Jennifer Collins, Head of Factual at ABC: ‘documentaries shape our lives’

Documentaries give a voice to those who might not be heard, says ABC's Head of Factual and Culture.
Documentaries 'educate, shape, and enrich our lives,' says Jennifer Collins. Image: ABC

Hi Jennifer, can you tell us a bit about yourself and what your role as Head of Factual and Culture involves? 

‘I’m an exec of 30 years experience. I’ve enjoyed a rewarding career at the ABC, where I’ve worked across all genres of production, scripted and unscripted, from producing to executive producing, and then into management roles.  I left the ABC from the role of Head of Entertainment, previously having been Head of Factual/Documentaries. I was Head of Non-Scripted at Screentime, followed by Director of Content at Fremantle, and now back at the ABC as Head of Factual and Culture. 

‘In this role, I’m responsible for commissioning over 100 hours of factual and documentary content each year, across Science, Natural History, History, Religion and Ethics, Arts and Contemporary. I also have responsibility for internal teams at Radio National, Catalyst, Compass, and Artworks.’

Why are documentaries important? What can they do that other genres can’t?

‘Documentaries are our stories. As the biggest commissioner of documentaries in Australia, ABC documentaries give a voice to those who may not otherwise be heard. Documentaries can ignite national conversations, foster understanding, and create real and meaningful change. They feature Australian voices, places, and stories. Most importantly they not only reflect our lives, they can educate, shape, and enrich our lives.

‘From documentaries like Firestarter: The Story of Bangarra, to The School That Tried To End RacismLove on the Spectrum to Australia’s Ocean Odyssey they are entertaining, diverse, and intelligent and they bring in large audiences to the ABC. What they can do, that other genres can’t, is provide a depth to a topic. Documentaries can explore an issue in a deeper way, analysing, reflecting, and often triggering change.’

Can you tell us about any upcoming productions on your slate that you’re excited about?

‘What I love about our slate for 2022 is the diversity of the content. But what they all have in common is real public value. It’s not solely entertainment – it’s public broadcasting at its best. We’ve got new spin-offs to much loved formats such as Old People’s Home for Teenagers and Back in Time for the Corner Shop. We have really innovative original formats like Tiny Oz, which marries arts and history. Tiny Oz celebrates the extraordinary miniature art movement where artists lovingly obsess over teensy details, as they re-create remarkable moments in our nation’s history. It’s original, innovative and the visual effects are extraordinary.

‘We have Space 22, hosted by Natalie Bassingthwaite – a brand-new social experiment where we see whether the power of art can make a difference to one’s mental well-being. And spoiler alert – of course it does … Many Australians are struggling with their mental health following the pandemic and this program provides positivity and hope. It’s got genuine warmth and heart.

‘And then we have high end Science documentaries like Carbon: The Unauthorised Biography, narrated by Sarah Snook and again incredible visual effects as well as event TV with Southern Ocean Live, hosted by Hamish McDonald and Dr Ann Jones from the largest Little Penguin colony in the world at Phillip Island.’

What are the pressures on filmmakers to capture an audience in this age of information overload?

‘Producers have definitely become more innovative in the way they tell their stories. The subjects and themes are equally important, but now it needs to be more than just a fascinating topic. If it isn’t served up in an accessible and interesting way commissioners won’t get hooked and nor will audiences. There are less thesis led documentaries, but having said that, the depth is still there, it’s just presented in new ways.

‘Most definitely, and thankfully, we’re seeing more diversity both on and off screen. We’re seeing big budget high production values in the science programming in particular, which is really bringing those stories to life for a broader audience.’

What do you predict some major documentary themes will be, say, five years from now? 

‘One of the first things we ask of filmmakers when pitched documentaries is Why Now?, why is it important for this story to be told at this point in time. I don’t think anyone knows what the burning issues will be in five years but what I do hope is that in five years we’re seeing more ideas come in with other public broadcasters on board tackling big issues together – whether that’s climate change documentaries, natural history stories or other contemporary issues.’

Jennifer Collins is speaking at the Australian International Documentary Conference 2022.

Paul Dalgarno writes novels: A Country of Eternal Light (2023) and Poly (2020); memoir: And You May Find Yourself (2015); and creative non-fiction: Prudish Nation (2023). He was formerly Deputy Editor of The Conversation and joined ScreenHub as Managing Editor in 2022. Twitter: @pauldalgarno. Insta: @narrativefriction