6 Filmmakers Talk About Documentary Films in the Digital Age

    by Amanda Lin Costa
    January 9, 2012
    Documentary festival. Photo by "Cali4beach on Flickr":http://www.flickr.com/photos/cali4beach/ and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Lower costs in pro-consumer digital equipment, the crowdfunding phenomenon, and new online and mobile distribution models have opened the door the past few years to many first-time documentary filmmakers in the United States. Independent filmmaking is on the rise, and with that, a trend for more personalized storytelling.

    Many of today’s documentary filmmakers are making bold, stylistic choices more often associated with narrative storytelling than documentary filmmaking and finding savvy, new ways to engage audiences. By pushing the boundaries of what is considered traditional documentary filmmaking, they are stepping up to compete for the eyes of a generation raised on the often outrageous, unfiltered and unedited user-generated videos that can be found on YouTube and the conflict-driven, scripted reality TV that fills networks.

    Online distribution has leveled the playing field in terms of delivery systems. These days, no one can tell you your film isn't getting picked up and have that be the end of it." -Eddie Schmidt

    I wanted to get a pulse on these current and emerging trends from those working in the industry as gatekeepers, curators and trend spotters and find out what influence online distribution, crowdfunding, and lowered equipment costs have had on U.S. documentary filmmakers. Here’s what they had to say:


    Eddie Schmidt

    Eddie Schmidt, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, is president of the board of the International Documentary Association. Dedicated to the non-fiction filmmaking community, IDA also provides educational programs to the next generation of documentary filmmakers starting as early as high school age.

    Schmidt: A lot of U.S. filmmakers are taking on international topics, and I think this is in contrast to the overall myopia and narcissism of American culture, which tends to take very little substantive interest in anything outside of itself. So documentary filmmakers are motivated to fill these gaps in our understanding, thankfully. This is the new journalism.

    Filmmakers in general are flexing their creative muscles to explore the limitless possibilities for telling nonfiction stories on the screen. We’re just beginning to understand and recognize the art and craft of documentaries, rather than just their nobility, goodwill, or sociopolitical eye-opening, so I think films are going to get better and more innovative.


    I think U.S. documentary filmmakers benefit from the more regular employment of reality television, because its directors of photography, editors, and post people all bounce between the two and bring what they learn in reality to the wider canvas of documentaries (producers and directors too, although their schedules allow for less bleed-through). There’s an energy present in a lot of U.S. documentaries that comes from these frequent workouts. If you have to strive to tell stories quickly and smartly in a demanding medium, frequently, you can’t help but bring those problem-solving tools and ingenuity to the feature table.

    Online distribution has leveled the playing field in terms of delivery systems. These days, no one can tell you your film isn’t getting picked up and have that be the end of it. The battle now is for attention and eyeballs. Today, even funding channels have had a boost; 10 years ago, it would have been unthinkable to ask audiences to finance your film over the Internet, but now it’s a totally viable way of getting $50,000-$100,000 towards your budget, maybe more.

    Lois Vossen

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    Lois Vossen

    Lois Vossen is the producer and founder of the Emmy award-winning series “Independent Lens“ and vice president of ITVS, an organization that funds, presents and promotes documentaries on public television and cable as well as innovative media projects on the web. Previously, she was the associate managing director of the Sundance Institute.

    Vossen: We’ve seen an increase in the number of U.S. filmmakers who want to make films about other countries, perhaps because we have so many independent filmmakers in the U.S. compared to many other countries and there’s a lot of duplication of topics here (for example, 25 films on immigration on the U.S. Mexico border vs. one or two films on immigration in Turkey). That said, it is also exciting when U.S. filmmakers do focus on their local communities and find great, new ways to tell stories like Steve James did in Chicago where he lives with “The Interrupters,” or Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady did with “DETROPIA,” about Heidi’s hometown.

    “Independent Lens” has the youngest demographic of any prime-time PBS series and the most robust social media campaigns on PBS. We know that 70 percent of our viewers turn on their television specifically to watch “Independent Lens.” They also then migrate to other PBS series at a higher rate than most other PBS series, so we’re kind of a gateway drug to PBS. Documentaries certainly entertain, but they’re about engaging in real life, not turning away from it. I think audiences see the obvious difference between reality television, which is scripted and actually not “real,” and documentaries about real people. Reality television is escape television, and it is designed as entertainment for people who watch it.

    I do think filmmakers are beginning to imagine new ways of telling stories across multiple platforms including online, through games, etc., and so transmedia and more immersive formats will continue to pull documentaries in new directions. Much more relevant to independent filmmakers is the question of how viewing habits have changed and what audiences will “sit through” in terms of television running times. I ask filmmakers how many 90-minute social issue documentaries did they watch on television last week, and maybe we need to consider making multiple versions of some films: a festival version, theatrical version and television version. We still want a great story, well-told, and some of us will sit in a movie theater to watch that, and more of us will sit in our living room or with our laptops to watch it, but the way we watch is definitely changing.

