Shot in high definition, edited on-screen, uploaded to the web and shared via social media, a new way to make and show documentary films has been ushered in by the advance of new technology. But while products of the digital era, many of these films are documenting the opposite: the slow process of making something by hand, craft skills born of old-fashioned methods, and people and places that seem to belong to another time. Search for ‘documentary’ on Vimeo and this obsession with authenticity and the handmade is clear: there’s the portrait of the walnut oil manufacturer, the guitar maker, the letterpress worker, the glass sign artist, the knife maker, the gin distiller, the chocolatier brothers, even the wet-plate photographer.
In an interview with The Guardian during last year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, director Adam Curtis made an interesting observation. Far from reflecting the relentless always-on, data-crammed experience of online life, digital technology was prompting people to look for a different pace in documentary film. “We’re entering a period of high romanticism where you’ll get more really emotional pieces on film and not necessarily just factual; it’s a style reaction,” he predicted. “People’s leisure time is up, Hollywood movie lengths have gone up, people are really happy with longer things. Audiences don’t need patronising explanations in their documentaries, they’re prepared for more complicated things.”
In fact, making films about the production and manufacturing processes under threat from the convenience and ubiquity of modern technology has an appeal both to the online viewer and the filmmaker. Danny Cooke, the British director of the aforementioned letterpress and sign artist films, admits he wanted to contrast his own experience of screen-based production techniques with the skills inherent to traditional forms of commercial art. He learnt the production of his own craft online, and believes the democratisation of the web has levelled out the filmmaking landscape. “This is probably one of the best times to stand out among the crowd,” he says. “Technology like DSLR cameras, non-linear editing systems and computers have become so affordable, most people are now making films using the same equipment. This means it has become less about camera quality and more about skill and talent. And the internet has provided this new era of filmmakers with an instant audience.”
Ways of living
In the US there are numerous directing teams hunting out those individuals keeping a particular profession alive, capturing quirky subcultures and esoterica. Keith Ehrlich, director of the Bureau of Common Good’s Made By Hand series, has produced some of the most beautiful films to focus on ‘making’. “At the onset of the project I was aiming to document stories of people who had found a kind of contentment in working with their hands, or who had made a career path switch for something hands-on and therefore felt more personally rewarded,” says Ehrlich. The first two films in the series, The Distiller and The Knife Maker, both evoke this condition, and place emphasis on the amount of work and risk involved, too. “My interest is less with the preservation of something eroding and more about the celebration of stories that might influence people to think more progressively about the lives they’re living and how they are consuming,” he says. “Maybe we should consider how [something] was made, who made it, where it was made, and under what conditions?”
Ben Wu, co-founder of Lost & Found’s film series This Must Be The Place, believes a certain kind of authenticity is fading away, and his job is to capture it before it’s too late. “With globalisation, gentrification and, specifically in New York, a kind of ‘Disneyfication’, we’re seeing the passing of small, ‘mom and pop’ establishments and more chains, big box stores and condos taking their place,” he says. Last month Prime Burger, the midtown New York restaurant which was the subject of the TMBTP film, Prime, was forced to close after their building was sold. “In the face of this encroaching sameness there’s a reflexive pull toward what is unique and different,” says Wu. “To explore those individuals, their vocations and habitats, which are often found on the cultural or societal margins, is to remind ourselves that there are all kinds of ways of living.”
On the west coast, in Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari’s California Is A Place series of shorts, each portrait investigates a distinct part of the culture of the Golden State, “from immigration, to medical marijuana, to sexual deviance,” says Cooper. In just two years CIAP’s films have received over four million plays on Vimeo. It’s an impressive number, particularly as the point of the series is, for Cooper, about documenting stories that aren’t covered by the national mainstream media.
For Gary Hustwit, director of the design trilogy Helvetica, Objectified and Urbanized, the internet has become an integral part of his filmmaking process. With Urbanized, everything from announcing the project, researching and producing it, to funding and releasing the final film, happened via the web. “Several of the projects in Urbanized came directly from people on Twitter responding to our call for suggestions,” he explains. “If I needed a camera person in Rome to get a few shots there, I tweeted and found someone. The screening tour and release of the film were driven by Twitter and web-based distribution. So I actually consider all that web outreach to be part of the filmmaking process for me now. It’s not a separate thing you do after the film is finished. It’s all filmmaking.”
The web effect
If the web is proving to be such a vital aspect of a film’s creation, is there evidence of its role in the finished product, something that pervades these films or shapes the way they look? Meet Me Here, Lucid Films’ series of short documentaries are designed to play out on the internet, says the studio’s Anna Sandilands, and so are produced in a short space of time and made “easily shareable”. As each Meet Me Here film is about a different subject, the work gets picked up by a wide variety of sites, she says, and “shared and distributed at an exponential rate, reaching audiences we wouldn’t always have expected”.
