New Forms / New Opportunities Panel (Sarah Wolozin & Natasha Giraudie)

The following conversation took place during the session, ”Open Plenary: New Forms New Opportunities,“ with panelists Sarah Wolozin (Director, Open Documentary Lab at MIT) and Natasha Deganello Giraudie (CEO, Micro-Documentaries in San Francisco), and yours truly (organizer and moderator), during the Making Media Now 2013 conference on May 3, 2013 at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, presented by Filmmakers Collaborative. The text has been edited for better flow and the moderator’s traffic coordination was eliminated.

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David Tamés:  This morning’s session will be a conversation with two thought-leaders who have unique insights into two forms of documentary that are coming into their own: the interactive documentary and the micro-documentary. Our panelists are Sarah Wolozin and Natasha Deganello Giraudie. Sarah Wolozin is Director of the Open Documentary Lab at MIT, the group is doing research in interactive documentary and new forms. Following her will be Natasha Giraudie, CEO of Micro-Documentaries in San Francisco, an organization that’s been doing wonderful work creating short documentaries to help organizations enable social change and important action among constituencies of foundations and activist organizations. Sarah, can you tell us what your lab’s been doing?

Sarah Wolozin:  It’s wonderful to be here. I used to be a filmmaker in this town, I see some familiar faces, and I’ve always had great respect for the Filmmakers Collaborative. I want to tell you a little bit about our new documentary lab at MIT. The lab was founded by William Uricchio, a media scholar, to look at these new forms. What he identified several years ago was that we’re in this profound moment of change. He specializes in looking at media in transition throughout history, with all the new technologies, with the Internet, which is interactive—everyone’s on it; with mobile technologies, with the iPad, that we’re really changing how we tell stories, who tells stories, and what their impact is.

Wolozin: It’s a really exciting moment. There’s tremendous experimentation going on. There are hackathons. There are new ways of presenting the material. Tribeca Film Festival just this last weekend had a new exhibition called Storyscapes, where they had installations for documentaries and showed new ways of working with the audience and presenting work. What we look at, too, is that there’s a real parallel between what’s happening today and what happened in direct cinema in the early ‘50s, for example, Primary, one of the flagship documentaries in terms of how you tell a story and who tells the story. Ricky Leacock, who taught at MIT, was one of the pioneers, and he was excited about what it meant to have sync sound connected to small affordable 8mm cameras, and he wanted to get them in everyone’s hands so that everyone can tell their stories and that it can be more direct.

{ Editor’s note: two upcoming POV Hackathons are now accepting applications (apply by March 26, 2014): POV Hackathon 5 will take place in New York City on May 10-11, 2014 and POV Hackathon 6 will take place in Los Angeles on May 17-18, 2014. }

Wolozin: That’s really where we come from at the Open Doc Lab, and what we’re doing is fostering this innovation. We have a lot of experiments going on at MIT. We’re trying to create a roadmap for it. It’s really new. People were just scratching the surface of what’s possible, and there’s also a lot of questions, so we’re trying to create best practices and understand how you make it and what kind of impact it has, because ultimately, we’re telling stories for impact. We wanted them out there. We have a story to tell. We want voices heard. What these new technologies represent are new ways of having impact, and profound ways of including the audience and subjects in the making of the documentary, and changing how we interact with documentaries.

Wolozin: What I want to do first is to frame what we see as the new forms. We created Moments of Innovation, a web site that looks at current types of documentaries that are happening and the practices around them, and traces the long and rich history of each of these types of storytelling. What you see when you break down storytelling, you get to these desires to immerse people, and to create things in locations, and to participate and interact and remix, and take data and visualize it, and, of course, have short documentaries. One section of the site is Immersion. Let us also say that the English-speaking documentary definition from John Grierson is that you’re making creative interpretations, creative treatments of actuality. If we think of documentary in those forms and in that way, there’s a lot that we can consider a documentary.

