documentary filmmaker

Documentary Productions, Rare footage, The Right Footage

“BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND”: Interview with Chuck Smith on his new film


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We were thrilled to meet brilliant director Chuck Smith last November at Doc NYC 2018 to talk about his new documentary film, BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND. More than simply a retrospective into the work and legacy of Barbara Rubin, a pioneer of underground cinema, the film recounts the wild-child life of Rubin as she experiments with drugs and sexuality before becoming a Hassidic Jew. Featuring Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, and many more influential artists and musicians of the time all inspired by Rubin, this documentary explores the budding underground movement of 1960s New York City. BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND is also a beautiful tribute to Jonas Mekas, the Godfather of avant-garde cinema and the gatekeeper of Rubin’s archives, who passed recently. 

Could you tell me a bit about you? About your work? Your career as a filmmaker?

I wasn’t one of those kids who was fascinated with films and started using a camera at an early age.  Yes, I liked watching films, but I never saw myself making films until I met some friends who had a Super 8 camera.  Then I played around with the camera, but only for fun, still never thinking I’d do it as a career.  Instead – I thought I would “change the world” by working for Greenpeace and saving the planet from environmental destruction.  But, when I started working in NYC for the Department of Environmental Protection, I discovered that change can ONLY come from people who are inspired and the best way to INSPIRE people is with stories.  So, I began working on documentaries that dealt with nuclear disarmament and other causes.  Then, I slowly moved into telling all kinds of stories and being fascinated with telling them visually mostly for TV.  I worked in TV doing all kinds of shows based on reality for National Geographic, Discovery, etc. Only later did I start to make my own documentaries so I could spend time with stories that I love.

Chuck Smith

What made you want to tell this Barbara Rubin’s story?  

I’ve always been fascinated with “larger than life” characters who seem to have been forgotten by conventional history. Sometimes the most interesting and inspiring people in a historical moment are dropped from the historical narrative and replaced by others who carried their inspiration forward. These people are often a little too “crazy” for mass consumption, so their art/music/filmmaking or whatever needs to be adapted by slightly more conventional or stable artists.  Barbara Rubin was clearly one of those inspirational characters who was too unconventional to “succeed” in a traditional sense, but her ideas and energy were crucial to the development of other artists’ works and to the culture of the 1960’s underground in New York City.  And, of course, it’s always the “underground” that ends up influencing the larger cultural scene eventually.  Another interesting aspect of Barbara’s story was the fact that she was a creative woman at a time when women as a whole were not seen or treated as equal as men.  The 1960’s were a time of great change and freedom, but it was still a very male-dominated world that didn’t begin to change until the 1970’s – and some would argue that it STILL hasn’t changed enough. Barbara was trying to succeed in a world that was stacked against her, but, the important thing is that she never felt like her sex kept her back.  She never let the fact that she was a woman hold her back, and I think that’s why the powerful, creative men she was friends with (like Dylan, Ginsberg, and Warhol) were drawn to her.

For how long did you work on this project? Were there any major challenges financing the project?

From my first idea to the finished film took over 5 years. I didn’t work exclusively on BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND for that whole time, but it was a “labor of love” that I kept coming back to.  When it came time to edit the film, that’s when I spent a solid year working on it. I don’t believe in waiting around to get financing before starting a film. I always just start by self-financing the project and spending as little as possible. Then, when others see what I’m doing, they become interested in contributing either with their time, talent, or money. For this film, I received one major grant about half-way through the process that helped a lot, but basically it was a low-budget, self-financed film.

What was more important for you: telling the personal trajectory of this strong woman, showing her contradictions (from a free spirit feminist to a hassidic wife) or painting the portrait of a visionnaire, an artist, the motor of this New York creative scene?

