I am a camera

Documentary films are making cinema news as never before. One of Britain's most controversial film-m

I believe that nearly everyone is born with a natural talent and it's just a matter of luck whether it's harnessed or not. I've been lucky. Although I was born in Canada, I was brought up in Birmingham, England. People are always slagging off Birmingham, but actually it was fantastic. I was very happy there and I liked the scale of the town; even as schoolgirls, my friends and I got to know artists, fashion designers, people setting up pop groups - there was a strong feeling of creativity in the city at that time.

I started doing a photography course at the London College of Printing, but moved quickly over to cinematography. My graduation film was a video called Sound Business, all about Jamaican sound systems and the guys who rap over backing tracks played by DJs in the clubs. It was quite dodgy then for a young white girl to hang around with a crowd of Jamaicans, but I stuck in there for so long that they eventually accepted me, and some of them became good friends. It taught me early on that you can't expect just to walk into a room with a camera and capture the truth about anybody or anything.

It was always the people who interested me; I was crap at the technical side. So what job did I get after leaving college? A video camera crew assistant. Video was beginning to be a sexy medium; suddenly everybody was shooting stuff on tape. This was techno broadcast land, but I loved the shoots, and, although I hadn't a clue what I was doing, I even got to line up the cameras. Then it got a bit sticky. I'd annoy the cameraman by asking him what he was going to shoot next, or I'd question the producers about the content of the piece. I got the sack.

I was accepted to the National Film School. Herb DiGioia, who ran the documentary classes, taught us about fluidity, how to choreograph ourselves with the camera, how not to block a doorway or stop a person doing something, how to catch the part of their body or face that expresses mood or reaction. It was all about capturing reality, not fragmenting it into shots to be cut together in the edit.

Herb read out my first shooting script mockingly to the class. But when Geoff Dunlop came to show us his Arab series, Herb was equally merciless; there were lots of beautiful panning shots with music, and he pointed out how little they had to do with the real story. Hence we shot from the hip like Don Pennebaker.

Home From the Hill began with a trip with my boyfriend to visit his father in Kenya one Christmas; I thought I might make a film about white colonials. I took a wind-up 16mm Bolex and a Beaulieu and a little sync-pulse tape recorder. As chance would have it, my boyfriend's father, Colonel Hook, a wonderful eccentric, was being evicted from the house where he'd lived for most of his life. He agreed for me to make a film about it. That was the beginning of endless discussions, shootings and screenings. The edit took a year - a bad precedent to have set myself.

Shortly afterwards, Will Wyatt, then the BBC's head of documentary features, came to the school to tell us that none of us would get jobs. The next morning he phoned up wanting to buy my film, but said the Beeb needed to recut it. There was a terrible scene - a tired old drama director was given my film to put into shape. He moved the end to the beginning and cut important pauses out of interviews. When Colonel Hook said, "We made soldiers out of savages", you knew that it was self- parody, you could see it in his face. But this BBC director used that remark as voice-over to a shot of the old man sitting in an armchair surrounded by hovering African servants. There was a sweetness in Colonel Hook's relationship with his servants, but this edit made him look like a didactic racist. Yes, I was thrilled that the BBC had bought my film, but I'd joined Herb's purist camp of observational cinema.

My approach is to say: "If you're willing to talk and let me film, I'll show you the material when it's in rough cut." I've always done that. But they don't get editorial control.

Geri Halliwell was the exception; when I made Geri, a 90-minute portrait of the pop star after she left the Spice Girls, she wanted total control. We settled on 50-50.

She cried when I screened the film. "Oh, I just feel so sorry for me," she said. She even gave me interviews sitting on the lavatory. She loved it. I think there's a line you mustn't cross and you shouldn't try to catch people off their guard. She and I would go into the toilet because it was the only place to get away from the press. That is one of the advantages of filming with DV-Cam. She was very relaxed, and it was all very girly between us.

During the making of The Ark, about London Zoo, I was aware that something underhand was going on. Some large construction companies were on the zoo's council and there was talk of partial closure and wanting to sell off part of the land for real estate. Such a story would be irresistible for most film-makers, but had I shown an interest, the zoo would have stopped trusting me. Also, I'd find myself making a news story, not a documentary.

Heart of the Angel, a film for the 40 Minutes series, revealed the conditions for staff working 300 feet down in the Angel Underground station. It's a disgrace that the Underground is still hand-swept with dustpan and brush by fluffers at night. On one occasion, three Irish workmen were chatting about being jockeys. Everything they talked about was light and colourful, and there they were in this black tunnel full of smoke, with only the flames of their Tilley lamps. I was concerned that this scene might detract from what I was trying to do overall, but it turned out to be the most popular part of the film.

