As a product of a virtual documentary-community collaboration, eight short docs have been developed, produced and exclusively exhibited for the web. ULLA JACOBSEN reviews some of the short essays and interviews the founder of the D-Word Community, Doug Block, via e-mail about the project and the streaming of docs.

Watching film on the Internet is still a doubtful pleasure due to the poor picture quality and small image size that is possible at this stage of technological development. The production of films for the Net is furthermore limited since no financial structure has been developed to finance content-creating for the web. However great the confidence in this new, world-wide media, only sporadic initiatives have existed up to now. Generally, docs posted on the web are targeted on television and only promoted via the Internet. The D-Word Community has taken up this challenge of the new media, and on June 20 it premiered eight short docs made exclusively for the Net, streamed on docuweb, a San Francisco based homepage.

D-Word Community

Doug Block

Doug Block founded the D-Word Community together with Dan Richards. In 1999 he made the documentary HomePage (DOX#26) that was streamed on The idea of setting up a virtual community arose from a need to break the isolation of making docs if you do not have the time – nor the money – to attend events where you meet and talk with other filmmakers. The D-Word Community was launched in September 1999 and now has around 250 members, mainly in the US, but starting to expand abroad.

Doug Block describes the main function of the D-Word Community as ”an online discussion forum that provides a means for documentary filmmakers from around the world, as well as people who work in the documentary field, to connect and converse with their peers.”

The discussions are organised in topics spanning from ‘editing and post-production’, ‘final cut pro users’, ‘fundraising for docs’, ‘documentary festivals’, to ‘what music are you listening to?’, ‘the meaning of life’ and, the most popular topic, ‘The doc bar and grill’.

As the examples suggest, the discussions are quite mixed in a combination of sharing experiences, giving advice, camaraderie and chatting about a variety of topics. Like get-togethers in the physical world.

Project conception

After sharing experiences for a while, the wish to actually work together started to grow, and the idea of making a collaborative project in the form of short docs for the net was created. The topic of the project was discussed by the entire community, a deadline was set for presenting proposals, and from topics like money, sex, relationships and mini-mysteries, ‘Essays on Documentary’ was selected. The films were to deal with the art and meaning of non-fiction filmmaking from the perspectives of professionals working in the doc trenches. Everyone was welcome to participate with a film, and the project resulted in eight films to go online.

During the process of making the films, the Community was still involved. Doug Block explains how they worked: “We had four supervising producers who viewed all the films and gave detailed critiques at every step. We also had three different screenings in NYC at various points, where a healthy percentage of our members live (maybe 25%) for the expressed purpose of giving individual feedback.  At some point, we put the films onto a dv master, made a vhs dub and circulated that around by mail to anyone who wanted to see them. And later on we also worked it out so that anyone’s short could be streamed privately by the community members.

“I think every filmmaker in the final collection made changes after getting the feedback. A few others accepted the feedback and acknowledged that changes were needed, but decided they didn’t want to do the work required. There were also quite a few cases of people helping each other out by shooting or editing for each other.”

Eight essays on filmmaking

The eight essays have lengths of 40 seconds to 6:07 minutes and all deal with the subject of documentary filmmaking in one way or another. Some reflect on docmakers’ relation to and treatment of their subjects, while others are more concerned with filmmaking conditions – mostly financial.

Doug Blocks own contribution Vérité is made in vérité style about the doc vérité method, disclosing the whole set-up behind making observational docs, which makes you think twice about the ‘truth’ in vérité-filmmaking. Doug Block turns his camera towards a film crew as they are filming a couple in their home. The couple are having a ‘natural’ argument with a mike on a boom dangling over their heads, a cameraman is sticking her camera right in their faces, and the director in the background is telling them they can move freely around as they wish, the camera will just follow them. From this angle, Doug Block exposes the intrusion and the effect of the film crew’s presence. A brilliant little film that elegantly questions the exploitation of subjects and the element of ‘reality/truth’ in vérité filmmaking.

Deanne by Jason Thompson also deals with the filmmaker-subject relationship, in this case the subject’s reaction to the final film. It simply starts out with a clip from the film with the main character, Deanne, a homeless woman who is clearly in a deep crisis. The clip is followed by a session where the finished film is screened to her and a small group of people. After the screening she is invited to express her view on the film, which could be very interesting as the film really gets close to her and shows her in not very flattering situations. But as every filmmaker would hope, she is very happy about the film as she feels it speaks her case and shows her as a person.

One very funny film deals with the impossible situation of financing a documentary. Jill Chamberlain has set up the camera in front of herself and her telephone and confides to the viewer that she has discovered a way to finance a documentary. In the ensuing phone conversations, you learn her technique. She speaks with various credit card companies, and the trick is to get a credit card and overdraft it, taking advantage of the low introductory rates that last for six months. When the six months have passed, you just pay the amount due by getting another credit card from another company and taking advantage of their introductory offer, and so on. With intro offers from credit card companies flooding your mailbox, the trick seems fair enough morally speaking, but as the title suggests, Living on Borrowed Time, the solution is probably not sustainable. The film is quite funny and an ironic commentary both on the filmmaking situation and on the entrapment methods employed by credit card companies.

As a filmmaker, you are curious to know what docs people are actually interested in watching. To explore that, Pegi Vail and Birgit Rathsmann have made a refreshing voxpop film, What documentary would you make?, asking people on the street what doc they would make and how they would go about it. Most of the people are actually – contrary to the assertions of television programmers – quite concerned with social issues and political topics. However, one young guy sees it more as a holiday profession: ‘Just travelling around and talking to people and just let the persons talk and then edit it…’ (he would probably need to consult Jill Chamberlain for his fundraising).

Internet potential streams the essays and is run by a non-profit organisation founded by a group of filmmakers. They want to enable free public access to a wide range of docs, as well as help promote films by offering an open venue and distribution channel for independent filmmakers. Like many of the web-sites for film streaming, it is still an idealistic business and does not earn any profit. The business of film streaming is still in fumbling in the dark, as is content creating. Doug Block evaluates the current function of the new media as follows: “At this point, I don’t think there’s much of a financial incentive to make documentary ‘content’ strictly for the web. I think what has enormous potential is utilizing the web to compliment a documentary film or program — i.e. to somehow re-think it, reconfigure it and have it be a different experience for web viewers than as a linear film. Perhaps it’s as simple as taking great interviews that didn’t make it into the film for time reasons and putting them up as clips. I happen to think there are lots of far more compelling and groundbreaking uses of outtakes, possibly supplemented by some new material, to make a website a rich viewing experience. It then serves two purposes: it promotes and builds up interest in the film before it’s exhibited and then enriches the experience of the film for viewers afterwards.”
Essays on Documentary draws in the interactive aspect by offering an online discussion forum about the films. Though the D-word Community plan to make other collaborative projects in the future, they don’t know what sort. When asked if the Community will continue making docs for the web, Doug Block replies, “We’ll see. It’s not our primary purpose. On the other hand, in this increasingly broadband age, people who make documentaries are content creators as much as they are filmmakers. The D-Word, then, is a community of content creators, and any time you get creative people together, it’s only natural that they’ll want to work together. Collaborating across geographical boundaries is an exciting concept, and it’s really exciting to think about what the possibilities for collaboration are as our membership grows bigger and increasingly international.”

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Ulla Jacobsen
Jacobsen was previously editor in chief of the DOX Magazine from March 1998 until early 2009. A lot of the DOX articles republished in ModernTimes was ordered by her. After 2009 she worked freelance, until she died in 2013.