Barbara Rubin’s life had a lot of fascinating aspects that intrigued me, but the most important part of her story from a filmmaking perspective was the fact that she had a personal transformation. All the best stories have a twist, or a moment when the “hero” goes through a life-changing event.  Without this drama, it’s very hard to sustain interest in the narrative.  For Barbara, the fact that she became a Hasidic Jew at age 23 is crucial. It gives her life a trajectory that is both inspirational and tragic in some sense. I wanted to understand – and help the viewers understand – how someone can make such a change in their life.  I’m not sure we can ever fully know why Barbara had to evolve that way, but I think my film helps explain it a bit.

Barbara Rubin

You had access to the archives of Jonas Mekas, who is preserving part of the Barbara Rubin’s Heritage and who’s is also working very hard to preserve avant-garde cinema through Anthology Film Archives. Could you tell us a bit more about your collaboration?

Jonas Mekas was crucial to the making of my film.  Without Jonas’ support and love I couldn’t have done the film. Not only did he give me complete access to his archives, but he opened his heart to discuss and remember a woman (Barbara Rubin) who meant a great deal to him. 

The role of the researcher is essential in archive driven documentaries. How did you work with Rosemary Rotondi? What was your process?

Yes, archival research was critical to my film and Rosemary was very helpful.  Since, I started the film with access to all of Jonas Mekas’ footage, and the Warhol films and archive, I had a good head start on period archival footage that either featured Barbara Rubin and her friends or was shot by Barbara.  But, once I had the basic story of her life down, I had to fill in all the gaps with more basic archival footage such as Queens, NY in the late 1950’s, or Vietnam War protest footage.  For that, I used Rosemary who was very familiar with what was available from the ’50’s and ’60’s.

Bob Dylan

While Immersing yourself in personal footage and archives of Barbara’s work, what did immediately catch your attention?

What caught my attention about the footage that Barbara shot in the early 1960’s was that it was so ALIVE with energy. She was using a 16mm camera like an iPhone! At the time, it was probably seen as erratic or shaky camera work, but now it seems very prescient of how fast our eyes work these days. I also was impressed with her use of super-imposing images.

How did you conduct the interviews? Did it take a lot of preparation or it was more a natural, intuitive process?

For my interviews, I had a few basic questions and an outline written down, but more often then not, I forgot all about the “planned” interview and followed the subject where they led.  Intuitive interviews are always better then sticking to a script. Certainly, with Jonas Mekas, I had absolutely NO control over where he would go or what he would talk about.  He heard my questions and then always said whatever he felt like.  Although he did read certain letters and pieces of his writing for my camera when I asked him to.

How did you combine visual creativity and storytelling?  Could you elaborate on your artistic choices?

Since BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND is based on history and a particular period in experimental filmmaking, I tried to take all of my visual storytelling cues from the footage and films of that period.  Since Barbara often used multiple screens and double projections, I wasn’t afraid to use these techniques as well.  I also tried to give my documentary a very tangible “film feeling” – showing sprockets, actual film, and projectors when appropriate.  Maintaining the same “film feeling” while working with various film/video sources helped me give the documentary a more unified look.  I even layered film “headers” which had nothing on them over some of the still photographs in the film to give the stills an active look.

Barbara Rubin thought that the act of filming could change the world. What would be a good example for that today?

I still think that filmmaking can change the world. For Barbara Rubin, it was the boundary-pushing aspect of film to change the culture and then the world. If she could make people see radical images, then their understanding of what’s appropriate would change and so would their attitudes.  Today, I’m not sure that filmmakers can still find aesthetic and content barriers to break like Barbara did, but there’s no doubt that powerful images can still affect people.  If you film a lonely polar bear on an iceberg that is floating and shrinking, a viewer will be forced to confront the reality of climate change and will hopefully act on that. Film and moving images, in general, are still a very powerful force in the world.  Barbara would be happy about that.

Documentary Film Industry, Documentary Productions, The Right Footage

Interview With Tom Jennings, 1895 Films


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In this interview, we get the chance to get some inside information from director Tom Jennings, a Peabody and Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker. He has written, produced and directed more than 400 hours of programming on a variety of topics, including politics, religion, history, crime, sports, mystery and travel. He has produced documentary films all around the globe, always looking for new ways to tell stories that are informative and entertaining.

