Mi viaje a Costa Rica

Last week I had the privilege to travel to Costa Rica as part of a scouting visit for a student study abroad trip. In completing an article about Guatemala, I was surprised to learn how little English-based writing has been done about Central American media, so I was curious to learn more about Costa Rica and its media.

Among the countries in the region, Costa Rica is perhaps the most stable. Tourism, mostly by people from the United States, drives the economy. Exports such as medical tech and baseballs also contribute to the economy. The country faces challenges with drug trafficking, immigration (primarily from Nicaragua), poverty, law enforcement, and gender-based violence.

Journalism plays a strong role in Costa Rica, as it does in most Latin American nations. Journalism there faces familiar challenges, including reputation loss, fake news, and funding declines. People are more informed than they ever were, however. User access to news is primarily through mobile devices, then television, and finally tablets at a distant 3 percent.

Entertainment television is dominated by United States programming. For example, the cable offerings included movies such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy (with the Elvish subtitled in Spanish) and The Proposal (don’t judge me). The country receives telenovelas from other countries, but it has no telenovela of its own.

One person frustrated with these offerings asked me why reality shows like 90 Day Fiance continue to appear on television. While the media might tell us that these are shows we want, arguably the bottom line informs these shows’ creation, which are cheaper and faster to produce than expensive sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory. The person asking made a compelling argument for how that show promotes human trafficking.

Another strong point that emerged from the week’s discussions is the importance of representations. The influx of U.S.-based programming squeezes out local programming and its voices. That influx also brings its fair share negative gender and ethnic stereotypes. The question arose: Why don’t audiences resist the negative representations more? Films like Wonder Woman and The Black Panther offer the rare exceptions in an otherwise overwhelming sea of negativity, at least in fiction.

Social media became a question as well. Mobile devices accessing news also access social media, though digital inequalities exist and coverage doesn’t reach the more rural and remote areas. Social networks there are more in person than online.

Advocacy groups use social media to help people and to promote their actions. Gender-based violence, particularly femicide, remains a problem in rural areas. Focusing on the potential victims, education provides one of the strongest means to escape it, as many women don’t know what options are available. In-person meetings play a strong role, but a Facebook page also encourages people to share their stories.

Another problem is incestual relationships between older men and teenage girls, and as a result the rate of teen pregnancy is quite high. Girls lack education, role models, and self-esteem to break that cycle, though some groups work to empower these girls through life skills, relationship skills, and critical thinking skills. Documentaries such as Girl Rising and Half the Sky help call attention to this issue, though each in its own way.

I also heard about a local documentary that followed one pregnant teen’s story: Kassandra: Una Mama de 13 Años. It was produced by NTN24 — Nuestra Tele Noticias 24– and some excerpts of the film are available.

In all, these observations only begin to scratch the surface of the media and social media in Costa Rica. Online searching makes learning about the media organizations, social movements, media productions, and social media possible, but there is something to be said about learning from the people making and using the media for their own purposes.

‘Hoop Dreams’ News Coverage Suggests a Different Kind of Impact

Popular film titles sometimes work their way into everyday language: Bucket List, Gaslight, Groundhog Day. “Hoop Dreams” is one of those film titles.

As part of my background research into Hoop Dreams, I pulled 996 articles mentioning the phrase from all the years available in the Lexis Nexis news database. About half of those stories referred to the film, but just as many did not. Among the latter, some patterns — both expected and unexpected — emerged.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most dominant recurring pattern involves individuals and their aspirations. Most individuals — almost equally boys and girls — are athletes who seek success in sports, such as landing a scholarship, attending college, starting a new sport, or joining a team. Some individuals even abandon their sports dreams, such as one who gave up basketball to become a doctor.

These dreams know no geographical boundaries. While Chicago is the setting for the Hoop Dreams film, other dreamers live in Iowa, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. People chase their dreams across the globe to Germany, Canada, Croatia, Luxemborg, Israel, and India.

“Hoop Dreams” is a popular name for teams, camps, academies, and programs. Teams with the name play in West Virginia, Hawaii, Idaho, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania. Camps and academies appear in Connecticut, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Australia. Programs include Hoop Dreams in Lexington, KY; ABCD Hoop Dreams in Boston; and YMCA Hoop Dreams in Hamilton, Ontario. Programs also appear in England and Australia. Do an Internet search and you’ll probably find even more than the ones listed here.