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Wolozin: We really look at the connection between representation and technology. In the 1800s stereoscopy was a hugely popular mass medium where, with these glasses, they could create a sense of depth when they went onto pictures. Again, it created this sense of being somewhere else, which is a really strong interest in documentary. Then if you trace it, the panoramic photograph came up in 1848. Cinema with the living postcards is an early example; a trip down Market Street. If you look at this little project, it goes, just takes you down a street. Again, you have that sense of immersion in a street. Planetarium documentaries immerse you in a world of data and stars and stories. Then came IMAX and multi-screen cinema in 1967.

Wolozin: Then we get to more contemporary stuff, you all probably remember virtual reality, when everyone’s going and putting on these headsets; so again, the sense of immersion. This is just a theater group playing with technology and trying to create that sense of being there. Highrise is a wonderful project. They experiment with a lot of technologies. It’s out of the National Film Board of Canada, and they are looking, in this project, at high-rises, and they’re in one place and they are using a technology called Popcorn, you can scroll through it and immerse yourself in this environment. Then we have Condition One, an iPad, app that can create a 360-degree turn around your environment. sp you really can immerse yourself. Other categories include: Location, creating a sense of understanding where you are. We go from Sanborn maps to wilderness. I encourage you to go to this website and check it out.

Wolozin: Again, a long history of participation, and what filmmakers and storytellers were always doing was just using the technology they had at hand; Interactive, which we’ll talk about today; Games, early games in the 1800s, again, very natural way to interact; Remixing, we’ve always done that; Cave Drawings and Cave Paintings. That was in a way to use data and illustrate data, which, again, we’re living in a world full of data, important way to tell stories. Shorts, which we have a long history of, and they’re coming back. Natasha’s gonna talk a lot about that. That’s the sense of what we’re looking at.

Tamés:  Natasha, can you tell us about the micro-documentary work your firm has been doing and how you got started making micro-documentaries?

Natasha Giraudie:  When I was a student, I got a fellowship to go do a documentary project—at the time, it was only photography documentary; there was not the budget for film—to go spend three months in Nepal documenting the situation of children there, to create a photo bank to be used by a number of nonprofit organizations that serve children in Nepal. It was a phenomenal trip. We captured material from the Sherpa children at the base of the Everest, to the children in the Chitwan jungles, to the children in Katmandu.

Giraudie:  Even though I got malaria on the trip, and even though I came back with typhoid fever, and I was in a jam-packed bus that fell and rolled off a cliff, it was one of the most phenomenal experiences of my life. It gave me a taste for the power of telling the story of social innovators in order to help move their missions forward. That’s what I do full-time now, and maybe we can see a few examples of that:

{ Editor’s note: one of the micro-documentaries that were screened during the panel is embedded below }

Tamés:  It looks like we’re seeing these two trends in the evolution of the documentary form. We’re seeing a renaissance of short documentary films being made and used effectively. We’re also seeing, in the last three years, an explosion of complex, very involved interactive documentary projects that require large teams that documentary filmmakers have never had to work in before, with designers and programmers, much more complicated teams.

Tamés: We’re almost seeing these two interesting splits in the road (interactive documentaries on the one hand and micro-documentaries on the other), and of course, the long-form documentary is still alive and well. Natasha and Sarah, I’m wondering what you think—what are the opportunities for documentary filmmakers presented by the explosion of these forms? Clearly, it’s driven by not just the Internet and web platforms, but the accessibility of the tools and the platforms for doing this kind of work. I thought maybe, Sarah, you might want to start on that one.

Wolozin:  One interesting trend is how many people are making videos and putting them up on YouTube and have access to the cameras, and what that means for a filmmaker. If you’re trying to tell a story of a town or—for instance, at Tribeca there was a wonderful participatory documentary called Sandy Storyline. It was the story of the Sandy hurricane in New York City. Rather than just going and filming it, they created a wonderful platform for people to be able to put their own stories up there. What the author did, rather than it just putting it on YouTube, they created this place where you could also go through it in ways to move through the stories, learn about the stories, and hear about it from everyone’s perspective. We’ve had discussions about the benefits of participatory. Besides the impact on the person participating, there’s also a wonderful way to get at a greater truth or reality if you have more than one person’s perspective, being the filmmaker. That’s an interesting way forward.

