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Docs In Sight: Documentarians in the News Cycle

NOTE: Way back in the spring of 2004 I began the “Docs in Sight” column in the Rail as a way to discuss issues in documentary and spotlight film in release largely underserved in mainstream media. It was consistent until later in the decade, tapering off into more intermittent longer interviews with filmmakers and the issues to which they often dedicate significant chunks of their lives. Now I’m restarting “Docs in Sight” and my hope is to continue to be a voice for documentary film (especially of the social-political ilk) in our schizophrenic screen-saturated world where I don’t even know if there is mainstream media anymore. Of course, I’m going to do it on the ol’ social media as well (@williamscole). So, please follow—I’ll follow you if you follow me, promise. I’ll also post older columns and interviews here and there when they seem relevant. Thanks to all.

DOC NYC (which ran November 14th – 21st) is now officially the biggest documentary festival in the United States and that gives a bit more credence to the feeling that documentary film is playing a larger and more prominent role in our collectively morphing and imploding media landscape. In fact, one panel during the festival called “Docs as News” found New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch, Andrew Jarecki (Capturing the Friedmans), and Tom Yellin, the president of the DocGroup who produced “long form” television docs for decades, discussing the role of independent documentary filmmakers in breaking news.

First and foremost, as it should be, it was pointed out how NSA leaker Edward Snowden ended up confiding in the independent filmmaker Laura Poitras rather than a major news organization when he decided to hand over a trove of documents that exposed, and will keep exposing, the largely unknown breadth of the US spying apparatus. There are some valid criticisms of how doing so has effectively “privatized” these public documents for the moment. Unlike a WikiLeaks dump, Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald are the only ones who have access to the complete documents and by teaming up with billionaire Pierre Omidyar and his new media venture it all but guarantees a big splash.

But the very fact that this material was not deposited exclusively behind the once-gilded walls of a major news organization not only confirms Poitras’s unique position vis-à-vis the subject matter (she had been working on a film about similar things for a couple of years) all but guarantees that her coming film will not only create buzz but perhaps even force some transparency. Maybe this act in itself will set a new standard at a time when trust and faith in many larger news organizations is low at best and show that independent documentarians can be the best people for those with unique access or whistleblowers to confide in. After all, many filmmakers spend years immersed in an issue and, potentially more than staff producers, are the ones that can give an issue a dramatic, comprehensive, and poignant treatment, giving it legs in the roiling miasma of information that we currently experience.

Yet there are liabilities that can’t be avoided. As Tom Yellin pointed out on the DOC NYC panel, the large traditional news institutions provide—or at least used to provide—significant legal and fact-checking resources (something that one assumes Omidyar’s venture will do to some degree). That radioactive word “objectivity” was also mentioned to suggest that traditional media institutions might have more of it. This idea was thankfully and quickly debunked as Philip Gouerevitch referenced the debate between Greenwald and Bill Keller back in October. As has been evident for some time now, the media landscape is reorganizing in ways quite different from the monopolies of networks news/newspapers that defined much of the 20th century (into new monopolies some would argue). And while there are positives and negatives, the debunking of purity in objectivity is surely an inevitable outcome.

There was a time when the venerable network news departments produced “long form” that, at least on the surface, strove to speak truth against power. From CBS News’s Edward R. Murrow and documentaries like 1962’s The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson (and many others in that time) to investigative doc programming from Nightline, Peter Jennings Reports, and 60 Minutes, network news divisions produced investigations and in-depth profiles of issues that stirred up debate and became part of what “people talked about.” Why did they do it? Tom Yellin, who worked within the networks, said the reason was only because of the broadcasting regulation of the time and prominent anchors who were persuasive with their bosses. He added—with conviction—that all the network news divisions are interested in now is producing profit-making morning shows like Good Morning America. He seems correct.

So now there is even more of a vacuum to be filled. And while independent documentaries eked their way into public consciousness until the end of the 1990s, over the last 15 years their role in making social and political issues more prominent in the every increasing chaos of the news cycle has only grown (Super Size Me, Food, Inc., Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, The Invisible War, An Inconvenient Truth, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield to name just a few).

Do documentaries create actual quantifiable change against injustice, hypocrisy, and unfettered abuse of power? Well, that’s a complicated topic that deserves its own in-depth discussion. But thankfully, as network and cable news continue down the path they are on, there are more and more teams of filmmakers who devote unforgiving, grueling, and largely non-profit years to trying to make that happen. If this current tendency continues it will be the documentary filmmakers who will increasingly take the reins, probably to their own detriment, but ideally for the right reasons.


Williams Cole

Williams Cole can be found on Twitter @williamscole


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