A Dancer Dies Twice

Docs Dose: Falling Tree Producer Eleanor McDowall on Audio Docs & What She Learned from Toddlers with Axes

Senior Producer at Falling Tree Radio, Eleanor McDowall’s audio documentaries have been broadcast over a plethora of international platforms: BBC Radio, This American Life (WBEZ), RadioTonic (ABC) and Unfictional (KCRW) to name but a few. Her programme ‘A Dancer Dies Twice’ received a Special Commendation at Prix Europa 2016 and she has a Silver Sony Award under her belt for her role as co-producer on ‘The Reunion: Hurricane Katrina in 2011.’

Eleanor is currently up for Best Documentary Maker at the Audio Production Awards 2016, so we think it’s safe to say that she knows a think or two about radio docs. We caught up with her to find out about the real life moments that make her heart race, the pioneering programmes that we’re overlooking, and her advice for future documentary makers….

Image Courtesy of Eleanor McDowall

  1. In three words I became a documentary maker because…

Curiosity, delight, connection.

2. Describe a moment on screen, through your camera lens or headphones that made the hairs shoot up on the back of your neck? Why?

There’s a scene in Kirsten Johnson’s beautiful documentary-memoir ‘Cameraperson’ where two toddlers are playing with an axe. One trying to grab it off the other. You can hear Johnson gasp off-camera and almost feel her body shaking with the urge to intervene as the axe slams closer and closer to the child’s fingers. It’s such a striking image that seems to quietly encapsulate the struggle to remain an observer, outside a story, when you’re documenting the lives of people you care about.

3. What was the last documentary that changed your mind?

The Silent Evidence series made by The Heart, a podcast on the Radiotopia network. It took such a nuanced, personal approach to incredibly charged subject matter (child sex abuse). Quiet, subtle and thoughtfully provocative.

4. Which moment in the whole documentary process makes you the most happy?

The moment when, even amongst the disaster and self-hatred of putting something together in the final edit, you find twenty seconds of your documentary where everything seems to fall perfectly into place – the delivery of a line that breaks your heart – or music and speech working in perfect counterpoint – something that feels bigger than the sum of its parts…

5.  Who or what in the world of documentary do you think is underrated right now? Why?

In the UK I don’t think we spend nearly enough time listening to audio documentaries in languages other than English. Some of the most exciting, innovative work being made today is being made in countries where English isn’t the first language but every article I read about podcasting seems to just name the same few US/UK shows as if they’re all that exists… We need to talk more about how to make this work accessible to an English-speaking audience, because we’re missing out.

6. Who or what in the world of documentary do you think is overrated right now? Why?

‘Storytelling’ – it feels like we have far too much ‘telling’ on the radio and not enough showing. I’d like to hear more discussion about how sound, music, action, scenes can place you in an unfolding story rather than just tell you about it. Less past tense, more present tense.

7.  What’s your best documentary that never get made? And is it too late now? 

Every documentary I’ve ever made is nowhere close to the perfect one that sits somewhere in the back of my head, gently mocking my ability to realise it. I hope it’s never too late to get better.

8. If we gave you £80,000 tomorrow (our top funding award) what would you spend it on?

Time. In radio, documentaries are made with very quick turnarounds – 2 or 3 weeks funded time at most. I wonder what audio documentary would sound like if we spent the same time on it as people working on documentaries for the cinema or television.

9. What’s the best tip you have inherited?

My colleague Alan Hall told me (often) very early on (and still needs to remind me) to “just go and bloody record something”. I have a tendency to spend too much time agonisingly piecing together documentaries in my head and not enough time actually talking to people, finding out what’s a dead end and what should be the beating heart of the documentary.

10. What’s the best tip you’d like to pass on?

Go and make something – anything. The only way you’ll learn how to do it is through the unbearable agony of doing something, messing it up and slowly learning how to do it better.