Tamés:  What about micro-documentaries, and what are the opportunities do they they present?

Giraudie:  As much as we love our craft of filmmaking, what we’re most passionate about is fueling social and environmental innovation. When we work with the social and environmental innovators, we’re noticing pretty much across the space (we’ve had the privilege of producing about 1,500 micro-documentaries in the last three years in about 30 countries) are three main trends in terms of challenges that social and environmental organizations are facing: they are having a hard time capturing the attention of their audience. Once they have the attention, they’re having a hard time staying top of mind.

Giraudie: Finally, they’re having a hard time increasing their influence with the audience and really inspiring them to join them on their envisioned future. What we’re seeing is that in parallel to their day jobs, they are being called upon to step into this role of publisher; a publisher of regular, bite-size, inspiring, educational, insightful, at times entertaining, content, like short films, for example; like micro-documentaries, that will help them keep their audience engaged and stay top of mind and increase their influence in order to move their missions forward.

Giraudie: In order to help a social or environmental innovator like nonprofit organizations and foundations and purposeful businesses step into this role, you have to be producing material that is authentic, that is affordable, and that is actionable. We are just scratching the surface of this opportunity right now.

Tamés:  Well, it seems like we’re now living in a world that I believe I heard Andy Lippman predict approximately 12 to 13 years ago, I heard him say at an MIT Media Lab consortium meetings—I think it was Communication Futures—that in the future, media communication will be a core competency of every single organization. It’s will no longer a special thing that you hire out or work with an ad agency or whatever. It will becomes a core part of your business like Information Systems, like Marketing, like Employee Relations, like Manufacturing, et cetera; it will becomes a core part of your soul as an individual, as an organization. It seems like we’re living that now. Do you agree?

Wolozin:  Yes, definitely. I think with the web and the ability to put content there and distribute it there you can get a lot of people to see it, you have an automatic platform where you can get a lot more people involved.

Giraudie:  Yes. I just had a visceral experience with this a couple of weeks ago. I was in Atlanta, and I had the opportunity to sit in the Ebenezer Church, where Martin Luther King preached and where his father preached. Now it’s a museum, and you can sit there and listen to his sermons as they’re being played. It became so obvious at that moment that you couldn’t really separate the stories from the movement in that particular case. When he was a young child, about seven years old, and, kind of suddenly, the two little white friends that were his neighbors were no longer allowed to play with him, the story that his mother used to console him was something to the extent of, “They don’t yet realize that we’re all the same, but one day it will be better.”

Giraudie: If you fast-forward to “I Have a Dream”, it’s, “I have a dream that one day a little black boy and a little white boy will be able to play together. What happens is that storytelling, when it comes to social innovation, it’s not just the movement is happening and you’re telling the story about the movement. The power of the story is really to become so intricately involved with the movement that it’s fueling it forward. I think that is a huge untapped opportunity, and I completely agree that this sort of storytelling is becoming a core competency of anyone who is attempting to make a social change.

Tamés:  Well, I’d like to open up the discussion to you, the audience, because this is really about exploring the questions and the issues that you’re curious and passionate about. I would encourage you to keep this conversation going, and to share with us some of your insights or your questions or things that you’d like to know, or questions that you’d like to ask Natasha or Sarah. I have never known a filmmaker to be quiet.

Bob Heske: A question for both of you: Distribution opportunities, like with micro-documentaries; where would you market those, or are they mostly just for businesses that want to do advocacy?

Giraudie:  Micro-documentaries lend themselves to be distributed in all sorts of ways, so, from online channels, obviously, they’re very well suited. Most of our work is under five minutes, and 90% of our work is within one to two minutes. On websites through social media, targeted blogger campaigns, also in one-on-one meetings, which is very important for major donor fundraising, for example, at group events, in large stadiums at events, playing the trailers in traditional movie theaters, in hospital rooms for healthcare organizations, taxicabs, at airports; we’re just starting to explore what the opportunities are, but those are some examples.

