As discussed in the earlier blog entitled, “The Digital Revolution” the very approach people are making today to watch television, movies, and even the news has radically shifted within a half-generation. With the advancement of digital technology a high importance in educating, informing, teaching, and raising awareness of specific issues and topics have underwent an important paradigm shift into the visual-spatial arena. It is in this shift documentary films will provide a unique resource to learning that it never had before. One aspect to the unique enterprise of documentary filmmaking is in filmanthropy.
Filmanthropy is the next profound impact digital media will make on the world through the digital revolution. Defined loosely, filmanthropy means the practice in filmmaking that raises consciousness on a specific issue and promotes solutions and outreach toward a specific cause. SnagFilms, the advertising-supported video-on-demand (V.O.D.) website for independent documentary films, was the first to coin the term. SnagFilms‘ founder and chairman Ted Leonsis utilized the term as a marketing tool and his company’s mission to describe the power documentaries have to inspire community action. The online site markets short-length and feature-length independent documentaries with that focus in mind. In a better understanding filmanthropy is philanthropy through filmmaking. Philanthropists, who now serve as a growing group of investors in documentary filmmaking have joined forces and collaborative efforts with filmmakers to produce socially relevant and impactful films on a wide range of issues affecting the world today. Although primarily focused in on documentaries filmanthropy can also include narrative, fictionalized short-length and feature-length films as well.
Back in the day—years before the internet reshaped the world as we know it documentaries played an archaic part in research institutions, university curriculum, library collections, and school resources. Once upon a time, an instructor would wipe the dust off of an old VHS cassette tape of a documentary and pop it into a VCR for the chance at teaching a subject matter for an engrossing, teachable experience to a diverse group of pupils—most likely in a lecture hall, classroom or academic/research conference setting. The documentary would be slow-winding video of a distant narrator speaking over stock archival footage parlayed with long soundbites from expert interviewees. Here, documentaries had one primary function—to teach a given subject matter on relevant topics for discussions, symposiums, conferences, and lectures through the limited space of distribution dominated mostly by colleges and universities. In this period, documentaries were an illustrated reference book of a topic in video form. Now—fast forward to today, documentary films have evolved into a whole new world of relevant digital media. With the means of distribution in DVD sales, online streaming, the film festival circuit, and on television documentaries have proven to be more powerful in impact than in subsequent years. Far from its once primary function as a resource to teaching in the halls of the academia and institutions of higher learning documentaries are seen practically everywhere with added functions and attributes: to provide media that prompts people to think differently on given topic, entertain people with an interesting focus of informing on a topic or issue, raise consciousness on a current event, and prompt engagement in people for necessary social action. Today, documentaries have expanded beyond its limits into a work of art that can serve as a social utility for activists, philanthropists, and community advocates bent on change, sustainability, re-development, and more. In fact, documentary filmmakers prove themselves to be the activists, philanthropists, and a community advocates who they collaborate with through their work.
In an internet culture of fast-pace trends, overemphasis of time in feedback and postings, and the pressure to provide enough visuals to keep an internet user stimulated enough not to click away documentaries have evolved through such a culture. Hence, the reason documentary films needed to take an entertainment angle to informing their viewers for the emphasis of being engrossing and didactic. Such liberties documentary filmmakers utilize for entertainment in their work has been the popular use of the director playing the role of the “omniscient narrator” by appearing as a storyline in their film which you see in all of Michael Moore’s work, Morgan Spurlock in Super Size Me, and Nick Broomfield in Kurt and Courtney and Bigge & Tupac—to name a few. Other means of visually-stimulating approaches and an entertaining focus documentarians are using today have been the use of graphic design particularly motion graphics, unique subtitling and title graphics, the “Ken Burns effect” where the camera pans and zooms in on a still image for a stimulating effect, and even Errol Morris’ use of the Interrotron, a device similar to a teleprompter where the director and his or her interview subject each sit facing a camera where the interviewee looks directly at a human face (the director) as he or she is looking straight into the camera. Such devices for documentary film story-telling has enhanced the appeal documentaries have on a mainstream culture while keeping in par to the niche markets of documentary enthusiasts and its community of fans. Here, documentaries do not seem to “sell out” to the mainstream for popularity and profit. This new way of creatively approaching a documentary is an important aspect to documentary films’ new focus in filmanthropy. Here, filmanthropy is not only seen as “preaching” or “spreading propaganda” of a specific issue and its cause but a visually stimulating media form that captivates a diverse audience of viewers needed to propel change for a common cause and action. Filmanthropy in this guise makes social issues cool to investigate and learn about and appealing to take part in for the sake of productive and effective solutions to the problem. Viewers in this light will not only see the responsibility to the cause the documentary film introduces but also the very need for documentary films itself to be that voice, channel, and platform to relevant topics that may not get its due attention in the mass, commercial media space.
So, while a director and producer of a particular documentary may be asked in a Q&A forum following a screening of the film: “Why did you make this film?” The director will answer in the same light the activist or advocate will answer to why he or she was motivated and inspired to take up the cause of a specific social, political, or environmental issue. Such a question would probably never be asked directly to a filmmaker of another genre because entertainment alone would be the given answer.