    Jason Spingarn-Koff

    Jason Spingarn-Koff recently became The New York Times’ first-ever video journalist in Opinion, launching Op-Docs, a forum for short, opinionated documentaries produced on a variety of subjects, from current affairs to historical subjects. Jason himself is a filmmaker and journalist whose work has appeared on PBS, the BBC, MSNBC, Time and Wired.

    Spingarn-Koff: I do think there is a growing interest in shorts online. When I say online, I’m also thinking about mobile. What I find really exciting with the New York Times videos is we put them out on every device imaginable. You can watch an HD video on the iPad so that now, even though the Times is not a TV broadcaster, we can ultimately deliver content to a lot of people at the same quality as TV broadcasters and now be in the same playing field.

    There’s a very big world out there to cover, and TV broadcasters are often months behind. When you start comparing online versus television broadcast, broadcasters usually have a very long horizon where they might be programming in the fall what’s going to come out in the spring. We can put things up within a matter of hours, and it’s exciting to be able to engage with issues as they happen. I think feature documentary filmmakers are excited about this format. They may have to spend years on a subject, and now they can spend a few weeks or maybe even days and reach a wide audience and find satisfaction around that.

    I think the challenge and the opportunity is to marry creative storytelling with timelessness and find different ways to engage with the issues that are on people’s minds. We have an editorial focus that is encouraging creative approaches, creative perspectives and unique voices, and some strong opinions about what is going on in the world. Not everything has to have an overt opinion — some are much more subtle or artistic. We allow people to speak very freely, the same as they would in print. I’m actually commissioning pieces and receiving submissions from the public the same as we do in print. I’m encouraging filmmakers to think of a way to do an Op-Doc to help build engagement and awareness around the issue for them, but to me, the most important thing is that the Op-Doc stands on its own.

    New York Times Op-Docs

    Sky Sitney

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    Sky Sitney

    Sky Sitney is the festival director for Silverdocs, a film festival and conference created by AFI and the Discovery Channel that focuses on documentaries. Previously to joining Silverdocs, Sky was a programmer at several prestigious film festivals and worked in the industry.

    Sitney: In documentary, filmmakers are giving themselves a lot more creative leeway when it comes to articulating reality, and I think a lot more documentary filmmakers see themselves as interpreters, creative interpreters of reality rather than strict observers. I think more and more filmmakers are acknowledging that every representation of reality inherently has a kind of bias, and rather than try and present the work as pure reality as it was in its early days, filmmakers are more comfortable taking creative license.

    Sometimes we see this in very extreme ways. In the last couple of years, we’ve included a number of animations. For example, “Waltz with Bashir“ would have been unheard of in the ’60s or ’70s. We are also seeing an interesting resurgence in re-enactment. About 10 years ago, re-enactment was considered a dirty word in documentary, and now there are very creative ways filmmakers are working with re-enactment. Overall, I think there is just a lot more flexibility and creativity to the aesthetics.

    Every year, we can be certain there are going to be many films on the environment, many films on the economy, various health issues — year in year out we will see these kind of things coming out and then surges based on big news events. Now I’m seeing a lot of comprehensive films on Haiti, the BP oil spill; we are just beginning to see some early work on Egypt.

    What I’m seeing from running a U.S. film festival is a lot more American filmmakers telling stories that are specific to the U.S. but also globally. It’s much less common to see an international filmmaker dealing with American stories. On the one hand, all the big U.S. events are covered ad nauseam, but a lot of filmmakers in the U.S. are invested in personal storytelling, using the camera to investigate some kind of familiar history or personal quest. The camera becomes a tool to make that journey. A film that comes to mind is “Family Affair“ by Chico Colvard. He was the one brother of three sisters who were all sexually molested by their father. He was teaching law and turned to the camera to penetrate that story, and in some ways, as a safety mechanism to confront his sisters in a way that didn’t feel comfortable in the privacy of a living room. I’m not sure that is specific to the U.S., but I see it a lot, for the camera to become a psychological tool.

    At Silverdocs, we try and find balance, not just on topics and themes, but also who is behind the camera, and I have to tell you, it’s really depressing. The minority is represented significantly on film, the subjects are diverse, but who’s behind the camera is still very, very white. We have a long way to go on that. There are a lot of great entities out there trying to change that, but it isn’t even close to where it ought to be. It’s not as bad looking directly across gender lines, but across color lines it is very bad.

    “Family Affair,” an independent feature-length documentary film written and produced by Chico David Colvard

    Peter Hamilton

    Peter Hamilton is a former CBS executive, book author and frequent speaker at leading media industry events including Real Screen, Silverdocs, Sheffield Doc/Fest, HotDocs, and other international film festivals and conferences. His e-newsletter DocumentaryTelevision provides current information about deals and trends in the industry, and he is an authority on the factual sector including reality TV and docu-series.