Much of what was going on with the young soldiers in making In the Company of Men would have been extremely juicy. One of the most interesting things about long-term residential regiments in Northern Ireland is the management of the men: the boredom, drugs, women, the way they were with each other in their rooms. They were very physical, they danced together a lot. I'd have loved to have gone into all that, but I knew that if I went out with a bunch of army guys (drinking, picking up girls) and I shot it all, it would destroy the trust. The shoot the next morning on patrol was stronger because I'd been out with them all night without the camera.

My latest film, The Lords' Tale, looked at the abolition - or part-abolition, as it turned out - of hereditary peers. Channel 4 expected it to be full of charming old men with handlebar moustaches falling off benches, a light, sweet film with serious undertones. I wanted to make a hard-hitting, angry film about what new Labour is doing to this country (I confess to a degree of hypocrisy here: I also made a ten-minute portrait of Tony Blair for a party political broadcast in 1997). At the end of one three-hour screening, Channel 4's Peter Dale said: "But I wanted a Molly Dineen film." And I said: "But I am Molly Dineen, and I want this film to be more serious, more political, more journalistic." There's the dilemma - trying to make something serious without losing the charm, the slightly offbeat eccentricity expected of the characters in my films.

I disagree when people describe my films as "fly-on-the-wall" documentaries. They are anything but. I'm eyeing my subjects through a huge movie camera, they're talking to the lens as I'm filming them, and the process is very visible. It's the same with the commentary. I don't want me as a character. There was far too much of me in Geri, and I was so damned bossy. You could hear me behind the camera, saying endlessly, "But why don't you just go and see somebody and take a positive approach?", with her in front of the camera, sobbing away in a field. The film is a dialogue between Geri and me, but it shouldn't have been.

If someone looks into the lens and says, "Christ, I'm bored . . .", they're saying it to the viewer. This was all about what I, Molly, was thinking and saying to Geri. I couldn't observe properly because I was part of it, but I was also a crew of one. Why don't I use a cameraman? Because I couldn't bear the frustration of trying to explain what I want. I look at things and think, "God, that's a good shot or conversation" - and that's where I automatically turn. But not having a sound recordist makes for very undisciplined film-making.

Once I've entered the world of the participants in my films, they usually become a part of my life. This sounds as if I use other people's lives for my playtime. It's not that, it's just that I find it really difficult to cut off, go home, have dinner, and then head back the next morning. So I lived in the army barracks in Northern Ireland on and off for a year. On The Ark, I spent all day in the zoo and hung out with the keepers in the evenings. Obviously, now that I'm married with three children, I can't do that any more. I felt incredibly frustrated at having to treat making The Lords' Tale like an ordinary job; I wanted to be there at 2am after the House had risen, and someone was hacked off and had drunk too much.

I was born into the age of video but have more experience of film, which I prefer. I love the design of the camera, I love the balance, and I even like the hold-ups while changing magazines. In that way, I limit the amount of sync conversation, because I think in 400 feet at a time. A sad way of putting it, but it's true. With video, the public's relationship to the camera has changed. I command no authority with a little video camera, whereas I do with a film camera. It looks proper, and the public can't use it. On The Ark, when the chief executive was being kicked out of the zoo, there was this extraordinary moment as he left his office for the last time - just as I was loading a magazine. In fact, it was the best thing that could have happened: I was struggling away in the changing bag instead of staring at him, pointing the camera at him. It defused the tension, and I was able to carry on shooting.

The downside of using film is weight. On In the Company of Men, the soldiers wouldn't carry my rucksack on patrols (they had their own), and I found it exhausting tramping around with all my heavy kit. If you work with tape, you can stick the result in your handbag. Certainly, the House of Lords would have respected me a lot more if I'd had a more serious-looking camera. I think the lords felt threatened by my being a woman with a little camera, but at the same time they didn't want any intrusion and thanked me for working alone. I shoot too much: 110 hours of film for The Ark, 80 hours for In the Company of Men, and acres for Geri.

I've always been excited about the huge stage that television offers, and I feel angry that it has been degraded and debased. There is no analysis any more, no editorial line, an absence of professionalism: everybody films; everyone's on television; the whole thing is blurred. I have no idea where I fit into all this, and sometimes suspect, depressingly, that my films have achieved very little. I had hoped, with the House of Lords film, that I'd really give the government a kick up the arse, but I doubt if it felt kicked. The film does override stereotypes, though. It gets at the real characters of the people involved, which is why I work alone, talking to people, getting to know them. What I love is confronting an audience with a stereotype, showing it to be false, making them question their prejudices and maybe getting to like the character. It's a great privilege to be given a soapbox to rant from.

This is an edited extract from The Documentary Makers: interviews with 15 of the best in the business by David A Goldsmith, published by RotoVision on 4 September (£27.50)