence of a distribution community. But I’m also aware that I’m now a white man over 40 since I said that. [Laughs.] I think we need to always challenge our own outlook.

Soheil Rezayazdi is the manager of nonfiction programs at the Gotham Film & Media Institute. His writing has appeared in Filmmaker MagazineViceMcSweeney’sBrooklyn Magazine, and elsewhere.