Director Robert Greenwald addresses house parties via videocast after screenings of Iraq for Sale.

Interviews with expert witnesses, such as weapons inspectors, helped to lend credibility to Robert Greenwald’s Uncovered.

Greenwald’s Uncovered, citing Fair Use rights, made extensive use of clips from political programming such as Meet the Press to show how the Bush administration made the case for war.

The Matrix has become one of the most commonly cited examples of transmedia storytelling

David Zeigerís Sir! No Sir! explores the Vietnam soldier anti-war movement through its use of underground media.

A soldier reading an underground newspaper in Sir! No Sir!

A film about climate change looks into the future. In The Age of Stupid., Pete Postlethwaite, as the Archivist, does research to determine how people could have ignored the signs of imminent environmental catastrophe.

Davis Guggenheimís An Inconvenient Truth is largely structured around multiple iterations of Goreís famous climate change presentation, transforming Gore from a failed politician into a visionary professor.

The trailer for the conservative documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, carefully positions host Ben Stein as a rebel against the education establishment by placing him in the back of the classroom and objecting to the science teacherís ostensibly uncritical acceptance of evolutionary theory.

Digital distribution, participatory culture, and the transmedia documentary

by Chuck Tryon

In December 2003, Robert Greenwald released Uncovered: The Whole Truth about the Iraq War, to enthusiastic audiences at over 2,600 house parties across the United States. The movie, which depicted a number of prominent intelligence experts taking apart the Bush administration’s case for war Iraq, reached audiences only a few months after production began and offered what was, at the time, one of the more trenchant critiques of the faulty evidence used to justify the war. Greenwald was able to distribute the film so quickly, in part, because he was able to take advantage of existing social networks created by progressive grassroots organizations such as MoveOn.org and AlterNet and think tanks such as The Center for American Progress in order to organize “house parties” where audiences could gather to watch the film with others who were invested in critical discussion of the war (Haynes and Littler 2007). The online distribution also helped to facilitate conversation about the film, and the house parties themselves were often depicted in terms of their ability to create alternative spaces (Goldberg 2003), in which participants could discuss the issues raised by the documentary.

The success of Uncovered allowed Greenwald’s Brave New Films to expand the house-party model, distributing several other films, including Outfoxed and Iraq For Sale, using that approach while also establishing a website that has become an important resource for posting short video clips that typically serve as a form of video-enabled media criticism where amateur and professional video makers can post short videos that comment on mass media political coverage. In this sense, Greenwald helped to give form to what I am calling the transmedia documentary, a set of nonfiction films that use the participatory culture of the web to enhance the possibilities for both a vibrant public sphere cultivated around important political issues and an activist culture invested in social and political change. In addition, these films make use of alternative distribution models enabled by digital media, whether streaming video, digital downloads, or social media tools that facilitate public or semi-public screenings. This use of social media tools fits neatly into arguments about the web as a site for returning political power to citizens, and Greenwald’s film helps to illustrate how the transmedia documentary can be used to assemble and engage a mass audience, while also providing an important starting point for thinking about how discussions of new media have come to shape the cultures around documentary film.

This concept of transmedia documentary builds upon and partially reworks the nonfictional modes of representation that Bill Nichols (1991: p. 3) has associated with “the discourses of sobriety,” which operate under the assumption that non-fiction films

“can and should alter the world itself, they can effect action and entail consequences.”

In other words, these films seek to address audiences largely with the goal of producing social or political change, whether that entails ending the war in Iraq, reforming the education system, or promoting climate change activism. These communication practices take place within a network consisting of blogs, wikis, video sharing sites, and other social media tools where anyone with internet access can potentially contribute to discussions of important political and social issues. This network of bloggers, filmmakers, and activists gained new levels of visibility in the wake of the September 11 attacks and the polarized political discourse that emerged in the early preparation for the war in Iraq. As a result, the transmedia documentary became an important site for engaging with the politics of images and for cultivating an engaged, energetic public that could begin to see itself as active participants in a larger political dialogue. To be sure, this focus draws from a long history of debates about active and passive audiences and borrows from past efforts by political filmmakers to produce movies that encourage audiences to move from being consumers to being producers.

