"Let me tell you a story," is a phrase
Graef, 78, is about to be honoured at a special Bafta tribute event for his efforts. "All I ever wanted to do all the way through was to make a difference," says the US-born filmmaker, explaining how his lifelong passion for social justice was ignited while putting on plays at
Largely through the company he founded over three decades ago, Films of Record, Graef is renowned for a body of mainly observational documentaries. "My job as a filmmaker is to get as close as possible so that [the people featured] feel respected, they feel that we have . . . told the truth about the situation. Neither they nor us should feel manipulated," he says.
Many of his films have been credited with directly influencing social policy. "I think we had a hand in speeding up adoption [processes]," Graef says of the impact of his 2011 Panorama special, The Truth About Adoption, for example. His films have also been showered with critical acclaim for sensitive and responsible portrayals of hidden and disturbing social problems.
Programmes include: The Secret Policeman's Ball, a trailblazing series of benefits for
Whether talking about documentary filmmaking as a genre, his own programmes, or the issues they explore, Graef doesn't hold back. He has no time for detractors who claim documentaries have become marginal or of lower quality than years ago. And he has short shrift too for those who are quick to judge much-maligned documentaries such as
"It would be easy for me to say it's all gone to the dogs," he says about the evolution of current affairs documentaries. "One of the flip remarks that really pisses me off is that somehow there aren't people doing the same kind of thing [Films of Record] are doing. Not true." It's not true either, he says, that serious documentaries don't attract big audiences. "I'm not shy about ratings. I want to reach as many people as possible - but not if we have to compromise the work. The Kids in Care [documentary] got 3.8m [viewers] at 9 o'clock - the toughest slot. I'm incredibly proud of that," he says. The interaction from the audience was so great, he adds, that "the websites for all of the adoption agencies crashed".
When it comes to accusations that some documentaries have become exploitative of people who are on benefits, reinforcing stereotypes of them as "scroungers", he says the situation is "much more nuanced" than people assume. Yes, there are wider issues about the vilification and misrepresentation of people by politicians and in the press but it would be wrong to direct too much ire at documentaries, he insists. Rather, he argues, the role programme-makers play in opening up the wider audience's eyes to people they don't normally get to see or meet is a valuable one.
"I'm just going to make the point as emphatically as I possibly can: people's judgments about television are almost always second-hand. I would say that backlash is probably from people who haven't seen the programmes. What do you call it? 'Poverty porn?' Well I don't accept that. I think we've got a country that's hugely divided - as The Guardian reminds us every day - [but] who's going to look at these characters if they're invisible anyway - but us [documentary makers]?"
In the course of an hour and a half Graef jumps from topic to topic frequently honing in on the problems that he believes continue to blight society. On children in "care" he says: "I can't bear that word. It's a complete contradiction in terms." Referring to his work on prisons and youth justice: "The prison population is a complete scandal. We thought we'd won the debate on the pointlessness of pure punishment [already]."
He is currently working on a documentary about how domestic violence affects women in black and minority ethnic communities and contends: "the question is how do we change the cultural norms that make domestic violence OK? It's not OK."
Graef is clearly proud of his accomplishments (his mantelpiece is strewn with bronze Bafta statuettes) but the work he is most proud of is a recent series about
As for the future, Graef, who is also a patron and trustee of numerous charitable organisations, shows no signs of slowing down. He has a slew of projects in the pipeline but what matters most, he stresses, is not making programmes, it is making a difference. As he says: "The point is to change things. I will just carry on until I drop."
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