Wolozin:  I would say that people are mow thinking of documentary as a mission, rather than just a film. If you couch the documentary within a whole audience engagement campaign, then there’s a lot of different ways to have it distributed, from whether you distribute it as a theatrical film, or through the web, or you might have some live events. There’s a lot of spreadable media, if the audience is involved, there’s a good chance they’re gonna spread it, too. I think a key thing is working with the group you wanna target from the beginning, so that they’re taking—being involved not only in the production, but the distribution, and getting it out that way. What we’re seeing is a shift in terms of how you think of production and distribution, and how you work with your audience.

Giraudie:  Another very powerful channel of distribution has been the U.S. Senate for us. Senators have been very appreciative of the micro-documentary format because, think of it, they have a stack of 50 page reports and proposals that they keep meaning to get to. If you can just give them the proposed solution in a two-minute piece that’s compelling and engaging, then they’re gonna be able to make that decision whether they’re gonna invest their time. Senators have told us that the micro-documentary format has been very impactful in helping them understand the matter, and then helping them getting other senators’ support for it, and even taking it to the White House.

Wolozin:  To add to that, I would say—and to the idea that becoming literate—is that newspapers are going online, and there’s a lot of convergence between documentary and video and online newspaper. The New York Times Op-Docs is a wonderful forum where they’re showing short documentaries, and they’re fabulous. They’re opinions, but what’s been really interesting for filmmakers working there is the tremendous audience that you get, you get the New York Times’ audience. You have three million people right there, and people are commenting, so you get instant feedback, which is a wonderful, new, different part from linear, is that you can be iterative. You can get feedback from your audience, know what they’re thinking, work on it, put it up there from the beginning. That also has an effect on distribution.

Jay Childs: I’m curious; what is a trailer for a micro-doc? Like 15 seconds?

Giraudie:  Very good question. One of our clients had a fabulous opportunity a couple of weeks ago to be on one of those Jumbotrons on Times Square, and so we needed a trailer of the micro-doc, a 30-second trailer of the micro-doc. If a two-minute piece is hard, 30 seconds is like… oh, and no sound, that’s the other thing.

Childs: I’m often struck when I try to describe or do a one-sheet for a documentary subject. It’s interesting what you said, that they wanna hear stories about people. They wanna hear stories framed around a lot of things, and don’t like the agenda or don’t like the fact that you’re trying to hit them with an issue; to be so overt. They want it sort of buried in another story that you’re talking about. How does that sort out for this, and, can a micro-doc be embedded in a project that includes a longer doc? Can you have kinda the best of both worlds? Are there examples of that?

Giraudie:  Don’t club me over the head with an issue. Tell me a story about people. The way we frame this—most of our work is commissioned work, right? We have clients. Even though they’re great social and environmental innovators, they have a tendency to lean towards the promotional side when they talk about themselves. “Hi, I’m so-and-so from so-and-so organization. These are the three great reasons why we’re amazing and why you should open up your checkbook.” That is the tendency.

Giraudie: Usually they come to work with us because they see a story that portrays an issue, but in a way that they’d like to be portraying it themselves. We typically ask for permission from a client to help nudge them towards a more editorial way of storytelling when they tend to fall back on a promotional habit. The litmus test that we use for that is that when you watch the piece, are you sitting there wondering, “Hm, I wonder what they’re about to try to sell me or get me to do?” Are you wondering what the motive is behind it, or are you receiving the piece almost as a gift?

Giraudie: Think of your favorite, for example an article in your favorite magazine. You’re just getting insight and education and maybe inspiration, and you’re not sitting there wondering what they’re trying to sell you. That’s our simple litmus test. From a narrative arc standpoint, the technique that we tend to use is make a strong personal connection upfront. Then, expose the issue and what we’ve learned is necessary to address the issue. Then, use the organization’s work as examples of that solution. That provides a very nice editorial framework for presenting.

Tamés:  Can you tie that to a specific example?

Giraudie:  Start with a strong opening; one of our favorites is the personal connection, right? Take our Meet Connie micro-documentary as an example (embedded above). She had four children. Everyone here are parents or are involved in children’s lives somehow. We can all relate to that, too. We’re connecting from a human standpoint. It has nothing to do with AIDS or the problem of AIDS. It’s just about human-to-human, so we like to start there.

