Sundance ’16: Online doc shorts in the spotlight

The evolving world of online doc shorts - and the myriad questions around what's in store, and on what platform - took center stage at Sundance on Friday (January 22).
January 26, 2016

The evolving world of digital doc shorts – and the myriad questions around what’s in store, and on what platform – took center stage at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday evening (January 22).

The session, moderated by Tribeca Film Institute consultant Ingrid Kopp, featured representatives from three online platforms for docs, including Charlotte Cook from Field of Vision, Charlie Phillips from The Guardian Documentary and Kathleen Lingo of The New York Times’ ‘Op-Docs’ division.

Filmmakers involved in the session were Hollow director Elaine Sheldon, recent recipient of a Chicken & Egg Breakthrough Filmmaker Award; Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, who are at Sundance with their doc short Peace in the Valley; and Nanfu Wang, whose debut film Hooligan Sparrow is receiving critical praise at the fest.

Together, the group examined how digital docs provide ample room for experimentation, as well as a spirited discussion on the future of episodic doc shorts online, and the genres best suited to the approach. Here are some takeaways from “Docs of the Future: Will Online Short Documentaries Change the Industry?”

Digital doc shorts can be “episodic,” but in different ways

One of the session’s most interesting debates was around the potential of episodic doc shorts – a discussion prompted by Palmieri complimenting Field of Vision’s December launch of the four-part doc series #ThisIsACoup, on Greece and the European Union’s 2015 confrontation. “Just as a viewer, when I started watching that, I binge-watched all four episodes because they dropped at the same time,” said the filmmaker.

Cook responded that the “binge-watching” factor – traditionally associated with narrative series – has expanded to include docs through the success of such long-form efforts as Making a Murderer and The Jinx, as well as the Serial podcast. However, the FOV co-creator cautioned, “You have to be really careful with this because… all of those three things are true crime,” said Cook, adding that it’s still untested as to whether episodic is going to work for other genres as well.

making a murderer

Making a Murderer

Philips said he’s been thinking about episodic doc series for The Guardian for some time, adding that he could see potential in it beyond true crime, if the subject was equally attention-grabbing.

Lingo moved the conversation in another direction, questioning the entire framework around episodic storytelling, and putting forth the example of the ‘Op-Docs’ series ‘The Conversation on Race.’

“It’s a series that very much builds from episode to episode. That series was such a success and the comments were so strong that when we published the first one, it influenced how the filmmakers made the next ones,” she said. “It’s not episodic storytelling like ‘Serial’ is but it’s episodically building on the conversations and its audience.”

Online doc shorts aren’t just shortened features

What was clear from the panel was the potential of online doc shorts to push the form. The Field of Vision team has always said it would be approaching its news-driven docs with an artistic angle – even reaching out to artists and photographers for material – and Cook confirmed that the unit is still keen on the pursuit of more creative films.

“That’s what we’re having fun playing with,” said Cook, giving the example of Kirsten Johnson’s The Above. “Some of the comments [online] were like, ‘This is not a documentary,’ and that’s what I want to happen. They were trying to figure out what they think of the thing because it’s not what they’re used to seeing.

“That’s really what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to play with audiences and see what they perceive, and how the reality is shown to them.”

Lingo says she often finds herself encouraging filmmakers to tell a story that’s not a feature, is completely original and can still stand on its own. “Within that space is when you start to get cool experimentation,” she said. “I could keep going, listing directors who have come to us, made something and then it’s led them in a whole new direction.”

Processes behind virtual reality (VR) shouldn’t be conflated with those around docs

Lingo – who said she’s been receiving a number of interactive pitches from doc makers – said people should be cautious around discussions of VR and documentary, calling the former a “different intellectual process” than making a documentary.

“It’s not just, ‘How can you fit a documentary into a 360-degree storytelling space?’ It’s not that, it’s a completely different way of looking at the world.”

Phillips echoed Lingo, noting that interactive doesn’t fall within his team’s remit at The Guardian. “It’s a good idea to keep things separate,” he said.

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