Tom lives and works in LA, he’s at the front-row seat of the heart of the industry in the US. This is an amazing opportunity to hear the voice of an acclaimed filmmaker who knows the industry inside-out has and witnessed how it changed and evolved in the past 15 – 20 years.

First, before all the questions about the industry that we have for you – can you talk a bit about you, your work and where it all started for you?

My first job was being a newspaper reporter. I have a degree in journalism from Kent State University in Ohio. I wrote for papers in Washington, D.C., New York and Los Angeles before changing careers to write television documentaries. I made that change in the late 1990s, right as cable networks were taking off. Production companies needed people who could write and thankfully my background made me a good candidate for telling stories that were to the point and easy to understand. When executive producers saw that I could write scripts without much trouble, they started sending me out to do interviews with film crews. I had no idea how film shoots worked, but I knew how to interview people from being a journalist. The film crews I worked with in those early days taught me a lot about production – how to light, how to shoot b-roll and how to be sure I had the proper coverage to tell a story. Those crews were like my film school. I became a director after that and in 2004 I sold my first series to Discovery Channel and I’ve had my own production company ever since. We do films that exist somewhere between pure journalism and television documentaries. It’s a great fit for me and I really love what I do. I’m very lucky.

Tom Jennings, 1985 films

You’ve been working in the industry for the past 15 years, what are the big changes you witnessed in the past 5 years as an insider?

The changes going on in our industry are coming very fast. There are huge changes in the technology we use to create films. Editing systems are more powerful. Access to images from around the globe are nearly instantaneous and our ability to do everything in-house, including mixing and color corrections now possible because systems are more affordable. At the same time, selling programming to networks has become more challenging and confusing. It’s always been difficult to find the sweet spot of what a network wants, but with the advent of streaming services and other internet platforms, there’s a certain chaos going on now. Everyone is trying to figure out how to “cut through the noise” of an immense amount of content out there. My job is to constantly monitor who is buying what, what types of programs do well, what is in the zeitgeist for audiences and can I blend all that together to make films that we find fascinating. So far, we’ve been lucky, and I hope we can continue to make the kind of programming we love, whether it be for cable or streaming.

In light of today’s competitive landscape and the rising demand for content: do producers and filmmakers, like you, feel the pressure to produce more and hence the need to constantly find new ideas?

We are ALWAYS on the lookout for new ideas. Fortunately, for me, coming from a journalism background I have a pretty good instinct of how to find them. When I was a newspaper reporter we had a city editor who would say, “Slow news day, get out on the streets and find me a great story”. It was great training for finding ideas for documentaries. However, I know I have to tailor ideas to what networks want. I may find something that is amazing, but if no one is buying that kind of material than it remains just that, a great idea. I often joke with my staff about how we have to strike a balance between great ideas for films and making sure those ideas fit what can sell. “I could have an interview with Jesus Christ himself,” I tell my staff, “And a network will say, ‘Sorry, we’re not doing religion shows right now.’” Regardless of the idea, any idea has to fit to have a home, or it won’t go anywhere.

Do you think that today’s competitive landscape for broadcasters raises the bar in terms of quality (for documentaries) and does it also require bigger production budgets?

This is a double-edged sword, to be sure. Budgets have always been tight. I’ve never talked with a producer who has said, “We had more than enough money to make that show”. For premium content, especially with international travel or purchasing very expensive archival images, networks acknowledge that the budget has to be big enough to handle those costs. However, even when budgets are small, the expectation of quality is high. We’re always looking for clever ways to stretch our dollars to be sure everything is on the screen.

What does it take to have a good idea for a documentary film? Do unique archives play an important role in the construction of a film?