Tournaments run in Georgia and California. The Pescadero High School Hoop Dreams Tournament schedules both boys’ and girls’ teams. One tournament involved wheelchairs.

A cool program was founded by Susie Kay in Washington, D.C., to help area students attend college. Kay claimed that Arthur Agee, one of the two boys appearing in the film, reminded her of her own students. Named for the film, the Hoop Dreams Scholarship Fund started as a single-day basketball fundraiser in 1996. That first round raised $3,000. Within a few years, that tournament and other fundraising efforts expanded to $125,000. The program ended in 2009 following the economic downturn.

Very few stories mentioned the NBA at all. A couple stories connected “hoop dreams” with buying NBA teams or stadiums, and one referred to Mesho Marrow’s dream of founding a women’s basketball team in St. Louis. That dream became reality with the Missouri Arch Angels, named for the city’s iconic structure on the Mississippi River. The team plays in the Women’s Blue Chip Basketball League.

The phrase applies mostly to youth, but one 90-year-old also harbored her own hoop dream. Josephine Brager sought induction into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. She played basketball pre-World War II for the All-American Redheads and later the Dallas Hornets. The Redheads toured the country playing against men’s teams using the men’s rules — and often won. Sadly, Brager wasn’t chosen for induction.

“Hoop dreams” also means sports other than basketball. It refers to netball, which is an international cousin to U.S. basketball. Rhythm gymnasts and hoop dancers also are hoop dreamers.

One sports reference took me a little bit to puzzle out. According to one story, the Shamrock Rovers Football Club had “hoop dreams.” But why would an Irish football club have “hoop dreams?” Because one of the team’s nicknames is “Hoops.”

In Morgantown, West Virginia, a home offered a “hoop dream” of its own. In addition to the five bedrooms, five bathrooms, and home theater, the house had an indoor basketball court. The asking price was more than $1 million.

Some of the more creative mentions of “hoop dreams” have nothing to do with basketball or even sports. One gig announcement cited “Hoop Dreams,” a band, playing in Hobart, Tasmania. After a little digging, I found the band was based in Virginia and had a Cure-like sound, particularly on the track “Knife Fights.” Before signing the band, a record company contacted Kartemquin Films about the band using the name, which filmmakers Steve James and Peter Gilbert were fine with.

“Hoop dreams” also occur in fashion, in one case for earrings. The story read, “Orbs in all styles and sizes are earmarks of high style.” Hopefully, the look is better than the pun.

My favorite reference connected the film, identity, sport, and art all in one installation. Inspired by the film, Esmaa Mohamoud created an art installation called “Heavy, Heavy (Hoop Dreams).” The installation consists of 60 concrete basketballs, each weighing about 31 pounds. The “heavy” refers to the relationship between basketball and black male culture, according to Mohamoud.

Before the news started covering the film in 1994, the only mention of “hoop dreams” appeared in a 1987 story about “hoops and dreams.” Every other non-film-related story I pulled from the database appeared after the film’s release, from about 1997 forward.

A search for the phrase through an Ngram viewer offers similar findings, particularly in the phrase’s first appearances. In a search for the phrase from 1950 to 2017, the phrase first appears in 1993, grows in 1994, and peaks in 1999.

All of these findings suggest a documentary impact of a different kind: that of a name on sports, music, fashion, art, and culture.

Special thanks to Tim Horsburgh, distribution and communications director at Kartemquin Films, for suggesting the Ngram search and the other film names mentioned in this post.

A Small Review of Three Tools for Archival Research

During the past year, I started work on a history project that involves extensive archival materials. These materials come from the organization’s paper archives and from news archives through Lexis-Nexis, among other places.

While sorting through the papers and files becomes the first step, subsequent steps involve recording, sorting, and annotating. In going through these steps, I found several apps useful for managing information and workflow.

Please note I am firmly rooted in the Apple ecosystem, so my comments and options are limited to Apple devices and apps. After Windows and Word eating my candidacy exam, two 25-page comprehensive exam questions, two dissertation chapters, and two edited book collection chapters, I avoid that operating system as much as possible.

