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Jon Blair, CBE is a South African-born writer, film producer and director of documentary films, drama and comedy who has lived in England and the United States ever since he was drafted into the South African army in the late 1960s. He is the only director of documentaries working in the United Kingdom who has won all three of the premier awards in his field: an Oscar, an Emmy (twice) and a British Academy Award. He was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2015 Birthday Honours for services to film.
Anne Frank Remembered, written, produced and directed by Blair, is the winner of an Academy Award for Documentary Feature (Oscar), as well as an International Emmy, a CableACE, the International Documentary Association Distinguished Achievement Award, the Audience Award at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), the Jury Award at the Hamptons International Film Festival and a Gold Plaque at the Chicago International Film Festival together with awards for editing and cinematography at the New York Film and Television Festival. It has also been featured at the Melbourne, Montreal and Toronto International Film Festivals (all non-competitive). The film was distributed theatrically in the UK, North America and Australia.
Blair is the winner of a British Academy Award for Best Documentary for his 1983 film, Schindler, which preceded Steven Spielberg's feature by 10 years and was used extensively by Spielberg as a research resource. Schindler was narrated by Dirk Bogarde and written, produced and directed by Blair.
Between January 2011 and July 2013 Blair was in charge of Major Series and Documentary Specials for the broadcaster AlJazeera English. In late 2011 he had the Discussions brief added to his portfolio. During his time at Al Jazeera he commissioned and executive produced a range of one-off documentaries and series as well as creating new talk show formats. As Executive Producer of Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark, directed by May Ying Welsh for Aljazeera, Jon won a Robert F Kennedy Journalism Award, an Amnesty International Media Award, a UK Foreign Press Association Feature Story of the Year Award, a George Polk Award for Journalism, and a Scripps Howard Foundation Jack R Howard Award, and was nominated for a British Academy Award and a Royal Television Society Award. In 2012 Blair was asked to create formats and commission high-profile series and one-off documentaries for AlJazeera's new American channel and in that capacity he commissioned some of the United States' best known non-fiction film makers to make a range of documentaries and series to be shown in 2014.
Before he joined AlJazeera, Blair's feature documentary, Dancing with the Devil, premiered at the Silverdocs Festival in the USA in June 2009 and had its Latin American premiere at the Festival do Rio, the Rio de Janeiro Film Festival in October 2009. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian described it as "horribly fascinating", it portrays the bloody battle between drug lords and police in Rio de Janeiro where more than 1000 people die each year.
During 2007 and early 2008 Blair made Ochberg's Orphans for Rainmaker Films, about the 1921 expedition of one Isaac Ochberg who saved nearly 200 orphans from the wreckage of post-revolutionary Russia. The film was shortlisted for an Oscar for Short Documentary.
In 2006, Blair produced and directed a multi episode comedy series for BBC1, Dawn French's Girls Who Do: Comedy. In 2005 Jon made two one-hour drama documentaries for Discovery Networks Europe in the Zero Hour series, about the Oklahoma bomb and the plot to kill Pope John Paul II. Prior to that he worked as an Executive Producer for Discovery for 8 months.
In 2003–04, he produced a 4-hour series – of which he produced, wrote and directed 3 hours – Reporters at War, a first hand history of war reporting, featuring some of the most famous American and British war reporters through the ages. The Series won an Emmy in the US for Best Historical Programming. His feature length opening programme of the series won the Broadcasting Press Guild Award for best multi-channel programme for 2003 and was nominated for the Broadcast Award for Best Multi-Channel Programme for 2003/4, as well as receiving an Honourable Mention at Banff. The Series also received a Gold Medal at the New York Festivals.
Following a programme on Bin Laden: the Early Years for Channel Four after 11 September 2001, in 2002 he was series producer, as well as director and writer of two episodes of the four-part series The Age of Terror. The series made by 3BM Television received wide critical acclaim including an International Documentary Association Award nomination and winning the Broadcast Award for Best Multi-Channel Programme for 2002. The series was also nominated for a Banff Documentary Award.
Also in 2002, Blair produced, wrote, directed and narrated The Meyssan Conspiracy, about a 9/11 conspiracy theory, for Channel Four Science and then a rapid turn-round special, also for Channel Four, on the Bali bombing. He was also a contributor to The Times Special Supplement on the first anniversary of the 11 September tragedy.
As a producer/director on the British TV shows Tonight, This Week and TV Eye, Blair covered domestic and foreign political and economic stories including the first programme about the 1976 Soweto uprising for British television, There Is No Crisis!, and coverage of wars in the Middle East, Cambodia and Angola. As a war correspondent/feature writer he has contributed to The Times, The Sunday Times, The Observer, The Economist and The New York Times. He has also been a book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times.