It takes having a great story, unique access, unseen images, great storytellers and sometimes a well-known actor to host. There are dozens of things that go into getting a show on the air and the alchemy in that process is finding the right balance of all these factors. Depending on the story, archive can play a tremendously important factor. But it’s not like 10 or 15 years ago where old black and white images were used as “wallpaper” (as we say) to help illustrate what someone being interviewed is telling us. Today, our use of archive has to be more vibrant, an integral part of the fabric of the story. Many of our films have ONLY archive in them, which makes a lot of what we do unique. We use the images and sounds from events of long ago to bring those stories back to life in ways that no recreation can. But with archive, there is either too much material or too little. We can spend weeks going through images and footage of well-covered events, but when we need to illustrate a particular moment, often we can’t find anything that fits the narrative. Regardless of how archive is used in a film, if you’re going to use it, use it well.

How do you look for new ideas? Have you built strong relationships with archive sources? Do archive sources come to you to let you know about their unique collections? or do you often look for them?

Great ideas are everywhere. I tell my staff that every day in The New York Times there are 25 ideas for documentaries – and they are NOT in the headlines on Page 1. You have to keep your eyes and ears open. Ideas will come to you, but you have to learn how to recognize them – and to dig them out when they are not obvious. Sometimes I’ll just go on the Wikipedia main page and hit the link to “random article”. You would be amazed what can pop up. And though those links aren’t often a perfect documentary idea they can get you thinking about things that may seem random, but suddenly make perfect sense. I’m always reading general interest magazines and newspapers. I listen to as many radio programs and podcasts that I can. I look at what books are selling on Amazon. I keep up with what’s being researched at universities to see if there are new discoveries coming out. I always check in with sources for past films to see what’s new in their lives and ask if they have heard of anything great coming their way. I love going to libraries and just walking through the stacks looking at book titles. I think about all the things happening in the world and wonder what stories are out there that no one has thought to pursue. And suddenly, a light goes off in my brain and says – “That one could work!” And then the hard part starts – research, making sure it hasn’t been done before, and seeing if my bright light moment is something that will fit with the buyers.

When you pitch to broadcasters is the promise of accessing unique archives a selling argument, in order to build original documentaries and captivate a wider audience?

Many of the broadcasters to whom we pitch are extremely interested in hearing about long-lost or never-before-seen footage. The networks definitely use this as a big selling point. I can’t blame them. It gives them marketing leverage in a highly competitive market place. But it pays to know your history when it comes to programming on cable and on streaming. I can’t tell you how many times I see commercials for programs that claim, “never before seen” or “never before heard” and I know that my company or someone else’s company did that same program five or ten years ago. Memories are short these days. Having a background in journalism, I’m always sure that when I bring the networks something special that I know it really is something never before heard or seen. And this works for the audience, as well. If they think they are going to see something new about a story they thought they knew, they’ll be intrigued and hopefully tune in.

Is there a higher demand for documentaries today than in the past?

Yes. A few decades ago, there were a handful of people making feature documentaries. Major network news divisions had documentary divisions and there were places like National Geographic Films, which existed longer before the channel. PBS was also a place to sell documentary programming. But in general, the options were limited (and I have to add the caveat this was before my time in the documentary business). When cable television got really going in the 1990s, places like Discovery, History and others wanted a lot of hour-long documentaries to put on their airwaves. It was a bit of a golden age. I worked for several documentary companies during that time and my work took me all around the world to places I thought I would never go, and to meet people I thought I would never meet. Then reality television came along, and let’s face it reality television is basically a hijacked version of the documentary format. But audiences loved those shows and the demand for long-form television docs started to dwindle. About five or six years ago, we were convinced we would have to start producing programming in the reality space because that was where all the work was. And then something happened. I’m still not sure what, but audiences grew weary of reality programming and circled back to wanting better stories and films that felt more unique. Suddenly, the type of films we make are in vogue again. I’m grateful for that.

What makes a documentary project appealing today for US broadcasters and so streaming channels such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu? (does it need to be international, have already a huge community base of fans, have unique angles, archives etc…..)

Nearly every broadcaster we deal with wants programming that can “travel”, meaning it can be shown anywhere on the planet and people will still find it interesting. To help them with that, we are tasked with often finding new angles on well-known stories that nearly everyone knows. Our film about Princess Diana for National Geographic was one of the highest-rated films the network has ever had internationally (besides doing well in the United States). Her story is one that is known worldwide, so getting people to tune in is easier. The trick is to have a story that is so good that those viewers won’t change the channel. Another network once told me, if you’re going to pitch me a shipwreck story it had better be the Titanic. Even though we have found dozens of great shipwreck stories, many of them with unbelievable archival footage connected to them, I’ll have a much better chance of making a sale if I find something new about the Titanic.