Giraudie: Then the second part is discussing the issue, so, what is the problem? If it’s presented well, then the audience is gonna connect to that if it’s an audience that cares about the issue. Then, what have we learned is necessary? In general, what have we learned is necessary to address that issue? Only then does the work of the organization come into the picture, for example, “What we have done is…” Then it’s already framed within an educational, inspirational framework. Then we like to end with a vision of the future: what is the vision, which is different from where we are today? By the way, the baby was born a few weeks ago and tested negative.

Tamés:  How might an interactive documentary format allow an expansion of this model and increase that amount of engagement for a viewer? How might an interactive documentary format further those goals?

Wolozin:  When you have an interactive documentary you’re working on the web, there are a lot of different elements you can work with. You can work with video. You can have a story and data right up side-by-side. You can tell many stories at once, what happens is the person isn’t being told the story, they’re discovering it. They’re going to what’s interesting to them. In terms of a topic, like a social issue, I think you can direct the course of what interests you, so it can be a more meaningful experience because you’re personalizing it. You’re deciding what part of it you want to learn about. I think that’s an important part of interactivity, is your role in getting the story, and the many elements you can put on a website or within a story.

Tamés:  Some of the interactive documentary projects I’ve seen are in essence a constellation of micro-documentaries that have a connection with each other that give you, the viewer, a greater sense of agency in terms of where you go in the constellation, you’re within that world…

Wolozin:  Definitely. Interactive documentaries are many micro-documentaries. Again, it’s another platform in which to make your way through the story.

Alice Stone: Natasha, I’m assuming that all of your clients have websites on which they would post a micro-documentary, is there a way to link a micro-documentary to a longer one? Because watching the example as someone who struggles to raise money for films, my response was, “Well, they flew a crew to”—was it Uganda? You flew a crew into Uganda to make a three-minute film?

Giraudie:  Going back to our mission, our intention is to fuel social and environmental action. We’ve identified this need for social and environmental innovators to become regular publishers on an ongoing basis. In most of the cases, our clients come to us for series of micro-documentaries that they can release over a certain timeframe, and in some cases, annual agreements that we produce a certain number of micro-documentaries per quarter.

Giraudie: In doing this, if every time we did a micro-documentary we were to send a crew out to their location and spend days filming, it would be so disruptive to their work, and we would exhaust them to the point that they wouldn’t want to see us for another year, until their next gala event or whatever it was that they’re doing. One of the challenges that we had is, how do we make this model as light as possible for the social innovator, to get ourselves out of the way as quickly as possible? We don’t send a crew. We send one person: a solo field producer with all of the equipment in their backpack. Instead of spending days filming, 90% of our pieces are filmed in three hours. For international pieces where we consider there to be a situation of tropical factor, we add an additional three hours of filming.

Giraudie: In doing this, we are able to be light enough in our relationship with our clients that they will be able to engage with us on an ongoing basis. When I think about a ten-minute piece, often clients will come to us and ask for a ten-minutes, and in almost in every case we’ve convinced them to make it five two-minute pieces, because it’s just so much more modular. You can bead them together if you need to, but they’re very powerful separate, in and of themselves. If I were to consider making a long form documentary today, it would be so difficult for me to get out of that mindset of building the long documentary out of a series of short documentaries that could then be taken apart and used for all of these sorts of new media. Why would we fly somebody, even if it’s only one person, to Uganda for a three-minute piece?

Giraudie: All of our clients have the same concern. The first time that the Clinton Foundation sent us to Kenya, we were so excited. We just started this company three years ago, so we were excited to go to Kenya. We let everybody we knew know, “We’re going to Africa. Anyone need anything?” We got 30 orders for 30 micro-documentaries that nobody could justify flying somebody to Africa, but if we were going anyway, why not combine the efforts? That led to the launch of our Travelpool program. Every time we’re going anywhere, we post it on our Travelpool, and then as clients sign on, those expenses get reduced almost to nothing. The other thing that we’ve done is we’ve established seven hubs around the world, from San Francisco to Cape Town to Sydney to Santiago, so that we can deploy in shorter travel distances from there.

