My Wish List for the Documentary Community

This time of year is one for lists. Critics compose their “best of the year” lists for people, politics, fashion, events, television, fiction film, and, of course, documentary. Others compose lists of wants and wishes for the holiday season — the hottest gadgets, the newest toys, and, hopefully, global peace and prosperity. Santa has his list of well-behaved children, and we all have our lists of blessings big and small.

My wish list is a little different. My list is one of things I would like to see for the documentary community.

1. Provide better availability of funding that comes without strings.

With the economic squeeze, funding sources have dwindled. In many cases, charitable giving now requires varying degrees of accountability and a guaranteed return on investment, going well beyond the good will that used to inform donating money. Crowdsourcing, particularly for production costs through sites such as Kickstarter, works for some documentary makers, but not every maker finds success through such venues. Following his recent documentary The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Morgan Spurlock has suggested connections between corporate interests through product placement and branding, but what happens when a documentary wants to raise awareness of issues not supported by those corporations?

2. Develop a better collective understanding of what “fair use” means and better protections and access for those materials’ use.

According to the Center for Social Media, “Fair Use is the right, in some circumstances, to quote copyrighted material without asking permission or paying for it. It is a crucial feature of copyright law. In fact, it is what keeps copyright from being censorship.” Elaine Kim’s Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded drew this response, wherein its authors assert that Kim’s use of their materials fails to qualify for “fair use.” They claim that she failed to ask permission, though fair use asserts that she need not ask for it.

I also am reminded of Tony Buba’s Lightning Over Braddock: A Rustbowl Fantasy, wherein a man plays the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” on an accordion. Buba contacted the band’s reps, only to find out they wanted $15,000 for the rights to use the song. Buba worked around the song in the documentary, as he couldn’t justify spending that much for rights to a song when many of the people whose lives he was documenting made about one-third that amount per year.

3. Offer the same protections for documentary makers (and bloggers) as journalists, no matter their affiliations or independence.

A recent court decision found a blogger getting fined $2.5 million because, according to a judge, she failed to qualify as a journalist — she had no affiliation with a news institution. In 2009 Joe Berlinger faced a similar decision from the courts after Chevron sought access to all the footage from Crude in order to bolster its lawsuit. A judge ordered him to turn it over, then an appellate court’s decision narrowed the scope of the original judge’s ruling.

While not all documentary makers are journalists, many makers do pursue documentaries within the traditions of journalism, and they work independently because otherwise the stories they seek to tell would not get told.

4. Abandon the bias “argument.”

For me, watching “debates” about whether a documentary is biased or not is almost a spectator sport, particularly when they heat up surrounding the work and presence of Michael Moore. Overall, though, it is an argument in futility. The “argument” comes from journalism’s influence on the documentary form, and one of the foundations of traditional journalism relies on its construction of being objective. Countless critics have deconstructed this idea — see the documentaries of Robert Greenwald for some exhausting examples, or even watch the news media montages on “The Daily Show” for other examples. Instead of “bias” as the baseline standard for a documentary’s validity, instead consider the documentary’s point of view on a subject, the argument that it makes, and how it makes that argument. The discourses available for debate expand exponentially with that shift.

5. Provide greater awareness of, encouragement for, and connections across community-based documentary production.

Despite the growing national presence of documentaries, they all need not screen before mainstream audiences at key festivals and cineplexes. While this national focus certainly brings greater attention to the form, local documentary production also serves important purposes as well. The local productions, for example, can document local history. For example, Central Pennsylvania’s WPSU has an Our Town series, which encourages community citizens to create profiles of their towns from their own points of view. Even middle-school children get the opportunity to create these profiles. Local documentary production also might help social justice and community programs in their missions. In creating connections across communities, makers can work together toward sharing resources, knowledge, and experiences.

While some of these wishes might seem like pie-in-the-sky, there is nothing wrong with a little wishful thinking.

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