For the past several years, the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival has included in its programming discussions of intellectual property issues as they relate to documentary filmmaking. This year, the festival’s organizers looked past the headaches of copyright law in conventional film distribution toward the wild frontier of video on the Web.
A program called
presented a collection of short documentary works posted on the Internet. Immediately after the screening was a panel discussion moderated by New York Times media writer David Carr that featured some of the filmmakers as well as Lawrie Mifflin, executive director of television and video for the Times, and Duke Law Professor Jennifer Jenkins.
The selection of
films included everything from tedious, personal video journals to virally popular humor to serious international reporting. The set began with YouTubers, a survey of personal contributions posted to the highly popular video sharing site, which Carr said was illustrative of online video in general: “Part of it was exciting; part of it was incredibly narcissistic.”
The work of the three professional filmmakers on the panel prompted a discussion about the democratization of the medium through the Web. Brian Conley produces the weekly report Alive in Baghdad. Peter Jordan produces films for human rights organizations, which he posts to his own site, Localfilms.org. Daniel Liss is a professional filmmaker for a variety of TV channels and uses his own site, Pouringdown.tv, as an outlet for experimental filmmaking of a more personal nature. Mifflin discussed the expanding use of video by the Times, which has posted a video player on its home page and employs 14 video journalists and enlists foreign correspondents to produce content.
“All this user-generated content is great and wonderful and terrific,” Carr said, “but I worry that it’s going to create so much clutter that the normal consumer algorithms of search, of referral, of forward linking, that the sort of viral things that push the good stuff up, might not be able to cut through the clutter.”
“I don’t worry about stuff getting lost,” Jordan said. “Expanding the conversation so that you get an alternate viewpoint is beyond important.” The equalizing nature of putting work on the Internet, he said, makes it “a sort of political act.”
Conley believes the term “user-generated content” is a misnomer that “pigeonholes” certain kinds of work without making a meaningful distinction between levels of professional quality.
Not surprisingly, the filmmakers disagreed with some conventional wisdom about video on the Web. For instance, Liss says the widely accepted notion that three minutes is the maximum length online viewers will tolerate is “bullshit.” “Everything is editing. If the story’s rolling along, keep it going.”
One of the featured shorts, Vlog Anarchy by Michael Verdi, challenged people to post video expressing their ideas about what video blogs can be, rather than trying to define video blogs through listserv postings and other writings. The notion that vlogs are a nascent form of expression caught hold with all of the panelists. Verdi, who was in the audience, was an instructor at Full Frame’s hands-on vlogging workshop the following day.
Jenkins, director of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain, has been a regular at Full Frame panels, where she offers insight on copyright law and the ways filmmakers can navigate it. Jenkins is co-author of Bound by Law, a comic book that illustrates the hurdles documentarians encounter in recording the world around them and the cumulative impact of those difficulties on freedom of expression.
“We’re taking a step forward into uncharted territory,” Jenkins said. “The legal rules developed in a different distribution, production, creation process do not transpose readily to anything that’s going on here.”