Giraudie: I’d like to add to that. If you think of a documentary not so much as a micro film, or just a ten-minute film, but a mission, like, what is the larger story you wanna tell, and what are the technologies available to you to tell those stories? Cell phone use is huge now, right? People are migrating. People get a lot of their media on cell phones. How are you gonna use that platform to tell your story? Micro documentaries are key. When you get nonlinear, it’s short, but it can have impact. Or tablets; when people wanna interact, that’s where people are. I think it’s also thinking about your story as a campaign, and all the different ways—the many iterations of it.

Alice Stone: My question for Sarah is, the whole notion of interactive documentary is very exciting to me as a viewer, and I think it’s a different skill set. It seems like a tremendous opportunity, I don’t really see a clear path to producing these yet, how can someone who has decades of experience shaping more traditional documentaries take advantage of interactive documentary?

Wolozin:  Let me say I think it’s really important that people who know how to tell stories get on the web and are the ones producing interactive documentaries, and you don’t just leave it to the programmers. That’s where you get the good stories, so it is a new alliance. We’re at the beginning. There are some ways to make that happen, but if you think about how you used to organize projects, it’s a different alliance, not a bigger alliance. If you think about before, how you used to work with a cinematographer and an editor, and now you’re working with a designer and a technologist, how do you do that? There are different ways to learn how to produce these. Hackathons are great ways to meet technologists, and in two days, to start experimenting with it, and just to come up with a prototype and have that experience of creating something on the web with someone who really knows the web and knows how to do it. That’s one way. We’re starting to have more workshops. We’re working on building the field.

Wolozin:  We’re in the beginning, but we’d really love to see people who have experience in traditional filmmaking moving over to making interactive documentaries. You need a whole infrastructure that’s not there yet. Funders need to be able to fund it, and they’re starting to, where they’re funding an interactive team. The same money that you would have for a documentary, you now have for your interactive team. You have your story expertise, and the interactive person has the coding and the design. Curators are showing interactive documentaries so more people learn about it, people are writing about it. If you go to filmmaker.com, Open Doc Lab has curated a whole series on this issue, how you make the transition. It’s in the Transmedia section. We are interviewing pioneers in this field, and they talk about: How do you find funding? How do you distribute? What skills do you need? There’s also a lot of resources there where you can find out more about it.

Tamés:  In fact, POV recently published a list of people who are funding new media projects. It’s on the POV website.

Wolozin:  It’s a great time to get into this.

Andrea Bredbeck: Sarah, as sculptor for thirty years, when we were doing installation work, we were creating an environment where people could physically choose where they moved their bodies and what they chose to consume, that’s one way to look at interaction: You have these stories moving through the interface so that people not only have a choice about what they consume that is produced by someone outside of themselves, but they have a choice about how to insert themselves into that process?

Wolozin:  Absolutely. When you start designing an interactive documentary, the first thing you’re thinking about is, “How is my audience going to interact with this, and how am I gonna create different ways for them to?” A lot of it does require you to, or can require the person to create video. There is a wonderful new interactive documentary called A Journal of Insomnia. If you have a chance, check it out. You sign up for a phone call, and it calls you back on the phone between between 11:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. and then you’re allowed into the experience. A person named Sarah, actually, greets you, and you can go and learn about—and it’s a mental illness. It’s another way of learning about that, and also, you can add your own story.There’s so much experimentation going on in terms of how you would do these kinds of things, more is possible, that’s the beauty of the web.

Tamés:  Insomnia is another wonderful project from the National Film Board of Canada, one organization that’s taking risks by funding and nurturing the provocative and innovative work in interactive documentary right now. Arte in Europe has also been funding some projects, but nobody has made the investment, in terms of the scale of what the NFB has done. Go to the NFB interactive site and there you will find like ten of the top twenty interactive documentaries available right now.

Wolozin:  I’d also suggest the Ford Foundation. They created a fund with Tribeca Film Institute about new media and social change. They fund interactive, cross-platform documentaries; five or six a year. That’s another funding source for this kind of work, and you can also see the great work that’s being done.