“For documentaries, [the web] is enabling films about niche subjects to connect directly with their audience,” adds Hustwit. “But what I’d really like to see is more filmmakers fully embracing the web and not falling back on the old models of distribution. I’m not even sure why television networks exist anymore, to be honest. I can reach more people myself via the web, both from a funding and a viewership perspective.” In this opinion, Hustwit is not alone – and in wider filmmaking terms, it’s beginning to sound like a significant cultural shift. For Wu, This Must Be The Place also has its roots firmly in the internet. “That’s our distribution model,” he says, “and it’s been fascinating, as filmmakers, to see how it functions. We’ve had short documentaries make the rounds of the film festivals in the past, which is always fun and rewarding. But in terms of numbers, at festivals, you figure a couple of hundred folks see your film. In putting our shorts on Vimeo, and having them go out to blogs and Tumblrs and other online media outlets like the Atlantic or the New York Times, the number of views can quickly get up to the hundreds of thousands. The Vimeo community is also incredibly supportive and helpful in spreading the word about your work, providing criticism, and technical and story-telling advice.”
Above the noise
A mere eight years since the launch of Vimeo, seven years after YouTube, the interconnectivity of the internet is also shaping a new kind of socially-aware filmmaker. For many recent documentaries that deal with societal issues, the web can act as a facilitator, a way to bring attention to a particular cause, even to fund an entire film project. Andrew Hinton of London’s Pilgrim Films has raised awareness of issues from much further afield. Earlier this month his film, Amar, which follows a day in the life of a 14 year-old boy in the city of Jamshedpur, India (from when he wakes at 4am to when he goes to bed at 11pm), won the Documentary category at the Vimeo Awards. “In simply following him for a day I wanted Amar’s life to be seen and heard,” says Hinton, “as his routine is not unlike the fate of silent millions who lead lives of quiet drudgery in a daily battle for survival. If it makes people stop and think for a moment about their own lives, and how they choose to use their time, then that’s all I can hope for.”
Hinton also recognises how the web has affected how he works as a filmmaker. He now uses it to search for stories, locations, songs and images which will translate well to the small screen. Like Wu, while cinema and festival screenings remain an exciting experience, he believes these events are no longer the ultimate destination of the work. “Watching something on a large screen with a group of people in a darkened room is a great experience,” he says, “but I’m not imagining that anymore when I develop the idea; I’m trying to find a reason that people will pass it on to their friends. There’s a ridiculous statistic I came across recently, that two days worth of video content is uploaded to YouTube every minute. It’s a hugely crowded marketplace of visual content out there and, particularly for the kind of quiet work we make, it can be hard to get heard above the noise. So a film has to be well crafted enough to shine and possess an integrity which signals respect for both the audience and the subject.”
In the US, Sean Dunne’s American Juggalo documentary was an early indication that the director had a knack for getting up close to one of the country’s most marginalised communities, and putting their story on film with the same degree of respect. In this case, the focus was the hedonistic ‘Juggalo’ fanbase of US rap group Insane Clown Posse, more familiar to conservative America as an example of its wayward youth culture. Dunne attended the annual Gathering of Juggalos and his camera reveals a largely non-threatening (albeit heavily stoned) environment in which a strong familial bond exists between the fans. “I wanted to go there and give the Juggalos a voice,” says Dunne. “The idea was to do something very simple and stripped down in the vein of Heavy Metal Parking Lot [Jeff Krulik and John Heyn’s 1986 film of Judas Priest fans outside the Capital Centre venue in Landover, Maryland]. What resulted changed a lot of people’s views about Juggalos. They seek acceptance and approval and a sense of community the way a lot of us do.”
Dunne, like all the filmmakers featured here, also works on commercial briefs (his clients have included the Smithsonian Museum and The History Channel) but says his personal documentary work is done without financial motivation. If anything, through the success of his previous films he can now approach his followers for help in making his first feature-length film, Oxyana, which will document an old coal mining town in West Virginia in the throes of an epidemic of prescription pill addiction. “I’ve tried to produce documentaries that say a lot more, and inspire a lot more thought, than what is actually happening on screen,” says Dunne. “Oxyana is the first time I’m dealing with the social commitment aspect of documentary filmmaking – it’s tough, I’m taking on a subject matter that many would rather ignore. It needs to be treated with the utmost respect and sensitivity. I can’t fuck this up.”
No middle men
But like Hustwit, who raised over $100,000 via the web to make Urbanized, Dunne now has a solid online audience who are willing to commit to a project with him. “Vimeo gave me an opportunity to share these stories with a huge audience without having to go through traditional methods of distribution,” he says. “I upload the films the day they’re done; there is no middle man or studio or creative director editing or filtering these films, and I think that’s what has led to their popularity. Over the course of five films I’ve built up a little audience and got some followers, so when it was time to fund my first feature film, I thought we could use some of that good will and raise the cash through Kickstarter, so we can remain truly independent.”
At the time of writing, half of Dunne’s $50,000 target has been pledged by his followers, but, he says, “we still need lots of help to get there. The only thing that motivates me is the prospect of doing something honest and entertaining and it finding an audience.”
For more information on Sean Dunne’s forthcoming film project, search for Oxyana on kickstarter.com