Recording

After sorting, recording the materials for later inquiry is the next step. I started this recording by taking pictures using an iPhone and its camera, but I quickly learned the flaw in this approach. Shaky hands, small device, and micro details like type all result in blurry images that become difficult to read later.

A better solution came through an iPad app called Scanner Pro from Readdle. The app mimics a scanner, but it does much more than that.

Using the tablet’s back camera, the app scans for the document’s edges and takes a picture either automatically or manually. After the capture appears, you can adjust the edges to include the entire page or just part of the document. You then can add pages to that document or start a new document.

The app offers built-in optical character recognition, which makes coding text later on much easier. The app also saves the documents as .PDFs both on device and to a cloud service. With more than 300 documents to move, I found that cloud syncing very handy.

Sorting

Many types of documents appear in this archive: bills, spreadsheets, editing logs, production memos, letters, faxes, emails, contracts, scripts, hand-written notes and edits, and doodles, just to name a few.

Each document tells its own story, but at the same time, each document becomes part of multiple other stories. A hand-written note on a production memo, for example, might connect with multiple productions, organization philosophy, organization culture, operating procedures, and finances. As part of sorting, I could make multiple copies of the same document and put it in multiple places. But doing so makes future discoveries and connections more difficult in that this kind of preliminary sort is based on a superficial understanding of the document’s story. Further investigation might reveal further nuances.

Tagging provides a better solution to this problem. Tagging allows multiple assignments per document, and tags can be organized into different hierarchies. They also are easy to add and remove as needed.

While MacOS offers an internal tagging system, I sought something more robust, perhaps more intuitive. After reading many reviews (particularly this one), I decided to try DEVONThink Pro. Creating, adding, and deleting tags within DEVONThink Pro is simple, and as the system learns, it can suggest other tags that might be useful. Sorting through tags proves easy — with just a couple clicks, every related document appears in one place.

In a world where a 99-cent app seems too expensive, the nearly $80 price tag on DEVONThink Pro might give you some pause. The makers of this program were smart in offering a generous 150-hour trial. It took me nearly 50 hours to tag all of those documents, but the program’s ease of use quickly proved it worthwhile.

Annotating

While tagging offers a superficial sort, annotating moves toward coding the documents. Coding, I am learning, is a labyrinthine process that requires multiple passes before it even starts to resemble something coherent. Part of that might be due to the complexity of this project, however.

For this first pass, PDF Expert offers a great tool for typing on a laptop or by handwriting on the tablet. A simple interface allows quick changing among tools: highlighting, underlining, typing, and writing. Highlights note the relevant data; underlines highlight particularly juicy bits. (Yes, archival research can reveal “juicy bits.”) Typing and handwriting allow me to add potential categories for each piece of information. Aggregation will require another program and probably another post, though.

Like DEVONThink Pro, PDF Expert comes with a price tag that might make you cringe, but it offers several advantages over Adobe systems and even Notability. One key advantage is that the price tag happens once, while with Adobe that amount covers only four months of a subscription. PDF Expert also works with the cloud subscriptions you already have, unlike Adobe which requires using their cloud. Further, changes made to a document in PDF Expert appear in other programs, unlike Notability which used to keep your notes in their app. Plus, I can work offline if I choose to do so.

Questioning “Best Of” Lists

Yet another “best of” list of documentaries made the rounds this week. This one appeared on Vulture and in New York Magazine, and it was titled, “The 20 Essential Documentaries of the Century.” Never mind that the century is less than 13 years in, but hey, why not go for the grand title, right?

The list should not surprise anyone familiar with documentary. The titles are exclusively ones that got some mainstream attention, and the list overall is very male in directors and subjects. It is also heavy with American titles. For example, An Inconvenient Truth, The Fog of War, Super Size Me, and Fahrenheit 9/11 are on the list.

These lists seem more about their writers and their publications. Out of curiosity, I checked out the media kit for Vulture. According to its mission statement,

Vulture is the go-to site for everyone who lives, breathes, and consumes entertainment. […] And Vulture is enthusiastic about the highbrow and the lowbrow, because you never know where brilliance will come from next.

With that entertainment focus, it almost becomes no surprise that the list contains what it does. What did come as a surprise: no sports docs. Nothing from 30 for 30. Not even Murderball, which is, well, entertaining.

