Toward a Cultural Institution Dedicated to Documentary

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Production Still from the seminal documentary "Salesman"

Production Still from the seminal documentary "Salesman" (POV 1990)

Documentary plays a role in media and cultural institutions across the country. Some of these institutions pursue profits, while others seek goals related to education, social justice, and cultural preservation.

What strikes me as interesting is that no one organization takes documentary on an all-encompassing level. By this, I mean documentary in all of its media forms, including not only motion picture, but also photography, radio, and print. Convergence plays a role here as well. I also mean documentary as part of all types of production and communities: mainstream, educational, local, and online. Further, I mean a range of activities such as funding, preservation, education, awareness, support, production, distribution, exhibition, archives, and awards all under the auspices of one organization dedicated to the form.

Broadcast and cable media remain arguably the most visible institutions for documentary exhibition. While network schedules lean heavily on cheaply produced reality programming alongside their police procedurals and situation comedies, cable television fills its schedules with edutainment and prestige pieces. Companies such as Discovery Communications employ a formula that merges the informational components of the documentary form with more traditionally fiction-based aspects of narrative. This formula underpins much of the programming on channels owned by Discovery, such as TLC and Animal Planet. More prestige pieces appear on the subscription-based networks of Showtime and HBO. These documentaries come from a combination of in-house production with known directors (Spike Lee and Liz Garbus for HBO, for example) and from picking up well-received documentaries at various festivals.

One broadcast institution that remains different in terms of its relationship with documentary is PBS. In the original mid-1960s proposals for a public broadcasting system in the United States, ‘documentary’ is mentioned specifically as a form of programming needed on television. With its traditions of long-running documentary series, including “POV,” “FRONTLINE,” “Independent Lens,” and “NOVA,” PBS remains one of the key places to see (for free!) social and political documentaries.

Despite the box office successes of An Inconvenient Truth, March of the Penguins, and Fahrenheit 9/11, mainstream theatrical distributors remain cautious about picking up documentaries. Popular subjects or iconic directors might get the mainstream theatrical run, while many documentaries end up in art houses, smaller venues, and even educational settings. (That last statement is not a lament — the most important idea here is that people are getting to see them!)

In terms of theatrical production, many of the major media companies focus their in-house efforts on fiction-based productions, and they get their documentaries through pick-ups at festivals such as the recently ended Sundance, Hot Docs, and others. Outside of the majors, the relationships change somewhat, with some production groups focusing almost exclusively on documentary, such as Kartemquin, New Day Films, and Third World Newsreel. These organizations produce fewer titles, but they make titles that they stand behind in terms of subject and position.

Some U.S. organizations dedicated to film include documentary as part of their activities. The recent rules changes and the reactions they drew offer a hint of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ relationship with the form. The American Film Institute offers the Silverdocs film festival (sponsored by Discovery), but that organization is more popularly known for its “100 Years… 100 (fill in the blank here)” series. The “100 Years” lists feature thrills, laughs, starts, songs, and quotes, but no documentaries. Founded in 1978, The Sundance Institute focuses on independent film and documentary, and its annual festival brings both to Park City, Utah, each January.

Founded in 1982, the International Documentary Association is one of the more visible organizations that supports documentary production, exhibition, and celebration. Its major focuses include advocacy, filmmaker services, education, and public programs and events. The organization offers production training with master classes, it offers Oscar-qualifying exhibitions and other screenings, and it offers news and commentary through its website and magazine. The organization filled in a gap left by the AFI a few years ago by voting on the top 100 documentaries. These mentions only skim the surface of what this organization does for the current documentary community. The Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute is another not-for-profit organization that focuses exclusively on documentary film with an annual festival and educational opportunities.

Alongside the industry practices of production, distribution, and exhibition, another key question emerges: preservation. The National Film Registry identifies several titles for preservation each year, and many of the titles are narrative, with the occasional experimental and documentary piece. Some titles added to the registry include Antonia: Portrait of the Woman (1974), Dont Look Back (1967) Grey Gardens (1976), and Harlan County, USA (1976). HSDFI is working on building a documentary film library, which currently holds more than 17,000 titles. In addition, several universities, as well as several preservation organizations, include documentaries in their archives.

Suggest a Documentary for Preservation in the National Film Registry »

A handful of organizations focus on local documentary production. Appalshop, for example, addresses Appalachian culture with an eye toward improving life quality in the region. Others focus on cultural questions, such as the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.

Overall, these important and influential organizations address their activities toward documentary to various degrees and in a variety of ways. For some, documentary is central to its activities, such as with the IDA. For others, documentary is part of its activities such as with the AFI or AMPAS.

This survey of organizations and activities leads me to some of the key questions I have been grappling with as a scholar and fan of the form. Can one cultural institution be dedicated exclusively to the documentary form in all its varieties? Can one organization handle the enormous range of activities outlined throughout this post, not to replace the other organizations but to work in complement and support of them? Can this institution provide a central means for raising cultural awareness of the importance of the form? If so, what might it look like? Would it follow the model established by the National Film Board of Canada, or would it take a different path?

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh started Documentary Site as a resource for documentary media and has greatly enjoyed the connections it has fostered over the years.
  • Dshine1

    Actually The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University does take on all forms of documentary: radio, photography, moving image and theatre. They exhibit and pulish as well.

  • David

    Interesting post. 

     Do you think that online distribution and platforms have a big impact on the questions you ask?

  • Anonymous

    First of all, I think that we can not compare fiction writing with documentary writing. They are completely differents ”languages”. And as Susan has pointed out, there are a lot of screenplays with few words or even the silent movies, so I vote for to be credited as a writer for documentary writing.
    And at least, here in Spain it, to be credited allowes you to receive the writing rights when your documentary is broadcasted… And that’s a good reason too.

  • Selin

    We have always had writing credits. When developing a documentary, there is so much scriptwriting done, wading through the concept, researching and making sense of the arcs etc. it doesn’t look like it in the final film perhaps but the work is done! most of the time by the director, some of the time by exceptional producers, and sometimes by script consultants and writers hired outside.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with the filmmakers above, there is a lot of writing to do on a documentary whether or not there is narration. I also admire Joe Berlinger although I think he is being careful to respect the editor, which is important. Interview questions and organizing vast amounts of material do not take away from the  ”verite” aspect of the actual filming. I am a journalist and doc filmmaker, so the processes are similar. As a documentarian goes through the process of “discovery” during a project (docs are always full of surprises) it takes a lot of writing to shape the story, before it gets to the editor. And by shape the story, I mean to say based on the facts and scenes at hand. This is what journalists do – it is not the exclusive job of the film editor.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think Joe B. should impose his personal way of working on a policy that gives credit where credit is due. For example, the editor I work with asked me for synopses, etc. which I kept updating during the period of editing. I wrote tons from the factual material. We also know some doc makers film so much and don’t know where they are going, and enlist help from “story consultants” and editors. Credit policies should be flexible and reflect actual work. I think a journalism background is most helpful to documentary filmmaking.