Five Takeaways from “The Future of Documentary Storytelling”

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Panelists Barak Goodman, Shola Lynch and Ingrid Kopp (seen above), along with Adnaan Wasey and June Cross, participated in a “Future of Documentary Storytelling” discussion at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York City on May 30, 2013. (Credit: Turner Cowles)

Abi Wright, director of the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, shares her notes from a discussion about the future of documentary storytelling hosted by ONA-NYC (the New York City meetup chapter of the Online News Association) and the duPont Awards.

The future of documentaries is less about finding new ways to tell the story but using the tools that exist to tell great stories. That’s the conclusion of the Future of Documentary Storytelling panel that was hosted by ONA-NYC and the duPont Awards May 30, 2013 at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. The event featured filmmakers June Cross (Columbia University), Barak Goodman (Ark Media), Shola Lynch (Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed – POV 2005, Free Angela), the Tribeca Film Institute’s Ingrid Kopp and POV’s own Adnaan Wasey. They advised storytellers to understand audience engagement, the range of digital technologies that can be adapted to tell non-fiction stories and the importance of a narrative regardless of its platform. Here are five main takeaways:

1. Good Storytelling Is Your Guide

Directors Shola Lynch and Barak Goodman emphasized the importance of a strong narrative structure in a documentary project. Good storytelling is key regardless of a documentary’s platform, Shola Lynch stressed. Non-curated content uploaded to the web won’t carry the same weight as a well-crafted story.

2. Publish!

POV Digital Director Adnaan Wasey laid out the four steps of innovative non-fiction storytelling he oversees at POV Hackathon: envision, prioritize, prototype, publish. Publishing is important, according to Wasey, because ideas need to be tested in the real world.

3. Use Digital Tools Sensibly

Digital tools are powerful resources and they can enhance your interactive storytelling, Wasey shared. Engaging with audiences can be a critical part of storytelling, but don’t think crowdsourcing is going to fix a story’s fundamental problems. Wasey divulged that too often, filmmakers try to reinvent the wheel rather than use great tools that already exist — This is not the best use of resources.

4. Use the Web for Its Strengths

The Internet isn’t just another pipeline for dumping footage, advised Ingrid Kopp, Director of Digital Initiatives at the Tribeca Film Institute. Shorter interactive documentary on the web can have their own unique structures.

Documentary filmmaking is a “broad church” where many styles, narratives and platforms co-exist, said Kopp. The BlabDroid, a project that utilizes documentary robots, blends engineering with storytelling. It was featured at Tribeca Film Festival’s 2013 Storyscapes, the festival’s first multi-platform exhibition, curated by Kopp. Watch the robots in action:

5. Know the Fundamentals, Know Your Niche

Filmmakers with shooting, editing and writing skills have an advantage, Barak Goodman told the audience. Goodman, the award-winning producer of Ark Media who was part of the MAKERS team, talked about the challenges of producing simultaneously for the web and for broadcast. Goodman, who is currently working on a six-hour series and interactive web site about cancer for PBS based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Emperor of All Maladies, says that now more than ever it’s important to understand the fundamentals of journalism.

Lynch agreed. Her documentary, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (trailer below), had an international theatrical release using Tugg, an online service that enables audiences to bring films to local theaters on-demand. She shared how new funding models are providing filmmakers with different opportunities for development and distribution, but advised aspiring filmmakers to gain a skill that’s in demand in the business to maintain a long and marketable career.

The duPont-Columbia Awards honor outstanding broadcast, documentary and digital reporting at Columbia University. Enter online for the duPont Awards, see past winners and learn about upcoming events at dupontawards.org. The upcoming deadline is July 1, 2013.

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POV Guest Blogger
POV Guest Blogger
POV (a cinema term for "point of view") is television's longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films. POV premieres 14-16 of the best, boldest and most innovative programs every year on PBS. Since 1988, POV has presented over 300 films to public television audiences across the country. POV films are known for their intimacy, their unforgettable storytelling and their timeliness, putting a human face on contemporary social issues.