But when six pioneers discuss “The Auteur vs Collective Authorship” at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto, it’s difficult not to get lost in the oft-quoted “digital dust”.

One proposition, three speakers in favour, three speakers against. The setup is called an “Oxford-style debate”, and this afternoon’s proposition is “The auteur documentary is a dead duck in the digital water.” In other words, traditional documentary authorship will not survive in the age of user-generated content. But why?

daniel-crossDaniel Cross, a Canadian filmmaker who works with activist groups and homeless communities, argues in favour of the proposition. In his view, the audience get “too suspicious” when an auteur is “too privileged or too much in control”. He sees documentary filmmaking as a collective process involving many different “directors” (such as cinematographers or editors) as well as the communities in which the documentaries are made. According to Cross, this dynamic process is “killing auteurship”. For his current website, “Homeless Nation”, Cross gives cameras to street people who record their own images and have their own blogs.

“I live for authorship,” replies filmmaker Jennifer Fox (USA), speaking against the proposition. “Nothing new in the world is created without authorship.” What has already been done, what we already know is what is easy to show, easy to sell. Fox says the challenge for the author is to communicate something that hasn’t been created before: “How do I make you believe in that journey?” The filmmaker’s individual interpretation of reality is what makes the difference. For her film “American Love Story”, Fox observed a real family’s life for over a year. “But at the end of the day, it’s my synthesis and my understanding of their life that shapes it into a story,” Fox says. “It’s so important, it’s the giving of form. If we don’t give things form, we can’t understand our lives,” the filmmaker points out. “I really believe in the importance of a singular vision, precisely because of how delicate the journey is into the unknown.”

femke_woltingFemke Wolting, who runs Submarine in the Netherlands, also believes in the importance of the story. “But the people who tell those stories in the future will not be the same as the auteurs of today.” Traditional documentary auteurs have been filmmakers with good relations to film funds and festivals and with access to a broadcaster that trusts them. “In the digital age, the auteur is the person with the best idea and the best execution.” Submarine’s latest documentary “My Second Life” was “filmed” entirely within the three-dimensional world of “Second Life”, so the filmmaker didn’t even need a camera to make the film. The trailer for the film became the hottest video on YouTube within a few days. “Today it’s up to the audience to decide who we call an auteur,” Wolting concludes in support of the “dead duck” proposition.

Brad Dworkin, a local Canadian student, sees the actual programmers of virtual experiences such as “Second Life” as the real authors, setting the scene in a fashion similar to that used by traditional documentary directors. He thinks the auteur in the digital world is not “dead”, just taking a new form. Everything is “in flux”, collaborative processes are key, but authors still exist.

Adnan Hadzi is working on his Ph.D. with a title matching this debate: “The Author vs the Collective”. Yet, as the last speaker in favour of the “dead duck” proposition, he chose to modify it and declare copyright dead instead. “My brother who’s ten years younger wants to download everything, re-edit it and re-publish it.” Hadzi quotes the Intelligent Television conference, saying that an iPod will hold a year’s worth of video by 2012, or “all the content ever created in all media” by 2020. According to Hadzi, everything will have to be open source or have open licences in the future.

Nick Fraser, commissioning editor of BBC’s Storyville, then pointed out how all of the previous speakers basically agreed with each other, so the whole subject wasn’t really suitable for this style of debate. “Can we never, never talk about dead ducks, please?” asks Fraser. “And what the fuck is digital water?” Given that everyone who writes is an author, the question of qualifications or access to media doesn’t really matter to Fraser. “Authorship will just be spread – as it was in the early days of the printing press,” he says. “Docs will survive, will be watched. Docs made by individuals are usually better than collective expressions of anything that are usually, but not always, fantastically boring. The job of all of us in this room is that more good docs are made, and that more of them reach a wider audience.”

Fraser hit the nail on the head, and the audience at DocAgora voted overwhelmingly against the “dead duck” proposition. Yet Rudy Buttignol, who was asked to be the judicator, calls it a draw – and pronounces the proposition itself “dead”.