Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Wednesday, September 5, 2012
By Patricia Zimmermann, Professor of Screen Studies, Ithaca College; co-director, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
I've never been more unsettled, confused — and excited — about documentary.
Everything I have ever theorized, historicized, analyzed, criticized, programmed, and written about documentary in its linear, argumentative, analog forms needs a serious gut job. A total renovation from the attic to the kitchen.
Over the past few years, when I've gone to film festivals or scholarly symposia, it's the new media sidebars — where no one wants to be called a director anymore and everyone is a convener or a designer — that yank me away from the movie theaters.
Example: Helen De Michiel's Lunch Love Community Project — a lush mosaic website of short collaborative videos chronicling the movement for healthy food in Berkeley, California, public schools, produced with the teachers, cooks, kids, and parents.
Three-dimensional spheres of place-based issues and people, these transmedia projects dismantle all of my previous theories — intellectual wrecking balls, if you will. Beyond the trendy tropes of mash-ups, crowdsourcing, user-generated, "produser," and marketing engagement through double-screening, open-space documentaries invite encounters with people, ideas, places and technologies.
Example: Saving the Sierra, produced by jesikah maria ross and Catherine Stifter — a collaborative project charting the stories and voices of Californians and environmental issues in the Sierra Nevada Mountains using radio, community meetings, and innovative story mapping.
Collaborative and shape shifting, these projects open up dialogue, convenings, stories, and a new form of collaborative, grounded space. They migrate fluidly across the analog and the digital, using adaptable platforms and inviting in newly interactive communities.
Example: The Cotton Road Project, by Laura Kissel with Li Zhen, tracing the supply chain of cotton from South Carolina to Shanghai manufacturing, with short video vignettes, multiple stories, and the innovative "sourcemap" that tracks supply chains of commodities through crowd research.
Although I still love their gutsy vigor, long-form doc features loom a bit like skyscrapers from the 1960s — overbuilt and probably not sustainable. In comparison, these more modest, open-space transmedia projects, seem more agile, more adaptable, more alive, more responsive, less predictable.
If you want to dig further into open-space documentary, you can join De Michiel, ross and Kissel for conversation at the working session on "Open Space Documentary" (I will moderate) at this year's utterly alluring NAMAC Conference, Leading Creatively, in Minneapolis, September 6-8.
This conference promises one of the biggest open spaces in the new media ecology.