I have to agree with Roger Ebert (R.I.P.) on these lists. I know they draw in readers and get people to leave comments (credit to the article’s authors for responding to the comments), but the discussion around documentary doesn’t really get too far.

Four More Reasons Why Critics Favor Docs

Steve Greene, an assistant editor with IndieWire’s CriticWire, posted an interesting column on July 2 that asked, Do critics favor documentaries? He posed four possible reasons why, including their connection to reality, critics championing them, and the effect of festivals. His fourth reason is my favorite: “They’re just better.” Though not grounded in data like Greene’s claims, I would like to add four reasons of my own as to why critics might favor documentaries.

Independence From The Hollywood Conveyor Belt

Documentaries offer an accessible and hopefully engaging way to learn about something new. While fiction stories often follow the same narrative arcs grouped within the same established genres, documentaries bring forward issues and ideas not found in mainstream fiction films. While some of the blockbusters coming out this week retread the comic-book world, a documentary might tackle an obscure cultural subject (think hairless mole rats in Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control) or tackle a global issue (Blue Gold: World Water Wars). Depending on where you read this, the issue might be halfway around the world (The Cove), or it might be right in your backyard (also The Cove). Either way, a documentary often offers the immense potential of informing and maybe even blowing your mind a little, if you let it.

Narrative Fiction vs. Narrative Non-Fiction

Greene asks at one point, “Are documentaries largely better than narrative?” A better word here might be “fiction.” Just as mainstream fiction tells stories, so do documentaries, but about real people. When told well, these documentary stories suck you in, grab your heart, and don’t let go. Half the fun of watching Murderball is the frankness with which the players talk about their lives. Marwencol is fascinating and then gets harrowing as you realize more about the why of what happened to its subject. And if The Interrupters doesn’t have you crying at some point, you left your heart somewhere and probably should go find it.

There’s More Than One Way To Tell A Story

Documentary also offers an immense variety within the form. No two documentaries tell the same stories and address the same issues in the same way. Though both about health care, Michael Moore’s Sicko differs immensely from Roger Weisberg’s Critical Condition (POV 2008) in style. While Moore situates himself as part of the events in Sicko, Weisberg removes himself from the unfolding events. Though both about girls in the juvenile justice system, Girl Trouble differs from Girlhood in many of its messages about the system and its effectiveness. While Girl Trouble offers a more rounded view of the system and its effectiveness and its limitations, Girlhood focuses more on the girls’ stories and their outcomes, with the system more in the background. These pairs of examples just barely skim the possibilities for the forms documentaries take.

Rewarding Viewing

For the more politically minded, watching a documentary might offer a sense of altruism through now having the awareness of various issues affecting different people. For some, these documentaries may motivate further action, but for many, just knowing and identifying offers enough reward.

Revisiting the Documentaries of Agnès Varda

I spent some time recently rewatching two Agnès Varda documentary DVDs available through Netflix — The Gleaners and I (2000) and Cinévardaphoto (2004). For Varda, art, people, and life all intersect, blur, separate, and reconnect in both mundane and very surprising ways. Art becomes a focal point, if not a starting point, for all her works. And in many ways, her works become ones of art themselves.

The Gleaners and I begins with a painting by Jean-François Millet titled “The Gleaners and I.” Painted in 1867, the work shows three women in a field, picking up usable items left behind after the harvest. The image offers a stark contrast with the consumption-oriented cultures of many Western societies today. With all that we consume, what gets left behind, possibly wasted? The painting, a popular one in France, inspires Varda to begin looking for people who glean for a living — or, in order to live, in some cases.

Using a small hand-held camera, she travels around France in search of people who glean, and she finds several groups who do. Some gleaners do so because they are very poor and have few other options for survival. Some gleaners do so out of political motivations. Some gleaners create art from their findings. Some live in cities, taking what others discard and either reusing it or selling it.

The people Varda meets shed some light on the problems of corporate farming and the waste it creates. In one case, a group gleans potato fields and gathers what looks like another whole harvest. Because grocers and markets expect potatoes within certain size expectations, potatoes outside those dimensions get discarded. These potatoes are still edible; they just don’t look like “regular” potatoes. Varda even takes two heart-shaped potatoes home for herself and ruminates on them.