Archive Researchers, Documentary Productions

Oscars 2019 Documentary Feature Shortlist: The Producers & Funds Behind Their Success


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The 2019 Oscars documentary shortlist was announced last month and the competition will probably see one of the most successful box-office selections of all times. Four of the shortlisted productions (“RGB”, “Free Solo”, “Three Identical Strangers” and “Won’t you be my neighbor”) have already been grossing at more than $10m. No matter who makes it to the nominations, we decided that it’s important to look at some of the production details of each of the 15 films in the shortlist. Producers, funds and decision makers played a key role in their journey to becoming some of the most notable achievements in the genre for 2018. Here are some interesting insights of how they are funded, their co-production partners, their festival rounds and distribution deals – celebrating all the people who made these projects possible and believed in their success.

Shirkers

First feature documentary by Sandi Tan. World premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, won the Directing award. Winner at Cinema Eye Honors Awards, US, Florida Film Critics Circle Awards, Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, Philadelphia Film Festival . Produced by Maya Rudolph and Jessica Levin. Acquired by Netflix Originals and released on October 26, 2018 , becoming available in 195 countries and 25 languages. Post-production funding was provided by Doc Society Genesis Grant and Cinereach in addition to a development grant from Sundance.

Minding the Gap

(nominated)

Directed by the first-time filmmaker Bing Liu. World premiere at Sundance, followed by an international one at CPH:DOX. The most awarded film in the selection – 46 wins including awards at Sundance, Hot Docs, Sheffield, CPH:DOX. The film is a co-production of KARTEMQUIN FILMS (Diane Quon), POV (Justine Nagan) and ITVS. Additional funding was provided by Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program with support from Open Society Foundations, JustFilms | Ford Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. It’s currently streaming on Hulu.

Three Identical Strangers

Directed by Tim Wardle. Premiered at Sundance and won the Grand Jury Award for Storytelling. Produced by RAW TV (Becky Read), CNN FILMS (Amy Entelis, Courtney Sexton) and Channel 4 (Sara Ramsden). Currently grossing $12,320,845, it is the 26th most successful project in the all-time documentary box office. The archival production was lead by Beatrice Read and Jack Penman both of whom we are happy to have in Archive Valley’s community of professional archive researchers. The distribution rights were acquired by NEON/ DOGWOOF and CNN is planning a broadcast premiere in 2019.

Dark Money

Directed by Kimberly Reed (“Prodigal Sons”). A production of Big Sky Film Productions, Inc. Co-produced by Big Mouth Productions (Katy Chevigny) and Meerket Media Collective. Premiered at Sundance where it won the Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award. The production was supported by Doc Society / The Threshold Foundation, Topic Studios, JustFilms / Ford Foundation, IFP and Sundance. PBS acquired the North American distribution rights. You can watch it on POV SEASON 31, Jan 10th.

HALE COUNTY THIS MORNING, THIS EVENING

(nominated)

First feature documentary by RaMell Ross and probably the most visually unique film in the shortlist. Produced by Danny Glover’s Louverture films and co-produced by Field Of Vision (Laura Poitras & Charlotte Cook) and Bertha Foundation. The production also received additional funding by Cinereach, JustFilms / Ford Foundation, Doc Society / The Threshold FoundationIFP, Tribeca All Access and Sundance. PBS’s ‘Independent Lens’ will broadcast it on Feb 11.

Crime + Punishment

Directed by Stephen Maing (“High Tech, Low Life”). Production companies: Mud Horse Pictures, Field of Vision (Laura Poitras, Charlotte Cook), Sundance Documentary Institute. Received additional funding by Ford Foundation, Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund, IDA Enterprise Documentary Fund, IFP. The archival producer behind the project was Wyatt Stone who’s also a member of Archive Valley’s community. The film is available on Hulu.

