A Revolution in Documentary Film | Beth's Blog

A Revolution in Documentary Film

Engagement, Guest Post

Note From Beth: Yesterday, I attended a convening called “Beyond Dynamic Adaptability” for arts organizations about cultural participation in the arts.  A hot topic:  How do artists and arts organizations engage audiences in the creative process?    One of the slides shared (from a study by the Irvine Foundation) presented a ladder of engagement for arts audiences – from receptive to participatory.     This revolution in artistic process is taking place across disciplines, including documentary films.    Will a networked approach to documentaries, particularly those that are about social change issues become the norm in our connected world?


Guest Post by Vincent Stehle

The recent passing of iconic protest singer Gil Scott Heron reminds us, as he so memorably sang, “The revolution will not be televised.” Perhaps not.  But it will be shown in documentary footage in pretty much every other format: in limited theatrical release, on DVD, in short clips on the Internet and even via podcast on mobile devices.

We are living in a time of noisy revolution on the streets, from Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park. But there is also a quiet revolution taking place in the field of documentary film. The system of making and distributing documentary films is changing rapidly. The creative process of making films is opening up and the outreach efforts to spark social change through documentary media are becoming much more dynamic and collaborative.

The most successful documentaries are having a significant impact on major debates and public policies, from environmental concerns to financial regulations. This year’s Academy Award winning film – Inside Job – is one of the most powerful descriptions of what went wrong leading up to the financial collapse of 2008. And runner up, Gasland, has sparked a powerful movement to restrain the unchecked expansion of “fracking,” the controversial natural-gas drilling procedure of hydraulic fracturing.

One notable aspect of the success of Gasland, which recently won the Emmy Award for documentary film, is the way director Josh Fox worked with grant makers at the Fledgling Fund to galvanize a movement that greatly amplified the efforts of traditional environmental groups. Together, Fox and Fledgling developed an intensive outreach strategy through more than 500 community screenings. They also created a website that serves up clips from the film, plus a wealth of supporting information backing up the provocative claims contained in the movie and myriad ways for citizens to get involved in their own communities.

Two powerful catalysts for change in the world of documentaries are Good Pitch—a collaboration of Channel 4 Britdoc Foundation and the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program—and the Producers Institute for New Media Technologies at the Bay Area Video Coalition. Good Pitch is an effort that brings documentary filmmakers together with a wide range of partners in distribution, financing and outreach for activism. And the Producers Institute is a 10-day workshop that brings together a select group of documentary filmmakers and technologists to create outreach and activism strategies using online and mobile tools for activism.

One of the most compelling products of the Producers Institute is a project associated with the award-winning film Granito: How to Nail a Dictator,  which depicts the genocidal civil war in Guatemala. In Granito, veteran filmmaker Pamela Yates returns to the subject of her first film, When the Mountains Tremble. Where her first film was a contemporary account of the Civil War in Guatemala, particularly the story of Nobel Peace Prize Winner Rigoberta Menchu, Granito is an effort to capture the history of the war through recollections and archival exploration. But that is only the jumping off point for the inquiry. At the Producers Institute, Yates worked with technologists to create Granito: Every Memory Matters – a mobile interface that will invite anyone who experienced the war in Guatemala to upload their own experiences and recollections for posterity. Every Memory Matters is expected to go live in January, 2012, when Granito is broadcast nationally on the PBS series POV.

In the past, documentary films were carefully crafted by the filmmaker in relative isolation and in complete control of the finished product. With a project like Granito, the film is only the beginning and serves as an invitation for everyone to share their story.




Vincent Stehle is a regular columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy and a member of the Board of Directors of Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media.

2 Responses

  1. Hi Beth.

    Have you had a chance to check out the Tourette Syndrome Foundation of Canada’s award-winning documentary project for Tourette Syndrome, @RANDOM?

    Nothing like it has ever been done, and it’s expanding every day.

    Here’s a short trailer:

    And the website:

    Please consider passing along word of its existence. I think you’ll agree it deserves greater support.

  2. IOD says:

    Great article. I had a demonstration of a new distribution technology called Yekra.com just yesterday and had similar thoughts to yours. It is a game changer and will let every filmmaker get their content out socially, for real money. The revolution has already begun. Check it out.

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