Back in 2002, Elizabeth Wood first embarked on her life’s passion project. As a teacher of documentary film-making she was troubled that there essentially wasn’t an outlet for her graduates to go on to show their feature-length work to the public.
“I started DocHouse because it was getting increasingly difficult to see good international documentaries on mainstream TV and no one was showing them in cinemas at that time,” she says. “Yet there was this whole world of incredible films that you could only catch at festivals and then they disappeared, so very few people could find a way to see them.”
For thirteen solid years since, she’s been plugging away with what became a rolling film festival to celebrate and nurture the genre, week-in-week-out, at assorted host venues like Riverside Hammersmith, the ICA and RichMix.
The screenings – often complete with a Q&A session with the director – were always popular, but didn’t entirely solve the issue of making the films truly accessible to a wider audience. The dream was always to have a permanent home.
Now, with the big screen success of Asif Kapadia’s blockbusters Senna and Amy, combined with the online streaming platform revolution, documentary movies are centre stage. So it’s more than timely that Elizabeth has finally realised her long-term ambition and opened a dedicated 56-seat cinema, as part of the redeveloped Curzon Bloomsbury at the Brunswick Centre.The all-new Bertha Dochouse ended up with its slightly curious name off the back of Wood’s partnership in 2011 with media activism charity the Bertha Foundation, who had links with the ambitious Curzon group.
Their £4m referb of the old Renoir cinema into a modern six-screen facility allowed for the realisation of Elizabeth’s dream purpose-built space, which comprises the theatre with an adjacent lounge for discussion, networking and masterclasses, plus archive viewing stations and access to an extensive online DocHouse hub that supports documentary makers with all manner of resources.
“The dedicated space allows us to show the best documentaries with a UK release for a decent run of screenings,” says an excited Jenny Horwell, producer and programming manager at the new cinema. “We also continue to champion films that don’t have a UK release too, perhaps combining them into a season or retrospective based around a theme or country, with three of four shows every day of the week.”
For the big Q&As and premieres on Thursdays, the DocHouse moves upstairs to the 150-seater main auditorium, but that’s not to say that the more obscure weekday events aren’t successful too.
“Bloomsbury is such a vibrant place to be based,” says Jenny. “There are so many students here, and the is a crossover from the British Library audience, plus the regulars who used to visit the Renoir for its foreign arthouse films. It feels like a hugely productive area for us to have our home.”
As the whole concept of a world-beating Knowledge Quarter starts to take hold in the neighbourhood too, it does feels like the DocHouse has found its silver-screened nirvana. Finally documentary film-makers and enthusiasts have a support structure that extends way beyond a permanent hub for their work, also encompassing a rich resource and a meeting place for their minds. Not bad fruit to have been born from 13 years of Elizabeth’s unswerving dedication to the cause.
“So much factual TV is led by commentary, telling you what to think, but there is a hunger in audiences to discover the wider picture,” she tells us. “Most documentary makers have something they want to say about the world, usually to represent the under-represented. We constantly find audiences are amazed to see real stories, beautifully shot and edited, addressing important issues from across the globe.”
Bertha DocHouse, Curzon Bloomsbury, The Brunswick, WC1N for info and tickets here