Bill Brooks: Natasha, you mentioned “we, we” a number of times, I’m curious about the size of your staff, and if you do most of your work in-house, or do you sub it out? In addition, do you have any exciting programs or anything that you’re working on right now that you’d like to tell us about?

Giraudie:  There’s about 70 people working at Micro-Documentaries. I think only about eight are employees, and the rest are regular contractors. What that means is that most of them are working on their labors of love, and need to supplement the income somehow. We provide an opportunity to do that, that’s an alternative to go film the margarine commercial or something. We’re very proud to be able to do that and offer that as a new resource to talented documentary filmmakers. Currently, we are working on several hundred micro-documentaries in a dozen countries, and it’s hard for me to keep straight the confidentiality agreements. I can’t really discuss them until they are produced, but there’s dozens of examples on our website that you can see of fresh material that we have just released.

Wolozin:  At the Open Documentary lab at MIT we have faculty researchers and graduate students doing a a lot of research right now. I’m the staff person running the documentary lab. We also, in terms of programs and things we’re doing, have residencies. We have a lot of events where we bring in these people working in this field to talk with local filmmakers. We also have a curriculum. When we can, we’re trying to do workshops open to the community. We definitely have a mission to get the workshops out there so people can start learning how to do this kinda work and what’s available to them. Then we have some research projects. We just got a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to create a database of this work, so that people who, again, want to start working in this field can go somewhere and learn what’s there, how it works, what are the models that have already been created that you can learn from.

Jen Calvin: Natasha, what was the genesis for your company, and what is your passion about micro-documentaries?

Giraudie:  I’m from Venezuela and I started my work on long format documentaries there, working in the Amazon for films that were distributed through the Discovery Channel. When I went to California to do my graduate work, I found that the funding for that had run out. That took me on a path to software production through photography, and I ended up running a software company that helped large nonprofits raise money. I realized that even though they had some of the best stories to tell, they were struggling with basic storytelling.

Giraudie: When I met my business partner, Ben Henretig, 24 years old, just fresh out of college, he showed me this micro-documentary that he had produced, a two-minute piece to help Stanford with fundraising, it came together for me, and that was the beginning. My passion is: there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. I feel like I’m so proud to be involved in creating a better world for my daughter and for all children for generations to come, and to be making that my everyday work.

Greg Fitzgerald: I represent Deutsche Welle, Germany’s major public television international system, Natasha, your description of how you produce your micro-docs sound a lot like the same kind of production goals and everything else that a television magazine producer goes through on a weekly basis, only with quicker deadlines, is there a disconnect between what you do and television and pitching these kinds of ideas to television networks and television producers, or are you primarily focused, because the topics on foundations, corporations, those kinds of things?

Giraudie:  The honest answer is that we haven’t even looked at television distribution. The demand has been so high for us in such a short period of time, where we’re just building the foundations of a small company and trying to keep up with the growth, that we haven’t even gone there. I think that it would be a very exciting opportunity for us. Most of the content we have done so far is what we consider to be overview content, orienting stories like Connie’s story, that give you a sense of the issues and the solutions that are being worked on. We’re starting to do some work also in commissioned original content, where the story is not at all—not even a whiff—about the organization itself, but it’s very audience-centered in terms of their deepest aspirations. There might be a really great opportunity to do some work there. We could talk about it later.

Cindy McKeown: Natasha, as a documentary filmmaker and web producer, I was struck by what you said, about not just telling the story of the movement, but becoming involved in the movement and helping moving things forward. What I wanted to find out is some best practices for working with not just one organization, but several organizations, around a topic that you want to move forward raise public awareness.

Giraudie:  While this idea might be obvious, there’s a lot of education to be done about it. The way that we do it is one conversation at a time, and just try to explain our perspective of social change, meaning that it requires regular, ongoing storytelling. As filmmakers, we can all help them step into this role confidently and successfully. I think it’s having clarity yourself in terms of the role of storytelling within a movement, and then very patiently telling the story over and over and over and over again. Remember the “I Have a Dream” story. It was told in 200 different ways over the course of all of those years; the same story that he had heard as a child, over and over and over again, creatively, different perspectives. That’s what we have been using to move things forward with our clients.