Cinévardaphoto features three short pieces: Salut les Cubians (1963), Ulysse (1982), and Ydessa, the Bears and Etc. (2004). Photographs connect all three of these titles. Salut Les Cubians brings together photographs of Cuban musicians with their music playing on the soundtrack. Ulysse offers a more complicated meditation on a photograph Varda took in 1954 in Egypt. The photograph takes a rocky beach as its landscape. A naked man stands on one side looking at the water, while a child plays in a different area slightly closer. A dead goat also appears within the frame.

If the photograph itself were not intriguing enough, Varda revisits the human subjects within it almost 30 years later. The naked man is older, and the child, Ulysse, is now an adult with his own wife and occupation. While the older man talks with Varda as if he understands her approach and her questions, Ulysse appears befuddled by them. Ulysse’s mother offers more insight into the moment than Ulysee himself does, citing his youthful health problems as their motivations for bringing him there.

The most intriguing of the three shorts in this collection centers on Ydessa Hendeles, a Canada-based curator who collected photographs of teddy bears, along with a couple of the teddy bears themselves, and puts them on exhibit. The exhibit consists of two spaces. One two-story space consists of row upon row of these framed pictures of teddy bears with children, family portraits, soldiers, sports teams, and other people. Varda’s camera travels along row upon row of these pictures, creating a sense of overwhelming us. The exhibit space’s walls are filled from floor to ceiling with these pictures, also contributing to this sense of overwhelm. Where do we begin to look? Where do we stop looking? Varda’s camera offers no help.

The second space of the exhibit provides almost a visual relief in its starkness. Nothing covers the walls. The only object in the otherwise empty room is a piece about the size of a young boy. That relief, however, fades quickly when the camera reveals who the statue resembles: Hitler on his knees praying. The sculpture is Maurizio Cattelan’s “Him.”

I find it intriguing how Varda begins these documentary inquiries with art and photography, but she never really formulates one question to drive those inquiries. Instead, she begins with an idea and asks questions to encourage its unfolding through time, interviews, and representation. She also asks questions that come back to the idea, sometimes even letting the idea fold rhetorically back into itself. Viewers seeking an “answer” to their perceived question only will become frustrated with Varda’s meandering throughout these pieces.

But that wandering, both in idea and in execution, is what makes Varda’s work so fascinating to me. Her commentary is gentle and humor-filled, even curious. Her comments draw on her own predilections and experiences (she has been making both fiction and documentary films since the 1950s). Her life becomes as much as part of her works as everything else does, yet these works lack the narcissism that sometimes pervades other documentaries with an autobiographical component. She invites viewers into her thoughts with her revelations and comments almost without ego.

Some other, but not enough, of Varda’s documentary work is available in the United States. Cinema Guild released Varda’s Daguerreotypes in late 2011, and her autobiographical work, Beaches of Agnès, is on DVD (also from Cinema Guild) and appeared on POV. Overall, Varda’s work here reminds us that documentary is a form with infinite possibilities and that sometimes we must take that documentary on its own terms in order to access and appreciate the ideas therein.

With New Documentary Requirements, Oscar Is Just Being Oscar

New rules from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences governing documentary submissions for Oscar consideration have inspired extensive commentary this week.

The proposed changes affect those submitting their works for consideration and those voting on them within the Academy. For those submitting, they must have had their titles reviewed in either The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times policy requires a review of every title that gets a one-week theatrical run in New York or Los Angeles, while this story claims the L.A. paper “already reviews nearly every film released on a commercial screen for a week in Los Angeles,” though without an attribution to an official source.

For those voting, the changes include moving away from committee-based nominations within the documentary branch of the Academy toward all 157 members screening submissions initially. Once the pool has been narrowed, the entire Academy membership gets the opportunity to vote on the winner through a screener. Previous rules required that voting members viewed the documentaries in theaters.

These requirements come on top of the Academy’s already existing theatrical run requirement, which states, “To be eligible for 84th Academy Awards consideration, a documentary feature must complete both a seven-day commercial run in a theater in Los Angeles County, and a seven-day commercial run in a theater in the Borough of Manhattan during the eligibility period.” Programs such as the International Documentary Association’s DocuWeeks Theatrical Documentary Showcase help makers with meeting this requirement. The program is not one of automatic inclusion: Titles appearing on the program must go through a screening committee.