On Her Shoulders

A second documentary feature by Alexandria Bombach after her debut in 2015 with “Frame by Frame”. The project was entirely funded by RYOT Films (Hayley Pappas &.Brock Williams) Premiered and won the documentary directing award at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Oscilloscope Laboratories has acquired North American rights for distribution.

Of Fathers and Sons

(nominated)

Directed by Talal Derki. Premiered at Sundance where it was awarded Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema – Documentary. Produced by BASIS BERLIN Filmproduktion (Tobias Siebert, Eva Kemme, Ansgar Frerich). In co-production with Ventana Film(Hans Robert Eisenhauer ), Impact Partners (Dan Cogan, Jenny Raskin, Geralyn White Dreyfous),  Cinema Group Production, and Südwestrundfunk, Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg in collaboration with ARTE. It received additional funding from Chicago Media Project, Doha Film Institute, IDFA BERTHA Fund, Screen Institute Beirut. Kino Lorber obtained the distribution rights for North America.

The Silence of Others

Directed by Robert Bahar, and Almudena Carracedo, with executive producer Pedro Amoldovar. The project is a co-production of Semilla Verde Productions, American Documentary | POV, Independent Television Service (ITVS) and Latino Public Broadcasting (LPB). Additional funding provided by Corporation For Public Broadcasting (CPB), support from Bertha Foundation, Catapult Film Fund, Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program. Multiple awards including Grand Jury Award – Best Documentary at Sheffield Doc Fest, IDA Pare Lorentz Award, Berlinale Peace Film Award. Distributed by Cinephil.

Charm City

Director: Marilyn Ness, two-time Emmy, Peabody, and DuPont Award-winning producer. Premiered at Tribeca 2018. Produced by Big Mouth Productions (Katy Chevigny) and co-produced by Motto Pictures (Christopher Clements). Funding support from IDA Enterprise Documentary Fund, Catapult Film Fund, Bertha Foundation, The Fledgling Fund, Hartley Film Foundation, and Sundance.

The Distant Barking of Dogs

Directed by Simon Lereng Wilmont, co-production between the Danish documentary powerhouse Final Cut For Real (Monica Hellstrøm, Heidi Elise Christensen), Mouka Filmi, STORY & Bayerischer Rundfunk, and Arte. The film was pitched at GÖTEBORG FILM FESTIVAL, NORDISK PANORAMA & IDFA FORUM. It received funding from Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, Open Society Foundations, Ford Foundation – Just Films and The Creative Europe Programme of the European Union.

Free Solo

(nominated)

A second documentary feature by Jimmy Chinn after his debut in 2015 with “Meru”. A National Geographic Documentary Films release and presentation of a Little Monster Films, Itinerant Media, Parkes+MacDonald/Image Nation production. Executive producers: Walter Parkes, Laurie MacDonald, Tim Pastore, Matt Renner. Premiered at Telluride Festival, won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF. Currently grossing at $11m it is the fourth most successful documentary release of 2018.

 

RBG

(nominated)

Directed and produced by Betsy West and Julie Cohen of Storyville Films, in co-production with CNN FILMS (Amy Entelis & Courtney Sexton). The rights were sold to Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media. Renée Silverman was in charge of the archival production. So far it has generated more than $14m, the second biggest documentary box-office for 2018.


Communion

Directed by first-time filmmaker Anna Zamecka. Premiered at the 69th Locarno Film Festival where it won the Grand Prix of Semaine de la Critique. A co-production between Wajda Studio, HBO Europe (Hanka Kastelicová), Otter Films (Anna Wydra).

Won’t you be my neighbour?

Directed by Morgan Neville and produced by Tremolo Productions ( Caryn Capotosto, Nicolas Ma) with support from Impact Partners (Dan Cogan, Jenny Raskin, Geralyn White Dreyfous). Premiered at Sundance and since then it has gathered 30 festival awards. The archival production was lead by Susan Ricketts and Samantha Casey. It’s currently grossing at $22m and it has become the 12th biggest documentary box-office release of all times.