    Hamilton: Single and multi-episode documentaries as well as strands based on commissions of similarly themed docs are on the decline. The news for documentarians has not been good; decreased viewing overall because the number of documentary slots has fallen off. Sundance Channel dropped its documentary strand. OWN is struggling. Nature programming has been hit hard because the Nat Geo Channel has shifted to character-driven series and Discovery and Animal Planet have moved away from wildlife.

    In the U.S., the tide continues to flow in the direction of character driven series — big, larger-than-life characters that fill any room they walk into. In a mature, competitive environment of hundreds of channels, these characters stand out, and the series are repeatable, meaning that the channels’ promotional and marketing efforts to launch them can pay off over multiple episode seasons.

    Reality TV at its best is an extension of the observational documentary genre, and it draws from the best of that genre like the U.K. hit series “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding“; at its worst, it is a casting-based enterprise that shares little with the documentary tradition. It is a good thing that reality is on the rise, versus drama and other categories, because it creates the possibility of a future return to unscripted documentaries on television.

    Scott Macaulay

    Scott Macaulay is the editor in chief for Filmmaker Magazine. The magazine’s “25 New Faces in Independent Film” is a prestigious and much-anticipated list that provides great insight into current trends in filmmaking as well as a look at the industry’s next generation of talented and award-winning narrative and documentary filmmakers. Scott is also the owner of Forensic Films and an independent film producer of award-winning films.

    Macaulay: I’m seeing a number of trends with younger, up-and-coming filmmakers. One is filmmakers pursuing hybrid strategies, in which documentaries are inflected with elements more commonly found in fiction films. Alma Har’el’s documentary, “Bombay Beach,” is a great example. She visited the town of Bombay Beach, got to know its residents, and then, while documenting their day-to-day lives, worked with them to create dance and fantasy sequences that attest to these subjects’ own imaginative, creative lives.

    Bombay Beach trailer

    As for personal storytelling, I think this is on an increase as well, and it’s aided by the increasing amount of source material produced by subjects and their families. What once might have been a few rolls of Super 8 shot over years is now a family archive of hundreds of hours of footage. Filmmakers interested in exploring personal stories are finding they have a lot more to work with.

    Another trend is one of self-sufficiency — filmmakers embarking on, and sometimes finishing projects, entirely on their own. Alison Klayman, whose “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry“ is premiering at Sundance this year, started shooting her film in China and let it evolve organically into a feature documentary that was able to attract supporters. The Sparrow Songs team of Alex Jablonski and Michael Totten made a fantastic series of web docs simply by committing their time and resources to a once-a-month schedule. Completing a documentary feature can take years, whereas some stories need to be told immediately. You’re seeing great short docs being made now about Occupy Wall Street, for example, and they’re able to insert themselves instantly into the political dialogue. Kirby Ferguson has been making a fantastic series of web videos, “Everything Is a Remix,” addressing copyright, remix culture, and the current political debate about the SOPA and PIPA legislation, and he’s sharing those not only on his own site but also on the websites of groups supporting the same political goals.

    Everything is a Remix, Part 1

    Transmedia documentary projects, like David Dufresne and Philippe Brault’s “Prison Valley“ and Danfung Dennis’ “Condition One,” are pointing to new modes of interaction for viewers. As we’ve seen from the work of Robert Greenwald and his Brave New Films, there are now financing and distribution outlets composed of the audiences themselves, people who are as invested in the subjects as the filmmakers are. Crowd-sourced funding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are well-suited to documentaries because they can engage non-filmmaking audiences drawn by the subjects of the films.

    Truth is in the eye of the beholder

    Today’s documentary filmmakers, exhibiting a strong postmodernist self-awareness of the blurred and murky lines crisscrossing vérité and agenda filmmaking, are more inclined to believe that, like beauty, truth is in the eye of the beholder.

    Yet it is the search for “truth,” the intriguing, mysterious and often-elusive truth that hides between words and behind actions, that drives documentary filmmakers to persevere in an industry hard hit in today’s economy.

    Amanda Lin Costa is a writer and producer in the film and television industry. She writes a series called “Truth in Documentary Filmmaking” and is currently producing the documentary, “The Art of Memories.”

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    This piece was originally published by the European Journalism Centre, an independent non-profit institute dedicated to the highest standards in journalism, primarily through the further training of journalists and media professionals. Follow @ejcnet for Twitter updates, here on Facebook and on the EJC Online Journalism Community.

    Tagged: crowdfunding eddie schmidt filmmakers filmmaking jason spingarn-koff lois vossen peter hamilton sky sitney

    One response to “6 Filmmakers Talk About Documentary Films in the Digital Age”

    1. Tony P. says:

      Why have no one made a documentary ???
      -Crime & Punishment Inc-
      “The cost, deals and profits in the American justice system”

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