Because of this focus on active audiences, the concept of transmedia documentary also builds from arguments developed by Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture on the new storytelling models used by film and television producers to create a more immersive and engaging experience for active audiences. Thus, a film like The Matrix might be expanded and developed not only through the multiple sequels but also through video games, websites, and even through the straight to DVD animated feature, The Animatrix. Jenkins’ arguments have encapsulated some of the technological and social changes that have been reflected in the actual practice of documentary filmmakers, as well as others involved in the documentary industry, including film festival directors and programmers and film journalists. Further, Jenkins shows how audiences themselves become producers, writing fan fiction or producing fans films, and in the best cases, using popular culture texts to engage in political dialogue. As Angelica Das (2011), writing for the Tribeca Film Festival’s “Future of Film” blog argues, “filmmakers from all genres no longer just make films.” Instead, for emerging filmmakers,

“Social documentary projects are increasingly more than social and more than documentary.”

In explaining the value of Jenkins’ concepts for documentary filmmakers, Das argues that transmedia storytelling becomes a way of creating a sense of audience engagement with a documentary project, often months or years before that final documentary project is completed, while also potentially extending the life of a documentary project well after its initially appearance in festivals, theaters, or online.

Das is also attentive to the ways in which social media can be deployed to create a sense of community of engagement around a social or political issue that will persist, even after the documentary has left theaters. In response to Das, Edward J. Delaney (2011) adds that transmedia techniques can assist the goals of social documentaries, especially when filmmakers make use of interactive elements to engage with users through discussion forums or when they use interactive aspects to draw from the talents of their audience, whether to make the documentary or to extend its reach, a process known as crowdsourcing.[1] [open endnotes in new window] In both cases, transmedia is identified not only with storytelling across multiple platforms but also with the using transmedia models to imagine new modes of engagement, to get audiences actively involved in co-producing the film.

Although these new forms of participatory culture are often treated as revolutionary, they are grounded in a much longer history of activist media. In fact, as Michael Renov (2004: p. 10) points out, media activists in the 1960s, such as Newsreel, sought to solicit involvement from their viewers, creating texts that “were active and intended as participatory,” leading to wholesale re-evaluations of normal film and television techniques in order to equip viewers with the means of engaging in their own media criticism. Newsreel also took advantage of alternative distribution techniques, placing advertisements in alternative weeklies and holding screenings that served as fundraisers for organizations such as New York-based community radio station, WBAI. As Renov (2004: p. 15) notes, these alternative distribution techniques “helped reinforce a sense of shared cultural identity,” especially given the sharply divided politics of the 1960s. In this sense, there are significant continuities with older forms, given that transmedia documentaries, such as Uncovered, call for users to become participants, whether by hosting or attending a house party or by signing a petition. At the same time, the house parties helped to produce a sense of solidarity among the war’s critics, as viewers used social media to find others who shared their political views.

These celebratory accounts of transmedia documentary are also caught up in what Vincent Mosco (2004: p. 1) refers to as the “myth” that new media technologies can “bring about revolutionary changes in society.” As Mosco notes, the web has been celebrated because of the promise that it will democratize media, allowing anyone to become a publisher or to gain access to alternative viewpoints. Mosco is careful to point out that such myths are not necessarily false; instead they inform our perception of new technologies, shaping how they are used and discussed. Although Mosco (2004: p. 19) is quick to point out that discussions of the web obscure the extent to which media consolidation is taking place, he also notes that enthusiasm for social media and other forms of digital media can also reveal “a genuine desire for community and democracy.” Thus, rather than arguing that the transmedia documentary offers something genuinely new, this essay attempts to make sense of the ways in which the alliance between non-fiction film and social media reflects these larger cultural desires.

Documentary filmmakers have often used alternative modes of distribution, and documentaries have often been connected to a larger tradition of social and political activism. In fact, Jane Gaines (2007: p. 40) has noted that contemporary anti-war documentaries involved in “the production of outrage,” including the films of Robert Greenwald and David Zeiger’s Sir! No Sir!, extend and rework “the documentary social change legacy” of Vietnam-era anti-war films, in some cases by directly depicting earlier, historical forms of mass protest. Zeiger’s Sir! No Sir!, for example, uses depictions of the anti-war movement within the U.S. military during the Vietnam War to celebrate past forms of resistance while simultaneously updating those practices for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Zeiger has done this by producing a web series in collaboration with Iraq Veterans Against the War, This is Where We Take Our Stand, which profiles a groups of Iraq War veterans who have spoken out against the war, a series that continued several years after the film was initially released. (http://thisiswherewetakeourstand.com/)

Despite these forms of documentary activism, it is less than clear what happens once these films engage viewers. In fact, a number of critics, including Micah White (2010), have argued that online petitions, what he calls “clicktivism,” have short-circuited more demanding forms of political activity, breeding passivity rather than producing active political participants. Although the transmedia documentary opens itself up to this risk, projects such as Zeiger’s and Greenwald’s help illustrate the potential for filmmakers to direct attention to a specific issue.