The review requirement gets the most attention among critics of these changes, I suspect, in part, because it is out of the documentary maker’s hands whether a title gets reviewed or not. While both newspapers have rules that require films to be reviewed if shown theatrically for a week or more, those rules appear to offer little consolation. The rule does beg some questions, though. One, why force such a responsibility on newspaper reviewers? Shouldn’t the Academy do its own screening of the applications? Two, why only these two papers out of the many major metropolitan papers throughout the country? Why not permit a review from Roger Ebert at the Chicago Sun-Times? Or from The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, The Denver Post, or the Detroit Free Press? Chicago, Boston, North Carolina, and other parts of the country have vibrant documentary communities, so why not include those within the geographical reach as well? Documentary makers can appeal this requirement with the Academy, but for some this option offers little consolation.

Another question raised among those responding to the rules refers to reducing the number of the documentaries eligible for consideration. This question raises two points, particularly from the Academy’s perspective: the number of submissions and the types of submissions. Michael Cieply notes in The New York Times that the Academy considered 124 titles in 2011, an increase of 23 from the 101 in 2010. Those amounts and their subsequent increases create a quandary for those trying to view the submissions within a set period, though the new rules allow for year-round screenings, which might ease that load a bit.

The types of submissions become another question. Academy member Michael Moore raised the point in a Twitter exchange with me that some television documentary makers try to qualify for Oscar consideration through a process called “four-walling,” which refers to renting a theater to show a film. Larger-budget television productions potentially have the money for this practice, though some get theatrical screenings alongside television scheduling anyway, such as Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World. The Academy, though, wants to keep television productions out of consideration, ensuring the place of national, theatrical documentaries.

Critics raised concerns about how these rules affected documentaries working on smaller budgets. In a blog post, IDA Executive Director Michael Lumpkin writes, “Some [of the rules] seem to favor the well-funded films as well as the better-known filmmakers, but as with any new system the real test will be implementing these rules in 2012.” When I asked how these changes benefited documentary makers working on smaller budgets, Moore replied, “Letting everyone watch on screeners will mean more participation, more chance for smaller films.” That way, films such as The Interrupters would have had more fair consideration, as many felt the well-received Kartemquin title got snubbed for not even landing on the shortlist this year. Of course, doubts will remain until the rules become practice.

Moore strongly advocates for the changes, but other documentary makers such as Joe Berlinger (the Paradise Lost series, Brother’s Keeper) and Robert Greene (Kati With An I, Fake It So Real) offer more mixed reactions. Still others have weighed in with support and dismissal.

One key point to remember is that the documentary form has always had a weird relationship with the Academy. While the awards started in 1927, the Academy didn’t begin recognizing documentary with an award until 1942 with Churchill’s Island. That date might not be a coincidence, as World War II saw some Hollywood directors such as John Huston (The Maltese Falcon) and Frank Capra (It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) making documentaries about and for the war. Huston made Report from the Aleutians, The Battle of San Pietro, and Let There Be Light, while Capra was in charge of the the seven-part Why We Fight series. In general, though, the Academy strongly represents Hollywood, the old studios, and their “dream factory” image, while some powerful documentaries can shatter those dreams with the horrific, stark, and bleak realities they represent.

Another point to remember is that while the Academy emphasizes theatrical documentaries, documentaries appear in multiple other forms including not only moving images with television and video, but also still images, sound, and writing. Among makers working with moving images, though, not all possess the same goals outside wanting to get their works seen by audiences. Some seek specific audiences because they want to help, while others seek specific exhibition venues because they feel that’s where their audiences are. Some find the festival circuit, then going to video-on-demand and digital streaming, enough for their needs. In other words, not all seek Academy-level exposure.

Further, many of the award recognitions are medium-specific — the Oscar for film, for example, and the Emmy for television, for another example. With the increasing digital convergence, this medium-specificity is fast becoming (if not is already) a dated idea. Yet the Academy rules for documentary exhibition begin with requiring its showing on 16mm, 35mm, or 70mm film, and other, more complicated technical specifications refining these requirements further. With many makers opting for digital, this requirement means that for consideration and exhibition they must covert to the film medium, which is an expensive undertaking. At some point, this digital convergence will overtake medium-based production and exhibition, thus rendering this technical qualification obsolete.

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.