This Is What A Documentary Looks Like

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There are new and surprising ways to explore the realities around us.

The defining moment in the current era of "surveillance culture" came with the videotaped beating of Rodney King in March 1991. Those few minutes of videotaped footage aired repeatedly for weeks around the world. They changed the world - or at least a small corner of it. What had long been denied became, all of a sudden, undeniable. Not since the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination had a North American home movie had such a profound societal impact.

The King video demonstrated, among many other things, the power of the individual to effect change: the ability of ordinary citizens to be active participants in the centralized corporate-controlled media: the importance of being prepared.

Documentary filmmaking can explore the human condition, uncover untold stories or reveal hidden truths. It can also advocate for social change. These values are now combining with the desire for interactivity, enabling audiences to become part of the story.

Television programming is changing that medium along similar lines. Mark Hyland - a director of business development for CBC's new media - predicts that television will soon be more like the Internet. This means more user control, with people seeking out the programs they want when they want them. He calls it the democratization of media.

This notion seems particularly relevant in the wake of the Quebec Summit and CBC Newsworld's recent airing of a documentary about Seattle's WTO protests called This is What Democracy Looks Like. Those who noted the media's focus on the rock-throwing anarchists and the riot squad's "reasonable response" eagerly anticipate the stories that will emerge as independent footage comes to light in the months ahead.

In the meantime, the eighth annual Hot Docs film festival launched in Toronto on Monday, April 30. As a prelude to the screening marathon, the festival presented "Cutting Truths: Convergence, Interactivity and the Future of Documentary." This day-long media conference examined how technology and new media are transforming the ways that documentaries are conceived, produced and distributed. On board were panellists who've been responsible for some of the most cutting-edge applications of developing technologies. The day was jointly hosted by Sara Diamond and Peter Wintonick.

Cutting Truths presented many interesting models of the "new documentary." Here are some of them.

  • Documentarian and convergent-media consultant Peter Hamilton spoke of his experiences working with New York City's Bronx Zoo. A hub of the environmental movement - boasting a high concentration of PhD scientists - the zoo came to be overrun with media looking for a quick and easy story. Crews would tramp in, muck about, and leave things much the worse for wear. In return, the zoo got a little publicity and that was about it. Hamilton said the solution to this problem hinged on the recognition of an essential truth: "in the digital era, the value [and power] rests with the institution with access to unique stories."

    The zoo made the media pay for access, entering into partnerships with selected outlets (satellite stations, local cable operators, digital interactive TV). It is now, for example, the conservation partner for AOL. In thisway, the zoo retains value and controls media access. The old media-in-control model can be turned around.

    Picture Projects, co-founded by documentary photographer Sue Johnson, uses new-media technology to create new forms of oral and visual history. Its four projects to date are by turns healing and restorative, activist and questioning.

    akaKURDISTAN helps to reconstruct a history for a people without a homeland, by providing "a place for collective memory and cultural exchange." This image-based Web archive enables the world's 20-million Kurds to contribute to this effort in safety and anonymity.

    Vietnam Stories Since the War is a Website designed to accompany the 1996 PBS documentary Maya Lin, A Strong Clear Vision, about the architect of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in the U.S.

    Farewell to Bosnia, an online digital exhibition of black-and-white photographs, arose in response to American editors' unwillingness to publish a photojournalist's images of the violence and tragedy in the Balkans.

    360degrees - Perspectives on the American Criminal Justice System, is the most recent, sweeping and ambitious project. We at have selected it as our "Site of the Week." A multi-faceted exploration, it delivers first-person stories of inmates, guards, victims of crime, judges and others. Using audio-visual technology, it offers user-directed tours of prison cells and judges' chambers. There are quizzes, attitude surveys, statistics and analysis of social policy. New material continues to be added.

  • Witness gives a global voice to locally based human-rights advocates around the world. Witness lends video cameras and related technology to grassroots non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and individuals involved in human-rights advocacy. It provides training in the fundamentals of video advocacy, and assists with production and distribution. Witness partner footage has been used as evidence in legal proceedings, a tool for grassroots education and mobilization, source material for broadcast news, and a means of promoting human-rights advocacy through the Internet. Witness Rights Alert is a Web-broadcasting initiative that alerts viewers to domestic and international human-rights abuses. It includes links enabling viewers to respond.

  • WorldLink - is an international digital TV channel specializing in documentaries. Programs deal with human rights, global justice issues, conflict-prevention, environmental protection, sustainable development, and the challenge of preserving cultural integrity in an era of globalization. It also presents music and cultural from around the world.

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