James Rogan's tribute to Grierson Trustees' Award recipient, the late Roger Graef

James Rogan's tribute to Grierson Trustees' Award recipient, the late Roger Graef
The late Roger Graef OBE, Grierson Trustees' Award recipient 2022.

A serious programme note for Roger Graef would run something like this: Roger Graef OBE, a pioneer of fly-on-the-wall filmmaking and social impact documentaries in the UK. Most famously, the film A Complaint of Rape went on to change policing...

But this is Roger, and he was never one for formalities. For many of us attending the Grierson Awards, Roger was an exec, a mentor and a friend, always inspiringly focussed on the possibility and purpose of documentary. For those who worked with him, there has been an unexpected emptiness this year. Roger was 85 when he died but he kept such a busy schedule that it was easy to mistake him for 35. When I started working with Roger, around the time we made The Trouble with Pirates together in 2010, he would often suggest we run from meeting to meeting. Well into his 80s, he would be rushing around talking, giving advice, hustling for projects.

The desire Roger had to always connect people and see difficult projects get made was precious. Really precious. I am not sure I could count the people Roger introduced me to.

Roger’s talent for promotion (and self-promotion) was boundless. Roger variously told me that he designed the London bus map, pioneered access-based filmmaking, invented the use of post-it notes in edits, engineered the first international co-productions and created the comedy benefit. The strange thing was that most of his outlandish claims were true and were a tribute to his career as an enthusiast, always finding a way to help create new work and new opportunities. One of my favourite Roger memories is when he turned up late to a shoot in Shad Thames and complained he had gotten lost, announcing with frustration: “I told them when they were building this place that people would get lost!”

His films speak to his restless artistry and his passion for social justice from Kids in Care to Monty Python: The Meaning of Live; from A Complaint of Rape to Feltham Sings; from Great Ormond Street to Requiem for Detroit. Not only was he a great filmmaker but there wasn’t a production scenario that he didn’t have an anecdote or advice for – he had seen and done an awful lot and changed our industry and the country in the process.

But when I think of Roger and his legacy. I don’t actually think of his films, his skills getting things made or speaking truth to power. I think of his kindness to contributors and to filmmakers. I think of the fact that if I had not met Roger Graef, perhaps I wouldn’t have felt as empowered to show my films to contributors, to follow my conscience and to trust that good process makes great films. Kindness can be underrated in documentary filmmaking, but it is an essential tool and his work is a testament to that.

Roger would have loved receiving the Grierson Trustees’ Award. I can see him on stage, ebullient grin and tears in his eyes, applauding all the wonderful documentaries in competition, saying as he did, “Documentaries are alive and well. Long live documentaries!”

I don’t like to think of Roger gone, rather I prefer to imagine him hustling for documentary access to the afterlife.

Farewell old friend and thank you. 

James Rogan, Creative Director, Rogan Productions

Published: 7 November 2022

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