Major newspapers are recruiting documentary makers aka video journalists to make short-form pieces that add the punch of screen storytelling to the power of print. Is it working?
Image: Still from The Fight from United Notion Films.
In an era when investigative journalism is being downsized and news outlets prefer their activism in soundbites, the Australian International Documentary Conference hosted a session examining the emerging synergy between print and video. It is much more than static print hosting moving pictures.
Convenor Nick Feik introduced three case studies which were classic activist subjects; tales to shame politicians and argue for political and judicial change. The first study was The Queen and Zak Grieve; a story of a patently unjust life sentence imposed on a young Indigenous man, Zak Grieves, due to NT’s mandatory sentencing laws. The series of 12-minute episodes was made for The Australian and Foxtel with funding from Screen Australia. The production company was In Films, run by Nial Fulton and Ivan O'Mahoney who directed the series, driven by investigative reporter Dan Box.
The series is beautifully constructed, like an Aussie version of Making a Murderer; methodically exposing the extreme injustice of the court case in bite sized pieces. John Lyons, then Associate Editor of Digital Content for The Australian, said the series came about through the filmmaker’s personal connections with the case and was stronger for being a collaboration between three parties, with Screen Australia being fully supportive of the new format. The series can be found on a website curated by The Australian.
The second case study, The Fight, was made by passionate Bolivian filmmaker, Violeta Ayala, with Dan Fallshaw for The Guardian in association with the Sundance Short Documentary Foundation through their production company, United Notion Films. The film is about a group of people with disabilities, many in wheelchairs, who walk and wheel themselves over the Andes to ask President Evo Morales for a minimum pension. It opens with the oddly serene image of protestors hanging from a bridge in their wheelchairs, before descending into the police brutality served onto the defenceless protestors.
Ayala trained in Australia where she says she was taught that ‘Journalists are the guardian dogs of the world’, advice she took literally, pairing up with the Guardian to chronicle the journey of the protestors in short video grabs as it happened. Having a profile through the Guardian helped Ayala source crowd-funding and she made a half hour version for The Guardian website. A note for filmmakers that Ayala slightly regrets making the half hour version now, as it, makes the upcoming feature version ineligible for many film festivals.
For Ayala, collaborating with an international newspaper in a country where the media is largely controlled, meant the camera gave a degree of safety to the people she was filming. It also gave Ayala a little comfort when she was labelled a CIA agent and received threats to kill her two-year-old if she didn’t stop filming. The international publicity meant President Morales knew people were watching his actions, and probably helped influence him to eventually grant a small pension to severely disabled people in Bolivia.
Claire Chambers from PBS’s Independent Lens, spoke about a longer form documentary about Cyntoia Brown, Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story. Cyntoia was a 16-year-old sex trafficking victim with developmental issues from foetal alcohol poisoning, who shot a client, was tried as an adult and received the mandatory life sentence of 51 years. Filmmaker Daniel Birman followed the case for six years with seven funders, including a Tennessee newspaper, who all recognised and supported this project being a hybrid between journalism and documentary. The documentary brought together a group of legislators who are now working to enact change against the 51-year minimum sentence for minors.
Lyons, now working at the ABC, believes collaborations are the way of the future and gave the example of a new collaboration between the ABC and the New York Times team in Australia, where the New York Times team has financial resources and the ABC has the local knowledge, so the collaboration works for both parties. Looks like we’ll be seeing a lot more of these types of ventures.
The panel discussed the benefits working in with social media. In Cyntoia’s case, social media has recently led well-known celebrities like Rihanna and Kim Kardashian to tweet about the case and even provide funds for Cyntoia’s re-trial. The Queen and Zak Grieve has a loyal Facebook following and social media enabled Ayala to expose the truth about what the Bolivian government was doing, plus her Facebook page was the reference point for foreign journalists, with outrage over the pictures increasing foreign interest and pressure on Morales. Ayala used Facebook to profile the leaders of the protest to humanise the story and she paid to get the stories higher up in the algorithm to get the personal stories out even wider.
While it seems anti-intuitive to filmmakers to publish a short form series ahead of a long-form documentary, the panel believes shorter content can work for people who don’t have the time or interest to watch long form, so the story can travel further. The Fight had over 200,000 views on the first day, something Ayala believes a longer form documentary would never have achieved.
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