There will be only one winner at the Oscars award ceremony on 25th of Feb but there are already plenty of remarkable achievements : 12 of the selected productions in the Oscars 2019 documentary shortlist are their creators’ first or second project. 13 premiered at Sundance and 8 of those receiving support from Sundance Institute. Ford Foundation supported 5 projects, Doc Society & IFP – 3 , Cinereach, Impact Partners, ITVS and Catapult Film Fund – 2. Big Mouth Productions, CNN FILMS, and Field of Vision each co-produced 3 films. Congratulation to everyone involved in those projects for making 2018 truly exceptional year for the documentary film industry.

Documentary Festivals, Documentary Productions, Uncategorized

Sunny Side of the Doc 2018: ​Archives & new storytelling, a history of love


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Let’s forget about OTT and TV screens for a minute, because history is not anymore intended to be told only through flat and linear contents. New ways of archival storytelling at the crossroad of the documentary and digital scenes are popping up all over the internet, driven by a desire to embark the youngest audience on more engaging experiences of the past. This craze became “the occasion” for this year’s Sunny Side of the Doc breakfast discussion « Archives & new storytelling, a history of love ». The panel was moderated by the producer Laurent Duret (Bachibouzouk) and as one of the invited panelists, Archive Valley is happy to share with you some insights into this new exciting trend.

Laurent Duret – producer Bachibouzouk, Bruno Masi – Author filmmaker, Amandine Collinet – chief editor digital productions INA, Yoann Gantch – BnF – Partenariat, Mikhail Zygar & Karen Shainyan – founders Future History, Our CEO Melanie Rosencwajg 

We see today a growing number of content creators investing the infinite channels and media offered by the digital world with new types of archive-driven narratives, largely stimulated by the rise of the short-doc form. And when it comes to short form, the influence of Twitter cannot be neglected.

Already in 2011 while being busy blending archive and innovation at studio ArtchiviumLab, we’ve happily discovered the new-born twitter account @HistoryInPics, managed by two teenagers with one clear ambition: creating the buzz out of entertaining and powerful historical photographs picked on the internet and supercharged with a dramatic storytelling. While one can argue that historical truth and data accuracy were not really their point of concern when it all started, the duo’s first tweets went quickly viral, and as a result, we saw an invasion of archival content in the social media. Eventually, none of the myriads of similar twitter accounts created on the same model could compete with the team’ s great sense of spectacle, neither reproduce their huge success: the still-active account @HistoryInPics boasts today more than 4 million followers.

Similarly, the blog project “Retronaut” (See the past like you wouldn’t believe) started in 2010 with WolgangWild’s idea to share his fascination for the nostalgia by showcasing and curating his own collection of odd and eccentric old photographs in so-called ‘capsules’ of time. Three weeks after the launch, the site got 30,000 hits in one day thanks to a post celebrating wonderful Kodachrome color photographs of 1949’s London. In 2014, the blog’ success led to an exclusive partnership with Mashable and Retronaut’s content became the most shared and viewed piece on the whole website. By now more than 40,000 Retronautic photographs were published, each one carefully chosen for its power « to disrupt the viewers’ sense of the past » and to generate a viral hit, based on what Wild established as the S.P.E.E.D. formula: a unique approach for predicting any archival photograph’s potential for drawing an enormous audience.

Most importantly, a great appetite for archival storytelling (when done right) emerged, and thanks to all the disruption in the way content is being distributed, the rise of social media and cross-media made it work even better. Filmmakers and content creators, as well as newspapers and even archival sources, quickly grabbed that unique opportunity to reach a global audience. Let’s shade a light on some of those standout projects that bring archives and history even closer to the contemporary audience.

