Outside the Frame: Great Documentary Websites: Part Two

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Amanda HirschFreelance writer Amanda Hirsch, former editorial director of PBS Interactive, blogs about documentaries and the Web in her column, Outside the Frame.

This is the second installment in a series exploring great documentary websites. Read part one.

Over the past week, I invited filmmakers, academics, web producers, awards organizers and documentary film fans to nominate a great documentary website — one that stands out in their memory as an effective complement to a single documentary film. The responses I received broke down into a few categories, demonstrating only one thing for certain: when it comes to evaluating documentary film sites, many of us are measuring greatness in different ways. For some, it’s a matter of storytelling; for others, it’s about advocacy, or promotion. For a sampling of perspectives, read on.



Injecting the Web into the Production Process

Sharing video content early — before the film is released, or maybe even before it’s complete — is the key to a great documentary site, according to some, who point to the ways in which early, strategic content sharing can build audience interest and support. Jeremy Caverly, a new media consultant (or “Interweb Evangelist,” as he prefers), admires the website for Rethink Afghanistan, director Robert Greenwald‘s latest production. “They’ve crowd-sourced the production costs of the movie WHILE THEY’VE BEEN FILMING IT,” Caverly writes. “It’s an experiment in the making, and will change the conventional wisdom of what is ‘filmmaking’ going forward.”

Website for Rethink Afghanistan

The website for Robert Greenwald’s Rethink Afghanistan

Of course, it’s no surprise that Robert Greenwald — who’s made a name for himself in recent years for his pioneering, grassroots usage of digital media — is using the Web effectively. But others are reaching out to audiences in similar ways. I was heartened to hear of another example in this category: The site for Four Eyed Monsters, which came to me via Chad Moone, interactive media developer for Will Interactive. (“Whether [the film] is strictly a documentary is very debatable,” he notes, “but it is certainly…documentary-based.”) Chad explains why the site is noteworthy in his eyes:

This was an independent, no-budget film, and they have built a huge following that led to screenings and DVD release solely through their website… Leading up to the film, they released several “episodes” (shorts) for free on the site, and drew people into the story before they even saw the film.

Watching the episodes, it’s clear this isn’t just material from the cutting room floor. These videos are standalone products, specifically conceptualized and produced to roll out episodically online. They certainly piqued my interest in the film, which I plan to purchase.

Balancing Message and Action

For many in the documentary film community, a film’s website is most successful when it effectively mobilizes viewers to take action on critical social issues. Niyati Shah, a coordinating producer for Discovery Communications, admires the website for The Lost Boys of Sudan for its combination of message and action, and appreciates that the site offers “tools to DO something about what you just watched.” What’s more, she notes, the site presents these tools in a clear, easy-to-navigate fashion. (This film aired on POV in 2004.)

Balancing advocacy with storytelling is a difficult challenge for many documentary filmmakers creating websites for their work. Pat Aufderheide, director of American University’s Center for Social Media, highlights the website for The Reckoning (which aired on POV earlier this year) for its adept handling of this challenge: The “interrelated sites thereckoningfilm.com and ijcentral.org are fascinating,” she writes. “There’s a tight relationship between subject of the film and action, but also a separation (emphasis mine).”

To clarify for those unfamiliar with the film, The Reckoning explores the battle for an International Criminal Court (ICC). The filmmakers created a site about the film, and co-produced a separate advocacy site (ijcentral.org) that sits at the heart of “a 3-year campaign to build a global grassroots movement to support an effective international justice system.” In other words, rather than trying to achieve all of their goals with one website, they designed separate websites to serve separate, but related, purposes. I wasn’t able to connect with the filmmakers in advance of this post being published, but hope to hear from them about how they decided to take this approach, and will share what I learn.

Design Matters

“My favorite documentary website is from one of my favorite documentaries of the last decade: One Day in September,” writes Tim Mooney, a new media producer at Nineball Media. The film covers the Black September terrorists’ attack of the Israeli wrestling team and the subsequent hostage standoff at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. The site, Tim explains, “while clearly an Internet generation creation, looks and feels like it leapt from the early 70s with its typewriter fonts and file folder organizational structure.”

But it’s not just the aesthetic that Tim admires: “As deep as the doc goes with information on the victims of this tragedy (and the unforgettable “they’re all gone” moment from Jim MacKay), the site gives even more detail from the interviews and more flavor of what Munich was like before and after the attack.” For Tim, design and content work hand in hand to bring the subject matter to life. Without the deep background information he highlights, the site might be cool to look at, but would be far less engaging; similarly, the same information, presented dryly, without transporting him visually to the time and place it explores, would be far less compelling.

On the other end of the spectrum, some people prefer a simple, no-fuss approach to designing documentary sites. “I’m a big fan of the website for Gary Hustwit‘s Objectified,” writes Aron Gaudet, director of The Way We Get By, which will air this November on POV. “I don’t think there is an indie doc filmmaker using the Web better than (Hustwit).” Gaudet continues on to say:

[The Objectified site] is clean, simple, full of information… [Hustwit] has mastered the process of tapping into an audience and reaching them through special event screenings, merchandise sold directly through him, etc. We really aspired to make our website as effective as his.

This last comment raises an interesting question: Where do you go for inspiration when creating websites for your films?

In my next post, we’ll look at what it costs to produce (and maintain) a strong documentary website. Since there are so many different approaches that can be considered effective, depending on your particular goals and ambitions, I’ll try to showcase budget considerations for a variety of site “types” (small and simple, more in-depth and more heavily designed, etc). If you’re willing to provide your site as a case study, please let me know.

Amanda Hirsch
Amanda Hirsch
Amanda Hirsch is former editorial director of PBS Interactive.
  • Martha in Manchester

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    Very useful and “content-rich.” I will share with my TV and documentary producer friends. Great idea!

  • http://www.amandahirsch.com Amanda

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    Thanks Martha – so glad you found it useful.

  • http://usoonpatrol.wordpress.com/2009/09/24/finding-love-making-a-movie/ Jeremy

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    Check out the essay by Aron Gaudet about what it was like filming The Way We Get By:
    http://usoonpatrol.wordpress.com/2009/09/24/finding-love-making-a-movie/