Tamés:  Sarah, could you add a little bit to that about the challenge of having traditional filmmakers in dialog with programmers and web developers? They come from two very different cultures. I know, because I live in both, and have two sets of friends that don’t talk to each other. If you could talk a little bit about your experiences at the Open Documentary Lab and bringing together filmmakers and programmers?

Wolozin:  Well, it’s a new relationship, so there’s a lot to be learned. One of the things we’ve identified is that there isn’t a common language, so how do you describe something like a dissolve in web talk? One thing that people say is web navigation is the new editing. There’s a whole new way of talking about it that people are just starting to figure out, it’s a really early phase. The other thing is these hackathons and workshops are really starting to bring the two communities together so they can learn how to work together, as well as conferences where both sides attend. I think that’s kind the way that it has to happen, again, we’re in the beginning.

Tamés:  We have come to the point where we need wrap this up, I’d like to ask each of you to make a closing statement. Natasha?

Giraudie:  David Denby, celebrated film critic of The New Yorker, in the last few weeks has been talking about how, in the history of film, technological innovations have always thrown critics for a loop, but in the end, each alleged disaster has led to new expressiveness. He goes through the examples of sound and color and widescreen and handheld and such. He says, “It would be lovely to report that the same thing has happened with digital, but most of the digital fantasy has been opportunistic, dazzling in an immediate way that was meaningless and dissatisfying. There’s something else setting off digital from earlier revolutions: None of the earlier developments dehumanized the cinema. If anything, they increased the human presence in movies.” I’m gonna conclude by suggesting that you invite David Denby for a debate next year, because I think we’re kind of proving things otherwise this morning.

Tamés: Sarah, a few minutes?

Wolozin: I would like to say that nobody wants linear films to go away. I think they’re really wonderful, and there’s something incredible and powerful, and for social change too, to sit and watch a story. What we’re really talking about is all these new ways of telling stories and new ways have a tremendous potential for social impact if you’re involving someone in the story. Because of these, web and the interactive nature of how we tell stories now, and especially the young generation, participatory culture, right? As Henry Jenkins says, they want to make media. They don’t want to just watch it. In working and trying to really reach people, you want to work with the way that they’re working with media, and there’s tremendous opportunity. It’s affordable, there are ways it’s affordable, the technology itself. Learning it is a whole new area, but we’re working on it. That’s really the message. Just when we went from radio to television, radio didn’t go away. Radio’s strong. Same with linear film, it’s still there, but there’s just a lot of opportunities for new ways to tell stories.

Tamés:  I’m going to share one closing anecdote. This semester I’ve been teaching a class here at MassArt called History and Issues of Documentary Film. The last module that we covered was interactive documentary. The students were asked to write an in-depth review of one of ten interactive documentaries. I was, of course, expecting that they would all be totally excited by it. What’s interesting is that the twenty-six papers were divided 50/50. Half of the students were extremely excited, and talked about the sense of agency that they have with these interactive documentaries, and it’s so consistent with the kind of media experiences that they’ve grown accustomed to, and they really are excited.

Tamés: Four out of the twenty-six reviewed Journal of Insomnia and really loved it. Three reviewed Prison Valley. And four looked at Out My Window. The other half of the papers were very critical, and said that the storytelling was unsatisfying, that it was very fragmented, that it didn’t deliver the kind of emotion and satisfaction of the linear documentary. My reflection on this experience is that we as filmmakers have this amazing opportunity before us, but at the same time we have an amazing challenge, because it is harder to make an engaging emotional experience in the interactive domain. That’s our biggest challenge right now as storytellers working in new forms.

Wolozin:  Right. It’s new, so we don’t know, we haven’t honed the craft. If you look at early cinema, the first experiences, they were just going out trying to film something. We’ve learned, and this is a new medium we need to learn.

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Comments

  1. says

    Thank you for this David. This was a fascinating and informative session. It changed my direction as a media-maker. I’m so glad to now have a document that I can reference whenever I need to.

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