Thus, although many of the techniques of the transmedia seem new, they are often drawing from and building upon older forms of documentary activism, even while they are being adapted into new media forms. As a result, this combination of participatory culture and activist documentary offers an interesting site for thinking about how nonfiction filmmakers are finding new ways of understanding and engaging with documentary spectator, often in collaboration with institutions and organizations that use social media tools to reach those audiences in new and creative ways. In order to understand how documentaries can participate in promoting social activism, we must look at the new distribution, exhibition, and promotion models that use elements of participatory culture to tap into desires for social change. In fact, these distribution and exhibition strategies, connected as they are to a logic of social media, become a form of authorship, shaping not only the reception of these documentaries but also how they fit into a larger media and political culture, with media industry leaders, such as Rick Allen of Snag Films and Jeff Skoll of Participant Productions, in some sense, shaping the delivery, exhibition, and even reception of documentaries.

These forms of transmedia documentary, along with the new distribution platforms that have reshaped documentary distribution, have contributed to the emergence of a transmedia documentary culture built around a desire for audiences to view themselves as active participants, rather than passive consumers of political texts. In this context, I identify three significant distribution practices that have shaped post-9/11 documentary culture.

First, I discuss the “house party” model developed by Robert Greenwald. This approach to distribution, which has evolved alongside emerging digital technologies, has defined itself both in terms of circumventing the traditional gatekeepers of theatrical and television distribution and in terms of encouraging active, critical engagement with broadcast media through its use of various pedagogies of media criticism and analysis.

I then discuss Jeff Skoll’s Participant Productions, which produces both narrative features and documentaries about timely political topics, such as global warming (An Inconvenient Truth), food production (Food Inc), and disability issues (Murderball). Although Participant generally sponsors films designed for a limited theatrical release, mostly to art house theaters, their movies are also supplemented by websites that encourage audiences to become involved in social issues, such as ClimateCrisis.net, which sought to shape the audience response to An Inconvenient Truth. Alongside of Participant Productions, I look at Ted Leonsis’ and Rick Allen’s SnagFilms, an online distribution network that screens documentaries for free online with brief advertisements, while allowing users to “snag” those films and post them on their own websites by cutting and pasting a simple piece of code. As a result, audiences become “programmers,” capable of creating their own virtual theaters where they can curate a set of films that are important to them.

Then, I look at Franny Armstrong’s The Age of Stupid (2009), a documentary that sought to encourage activism around the issue of climate change. The documentary itself uses the fictional trope of a futuristic archivist (played by British actor Pete Postlethwaite) looking back at how apathy over climate change led to a planet that will become virtually uninhabitable. However, the biggest strength of Armstrong’s film is her use of social media to fund, promote, and even exhibit the film through techniques such as crowdsourcing, in which a filmmaker uses the web to raise funds from a larger audience. Although these approaches entail only a limited part of a larger set of practices within a networked documentary culture, they also represent important attempts to theorize how social media tools can be used to place documentary films within a larger political community.

Finally, I examine two prominent conservative transmedia documentaries, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which advocates for intelligent design, and I Want Your Money, which calls for less government spending, in order to illustrate that many of the principles that helped sustain progressive documentary circulation, exhibition, and reception have now been adapted by fiscal and religious conservatives, many of whom experienced their own sense of cultural or political alienation with the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency in 2008. Thus, although transmedia documentaries have been understood as an alternative to broadcast news, they provide platforms for a wide range of political viewpoints, all of which may be defining themselves in opposition to the national news media, as Sarah Palin’s consistent denigration of the “lamestream media” (even while taking a paycheck from Fox News) amply illustrates. However, given the political implications of documentary, it is worth considering how transmedia storytelling is being used to imagine new forms of participation.

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