Having created one of the first independent production companies in England with Spitting Image Productions, Blair set up his own company, Jon Blair Films, in 1987. The company's first production was a feature documentary co-produced with BBC1 which Jon produced, directed and wrote, Do You Mean There Are Still Real Cowboys?. It tells the story of a year in the life of the small cow town in Wyoming where the actress Glenn Close's parents now live. The feature-length version was narrated by Robert Redford who, before agreeing to work on the film, told Close and Blair that he thought it was "one of the best films about the American West" he had ever seen.
Blair then wrote and produced a drama documentary for Channel Four, The Kimberley Carlile Inquiry based on Louis Blom-Cooper's inquiry into the circumstances surrounding that infamous case of child abuse. The production starred Julie Covington, Brian Cox, Kenneth Cranham, Daniel Day-Lewis, Trevor Eve, Alan Howard, Anna Massey, Diana Quick, Zoe Wanamaker and others. His follow-up documentary on child protection in Coventry was later used extensively in training service providers. Another of Blair's documentaries on medical/social issues, made for ITV on the misuse of the drug Haloperidol in prisons and police stations, has been cited as a good example of how to approach complex medical issues in popular television.
Other productions included an early example of a formatted documentary, Thighs, Lies & Beauty, an investigation of the myths and reality surrounding the beauty business for BBC1; The Art of Tripping, a 2-hour dramatised documentary for Channel Four on drug taking and the arts starring Bernard Hill; a Frontline (Channel Four) current affairs film featuring the story of South African Jann Turner whose father was assassinated in front of her when she was 13, and as an adult returns to South Africa to look at the arguments for revenge versus reconciliation in the new South Africa; Steven Spielberg on "Schindler's List" and Tom Hanks & The World According to Gump, both for the BBC; and Wagner vs Wagner, for Channel Four, featuring Richard Wagner's great grandson on the composer's political and cultural legacy of anti-semitism and race hatred.
Theatrically released films
Both Anne Frank Remembered and Dancing with the Devil have been released theatrically, the former by Sony Pictures Classics in the US. At one time Anne Frank Remembered was one of the 30 highest grossing documentaries of all time.
In 1991 Blair produced and his company made the feature film, Monster in a Box, Spalding Gray's sequel to his earlier work, Swimming to Cambodia. The film, directed by documentarian Nick Broomfield, and distributed in the USA by Fineline Features consists of a long-form monologue by Gray detailing the trials and tribulations he encountered when writing his eponymous first novel. The soundtrack music was composed by Laurie Anderson. The film achieved the ultimate accolade of being parodied on Sesame Street as an instalment of Monsterpiece Theater, with the main actor and writer aptly called Spalding Monster in a homage to Gray. With rather more pathos the film also contains a number of references to Gray's suicidal thoughts of drowning, thereby hinting at his eventual death in 2004 when he is thought to have jumped off the Staten Island Ferry in New York.
Blair was co-founder and co-creator of Spitting Image, acting as producer and then executive producer until mid 1987. He was also executive producer of all Spitting Image specials for NBC and HBO in the US. In his time at Spitting Image as producer or executive producer the programme won two Emmies, a Banff comedy award, and numerous other international awards.
Blair produced Dunrulin' for BBC1, a satirical comedy based on his own idea featuring the Thatcher family in retirement starring Angela Thorne and John Wells. He also made The Stone Age by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman for BBC1 and starring Trevor Eve. Other comedy productions include Packing Them In and Blue Heaven, both starring Frank Skinner and both for Channel Four. There was also the light hearted dramatised documentary, Sindy Hits Thirty, with Sandi Toksvig for Channel Four.
Blair is the author of The Biko Inquest, a play based on the inquest in South Africa into the death in prison of the black leader, Steve Biko. The play, originally written for television, and then later adapted for the Royal Shakespeare Company, pioneered the use of drama in current affairs. Blair directed the play-off Broadway in New York, starring Fritz Weaver and Philip Bosco, where it received considerable critical acclaim and ran for four months. After successful productions around the world it was produced on the London stage, and also for television, starring Albert Finney. The New York Times review said of this production that it was "extraordinarily effective" and that "the entire ensemble is so remarkably convincing that we are forced to remind ourselves that they are actors."
In 1994 Blair was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey for his contribution to human rights awareness through his film-making work.
In 2003 Blair served as a visiting professor at Stockton teaching a special course on researching real world issues to a group of final year cross disciplinary students.
- Bradshaw, Peter (5 October 2009). "Dancing with the Devil Review". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 1 August 2012. in The Guardian, 5 October 2009