Documentary makers throw out the rule book

 

THE ARTS:Anyone can become a documentary maker these days - all you need is a phone and a PC. How is this affecting the genre, asks Yvonne Gordon.

Fahrenheit 9/11, March of the Penguins, An Inconvenient Truth- documentary films have been getting bigger and better, and the genre has come a long way from the dull offerings that inhabited off-peak TV-slots well into the 1990s. Now, there are documentaries about nearly everything - from investigative exposés on world events, to the "making-of" features that accompany DVD films and music videos.

Yet as big-budget documentary features do well at the box office, the technology required to make - and show - films has changed so much that the technical means of telling a story through documentary have become accessible to just about anyone. Cameras are smaller and cheaper; editing can be done on a PC. A visit to the local camera shop and some software downloads and a person could be ready to make a documentary in a matter of hours.

And documentary-makers are experimenting with new media tools all the time. Last year, the first feature film was made with a mobile phone. Two Italian film-makers made the documentary Nuovi Comizi D'Amore(New Love Meetings), using a Nokia N90 camera phone to film and record sound. To interview Italians talking about their experiences of love and sex, they chose the easiest and least intrusive means possible.

Documentary makers can own the equipment to record and edit their films but digital technology is also changing the way documentaries are distributed - a huge cost barrier in the past. In the future, films might be distributed through satellite or digitally. A company called CinemaNet is bringing documentaries to the big screens across Europe by transforming cinemas into digital cinemas that can receive films by hard disk, internet or ADSL. So far, cinemas in Austria, Germany, The Netherlands, Spain and the UK have signed up.

And thanks to the internet, it's no longer necessary to "distribute" a documentary at all - it can be uploaded onto websites such as MySpace and YouTube and shown from there. MySpace.com is the biggest online community in the world, with 135 million members. Of its 75,000 independent film-makers, 4,600 are in the UK and Ireland. The website takes all forms of content, including long-form documentary, which users can share with friends or a wider audience. YouTube is another way for people to share films through the web - it encourages users to become the broadcasters of tomorrow - and more than 100 million videos are watched on the site every day.

If documentary is a way to make sense of the world we live in, documentary makers are trying to make sense of this changing media world. In November, the world's creative documentary makers and commissioning editors gathered at the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam (IDFA) to discuss the changing mediascape and new documentary forms and platforms - such as the future possibilities of documentary distribution over the internet, MP3 players and mobile phones - and how these would affect the format of the creative documentary.

"With all the changes going on in the media landscape, it's important to see where documentary is going and who the new partners are, so we decided to get the partners into a room and see how to work together," says conference organiser Fleur Knopperts, director of the documentary co-financing market, The Forum. These partners included broadcast media owners such as the BBC, Channel 4 and Al Jazeera TV and new media such as Google and MySpace.

According to digital media expert Frank Boyd, much of the media that under-25s consume is made by people known to them personally. With this, broadcasters are realising that they are no longer the centre of the media world - individuals have so much choice that broadcasters must "go to them". Traditional broadcast media is fighting its corner against "networked media" such as PSP, iPod, Google TV and Flickr.

"People are reconceptualising the idea of audience," says US film consultant Peter Broderick. "It's niche, targeted, rather than mass or general. Film-makers are using the internet to reach audiences directly and sell to them. It means less control and more competition for filmmakers. These are revolutionary times, the old rules no longer apply and the old rulers might not have realised this yet."

Relationships with audiences are changing, but traditional broadcasters are fighting just as hard as new media owners for quality documentary content and to bring out new voices, talent and sectors. In the UK, FourDocs provides a space where audiences can upload their documentaries. Channel Four curates the content and also uses it to spot talent for its broadcast channel. Other documentary-on-demand online sites from broadcasters are appearing throughout Europe.

One of the issues with film-making has always been the search for funding, but now with the internet, it may be a case that independent film-makers will find an audience for a film before they find the film. The documentary Iraq For Sale used the internet to raise funds to make the film, raising $375,000 through online donations in just 10 days.

The controversial documentary Loose Change, which advocates a 9/11 conspiracy theory, was initially refused by broadcasters worldwide. However when it was uploaded onto Google Video and downloaded 32 million times, broadcasters snapped it up, and it eventually made money.

Film-makers can also create niche communities on the internet. Next year, the human rights portal witness.org will have a human rights video hub where people can upload films of interest, such as human rights violations. A new platform conceived at Sheffield Doc Fest, Docutube.com, will allow documentary makers to upload content which viewers then pay to watch - ensuring the money goes back to the film-makers rather than profiting media owners.

While some (usually older) documentary makers see the internet as a marketing tool, younger ones see it as a way to make new, fresh and exciting content - interactive, cross-platform and non-linear. Websurfing and computer games feature hyperlinks and user-selected navigation. The interactive documentary Beethoven's Hair has an accompanying online documentary.

New documentary production and publishing methods were the focus of the Mediamatic Any Media Documentary workshop at IDFA in November. European film professionals developed prototype documentary projects using mobile phones, new media, interactive stories and computer game features. One documentary used "footnotes" on screen, which the user could select to go into more detail while viewing the documentary. "You can't do that in a regular documentary," says workshop manager Klaas Kuitenbrouwer. "These are not linear documentaries, they are fragmented, user generated and cross-media. People can use games to generate footage or simulate spaces. There are no rules. All you own is style."

It's a mixed blessing for filmmakers. Mobile phones and the internet are taking audiences away from television, thus reducing independent film funding, but are providing new opportunities. "One of the main changes in the documentary industry is funding. It's harder to find or get a commission," says Fleur Knopperts. "It's harder to get audiences for TV documentaries - younger audiences use the Internet more. We have to decide what that audience will be watching in the future - video, cellphone, iPod, internet or broadcast. If you're a film-maker, who are your new partners, who will finance films?"

With mobile broadband, you'll soon be able to watch a documentary on your mobile phone or mp3 player. How people will use mobile, downloadable content - and whether films get shorter and more interactive - is yet to be tested. But the challenge that every documentary maker faces is to bring something special to the audience and to the screen, whether it's a 20-foot cinema screen or a two-inch mobile phone.

"The two worlds will exist in 20 years. You will always be watching documentaries in cinema but the cinema and internet will go hand in hand," says Adriek van Nieuwenhuyzen, deputy director of IDFA. "The main challenge in documentaries is to find a new approach," she says, referring to the ease in which anyone can record footage of events such as 911 and Hurricane Katrina. "People feel they've seen it all. New devices allow people to immediately report on events. The next step is how you step beyond it and create a film."

Digital film means cheaper, quicker film productions - so more films. But to make a true "creative treatment of actuality", you need something special. For 2005's March of the Penguins, the production crew spent 13 months in Antarctica, risking their lives in the harshest place on earth, to find this.

"Don't make films, if you can live without it," says award-winning Russian documentary director Victor Kossakovsky. "There are too many films around already. Thirty years ago, film-makers were unique - Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman. Today, in any corner you'll find 10 film-makers. We have made this profession very ordinary. Documentaries should be unpredictable. You need something special: you need a different way of looking at the world."