As a former journalist seeking for new territories apart from the traditional press and the linear documentary, Bruno Masi is one of the pioneers of the web documentary form with his interactive project “La Zone”(2011), revealing the Chernobyl aftermath. A couple of years later on the occasion of the centenary of the WWI, he creates the project 1914 Dernières Nouvelles(co-produced by Arte and Bachibouzouk), an online newspaper that will set a daily appointment with the contemporary audience. In an attempt to immerse the audience into the daily life and escalating dangers of this crucial year, through the use of a pseudo-live temporality, the project displays one archival photograph per day during eight months, together with press articles and additional textual information that help to bring context in some sort of « popcorn narration ». As a partnership between TV channel Arte and newspaper Liberation, the project has been displayed in different channels and platforms simultaneously in order to multiply the impact of the project.

The author’s latest experimental project “Barricade“(co-produced by INA, Bachibouzouk, and Liberation.fr) is based on a similar process, with a web-series of 20 episodes, 20 minutes each, telling hour by hour May 1968’s most violent day. Based on archival footage from INA’s collections, the series aims to respect the historical chronology of the events while the unusual use of voices inputs a fictional and cinematographic storytelling approach to the narration. Should we refer to it as docu-fiction? Not really. Instead, chief editor at digital productions INA Amandine Collinet is more likely to speak about « documented fiction », a new sophisticated form of storytelling where archives are treated as a pure material of fiction.

“La Grande Explication” is another project recently initiated by the French archive INA together with RTS in resonance with anniversary dates which appear to be the most rewarding strategy to drive audience. Dedicated for a youth target audience mainly active on Facebook, this 10 episodes web-series aims at deciphering ten major historical events, from Hiroshima bombing to Nelson Mandela election, while overlaying the archive clips with modern graphics such as text message bubbles inspired by the smartphone aesthetic in order to «dynamize and desacralize the archives ».

Yet, speaking about repackaging the archives using the technologies of today, a special mention needs to go out to 1968.DIGITAL, the first-ever mobile documentary series. Specially tailored for smartphone screens, this ongoing project takes up the challenge of revisiting the story of one heroic character per week through the lens of their iPhone and the various apps they could have owned in 1968; viewers witness the Beatles exchanging via a WhatsApp chat, Andy Warhol sharing photos on Instagram, Gabriel Garcia Marquez writing in Notes, and Martin Luther King’s funeral is announced via a Facebook’s event reminder.

Created and produced by Russian independent journalists and cofounders of Future History studio, Mikhail Zygar and Karen Shainyan, this project is the result of a prior effort to bring primary sources to the forefront with “Project1917“, a web-project relying on Facebook daily posting style to immerse the audience into the making of the Russian Revolution. In addition to providing a fresh experience of the past, Future History’s projects rely on a very specific mission statement: showing how major events shaped the culture and the society of nowadays while revealing patterns of similarities and clear influences between people across the world, both in the present and the past.

A social media phenomenon, “1968.DIGITAL(The Year that created the world as we know it) has so far reached millions of views thanks to a smart distribution strategy based on partnerships with different news media, maximizing the chance to disseminate the content across a wide variety of channels and platforms… and to multiply the views. The project was initially designed as a three-episode series untitled “Future History: 1968,” which was premiered by BuzzFeed News, the millennial-focused site, and it was released exclusively on Apple News before going to YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Soon additional news publishers have joined the project such as “Liberation.fr” for producing a French version of the series.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/AQmZSAbrLdM
All this is actually very representative of what’s going on today with news businesses: they are in a frenzy for original, fresh and higher-quality video content to license or produce, and especially for short docs aiming to recap historical moments while providing context to nowadays world Another great example is The New York Times ‘partnership with the news organization Retro Report, which has produced more than 125 short docs, combining investigative journalism and narrative storytelling to tell the audience the history behind the news.

A mix of digital creatives and journalists, all those highly-engaged creators  are not only working on adding a modern twist to archival storytelling but they are also giving a fresh and unprecedented access to history and archives to the youngest generations via unique video experiences delivered directly to their doors: in Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Mashable, BuzzFeed etc. What an exciting and optimistic time for archival storytelling.

The Right Footage

A “Long Strange Trip” with Archival Producers Annie Salsich & Jim McDonnell


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Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia recording an early album in 1966. Photo courtesy of Roberto Rabanne.

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